Debbie and I have been married a long time. And we’ve learned a thing or two about making a great marriage when not everything is great. We had gotten to the place where we almost never argued, and most of the time we’d rather be with each other than with anyone else on the planet. But just when we thought we had it wired, we found ourselves at odds and unable to get over it. We know from the writings of Solomon1 there are periods in a marriage that are more difficult to navigate than others. The experts tell us there are three that are especially challenging. If these periods were rapids on a river, they would be marked with a sign: Warning! Danger ahead! These periods are: 1) Around the five-year mark. This is that time when partners often begin to take one another for granted. 2) At mid-life. This is that time when people often begin to doubt themselves. 3) At the empty nest. This is that time when life gets turned upside down. Debbie and I made it through all three, though we found the empty nest a bit challenging. But we also learned there is a fourth: If at any time within your married relationship you decide to build a house, you are putting your marriage at risk.
I’m not sure what we were thinking, but while we were launching this coaching ministry, we built our own house. I don’t mean we hired a contractor. I mean we literally built our own house with the help of our son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Just so you’ll know, I’m sharing this part of our life with my wife’s permission. I am not stretching the story at all when I say that I thought this before-wise wonderful woman had lost her mind. I couldn’t say anything right and we couldn’t agree on anything.
Being the “spiritual man” that I am, I decided we (she) needed a refresher on 1 Corinthians 13, the love passage. I thought, Surely, this will straighten her out. However, what happened was that I began to see myself. I realized I wasn’t nearly as patient as I had thought. I realized I wasn’t nearly as kind as I had imagined. I wasn’t nearly as loving as I had led myself to believe. I was shocked, and I was ashamed. Having learned a lot about marriage, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is, my wife isn’t my problem as much as she is my mirror—what I see in her is often a reflection of my leadership. I tell you this story not as a catharsis for my guilty conscience, but to encourage you in your marriage. Here’s some things I learned during this difficult time about making a great marriage when not everything is great, and some practical action steps you can take. Hopefully it can help you as you persevere during your own “not great” times. When you find yourself at odds with your spouse, put these four “Bs” into practice:
No matter how long you’ve been married or how good marriage is currently, it can all fall apart in a moment. When this happens or if this has happened, remember, you are not the first to struggle, and you won’t be the last. It is not a signal of the end, but a reminder of your humanness and your need for God’s help. Never take your relationship for granted. Thank God always. Pray for His continued protection and guidance–especially because you are doing marriage as a pastor.
Action: Pray with your wife daily. Regularly give thanks for the mercy and grace that has allowed you to have the kind of relationship you presently enjoy. If you are struggling, confess your need and plead for God’s help.
When emotions are high, it is hard to see your part in the problem. It takes humility and honesty to see what you are doing that contributes to the downfall of your relationship. Chances are you’ve been in the ministry long enough to have learned that problems are rarely one person’s fault. Admit your part and make it right. Action: Discover your part in the problem. Confess your failure to God and to your wife, pleading for her forgiveness, and take dead aim at changing what you are doing wrong.
When things aren’t great it is hard to remain open to love. But even if the problem is mostly her fault, or is totally her fault, you may still be the key to her change. Always follow Christ’s example: “For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her.” And never forget why He did this: “He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.”2 The key to your wife’s change may be in your hands. Your wife may not be your problem as much as she is your mirror—what you see in her may be a reflection of your leadership.
“Your wife may not be your problem as much as she is your mirror.”
When I began to meditate on 1 Corinthians 13, I began to see how I had failed to love her. Feeling the pressure to finish the house and get back on ministry, I had become more of a drill sergeant than a loving husband. I’m guessing you can identify with what pressure can do, or has done, to you, too? With eyes wide open, I stopped trying to fix her and focused on loving her. This shift in my thinking led to a shift in my leadership, which led to a change in our relationship. When I changed, my wife changed.
Action: Stop trying to change or fix your wife. Focus on loving her just as Christ loved the church. Accept her as God’s gift to you.
Be the Leader
I know it isn’t politically correct to say it today, but I’ll say it anyway, if you are the husband your first calling is to be the spiritual leader in your home. Carey Nieuwhof addresses this in his post, 20 Honest Insights on Making it to 25 Years in Marriage. It is no accident that I listed, Be the Leader, last. You must be humble enough to admit your needs, honest about your own flaws, and open to love when she isn’t behaving lovely. If you practice these things you will have taken giant steps to have a great marriage when not everything is great. Pastor, please remember, The true test of your leadership is not the size of your church, but the health of your marriage. Action: Pray with your wife, read Scriptures with your wife. Debbie and I have started a practice I wish we had started years ago. We read a chapter or two in the Bible, discuss it, and pray before we go to bed every night.