Marriage Resolutions 2019

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The holidays have come and gone. Most if not all of the decorations have been stored and life is returning to normal. We’re back at work, routine is returning and we’re falling back into a state of normalcy.

I’ve heard it said that by mid-late January, most New Years resolutions have already been broken by a high percentage of people. Diets have gone aside, gym visits have been delayed and smart phone time has not really decreased. It seems that for many, drawing a line in the sand (in this case the start of a new year) and vowing changes in behavior is unrealistic. The momentum of our old habits and lifestyle is very hard to break. This can result in disappointment and depression.

In my opinion, the reason for falling short on resolutions is that many seek immediate transformation in their lives. Examples could include things like, “I will quit smoking”, or “I will begin exercising 5 days a week” or “I will read the Bible every day”. None of these goals are bad, but if you’ve been smoking for years, and have never really exercised or spent time reading the Bible, such big goals may not be realistic.

While it was written nearly 30 years ago, Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is still relevant today. One of his key habits was “Work with the end in mind”. Basically, it’s about visualizing a desired end state where you would like to be, then putting the pieces in place in order to get there. The difference may seem subtle, but in reality, it is quite different. When you are headed toward a distinctive, long-term goal you focus on completing a little bit at a time. You target your efforts in a given direction. Setbacks aren’t disastrous, they merely cause you to adjust your focus moving forward.

The new year is a great time to think about your marriage and consider areas of improvement (resolutions). But to improve your odds of success, take a longer-term view working with the end in mind. In other words, don’t think about what you’re going to change right now, but think about where you would like to be in your relationship one year from now.

If you can create a vision for where you want to be in a year, it is much easier to put efforts in place where you can be successful. If you want to improve communication in your marriage, figure out ways in which you can focus on this. What’s inhibiting communication now? Is it the kids? Commit to having some date nights. Is work getting in the way? Commit to making your spouse a higher priority in your life. Do you want to reduce conflict? Learn how to argue without doing damage to one another.

Taking this approach will encourage you to modify your attitudes and behaviors over time. Date nights are no longer a commitment to a resolution, but rather a means to an end. Texting your wife from work is not obligatory, but you come to realize that it increases intimacy.

None of us should be complacent with where we are in our marriages. No matter where you are in your relationship, there is always room for improvement. Don’t stress about transformation that needs to take place overnight, take the long view. Create a vision of where you’d like to be and work toward it over time. That’s a new year’s resolution that will set you up for success.

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Mixing God and Sex?

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I was listening to a morning radio show the other day while driving in my car. It’s a comedic show with a lot of banter between the various hosts and guests. The topic of sex at Christmas came up and was being debated. The female on the show spoke of Christmastime as being one of the most romantic times of the year; the lights, the fire in the fireplace, the smells of the season all contributed to a sensual atmosphere. The discussion went on for awhile until one of the other hosts asked her something about the birth of Jesus and that association with the holiday. Her response was quick and clear; “I don’t mix my religion and my sex life”. And that was the end of the discussion.

While it’s not my place to judge this woman’s faith or sincerity, she is not alone in her thinking. Even among devout Christian couples it seems that sex resides in its own, separate compartment. It’s almost like a loophole sin that God is willing to overlook in their faith. He doesn’t condemn it, but He certainly wants no part of it… right?

I have worked with many couples where this topic has come up. They will speak of efforts that they have made to improve their spiritual lives. They have begun to pray together and read the Bible together. But they will go on to say that their sex life is far from ideal. In their eyes, one segment of their lives is improving, but another continues to flounder.

I don’t believe that sex is a loophole at all. God designed sex and created our physical bodies in such a way that we can take intense pleasure from the mere act. Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed when they first walked in the Garden of Eden. My guess is that sex was as natural for them as eating or drinking. But if you’re familiar with the story, you’ll recall that once sin entered the world, they immediately covered their nakedness to hide their bodies from God. It’s important to note that nothing changed from God’s original intent or design, but sin distorted nudity and sex into something perceived as perverse and forbidden.

It makes perfect sense to keep God out of a sex life that exists outside of the relationship of marriage. God cannot participate in sin, and the Bible tells us that sex outside of marriage is exactly that. The problem is that we take this stigma and apply it even within the wholesome bond of marriage. As Christians, we need to allow God into every aspect of our lives, including sex.

I met with a couple this week that told me that they had begun to pray together for the first time. I asked them to describe that experience for me. The husband got an odd twinkle in his eye and told me “It was surprisingly intimate”.  I began to chuckle and without another word, we all knew the situation he was implying.

But I think he nailed it. Praying is an intimate time we spend with God. Praying with our spouse brings God directly and tangibly into our relationship allowing the intimacy to expand and envelop us all. Spiritual intimacy and sexual intimacy need not reside in separate compartments, they beautifully meld together if we just allow them to.

Try praying before sex. Or use your devotional time together as foreplay. Don’t force it, just don’t deny it. Remember the architect of sex wants to be a part of every aspect of your marriage. Don’t try to shut him out of the bedroom.

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Thankful for my wife

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It’s the week of Thanksgiving, a time time when many of us pause to think of the many things that we are thankful for. I have to say, at the top of my list has to be my wife.

As a couple, we are coming out of a season of heavy praying. Looking across our family, we have been praying for new jobs, for successful relocations, for adoption approvals, for sold homes, for fledgling ministries and healing. It seems that every aspect of our lives has been in flux. It has been an incredible season of communing with God and receiving many answered prayers. I could expound upon any of the items listed above and speak of the supernatural responses from God. But for the purpose of this post, I really just want to focus on my wife of thirty-six years.

We’ve all heard the statistics that over 50% of marriages in our culture will end in divorce. I came across a new interesting statistic recently. Oddly, this is one that Dr. Phil shared on his show. He cited a study showing that only 1 out of 10,000 couples that pray together regularly will end in divorce. That’s a 99.97% success rate.

During this season which we’ve just endured, I’ve both prayed with my wife and for my wife. And I know that she has done the same for me. It’s hard to imagine feeling any closer to her than I do right now. But I have similar feelings for God at the same time.

We know that God created marriage and has a design for it that most of us have departed from to some degree.  But God also created the concept of intimacy, which He intends to have with each of us as His creation. What I’m not sure I’ve appreciated in the past is how this same intimacy flows out of my relationship with Him and right into my relationship with her. In other words, the closer I become with my Creator, the closer I feel to my wife which He brought into my life. Likewise, the more thankful I am for Him, the more thankful I am to her.

It’s more than just a fuzzy feeling as well. We have experienced a tangible alignment of late that is not always present. Through praying together and for each other, God has given us each similar thoughts and solutions to the issues we’ve been facing. In the past several weeks, each of us has been faced individually with someone asking us advice on a very specific topic. In each case when that same question was asked to the other of us, we found ourselves providing nearly an identical answer or direction. I am convinced that was God speaking through each of us.We were aligned with each other, because we were first aligned with Him.

The holiday season can bring on tremendous amounts of marital distress. The added pressures of entertaining, dealing with extended family, jam-packed calendars and shopping can wear anyone’s nerves raw. This year, I’m going to keep my focus on God and maintaining the intimacy that I’ve had with Him of late. I will continue to pray for and with my wife trusting that intimacy will continue to overflow into our marriage. The resulting alignment should go a long way to overcoming the stresses the season brings.

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Confidence over Comfort

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When I talk with engaged couples or couples that have only been married for a few years I hear a common desire. They want to be comfortable with their spouse. They describe an environment where they can be relaxed and not have to worry about every little thing that they say and do. I’ve heard it said, “My spouse should be the one person that I don’t have to put on an act around. I can be completely myself around them without any worries.” There’s a lot of truth in that.

Contrast that with couples that I speak with that have children and have been married for several years. In these cases I hear a very different theme. Often times with the pressures of life and raising kids they begin to complain about their relationships. “It’s as if we’ve become roommates, living independently in the same house and occasionally crossing paths.” They’ve become so comfortable in their lifestyles and routines that they’ve begun to take each other for granted.

The problem with comfort is that it tends to be very “self-focused”.  My comfort is about how I personally feel. When this becomes our focus, we tend to shift our attention and our efforts away from our spouse and place them primarily on ourselves. Once each partner makes this shift, they begin to drift apart without realizing it. Over time, they reach the roommate scenario described above. While we want to be comfortable around our spouse, it’s important to realize that it is a fine line between comfort and complacency. Complacency is a state where neither partner is concerned enough about the relationship to intentionally change anything. “Things are okay, they could be worse I guess…”

The other day I met with a couple that was older when they married. I asked them to give some words that described their ideal marital state. The husband surprised me when he listed the word “confident”. I asked him to unpack that for me and he did. “I want to know that I am in a committed relationship for the long-run and that my wife feels the same way. I don’t want to worry about doing or saying something inadvertently that can do undue harm to our marriage.”

I thought about that for a moment and it occurred to me that having this confidence is very comforting. Contrast this with being personally comfortable and you can see that investing in the relationship over time will serve to increase confidence as he described. I’m going to use his word moving forward and encourage couples to seek confidence over comfort.

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Look past the words…

 

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Every couple argues periodically. Two different people can’t agree on everything all the time, that’s just not natural. But not every couple fights in the same manner. Couples seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to conflict.

The first group find themselves being 100% in the moment, focused on the conflict itself. Every word that is uttered becomes evaluated and responses are automatically generated. Tensions and anger mount as words grow increasingly harsher. This group is subconsciously keeping score and the primary goal is to win the argument at whatever cost.

The odd thing about this group is they often find themselves stumbling into conflict without intention of doing so. A husband makes a comment that is perceived as being offensive by his wife and it is game on. While his intent was never to incite his wife, he suddenly finds himself defending his words and evening the score by pointing out her shortcomings. These are the types of fights that race from “zero to sixty” in only a few seconds.

For the sake of conflict avoidance, couples that find themselves in this situation become gun-shy. “I’d rather not say anything at all than say something that will set them off…”, becomes the attitude. While not starting an argument with your spouse may be a good thing, the deterioration of communication quickly becomes a new issue that just further erodes the overall relationship.

The second group, is less focused on the moment at hand and more focused on a longer-term vision and commitment that they have made with their spouse. In this case the husband may still make an insensitive remark, but instead of jumping to conclusions about his motivations, the wife may pause and ask, “That came off as really hurtful, what are you trying to say?” This approach shifts from accusation to clarification. It gives the husband the opportunity to rephrase his question or comment in a less offensive manner. Communication lines remain open in this case, plus he has been given constructive feedback in terms of his word (or tone) choice.

So how does this second group work? It takes a commitment toward long-term growth and success. It takes the ability to look past specific words and look at the heart of the person who is saying them. In my own marriage, my wife knows I love her unconditionally. I share this with her regularly. But (more often that I’d like to admit) I am guilty of saying stupid things, or saying okay things in a stupid way. There was a time early in our relationship where my words would act like a match near a powder keg. But today my wife knows that there’s no part of me that would ever want to intentionally hurt her. So, when my words sting, she gives me the opportunity to back up and try again. That attitude works both ways (though she says far fewer stupid things than I do).

The next time your spouse says something to you that gets you fired up, take a deep breath and ask yourself “Do they really want to hurt me with this?” If the answer is “yes”, then you are in a caustic relationship and need to seek professional help before it’s too late. This will not get better on its own.

But, if the answer is “no”, offer them a chance to restate their point, letting them know of the potential offense. They will typically welcome the chance for a do-over. This habit becomes easier and easier over time, until it is just second nature. This approach will not eliminate conflict from your marriage, but it will prevent long term damage from occurring.

Look beyond the words spoken, to the heart of the person saying them. Focus not on the moment, but on the long term goals of the marriage. You’ll be amazed at the difference this simple change of perspective can make.

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The Golden Rule of Marriage

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I remember as a kid in Sunday School having Matthew 7:12 drilled into my head – “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you…”. It was called the Golden Rule.  This scripture falls in the midst of a longer passage where Jesus was instructing his followers on how to deal with other people as well as with God Himself.

Clearly this is sound teaching. Far be it from me to contradict Jesus’ own words! But I do think this instruction applies more to relationships with others that we might not be super close with – think coworkers, casual friends or new acquaintances.

This literal thinking can cause some irritation in a marriage setting. I see it in couples all the time. A wife brings up a problem – the husband rushes to fix it. After all, if a guy brings up a problem to another guy, he is typically asking for assistance. For example: “I’ve got to change a tire on my riding mower. I really need a jack and some jack stands…”. When this is said to a group of guys, someone will surely volunteer “I’ve got those, swing by and pick them up after work.” Problem stated, problem solved. Both guys in this situation acted according to the Golden Rule.

But as we all know, there are times when a wife expresses a problem, but is not looking for a solution. She may just be wanting to be heard and understood in terms of her frustration. When the guy acts in a way that he wants to be treated, he finds that he is in fact frustrating his wife. It’s not intentional. It could be he had the Golden Rule drilled into his head as a child as well.

In my mind then, there is a slight revision to the Golden Rule that applies to marriage. It goes like this “Do unto others (your spouse) as they want to be done unto”. In other words, develop a level of understanding for your spouse where you can meet their needs as they need them to be met. Gary Chapman essentially proposes this in his now-classic book “The 5 Love Languages”. In this he explains that we all show and prefer to receive love in different ways. Understanding our own love language is important, but even more important is to understand the love language of our spouse. Your love language may be Acts of Service, and you find yourself forever doing things for your spouse as an expression of love. If their love language is Physical Touch, they probably appreciate the things you’re doing for them, but they may not feel the love that is intended as much as they would if you sat on the couch and held them close.

I don’t think this thinking contradicts the original teachings of Jesus. If anything, it expands upon them in the specific situation of marriage. This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes awareness and practice. But in time, if you come to treat your spouse as they want to be treated (as opposed to how you would want to be treated) you will find that you can take your marriage to the next level. Maybe even a shocking one!

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Do Men Hate Marriage?

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I’ve come to notice something interesting. When I bring up the subject of marriage to most guys, I get a look like I’m their sophomore history teacher from Hell. It’s as if they would rather discuss dental procedures than the most important relationship in their life. Why has the topic of marriage been lumped into the same categories as chick flicks and scrapbooking for most guys?

It’s funny. Guys like to talk about sex. There should be no better place to have great sex than in a thriving marriage. They like to talk about business. Marriage is like an (un)limited partnership that has to manage budgets, personnel (kids), competition (for time) and value. Guys like to talk about sports. A marriage can work toward becoming a high-performance team where as a couple, each spouses strengths and weaknesses are either bolstered or shielded by their partner. When working properly, a couple should be able to out-achieve any of their single friends.

Most guys seem to see the topic as an obligatory scolding session. If it’s discussed, it’s for the purpose of showing them where they fall short and what they are doing wrong. They’re waiting to hear that they are bad communicators, insufficiently affectionate or too distracted with work. It’s as if the mere mention of marriage forces them to consider their shortcomings rather than their strengths.

I wonder if it’s because marriage is an outcome of dating, a period of time where guys have to step out of their comfort zone to woo a potential mate. A time when they buy her presents, go to movies of her choice and totally mind their manners. In their minds, they have paid their dues and earned their trophy. It’s sort of like the guy that trains for a half-marathon, completes it then decides he never wants to run again. He’s very proud to add that to his achievements, but he quickly falls out of shape, begins to gain weight and revert to old lifestyles.

Women on the other hand, don’t seem to mind talking about marriage. I think most women are wired to think about relationships and feelings more than men are, and that is their primary focus in conversations about marriage.

I think we’re missing the point. Marriage is neither a masculine or a feminine concept. It is absolutely both at the same time. Our spouse is supposed to be our most important human relationship. If we truly view them as such, why wouldn’t we want to learn everything we could about making our relationships better? Men and women may never talk about it the same way, and that’s okay. but it certainly should not be a topic to be avoided.

Let me put it this way to the guys. You invested time, money and effort in dating with the goal of gaining a wife. Now you have her, it’s not time to stop investing, but rather to take it up a notch. The more you put into a marriage, the more you will receive in return. Why not talk with your buddies about how you’re doing and how they’re doing? You might have some best practices (another great business term) to share and vice versa. Don’t shut down when the topic comes up. Embrace it. As the Apostle Paul said, “run the race to win it”.

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