After a certain length of time, most happily-married couples are asked questions. Usually it’s around the time of a wedding shower for a friend, or a Valentine’s banquet at church, or something of that sort. And usually, the questions are some variation of: “What do you do to keep your marriage so alive?”
For years, my usual response was to mumble, “I’m not sure,” and look at the ground. In fact, for a long time, if I was going to list anything about my marriage, it would be what I felt we didn’t do right.
And the top of the list? We just didn’t do conflict well.
Yet, despite what I thought was a great failing, I soon came to recognize that we are happily married. Our relationship is thriving and very much alive. And there are actually a few tips I could pass on to those coming behind me.
In fact, there are five BIG things that I’ve learned to recognize as the key reasons our marriage stays healthy, and a lot of them have to do with the “conflict” I was so worried about.
1. We disagree.
Conflict is important in marriage. I’m serious! It is important because without conflict, we would never change.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But I’m a peacemaker by nature, and at the beginning of our marriage, I thought conflict = I’m doing something wrong. Not necessarily!
My husband and I have had more than a few “conflict-ish” words over the time I spend on the computer and the time he spends on the phone. It’s a tricky situation because we’re both self-employed, and I use the computer for work and he uses his phone for work. But, conflict helps us keep ourselves in check. If we just smiled and said everything was hunky-dory, we would both easily find ourselves out of balance.
The same is true for all the normal areas of conflict, like money and work and entertainment and friendships. A little bit of healthy conflict keeps our lives balanced.
2. We listen when we disagree.
Change will only come from conflict if we listen. My job in the middle of an argument is not necessarily to make myself heard, but instead to listen to what my spouse is trying to say.
The first few times we had the computer argument, what I heard was, “I don’t respect your job or your writing and I wish you’d stop and just devote your whole life to me.” But at some point, when I stopped being defensive long enough to actually listen, I realized he was saying, “I know that’s important, but don’t forget all the other important things that are out here! I really love you and want your presence and influence in all the different areas of life, not just this one.” Big difference!
Usually, if I feel that I’m being disrespected or unloved, it’s because I’m not listening very carefully.
3. We try to fight fair.
Conflict is only useful if you keep to a certain code of ethics. As in, don’t lose control of your tongue.
Oh, I know it’s easy to just start spouting stuff off when you’re frustrated. It happens. And sometimes we do say incredibly hurtful things in the heat of the moment. But learning to fight fair is a major stepping stone in marriage. In fact, I would say that it is the stone that trips up the majority of marriages in today’s society. If you never learn to fight fair, your fights will get dirtier and dirtier, until you’re both sitting in the mud, wounded.
Early in our marriage, my husband and I got in a fight that left me crumbled on the couch, sobbing. He had broken every “rule” in the book and I was devastated. But then he said (still in his angry-voice), “That must have been really hurtful and I’m sorry. It’s not even true. I’m just mad.”
We laugh about it now, but his ability to admit his wrong while still angry, was life-changing for both of us. The maturity of that moment helped us recognize the importance of fighting fair and controlling our tongues.
Learning honesty, not with what we think of each other, but with the sinful tendencies of our own hearts, is essential to our marriage.
4. We take what we can get.
In my husband’s dream-world, I love going to the shop with him and working on tractors. We work side-by-side and visit throughout the day. At lunch time, I cook up meat and potatoes on the woodstove and make some fresh coffee.
But that dream-world is not reality.
Reality is that I’m not really much for working on tractors. It all confuses me. And the shop? It’s not exactly my favorite place. Mostly because you cannot be there for longer than 2 seconds without getting grease on you somewhere. And, well, I don’t mind cooking meat and potatoes… if I happen to remember that it’s meal time.
But here’s the deal: my husband takes what he can get. He enjoys the times when I do stop in at the shop, the meals I do make, and understands that if he really needs me for something particular—he probably has to ask me directly. And all the other things I do for him? He works at being thankful for each of them.
In my dream-world, my husband always remembers to put his clothes by the washer, and not behind the bathroom door. He gets up early and starts the woodstove so the kitchen is toasty warm when I wake up. He loves soups and salads so when I forget to cook, I can just toss some lettuce and tomato together and heat up a can of soup.
But that dream-world is not reality.
Reality is that my husband, most often, leaves his clothes behind the bathroom door. And he tends to get up at least a half-hour after I do. And for meals? He really enjoys those meat and potatoes.
But here’s the deal: I take what I can get. I’m thankful he doesn’t leave clothes all over the house; at least the pile behind the bathroom door is consolidated. I’m thankful for the mornings he does get up, and for all the afternoons and evenings when he does start the stove. And he does like lentil stew, so I have at least one soup option out there.
And while I might mention these things from time to time (mostly the clothes-behind-the-bathroom-door thing); I try not to put my dream-world expectations on him. After all, he’s a real person. And I’m thankful for that.
And I’ll take the other things, the really great things about him that are reality, and be glad for them.
5. We’re brutally honest.
Early in our marriage, someone told us that the best way to keep from straying in a relationship is to bring every temptation into the light. That means no secrets. That means complete humbleness.
It means, when my husband goes to work at someone else’s farm, and they have a pin-up or pornographic picture hanging on the wall… he tells me about it– every single time he is tempted to dwell on it.
It also means, when he’s online and something pops up or an ad of some kind appears that isn’t appropriate– he tells me about it.
It means any time I ever notice another man, whether innocently or not, I tell him about it.
It means that there are no secrets. At all. Not about past relationships. Not about present circumstances.
So, if we are ever tempted to look at someone else besides each other, we’ll already be in the habit of telling.
It works because sin loses its enticement when it’s brought to the light. It loses its power.
Freedom is found in the light. And I want my marriage to be a place of freedom. So we’re brutally honest. And sometimes it hurts. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable. But it’s light.
And it’s good, my friends. So, so good.
Tell me, what are your tips to keeping your marriage alive?
Some of my favorite resources for marriage:
You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity by Franicis and Lisa Chan
How to Pursue Your Husband by Jessica White
Ten Habits of a Healthy Marriage by Gretchen Louise