Marriage has a way of highlighting annoying habits. After the honeymoon most newlyweds unpack their clothes and find a six foot magnifying glass hiding in the closet.
My husband, Ron, and I were no different. From my dorm window I could watch Ron walk the path to pick me up for a date. I was proud of his tall strong farmer look. His cowboy boots didn't bother me at all. So we were both shocked when our two month wedding anniversary was interrupted with a debate on the fashion police and wearing cowboy boots to church on Sunday.
While we were dating Ron asked that I be on time but never once scolded me for non-compliance. After six months of marriage he threatened to leave for church without me. When I put an extra bag of cosmetics in the car so I could dress on the way, he muttered something about needing black windows.
To keep from continually arguing or stewing over each other's habits, we practiced keeping tight reigns on our zeal for spotlighting each other's annoying habits. I tried smiling and looking away. Ron calmed his anger with a puzzled look and a reporter style question, "You did what?" He got so good at it that it sounds like an acceptance of whatever crazy thing I've done. Like the time he came home and found me using a steak knife on the shrubbery or the time he found me covered in mud or the time he found me super glued to a plate or … well, you get the idea.
But just smiling and looking away didn't dissipate my feelings about the annoyances. It's a subtle process but I've found that God can use those habits to change the focus of our marriage. In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas poses the question, "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?" Gary teaches that beauty is often born in struggle. "These points of impact may not be fun but the process can make us stronger, build our character, and deepen our faith," he writes.
Now after living with each other for 36 years we've figured out how to live with the annoying habits, without silently fuming or withdrawing from each other. We can more easily let them slip by when we focus on four daily goals.
1. We pray for each other. This is separate from our devotions or inclusive prayers. These are private intimate times with God where we learn to accept and love our spouses for the good they do rather than pray for the problems we have.
Most of the time I pray for Ron while doing dishes, making beds, or taking care of some task that he should have done.
I begin my prayer by reminding God (and really myself!) of Ron's good qualities and why I feel he should be blessed. I try to imagine how God sees Ron and I pay special attention to the little things that God would notice but I've overlooked. I end by being thankful for a good man who is doing his best to provide a loving home.
I don't use this time to point out Ron's faults. I refuse to lose a grateful attitude by recalling how badly Ron reacted when he found a note on the door explaining that I'd been suffocated. He rushed inside and found me lying in the middle of the floor surrounded by all the papers and magazines he refused to throw away. He retaliated by gathering my strewn knitting supplies and pretending to stab at his heart. I was trying to be kind as I pointed out the need for less clutter. So sad that he didn't see it that way.
But I've found praying God's blessing over my spouse allows me to deal better with the messes (both literal and figurative).
2. We remember our own faults before responding to annoying habits. When your spouse disappoints you, it's hard to think about the fact that you have faults as well. When I force myself to flip the situation and look at my own faults, I can be kinder to Ron. Things that caused our tempers to boil when we were newlyweds rarely cause a second glance after years of accepting my own faults. Those habits have been fused into the love we share and overshadowed by the respect for our spouse.
Ron and I had been married 15 years when I presented him with a chance to practice being holy. The situation is still discussed any time the family decides to reminisce. Actually, it wasn't my fault.
I was driving a car that Ron hoped to restore and transform into his "hot rod." The car died at an intersection of two gas stations. I tried to start it. After several non-productive minutes of pumping the gas, I walked to the nearest station.
"Excuse me sir, could I use your phone to call home? My car just died."
The attendant grabbed a fire extinguisher and yelled, "You mean the one that's on fire?"
The fire consumed the engine, and the car had to be sold for scrap. I could tell Ron was upset. Except for the initial, "You did what?" on the phone, he refused to make any accusations. I insisted he use the money from the sale of the car to open a "hot rod" savings account.
Ron could have used the incident to fuss about my inabilities with machinery. I could have reminded him about the fireball grill or the time he forgot to change diapers. What we chose instead was to look past the situation and see the broken heart of the person we love. Our flaws were not as important as the disappointment and hurt lurking underneath. By choosing love and compassion we joined other marital veterans who allow their marriage to build character and bring them one step closer to God. Our marriage became an entry point to view our spouse through God's eyes.
3. We savor our time with each other whenever we can. In our busy lives it's hard to find the time to sit by the fire or snuggle on the couch. Date night is a popular topic because so many people can't seem to pull it off on a regular basis. It's possible to find tiny moments every day to be thankful that our spouse is still in our life. Smile when he changes a light bulb. Deliver his coffee with a kiss or reward her with a hug when she folds your underwear. Ron and I have comforted friends who lost a spouse. Sad eyes remind us that cowboy boots and exploding cars aren't important when you're staring at a gravesite.
My friend Virginia listened politely while I explained how annoying it was to have to pick up Ron's shoes.
"He leaves them all over the house," I complained.
She smiled and recalled how her husband of 50 years hated to spend enough to purchase a full tank of gas. "We were always stopping for gas because he couldn't let go of more than $20 at a time." Her eyes filled with tears. "I would be thrilled to go to every gas station in town if he were only alive."
I realized that those habits were as much a part of Ron as all the lovable stuff—and I would miss them all. That different perspective allows me to offer grace.
4. We understand the power of sacrificial love. Sacrificial love is the most important virtue in any marriage. Being able to sacrifice your desires to serve the one you love will take your marriage to unbelievable heights. One Christmas the joy of sacrificial love floated through our home like a cinnamon-scented candle.
Money was tight. Ron and I decided to give presents only to the children. As I picked up torn tissue paper and ribbons, Ron asked everyone to be quiet. The children watched as he recounted his love for me. He placed a tiny box in my hand. Inside was a beautiful ring. We hugged, I cried, and then whispered, "Thank you so much but it will have to go back. Whatever charge card you used we simply can't afford it."
"Don't worry Debbie. I didn't charge it." His eyes twinkled with joy. "There's no hot rod account."
His sacrificial love humbled me.
When I wear the ring and someone notices its beauty, Ron and I aren't reminded of exploding cars or other undesirable habits. Instead we smile, thankful for the sacred design that moved us from "You did what?" to a richer God centered love—annoying habits and all.