5 Steps to a Shocking Marriage – #1

shutterstock_286958120Step 1 – Understand Entropy

Entropy is a fancy word that comes out of the world of physics and thermodynamics. Put in its simplest terms – “Stuff that is in order now will over time fall into disorder”. In other words, nothing gets better on its own. The barn shown in the image was not built with a leaky roof, missing doors or failing mortar. I’m sure that when it was first constructed, it was a fine looking barn – probably the envy of all the neighbors. But without ongoing maintenance and upkeep, it is now quite dilapidated.

God’s original design for marriage was for a man and a woman to unite in marriage and to become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). But it is important to note that His design was described before the fall of man. We see in Genesis 3, after man sinned and was expelled from the garden, that life would become much tougher. Rocks in the fields, weeds in the crops and pain during childbirth are just a few of the hardships specifically mentioned. It is safe to assume that problems during marriage also originated at this time. I believe this is the point in history where entropy was introduced.

And that is where we find ourselves today. We live in a world where anything subject to neglect will in time degrade to the point that it no longer functions. Marriages are no exception to this. So why do so many couples put their relationships on auto-pilot, putting the bulk of their attentions elsewhere?

We see it all the time. The couple that hasn’t had a date night in years. The couple whose interaction is limited to the brief passing periods between work and running the children from event to event. The couple that can’t remember the last time they made love – not for lack of desire, but rather because they’re seldom alone together. These couples all have one thing in common. They all believe that things will get better in the future. When the kids are older, when work settles down, when the kids go to college, when the finances ease up.

There are at least a couple of bad assumptions in these situations. First, the belief that tomorrow will be radically different than today. Yes, situations change, but new situations always arise. Look backwards in your life and you will recognize this as truth. Waiting for the ideal time to focus on your marriage may never come.  Second, the thought that a relationship will be where it was when you “left it on the shelf” is wrong. Just as you can’t let a barn sit for years without ongoing maintenance, you can’t ignore a marriage and assume it will not erode.

Here’s the bottom line. Marriages are hard work. They take time and attention. They must be prioritized. Just as with the barn that is pictured, it takes considerably less effort to do the upkeep as you go rather than wait until it has nearly collapsed. No marriage stays where it is over time. Either you focus on it and make it continually better or you ignore it and it disintegrates. The choice is up to you. Just remember, a non-choice is ultimately a choice for entropy.

 

 

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Godly Marriages are Supernatural

Dictionary.com defines supernatural in the adjective form as “of, relating to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law  or phenomena; abnormal.” As a noun it is defined as “direct influence or action of a deity on earthly affairs.”

You’ve probably never thought about marriage in these terms, but perhaps you should. The very institution of marriage was designed by God, as can be seen in Genesis 2. In this familiar chapter we see that God determined that it was not good for man to be alone, so he created woman to be his helper. Looking back on the definition shown above, it seems clear that this was direct action of a deity on earthly affairs. So there’s no question that the first marriage was in fact supernatural.

“But what about today?”, you may ask. If you keep reading in Genesis you will see in verse 24 “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This verse can’t be taken as purely contextual, since clearly Adam had no earthly mother or father. Rather, in this passage God is describing His ongoing intent for the institution of marriage.

Nowhere else in the Bible is any relationship described in this manner. Two completely independent beings uniting into one. Other translations use the term “one flesh”. That doesn’t just happen randomly, nor does it happen naturally. It happens through the direct action of a deity (God) on earthly affairs.

I’ve heard many theologians assert that is the act of sexual relations that cause the two individuals to become one flesh. I remember a youth pastor once that gave a demonstration to illustrate this point. He took two different colored Legos and put them together, then pulled them apart. He said this was a common form of coming together as people then separating, something we all do with multiple people everyday. However, he said that when sex occurs, things change dramatically. He went on to put a drop of superglue on the two bricks then defied anyone to separate them. He contended that this was the equivalent of becoming one flesh. He said in our fallen world, people will break apart what was intended to be together forever. He then took a screwdriver and forced the two bricks apart. Though they could be physically separated, each piece retained fragments of the other brick that had broken off.

I loved this illustration, but I don’t completely agree with it. While I agree that sex is a powerful force, and you may leave a piece of yourself behind with each partner you have, I don’t think every copulating couple becomes one through divine intervention. Rather, I believe this intervention takes place when a couple forms a covenant relationship with God and with each other.

The reality is, in our culture we seem hesitant to do this. Taking this approach would require that we cede control to God, allowing Him to intervene. I’ve read varying statistics, but most studies show that well over half of all first time married couples in our culture were living together at the time of their marriage. Reasons cited vary but typically include wanting to “test-drive” the relationship before committing to marriage, or waiting to save up money for a big wedding. I’m not going to condemn these couples. While it may be a sin to live together outside of marriage, it’s not unforgivable, nor is it worse than any other sin that we commit in our fallen natures. But is God going to reach down in these situations, bless the couple and take action to merge the two into one?

Our culture has clearly redefined marriage from God’s original intent. Divorce is common. Common-law marriages are recognized. Homosexuals can marry.  It is not my intent to deny the right of any two people in love to live together and share benefits. But if you believe God truly designed the concept of marriage, it makes sense that He could establish the boundaries around it. He designed it as a committed relationship between one man and one woman with God as the focal point. Relationships outside of this should be considered civil unions, and enjoy all of the legal and societal benefits that come with that. But to expect God’s blessing or direct action in these variations from His plan is not realistic.

Maybe you didn’t create a covenant with God when you got married. Maybe you lived together for years prior to tying the knot. Does that mean you’re unable to receive God’s blessing? It’s never too late to bring Him in to the relationship. If you make an intentional commitment to Him and ask for His ongoing blessing, you will receive it. The couple who agrees to do it “God’s way” and creates a covenant relationship in the process can count on the promise that He will make them into one flesh. And what God has brought together, let no man separate.

 

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Completion, Not Reflection

Mirror reflection image   I just had coffee with a single, female colleague that I had not seen in several months. After catching up on job stuff, she began to talk about a budding relationship that she is in. For the most part, it sounded very promising, but then she began to share some concerns. The biggest was that she was raised in a very expressive family, where the words “I love you” were said and heard often. He was raised in a far more reserved family where feelings were not openly shared. She finds she spends a lot of emotional energy trying to get him to “open up” and becoming frustrated when he does not.

It occurred to me that I see this in a lot of marriages. Much frustration is encountered when spouses don’t act as expected. Over time, this frustration can turn to anger and ultimately to bitterness.

In my opinion, many (most?) look at this from the wrong perspective. Our egocentric natures put us in a position where we try to transform those closest to us into exact reflections of ourselves. Sort of a “I do it this way. You do it that way… Please change and start doing it my way” mentality. God never intended for us to marry ourselves. When He created Eve, He did so to complete Adam, not to duplicate him. We need to see our spouses as the one person in life that is able to complete us. Completion is all about filling in the gaps that we have which will naturally conflict with the way we think.

I know from my days in building cross-functional teams in my corporate career that the best teams were highly diverse in their makeup. Those teams would outperform homogeneous teams every time in terms of performance and deliverables. Granted, there was more conflict, especially in the early phases, but once these teams learned to harness the breadth of perspectives offered, there would become unstoppable.

Marriages are no different. Shocking marriages accept and embrace the differences brought by both spouses and play to their respective strengths. Effort is not put on conforming, but to developing. This can and should be a life-long process for a couple. Let me give you an example.

Tara and I have been married thirty-five years. I am a morning person, she is not. Early on in our marriage we got a set of Odie and Garfield (cartoon characters) Christmas ornaments for our tree. We jokingly said that these represented us in our relationship, especially as it pertained to mornings. When Tara and I have coffee in the morning (my most energetic time of day), I love to plan and talk and solve the world’s problems. She typically sips her coffee and slowly nods her head in response. Recently, she told me of some article that she’d read about non-morning people and introverts and how they hate being overwhelmed with too much stimulus prior to fully waking up.

The following morning I got my coffee and sat quietly across from her. After a few moments she looked up and asked me “What’s wrong with you?” “Nothing”, I replied, “I was just waiting to speak until I was spoken to”.  I went on to explain that I was trying to be sensitive to the article she’d told me about and not drive her crazy in the morning. I loved her response. “I don’t need you to change, just don’t expect me to be like you.”

You see, while she may not be a morning person, she loves the fact that I am. Her only resentment stems from when I try to make her more of one (a reflection of me).

Celebrate the differences that you have. Learn to capitalize on them. Accept that your spouse may be strong where you are weak – that’s a beautiful thing. Allow them to complete you, stop trying to make them a reflection.

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Do Marriages Need a Gym?

 

couple-exercising-together

You probably know a person that after a health scare, began to focus on exercise, quit smoking or lost weight. Being faced with one’s mortality is a tremendous motivator for lifestyle change.

It seems to me that we treat our marriages in much the same way. As long as nothing hurts or is in distress, couples just keep plodding along assuming everything is just fine. If over time, the relationship degrades to the point of being intolerable (e.g. facing the death of the marriage), couples either decide to reach out for help or decide to let it die.

In our culture, we have built a support system around this lifestyle. Marriage counselors exist primarily to deal with crisis management. I once talked to a counselor about receiving services for my wife and I. His first question was to find out how long we’d been in an intolerable situation. I told him that we had a solid marriage, we just wanted to come in for a tune-up of sorts, proactively seeking to find areas where we could improve. He stared at me with a look ofbewilderment. “I don’t think I can help you”, he replied. In fact, he suggested that we not pursue this notion, because in his mind it would just dig up problems that don’t really need to be dealt with.

I started looking at local churches, just curious to see what they offered in terms of proactive marriage ministries. To my surprise, I didn’t see many resources that were dedicated to this area. Several offered groups for divorce care (and other life crises). Some offered Family Ministries, but when I dug in to see what these consisted of, the emphasis seemed to be on parenting.

I looked online. There are a variety of weekend marriage retreats that are offered around the country throughout the year. While these encourage participation by couples in any situation, they are quick to suggest that no marriage is too far gone to benefit. Many others are clearly marketed as a last ditch effort to save a marriage. “You think this retreat is expensive? Just think what a divorce will cost you” seems to be their message.

Think about an athlete at the top of their game. They practice hours a week with a dedicated coach. No matter how good they are, they are always trying to get better. I’m not suggesting this is practical for an average couple. Time and money would prohibit most of us from such a level of dedication. But many do find the time to go to the gym a few times a week. While not training like a top athlete, they know that they feel better and stay healthier when they exercise.

Strong marriages build strong families. Strong families help build healthy churches. Healthy churches create great communities. Maybe its time we begin to shift our focus away from emergency marriage care and place it on marriage gyms.

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Marriages need Marriages

We do very little within our culture to celebrate or honor the institution of marriage. Sure, when a couple celebrates their Golden Anniversary (50 years of marriage) there’s typically a big to-do, but up until then all we see is the annual Facebook post where each partner announces their love for the world to see.

As I look around at local churches, I typically see specific ministries for youth, teens, men and women. I see “care groups” for divorcees, widows, parents that have lost a child, recovering addicts and other people in serious need. All of these provide tremendous value, and I’m sure their attendees are well served.

But what about married couples? Census data shows that fewer Americans are getting married today than they did thirty years ago. But still, the majority of adults over twenty-five are either currently married or have been married. Where is the focus on this segment of our population?

Recovering addicts have sponsors. People involved with gender-specific ministries are often encouraged to find and regularly engage with an accountability partner. But unless a couple finds themselves in real trouble and seek the aid of a counselor, they’re pretty much on their own.

We live in a kid-centric culture. As parents, we find ourselves spending the bulk of our free time either driving to or attending our kids’ activities. Many of the couples that I know that have formed social circles first came together through their kids. As a result, when I see them together, their topic of conversation typically centers around their kids and their activities. Be it baseball, ballet or band, relationships often never develop beyond that which brought them together.

I’m in the process of starting a marriage ministry at our church. It’s interesting that most people that I tell this to assume that this will be crisis-counseling effort. I realize there will be some of that, but that is not the primary focus. I’ve created a core team with two other long-married couples that share my passion for shocking marriage. Our goal is to make good marriages great, and great marriages exceptional. As a member of our team stated, “We want to build up a given couple’s marriage, so that they in turn can build up someone else’s marriage.” In support of that, we anticipate sponsoring a variety of events throughout the year that bring married couples together to celebrate marriage. While there will be an educational element to this effort, the underlying focus will be to create meaningful relationships. The type where real questions and struggles can be shared and discussed.

Imagine an atmosphere of transparency where you no longer hide your marital challenges and work through every detail yourselves. Finding yourselves in relationships where you can share struggles before they become insurmountable. An environment where you can see and hear that other couples have successfully worked through similar issues and learn from their experience.  A culture where long-term married couples walk alongside short-term married couples, not for the purpose of judging or directing, but merely for listening and advising upon request. Parenting issues become just one topic of conversation, not the primary.

Why is this approach so rare? I won’t say it’s non-existent. Jimmy Evans, Mark Gungor, and others have built global ministries around this area. But we don’t see much of it at the local level. We need to learn to celebrate marriage again, and focus on building up each others’ marriages. I am fascinated to see where God is going to take this ministry and how He will bless it. I am honored to be a part of His plan in this area.

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When Being “Right” is “Wrong”

I was talking to a long-term, married couple the other day. I’ve not known them long, but they certainly appear to be in a shocking marriage. The wife was

Right and Wrongrecounting a story of something that had occurred during the week.  Truth be told, the story went on for considerably longer than it needed to. There were starts, stops, corrections and endless details that had little to do with the point she was making. But her husband patiently stood at her side, listening and nodding his head in support.

As I observed this, I felt quite convicted. He was very intentionally supporting his wife through his presence and his silence. This is something I honestly struggle with. If my wife is in a similar situation, I find myself far too often interrupting to correct her (if her “facts” aren’t exactly as I recall them). I’ve even jumped in to bring a story to a close, if I felt she was going on too long. In my mind, I was doing this as a “service” for her listening audience, trying to prevent them from hearing wrong information or from being trapped in a seemingly endless story.

Without intentionally doing so, I was sending a strong message to all present that the audience was of far more importance to me than my own wife was. Somehow I was trying to spare them from her, as if my perspective or version was somehow superior to hers. My interruptions not only disrespected her but also embarrassed her in front of her friends. In my mind, getting the story “right” was more important than honoring her or protecting her feelings.

In my mind these instances weren’t a big deal, it was just part of normal group conversation. I’m usually made aware that she doesn’t share this same view after the party or on the drive home. Sometimes she’ll tell me outright how I upset her, but most often I notice her mood has fallen and she is very quiet. Even once I notice that, I often don’t make the connection between her silence and my specific infraction. With a little prodding, she’ll open up and let me know – in no uncertain terms.

When I think about it, it doesn’t really matter if she saw somebody on Maple street instead of Oak street nor is it  important if she talked to someone on Friday night instead of Saturday night? The reality is, half the time I’m wrong on my facts and she is proven right, after we’ve had an embarrassing dispute in front of our friends. Unless she is recounting details of a crime to a police detective or something of similar importance it doesn’t affect the story at all. But it does affect the relationship.

It just goes to show you that every relationship can be made better. As often as I’ve vowed to not interrupt her stories again, it took seeing this behavior modeled in another couple to really appreciate what it should look like. I’m pretty sure that he and his wife went home happy.

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Wake Up Call

It’s funny. I’ve been very focused on marriage of late. I have my first book at the publisher ablog image wake up callnd I’m in the beginning stages of starting a marriage ministry at my church. I’ve beenresearching it, reading about it, looking at conferences and planning to attend marriage encounter weekends. All of this in an effort to get myself fully up to speed on the topic and to prepare me for a future that will have me (hopefully) transitioning into full time marriage ministry. With all of this attention I’ve been putting on the subject, imagine my surprise when my wife recently came into my office and sat across from me. She told me that she was feeling neglected and was beginning to regret that she and I were spending so little meaningful time together. “How could that be?”, I wondered.

There was a time when I would have justified my behavior and attempted to convince her that her perceptions were… wrong. I would have pointed out  a number of recent situations where she and I had done something together, and I should be credited for those efforts. After “clearing the air” with my explanations, I would have gone back to my schedule and quickly forgotten her complaint.

Fortunately, that is not what I did this time. The fact that she expressed this concern made it very real. While I could have swept the matter under the rug, there was no way i could change her perception. So in spite of the fact that I didn’t see the situation the same way she did, I committed to focusing on the issue moving forward.

I scheduled a date night. I turned off my phone for a few evenings and focused my attention on her. On Saturday it was cool outside. I was doing some cleanup in the yard and burned a brush pile. When I saw that the burning waste was becoming a nice fire, I grabbed a couple of camp chairs and a bottle of wine and invited her to join me outside to enjoy it.

None of these actions were hard to pull off, and none of them were out of character for me. The key is, I heard a concern and addressed it early. I didn’t wait for the fourth or fifth time she expressed it before doing something. Likewise, I hope that her seeing a prompt response from me would encourage her to continue to bring up concerns early on – before they become significant issues.

Things are better now. They were never bad, but they are definitely better. I talk a lot about being intentional in a marriage. This was an instance where I followed my own advice. And it worked!

 

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