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The Best Advice I Ever Got on Marriage
By Jim Daly
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 Focus on the Family
All rights reserved.
Keep Your Commitment to Your Commitment
In 2012 my wife, Margie, and I will be celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary. It's hard to imagine we've been together that long, but as we look back on the years, we see that it has been a wonderful journey of learning. I say journey of learning because if you claim your marriage hasn't had any bumps in the road, you probably lie about other things too! Learning to live with someone else and create a loving relationship is a challenge in our society where giving up on marriage seems to be the rule rather than the exception.
FALLING IN LOVE AFTER YOU SAY "I DO"
The challenge of marriage was spelled out clearly several years ago for Margie and me by a young tour guide as he showed us around during our first visit to India. He was in his early twenties and told us that his mom and dad were back home arranging his marriage. Hearing that, I asked him, "Since you have toured with many Americans, what do you think is the main difference between an Indian arranged marriage and a typical American marriage?"
I will never forget his reply. "I think the assumption in an Indian arranged marriage is that over time you will fall in love with the person you marry," said the tour guide. "With American marriages, I get the impression that you fall in love before marriage and then fall out of love during marriage."
The power of the young man's words impacted me so much that I recently shared it when I participated in my nephew's wedding ceremony. I grabbed the hands of the bride and groom and held them as I said, "My hope, my dream, my prayer for you both is that years from now you will look back at your wedding day and realize that it was the day you loved each other the least. May your life together be one of falling in love with each other more every day."
People who were gathered there almost sighed in unison. They knew that it was a wonderful thought—and that it would be a real challenge. Why?
REMEMBER WHY YOU FELL IN LOVE
My observation is that when couples fall in love before they get married, they are focusing on everything positive. You know the old saying "Love is blind." We are usually googly-eyed over each other before we get married. Then, once the marriage vows are said and we start trying to merge our lives together, we begin to recognize little things we didn't notice before. Our attention starts to move from catching each other doing things right to focusing on what might be wrong. Over time, we may forget why we even fell in love if we continue to focus on the negative. If this cycle isn't broken, the journey to divorce court is well on its way.
Margie often says that our marriage really became great when she made the conscious decision to love the total package that was me. That included reexamining the reasons she fell in love with me and realizing that they far outweighed the things about me that bugged her. With that realization came the clarity that it is much easier to change a habit or behavior when you are in a supportive, loving environment than when you are continually having your shortcomings highlighted for you. After all, even though God doesn't make junk, none of us is perfect. We all have things we can work on to make ourselves better partners for life.
DO YOU WANT YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO WORK?
People ask me all the time if I do marriage counseling. I say, "No, but I'll ask you one question: Do you want your relationship to work? There are only two answers to this question: Yes and no. If you say, 'Yes, if she (or he) does such and such,' that's really a no answer." The commitment to make a relationship work has to be just that: a commitment.
I'll never forget a time in our relationship when Margie and I hit a rough patch. I was on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, and she was working on her doctorate in communication studies. Our son, Scott, and daughter, Debbie, were both in elementary school. I was becoming a local hero and being asked to do all kinds of presentations and teaching while Margie had her nose stuck in a book. She felt I wasn't being helpful enough with the kids, and I felt that working on her doctorate wasn't making her a fun person to be around. We were beginning to drift apart. During the height of this period, I was given sabbatical leave with an opportunity to go from Amherst, Massachusetts, to San Diego, California, for a year. I had just been promoted to full professor with tenure, and Margie was about to finish her doctorate. We sat down one night and had a conversation that would make all the difference in our future relationship.
I asked Margie, "Do you want to go to California with me?" What I was really asking was "Do you want to make our relationship work?" Even though these had been rocky times, she said, "Yes, I love you and I want to make our relationship work." My response was also yes. So, with a two-yes commitment, we agreed that we needed help and should seek marriage counseling. We were fortunate to make contact with Maria Bowen, who had been one of Carl Rogers's top graduate students. When we arrived in California, we started meeting with Maria once a week and did so for almost a year.
Marriage counseling doesn't work unless you have two yeses in response to the commitment question. If one or both partners are still trying to decide whether they want to work things out, you can't be honest and open with each other for fear that will be the last straw. But if both individuals are committed to making the relationship work, a good counselor can really help you develop strategies and ways to interact that will build up the relationship rather than tear it down.
IT'S WORTH THE EFFORT
I'll never forget what Peter Drucker, a pioneer in my field of business management, once said: "Nothing good happens by accident." You have to establish a structure for making your marriage work. I love that a lot of young couples today have date nights when, at least twice a month, they get a babysitter and go out together. The rule is that they can't talk about their work or the kids—only about their relationship and how they are doing as a couple. These date nights don't have to be intense or expensive. They can be fun. And what a difference it could make if every married couple scheduled twenty-six date nights a year to focus only on their relationship!
One of the most powerful things Margie and I did while we were going through marriage counseling was to attend a Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekend. This wonderful weekend program, designed for couples, began in the Catholic Church and has grown to include almost every faith. Although you go through the process with other couples, most of your time is focused on your own marriage relationship.
The process involves writing each other a series of letters, beginning the first night with "What I really like about you is ..." and ending on the last day with "Why I choose to spend the rest of my life with you." One spouse is asked to write his or her letter in the meeting room while the other person writes in the couple's hotel room. When the letter-writing time is up, the person in the meeting room goes back to the hotel room and, with a hug, exchanges letters with his or her spouse. After reading each other's letter, the couple decides who goes first. So, for instance, if I went first, I would tell Margie what she really liked about me most until she agreed that's what she had said in her letter. Then Margie would tell me what I really liked about her until I agreed that's what I had said. This was a wonderful way to make sure we had heard each other properly. After making sure we understood each other's feelings, we would talk.
At the end of the weekend, couples who had completed the process walked out with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. The organizers suggested that we continue to use this letter-writing dialogue process in the future whenever issues crop up. Margie and I still use this method today. When an important issue comes up and we need to really understand each other's point of view, we get out the paper and pens and start writing.
Whatever strategies you employee to nurture your marriage—whether seeking marital counseling, attending workshops, writing letters, or something different altogether—keep your commitment to your commitment. Invest the effort and expense; it will be worth it. Marriage is the most important relationship you will ever have. Margie and I are more in love with each other than ever before. What a blessing!CHAPTER 2
Make Love a Verb
Falling in love is easy. It involves butterflies, long walks on moonlit beaches, and the occasional visit from a unicorn. There are fifteen hundred organizations in this country that will take your money and your profile and connect you with somebody with a similar profile. It has never been easier to fall in love.
But while falling in love is easy, I would argue that it's never been more difficult to stay in love. Once the initial shine of new love has worn off, there are obstacles that appear seemingly out of nowhere. There are warts, there are regrets, there is baggage. Sometimes, staying in love feels impossible.
Though the divorce statistics jump all over the place, there is little denying that we are a culture prone to giving up on love, instead of staying in it. We are a culture that believes that when the going gets tough, the tough just go. We run away from the challenges and wonder how we could ever feel so far from someone we once felt so close to. The people we couldn't live without become the people we can't stand to be in the same room with.
Yet despite the challenges, there's something in you and in me that wants to do life and finish life with that special someone. We don't want to just be in a relationship; we don't want to just survive the years. We want to be in love. We wonder what it's like to be truly treasured by someone. To be needed and missed and loved. Not just for a long weekend or even a decade, but for twenty years, thirty years, forty years, and more.
LOVE IS A VERB
For many of us, the concept of love is difficult because we never really learned the right form of love.
The truth is, very few people have ever been around a healthy marriage relationship. Few of us grew up in homes where our parents were on the same page and had the kind of relationship we wanted to have one day. We didn't grow up with, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." We grew up with, "Do unto others as they did unto you." Or, "Do unto others until you wear them down and get your way."
In our homes, we weren't equipped to recognize real love, never mind replicate it someday in our own lives. So we developed low relational pain thresholds. We focus on the external qualities of love and ignore the internal. We treat love like a noun. It's an experience that happened. A moment. A thing.
But in John 13:34, we see a different side of love. Two thousand years ago Jesus gave us the best advice for staying in love. It's the foundation for enduring love relationships. It's so counterintuitive, so simple, it goes right over our heads. It's so powerful, so rare, so accessible, if two people will accept this very basic teaching of Jesus: "A new command I give you: Love one another." It will slip right by you if you're not careful. Jesus takes a word that we normally use as a noun and makes it a verb.
What Jesus was saying was, "I want you to learn how to actively love one another." Love is something you do. When two people actively love one another, guess what it does? It rekindles and continues to kindle, flame, enrich, and improve the "in love" part of the relationship.
It is not an event or a one-time thing. It is not a fire-works feeling or a field of flowers. It's an action. It's not just about choosing the right person; it's about becoming the right person—the type of person who loves the way Christ loved us. It's a daily commitment. But if it's going to happen, love must be a verb.
IT TAKES A PLAN
What if real relationships actually start when we get real about staying in love? What if staying in love is possible?
I believe it is possible. I believe it's a gift God longs to give us, and I believe there are three things we can do to accept that gift. Falling in love only requires a pulse. Staying in love? That requires a plan.
REMODEL YOUR APPROACH
For years, I've waged a steady opposition to my wife's plan to add a garden to our yard. I'm just not interested. If Sandra carves out some of her precious spare time and invests it in the garden, guess who doesn't get that time? So it's not just that I'm not interested in the garden; it might interfere with her priorities, one of which is me.
For a long time I had a good case going ... and then I read Philippians 2:3 again: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." I wish that were a complicated verse with multiple Hebrew variations. But when it comes to marriage, it's pretty simple. Value others, in this case your spouse, above yourself.
So now I have a decision to make: Am I going to love me? Am I going to talk her out of having a garden? Am I just going to ignore it and hope it goes away? The decision isn't whether I like gardening or whether I'm going to eat vegetables. It's bigger than that. The issue is whether I'm going to look to her interests or only to mine.
When you want to stay in love, you don't just put up with your loved one's interests. You find a way to become interested and express interest—just like you did before you got married. When you fell in love, you found out what your loved one was into and you suddenly, temporarily, were into it too. "Oh, I love to run." You'd never run in your life, but you went to your friend and said, "Do you have any running shoes that look used? I can't go out there with brand-new shoes." All of a sudden you were a runner.
See, we know how to be in love. But once we're in, we forget that we have to stay there. If you want to go deep, if you want real intimacy, then you live as if your loved one is more important than you—which means his or her interests become at least as important as yours.
Besides sharing their interests, how do you treat those who are more important than you? Let me tell you: you defer to them. You don't interrupt and say, "No, no. I think that was blue, not red." You don't pat them on the back and say, "Posture, posture." You laugh even when they're not funny. The key is respect, respect, respect. Through your actions, through what you say, through what you don't say, through the way you say it, you respect them and treat them as if they are more important than you.
To stay in love, you need to remodel your approach. You can try to draw the lines evenly so that you get a 50--50 split, but chances are that when you do, you will end up with a contract, not love. So learn to remodel. Learn to value others above yourself. Learn to put your spouse first. Learn to defer to your spouse. And remember: respect, respect, respect.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR HEART
It would be simple if we all came into marriage with backgrounds filled only with healthy relationships. Yet none of us do. We all bring baggage from relational hurts in our pasts. And that baggage will inescapably influence the way we experience our marriages. The emotional residue and repercussions from these difficult experiences in our pasts will inevitably spill out in the present as we hit various "bumps" in our marriage relationships.
Imagine you are a mug with thousands of tiny beads inside. Each bead represents a feeling or an experience or a hope or a fear. You are very careful to keep them inside. But then you meet her, and you think she just might be the future "Mrs. Mug." So, you are gentle and thoughtful around her. You both put your best foot forward and make certain that as few beads as possible spill out on the road to the altar.
Excerpted from The Best Advice I Ever Got on Marriage by Jim Daly. Copyright © 2012 Focus on the Family. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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