A little while ago, my wife and I quietly celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary. Many friends our age and many people at our church just accepted this milestone as a normal part of married life. The week we were celebrating our 37th anniversary, the man sitting next to me in church was celebrating his 73rd anniversary.
Some people we have met elsewhere have found this news remarkable. They look at us as if we had just climbed Mount Everest barefoot or found a cure for cancer, demanding, “How did you do it?!”
Frankly, it wasn’t that hard. Some of those 41 years have even been enjoyable. In fact, from our point of view, our 41 years of marriage feel more like a blessing than an achievement. But, for those who may still be wondering, here are some of my thoughts on what makes a successful marriage.
Here is what I have discovered. Men, if a woman has agreed to marry you, committed to live with you for the rest of your life, and granted you the extraordinary privilege of being intimate with her, you ought to be overwhelmed with gratitude. You should wake up every morning in utter amazement at your good fortune—unless you think that you are such a wonderful person that lightning is likely to strike twice. Don’t count on it. I know many wonderful, loving, intelligent people who have never been fortunate enough to find one spouse. What makes you so special? If you have been lucky enough to have acquired a wife, you should value her and treasure her as the remarkably precious gift she is. She may well be irreplaceable. And women, you should feel the same level of gratitude if you have been fortunate enough to have found a good man willing to marry you.
2. Giving and Serving
When my wife and I went to school, we were taught about virtues such as serving others and being useful to others. Nowadays, school children are taught to follow their dreams, with the promise that they can achieve anything they want. Accordingly, many people now enter marriage with a long list of the things they expect to receive from marriage. That is not love. That is selfishness. Many in the Me Generation are not equipped to think in terms of the other or even in terms of “us.” Any marriage in which the two partners are focused on what they will receive is doomed to failure. If they have real love, spouses enter marriage focused on what they can do for each other. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your spouse can do for you. Ask what you can do for your spouse.” I remember once being at an informal party with my wife. She finished eating first, went to get a coffee, and asked if I wanted one too. Some others watching were appalled that she would lower herself to serve a man. The thing is that if I had finished first, I would have offered to get her a coffee and not thought twice about it. Two people in a constant battle for supremacy will never make a successful marriage. On the other hand, two people trying their best to serve each other will receive far more than the two of them can ever give.
3. Realistic Expectations
The media do not help us here. Many movies, popular songs, and romance novels teach women to expect a husband who is “tall, dark, and handsome” when the reality is that many men are short, bald, and ordinary. Besides looks, women expect a man who is sensitive, cultured, romantic, compassionate, generous, and rich. Men expect to marry a beauty queen who cooks like their mother, keeps the house spotless, and does most of the work of raising the children while holding down a well-paying job. Even more than that, many spouses expect their mate to meet all of their needs, provide their purpose for living, and fulfill all of their dreams. Popular songs say things such as, “You are my reason for living…You mean everything to me…You are my everything…You are all I need…” Such statements are not compliments or expressions of love. They are demands for perfection. That is a role no human being can possibly fill. Human beings are not God. Even on the human level, marriage is a wonderful relationship, but it is not the only human relationship, and a spouse cannot be expected to be all things. If your husband won’t go with you to chick flicks or if your wife won’t go with you to football games, then it does not matter. These things can be shared with friends with similar tastes. Many marriages fall apart under the burden of unrealistic expectations.
After a couple get married, they soon begin to discover that there are flaws and weaknesses in the other person that they had never expected. My wife certainly did. Maybe couples should have anticipated these things, but often they have not. Now, each spouse should act considerately, try to give the other person what he or she needs, adapt, and even compromise. There is no excuse for inconsiderate behavior or lack of effort in a marriage. But there is a limit to how much a person can change. It might be that a spouse is simply not capable of being neat, thinking up beautifully romantic gestures, being comfortable in a crowd, or any number of other things. It is impossible to turn a slob into a neat freak or a recluse into a social butterfly. The little irritants that wreck many marriages include annoying habits, disagreements over housekeeping, and different tastes and styles. When one spouse discovers a flaw in the other, he or she will have to make a decision. He or she can end the marriage, spend the next few decades trying to change the other person and arguing about it—or simply accept reality and learn to live with it. There are certain things that should not be tolerated, including unfaithfulness, abuse, addiction, and criminal behavior. But most marriages do not break up over serious issues but over an accumulation of little irritants. A successful marriage requires keeping in mind the big picture and being tolerant of small failures and annoying habits.
It is also helpful for spouses to compensate for each other’s weaknesses. A friend of mine said marriage is not a 50-50 proposition but a 100 percent proposition. For a marriage to be whole, there must be a 100 percent effort. If, in one area, one spouse, when doing his or her best, is only capable of providing 10 percent, the other spouse must try to provide the other 90 percent. Doing only “my share” is simply not good enough. A marriage is a team, not a contract between two perfect people.
Nowadays, when people are sexually promiscuous before marriage and unfaithful during marriage, sexual purity seems like a quaint concept. But a couple who have only ever had sex with each other have a unique and powerful bond. There is a level of trust and intimacy, unburdened by baggage from previous relationships.
My wife and I got married in our church, surrounded by relatives and friends. Due to distance, many were not able to attend, so shortly afterward we made a trip to have further celebrations with more family members and friends. Many modern couples get married in Las Vegas or on a tropical beach with at most a handful of people they know present and sometimes none at all. The difference is symbolic and significant. Many couples nowadays think that all they need is each other. That attitude speaks of arrogance and overconfidence. If it takes a village to raise a child, a village can also help with a marriage. My wife and I have received much helpful advice and good modeling from parents and grandparents and other older, more experienced couples. Even other couples the same age have provided support, a listening ear, and helpful suggestions. At times, we have found pastors and professional counselors to be helpful, not necessarily to provide help with the marriage relationship itself but with other issues we encountered. We have also benefited from marriage courses and various other types of teaching on marriage and family life offered by churches.
My wife and I are committed Christians. If God is love and the source of love, then it makes sense to seek His help. Marriage has been much easier because we have tried to live our lives God’s way, prayed for His blessing, and been guided and helped by God’s Holy Spirit.