Who Did I Marry?

3d human with a red question markPeople are funny. While they may say they hate change, they themselves change over time. Our tastes, our attitudes our lifestyles all tend to evolve as we age. As the parent of teenagers I can assure you that the pop music that I listened to back in the day was far better than the crud they listen to now! So you could argue, that my taste in music hasn’t changed… that would be untrue. When I was a teen, my taste in music was to like what every other teen liked. While I still listen to Classic Rock on occasion, my interests have broadened greatly as I have matured and been exposed to different genres. While true for music, the same holds true for foods that I love, places I want to visit and hobbies I want to try.

I’ve been happily married for thirty-five years. But I’m not the same person that I was on my wedding day (I thank God for that). And the reality is, neither is my wife. I honestly don’t know if I had somehow met my wife in her current state years ago if I would have fallen in love with her (taking the age difference out of the picture), nor do I know if she would have agreed to marry the current me. But I can honestly say that we’re happier in our marriage today than we’ve ever been. How can that be?

The key to a lasting relationship is to first recognize that change is inevitable. Embrace it. But allow yourselves to change together, supporting one another in the process over time. That takes not only commitment, but effort and awareness. It also means taking a keen interest in your partner.

So many marriages that I have seen result in divorce seemed to have failed at this. Truth be told, the pinnacle of their relationship was the wedding day, and the relationship began a slow decline from that point forward. That happens when each partner is focused primarily on their own needs, their own desires, their own careers and interests. With this self-centered focus, it seems inevitable that growth and change will occur, but what does that do to the relationship? If you’re not growing together, you’re growing apart. And that is that natural way things occur.

In nature, there is a term called entropy. It deals with energy and time. But in a very simplistic description, without an outside energy force, things to degrade over time. Think about your house. The day it was built, it may have been nearly perfect. But if you did not exert energy over time to maintain it, it would eventually fall to the ground. That’s why you paint it, clean the gutters, caulk around windows, seal your driveway and conduct other preventative maintenance type activities. Everything in the natural world acts essentially the same way. Why would a marriage be any different?

If you apply no energy to the relationship, it will fall apart in time just as your house would. If your energy is self-focused, you will grow over time. But you will grow independently of your spouse. Let this behavior happen over time and you will look up one day and wonder who that is sitting across the breakfast table from you. You may hardly recognize who they’ve become, let alone feel connected to them in any way. Apply that same energy to the relationship instead and watch what happens. Granted, energy is not unlimited. You would think this approach would slow your personal growth somewhat. But what you will find is that there is a synergy that takes place, meaning that the result of your collective efforts will be greater than the sum of the parts that went into it.

I encourage you to grow and to adapt over time. But focus on doing so as a couple. You’ll find that you both change

considerably, but at the same time, you’ll experience a closeness that you may have never dreamed possible.

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Through Richer and Poorer…

I feel called back to this blog. It’s been over a year since I’ve last posted, and I fully assume I’ve probably lost all of my followers. I’ve got to say that a lot has transpired during that time – some of which I’ll portray in the following.

I own a consulting business, and primarily focus on large companies as my customers. While it’s never been an overwhelming success (from a pure business standpoint) it’s had good years and tough years. We recently went through a tough one.

In my mind, part of having a thriving (shocking) marriage is the process of de-compartmentalizing life. Whereas some might say “My marriage is good, but I’m going through a tough time professionally”, I would argue that we’re going through a tough time. Because if I am, she is and vice versa. Acknowledging that you are going through trials together can really increase the bond of your marriage. Living in distinct boxes can actually drive you apart.

While we’ve been through tough years before, this particular time was grueling. Even though I own my own business, I was forced to put myself on unemployment for a period of about six months. For whatever reason, I couldn’t land a client if my life depended on it. And as time passed, it seemed my life was beginning to. My company had credit card debt that it couldn’t pay, a fully extended line of credit that was at risk and no employees. Of course, this doesn’t stay within the company for long before it bursts forth within the family. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from comfortable and complacent to realizing the very home you live in is at risk of being taken by the bank.

So what happens to a marriage during this time? A lot of things could happen, but I only want to speak of what happened to mine. My faith in God sustained me during this period, that is paramount. But the faith of my wife (in not only God, but in me) was equally invaluable. The pressure that I felt to provide for my family was incredible. Every time I would see her fretting over the bills, I would feel like a failure. Voices in my head were telling me that she deserved better, why was she sticking with me?

But one day she changed all of that. She forced me to sit down and really talk about what was going on. “What is the worst thing that can happen?”, she asked. At this point I broke down and said “Are you crazy?  We could lose our house, have to sell all of our stuff… we could be living under a bridge”. After all, she asked for the worst case scenario, and I totally vented. But her response to me changed everything.

“We don’t need this house” she said. “And if we end up living under a bridge, we’ll live there together. I’m there for you and with you no matter what happens or where we live. We’ll continue to trust in God’s provision and ask him to even further strengthen our marriage”. I don’t think I ever felt more love for her than I did in that moment.

Fast forward a year and we came through that storm. We still have our house and our family is intact. God showed up in a big way for us, and for that we are eternally grateful. It would have been easy for her to “pile on” during that time and add additional stress to my life. But she didn’t. At a time when I was at my weakest, she shared her strength with me.

What we didn’t realize or appreciate at the time was the number of people that were watching us go through this. Friends and family that knew our situation wondered how we would weather this storm. Seeing us lean on each other (as well as God) served as a positive testimony to them that in turn inspired their own relationships.

Shocking marriage isn’t just about living the ideal life, it’s about living life in a God-honoring manner regardless of circumstance. All marriages go though seasons. It’s natural. Use the good times to strengthen and embolden your relationship, so that when the tough times come, it’s natural to help each other through.

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Steps to a “Successful Marriage”

I am a keen observer of marriages. Call it curiosity i suppose, but I can’t help but watching how couples interact and correlating that to the level of satisfaction (both expressed and unarticulated) that exists in the relationship. One clear thing that i’ve come to learn is there’s no “one way” to do marriage well. What works for one couple might be disastrous for another. Just as no two people are identical, no two couples are either. When you combine two unique individuals in a marriage relationship you greatly increase the number of variables from couple to couple.

Having said that, while there may not be a single measure for “success” in marriage I have noticed that there are certain beliefs and behaviors that satisfying marriages have that are often missing in marriages that struggle. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, and I’d love to get others’ thoughts on this. But here are my starting thoughts on common things that drive successful marriages:

  • Shared beliefs around common goals – Are both partners aligned around what is most important in the marriage? The goals themselves can be widely varied from relationship to relationship, but it is critical that both agree in keeping “the main thing the main thing”. This could be raising a family, leaving a legacy, wealth, faith or a number of other things. Too often these are in conflict. If the wife considers the family to be the most important focus, but the husband is all about building wealth – conflict will occur. Decisions will become compromises. A wedge will start to form between the couple and will only grow over time.
  • Partner interests over self interests – Selfishness is a marriage killer. We’ve all heard that marriage is not 50/50, but do we really live it? If my life and energy is primarily focused on getting what I want, I will ultimately do so at my spouse’s expense. That may work for awhile, but eventually bitterness and resentment creep in. Once these seeds are planted, they are hard to eliminate. They leave a lasting impression. Strong marriages have an intense partner focus from both parties. “How will this affect him?” or “How will she react to this?” are great questions that are at least considered in strong marriages. I’m amazed how often these questions are not even considered.
  • Relying on God’s guidance – I’m fully aware that there are great marriages that exist where neither partner is a believer, and I’m equally aware that there are many Christian marriages that crash and burn. But from what I’ve seen, successful marriages realize that there is something bigger than themselves. They are not the end all be all but rather a piece of a much larger picture. For believers, couples can rely on God during great times and rough patches. Knowing that an unchanging God is there throughout can provide tremendous comfort. Additionally, praying for wisdom and guidance in a relationship can yield great results. We were not designed to go through this life alone, God intends for us to have tremendous marriages. Solid couples respect and rely on this, much to their advantage.
  • Solid communication – It seems this is an overused recommendation, but from what I’ve observed it is a very real key to marital security and happiness. Most wives will state that they wish their husbands would communicate more, and many husbands think their wives talk way too much. It’s not about quantity of communication. It is about listening to understand. I may not have much to say when asked how my day was. But I know that my wife is there to listen if I’m concerned about my job, or if I am facing a difficult decision. Sharing these tough times with her in a trusting, non-judgemental environment gives me the opportunity to “think out loud” and often get a perspective back that is wonderfully different from my own. If I try to keep these things from her, she knows something is up and distrust is created. Conversely, sometimes she will ask me for advice on issues she’s facing, and sometimes she just wants to vent and receive no advice back at all. Over time, I’ve learned how to tell the difference and respond accordingly. The key here is to know that you can talk to your spouse about what is important to you and know that you will be heard.

I’m sure there are many more, and I may write a sequel to this post at some point. But for now, this provides some points that we should check ourselves against to see where we currently are. Adding a bit more focus to these can only improve our relationships. And let’s be honest – that should be what we’re all about in a marriage

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He Never Saw it Coming

My best friend since college is facing near-certain divorce. I was the best man at their wedding fifteen years ago, and we have gotten together two-three times a year ever since. This couple that was once so in love that brought two kids into the world are now fighting in the most tragic and bitter way. How does this happen? How can two people go from being so close to being so vicious toward each other? When I talk with him, he never saw it coming.

It’s interesting looking at a relationship from the outside and seeing things (somewhat) objectively. From my perspective, there’s plenty of blame to go around here, but I think it boils down to the following points. I raise these because I think these exist in many marriages. Just like with cancer, early detection might save a marriage…

  1. Lack of Awareness – While this couple did a lot together, my sense is they never took the time to understand how their partner was really feeling about things. And if one of them expressed a concern, the other was probably too engaged in something else to really “hear” what was being said. Relationships don’t sour overnight, they erode over time. While every relationship has its highs and lows, its critical to understand how a given relationship is trending and to course correct if it’s heading downward over time. Take the time to gauge your marriage. Ask the tough question; “Are we in a better place now than we were a year ago? Five years ago?” I’m a firm believer that marriages (like good wine) only get better over time. If the answer is no, it’s time to take action. Don’t let your relationship continue to decline. There’s a clear tipping point, from which it’s hard to rebound.
  2. Bad External Advice – While my friend never sought my advice (he’s a very private person on emotional issues), his wife sought too much – and from the wrong sources. She works and socializes with a lot of “broken” people. She’s a caregiver at heart. That’s a wonderful thing – until she begins to seek advice from them. You’ve probably heard the old saying “Hurt people hurt people”. I think that clearly applies to marital advice as well. If you begin to share your relational frustrations with people that have been through divorce or other relational tragedy, you’ll likely hear them telling you that you need to follow the same path they did. In an emotional state, its hard to hear and discern things objectively, so over time their words begin to take root. My question is; why would you take advice from a person whose life you don’t want to emulate? Seek out a couple that has been happily married for a long time and talk to them. Don’t talk with the person that has been divorced three times and is living a lonely and miserable existence.
  3. Selfishness – Most of us are somewhat selfish if we’re totally honest. We’re far more concerned about our own needs than the needs of our partner or the needs of our marriage. You hear it in all couples facing divorce. “You never do _____ for me”, “I need ____ and you never think about that”. So many “you” statements. I surely did nothing wrong, but you… If you want to live a selfish existence, that’s fine I guess. But don’t enter into marriage. Your goal in marriage should be to become the best partner you could possibly be over the long run. It’s amazing how your attitude changes when you shift your focus from yourself to your partner – and though it contradicts logic it makes you happier over time.
  4. Lack of Faith – Both my friend and his wife are strong believers and faith seems to be a big part of their individual lives. But I’m not sure I ever saw that faith brought into their marriage. Faith should never be a “personal thing”. It should be the very foundation on which a marriage is built. In my marriage, Christ is at the center of our relationship. We pray together, we worship together and we serve together. I’m convinced that’s what God intended when he established the covenant of marriage. Missing that piece is always going to leave a void that will get filled with disruptive elements.

I grieve for my friends. It will take a miracle at this point for them to reconcile. But I hope that these words might encourage someone else to pause and evaluate where they are in their own marriage.

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It’s All About Perspective

Tractor ploughing field in late summer evening sunshineI was raised on a farm and as such learned a lot of valuable life lessons during my youth. One such lesson came the first time my dad let me disk the field. He showed me the basic controls (e.g. how to raise and lower the disk that the tractor was pulling so I could turn around at the ends) and told me to go to the other side of the field and back. I put the tractor in gear and began turning dirt. I was very focused on what I was doing as I wanted to please my father. I carefully went to the far end of the field, successfully turned around and found my way back to him. He had me stop, then asked me to stand up on the seat and look at the dirt I had just tilled. “What do you see?” he asked. As I looked from where I was to the end of the field, I saw a very curvy path cut into the earth. I was surprised how “not straight” it was, as I had been so determined to do a good job.  He moved me over to a patch of untouched ground and told me to do the same thing again. However, this time he pointed to a tree at the far end of the field. “Just keep focusing on that tree as you head away. When you’re ready to come back, just focus on me. Don’t look at the ground, keep focused on your target”. So I did so. Once again, upon my return he told me to stand up on the seat and look at what I’d just done. This time, instead of wildly curvy lines, I saw a very straight path going both directions. He explained that “It’s all about perspective”. When I was focused on the ground directly in front of me, I lost sight of the goal – hence the curvy lines. But when I was focused on a distant goal, my resulting path was straight.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson, and it has helped me immensely in my marriage. If I focus on our relationship on a day by day (or hour by hour) basis, our path will stray all over the place. Over time, we can be completely be headed in the wrong direction without realizing what has happened. Instead, I focus on a distant target; in this case an ever growing relationship. Sure there are bumps in the road and obstacles to overcome. But keeping focus on a distant (future), desired state keeps us in an overall positive direction. Looking back on the past 32 years, I’m very pleased that we’ve created fairly straight lines.

Thanks Dad!

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Marriage is like lawn care…

dandelionIn the last few months I have had three or four couples (in or around my social circles) that are in serious trouble. In each case, one partner in the marriage has walked out on the other and declared that from their perspective “It’s over”. Unfortunately, this is not a new occurrence and it’s becoming almost commonplace.  It grieves me every time that I see this, but I’ve come to see that there is a very common thread that runs across many of these relationships.

At the root of these problems is sin of some sort; typically revolving around selfishness. In some cases it’s infidelity, in others it’s drinking and still in some others its a lack of alignment on priorities. But interestingly, the “walk-out” seldom occurs on a first offense. When I talk with these couples, I come to learn that the thing that is separating them now has happened in the past. Interestingly, the couple thought that they had worked through the issue and successfully reconciled. So what led this same destructive behavior to reoccur and lead to such an awful ending?

It’s all about the roots. If you’ve ever tried to pull a dandelion from your yard, you know that unless you remove the entire root of the plant, the weed will reemerge in time. Even if you get “most” of the root, a little bit remaining will allow the plant to gain new life. These indiscretions which occurred initially were only dealt with on a surface level. They may have been cut off at the visible, surface level, but the roots were never dealt with.

“If I don’t see you looking at porn, then I assume you’re not looking at porn” (or replace porn with the appropriate sin as needed), seems to be the common perception. It’s probably because we want to see the best in our spouse, not the worst. If they say they will change, we want to believe them completely. No one looks forward to a separation or a divorce – so looking the other way feels safer and less threatening than dealing thoroughly with an issue. In other words it looks as if things are better, the problem is gone and you’re heading for a better place. But just like the dandelion, if you don’t get rid of the root, it will inevitably reemerge.

I’m not suggesting that there is not room for grace. But I am saying that a superficial fix will be short-lived. If a partner repents and asks for a second chance, they need to be held accountable for the problem that first occurred. Counseling, peer groups or other avenues should be sought where the person can interact with others in an open environment and share their trials and temptations. In some cases it may be impossible to completely destroy the root, but by focusing on the area where the sin is likely to come back it can still be dealt with before it blossoms anew.

But even in marriages that have not reached this point, caution needs to be taken. No marriage is weed proof, but you can manage the relationship in a couple of ways.

Watch out for the signs of weed growth in your relationship. Signs of this might include:

  • Your focus shifts from what’s best for “us” to what’s best for “me”
  • You spend increasingly less time with your spouse – especially in marriage mode as opposed to parenting or home management mode
  • You begin wondering what it would be like to be married to someone else, or wishing your spouse was more like someone else that you know

If you see these signs of early weed growth, take action immediately. Nobody has just one dandelion in their yard. As it sprouts and blooms it broadcasts seeds everywhere and soon you are overrun. The same is true of “little” sins in your marriage. Don’t continue down the same path you’re on and hope things get better, they won’t. Do something to change course before it’s too late.

For those that have not yet run into such issues in their marriage, I would prescribe a conscious, proactive approach.  Just as your lawn may be weed-free today you know that without proper care it won’t stay that way. Take it for granted for just a season and you’ll see it become overrun with unwelcome weeds. The weed seeds invade your yard from all around. Likewise our culture attacks our marriage on all fronts.

Just as pre-emergent weed control can keep your lawn looking great, consider the following examples as marital sin control:

  • Date night – don’t just talk about it, do it. You work hard to arrange other things, you can clear an occasional night on your schedule and get a sitter.
  • Don’t let your kids control your lives. Of course you love them, but keep your marriage top priority. Trust me, your kids will appreciate this in the long run – especially when mommy and daddy both live happily in the same house.
  • Be spontaneous. Remember when you were dating and you loved to surprise your partner? Remember the reaction they had? That need not be gone, just do it. Buy flowers for no reason. Have sex the moment they walk in the door (okay that’s more for him than her, but still…) Write a love note. Flirt via text. You get the idea…

In each of the marriages that I have seen struggle (or dissolve) neglect was the single strongest issue.   Communication lacked, intimacy dwindled
and selfishness flourished. These things are inevitable when you take them for granted. You made a commitment when you got married. Make a commitment to stay that way. Be on the lookout for weeds and apply the necessary treatments in advance to remain weed free. You do it for your yard. Do it for your marriage.

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Then and Now

campfireMy wife and I went camping over the weekend. Camping in Indiana in the fall can be beautiful, but the weather can be iffy. As we were driving to the campground on Friday afternoon, the skies grew increasingly dark. By the time we got to the camp entrance it was raining pretty hard. She began laughing and reminded me of our first campout together over thirty years ago…

We were newly married and I wanted to impress my wife with my camping prowess. After all, I was an Eagle Scout and had spent many a night camping in all types of weather. We selected a campground and prepared all week for our outing. She was concerned that we didn’t have all the equipment that we would need, specifically a camp stove. I assured her that would not be a problem, as I could cook all of our meals over an open fire. She suggested that we get an inexpensive charcoal grill for the weekend (clearly I was taking her out of her comfort zone with my suggestion – and I was loving it). I told her we didn’t need to pay for a grill, that I would be fine with just a fire. As we were leaving the house, she asked if I’d brought a lighter or some lighter fluid. I laughed and assured her that I could start a fire with no more than two matches.

We pulled into the campground somewhere in central Ohio and it began to pour down rain. We got the tent up okay, but it soon became to start the fire. It was a struggle to find any type of dry wood, but I did the best I could. It took me a few hours (and more than two matches I’m embarrassed to say) to get the fire going, but it finally took. It was dark by the time I started dinner and probably after ten o’clock by the time we ate. But I felt absolutely justified as a man having just proved to my new bride that I could do it.

Fast forward to last weekend. She asked me if I was going to build a light a fire in the rain with only two matches again. I confessed that I had brought charcoal lighter=fluid and a butane lighter this time. It was rainy, and I was hungry! I guess if I haven’t proven my masculinity in thirty-two years of marriage it wasn’t going to happen last weekend!

We both had a good long laugh at this… as we were eating dinner in the daylight!

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