The Altar: Not the Finish Line

Jul 30, 2009 |Alex Chediak

For many men, getting married is viewed as the end of a process. Nope. It's only the beginning.

I am convinced that for most men, a godly wife will bring blessings that nothing else can. But those blessings are not secured without hard work. I'm talking about the inevitable adjustments which all successful marriages require.

Marriage is not about two single people moving into one house but otherwise continuing to live their lives as before. Marriage is about the complete unification of two very different individuals — two sinners who, no matter how strong their attraction to one another, no matter how strong their Christian commitment, will get on one another's nerves in the years to come in ways no other person will.

Survival depends on making adjustments — changes, compromises, sacrifices. But here's the thing, guys: The more you are aware that adjustments must be made, that you will need to be flexible, the easier it will be to move quickly to compromise and together define how your new family will operate. That's the good news. The bad news is that the more rigid you are, the more you fight for things to be exactly as you always expected them to be, the more work it will be to break bad habits and heal relational damage.

If you're recently married, now is a great time to make the adjustment from your single years. Habits you form now can last a lifetime, propelling your marriage into the Hall of Fame. The sad flip-side is that the seeds for most divorces are also sown in the early years.

Relating is the Destination

For a man, getting married is often viewed as the end of a process that began with meeting a woman, winning her affections, and moving the process toward the finish line of the altar. After the honeymoon, it's back to the to-do list, whether that means finishing graduate school, landing a big contract, or earning a promotion at work.

The problem is that your bride likely views the situation as exactly the opposite — as a new beginning.

We returned from our honeymoon in time for me to interview for The Bethlehem Institute, the two-year theology and ministry program I was a part of in Minneapolis. The next few months I had to complete a pre-requisite class for the program while also holding down my job. Other responsibilities included putting the finishing touches on With One Voice and assisting my pastor with an administrative initiative.

Like many guys, I had to let go of the myth of quality time: the idea that if I just focused on having deep, significant conversations with my wife, we could accomplish emotional intimacy in a half-hour here or there. Maximize efficiency and avoid relational fatigue.

It might make sense in theory, but it doesn't work in practice. To thrive, what your marriage needs is quantity time: unrushed, relaxed, shared living. The simple rule is that quantity time leads to a quality relationship. You both get home from work and you ask her how her day was. You listen for words, tone, and body language. You ask a follow-up question. She turns it around and asks about your day. The conversation has no destination; relating is the destination. Guys, this will get easier with practice.

Doing this on a regular basis knit our lives together, and gave us a strong foundation of friendship to tackle the thornier issues (which have since come our way). When I didn't invest regularly in my wife through "conversation without destination" and then tried to zero-in on a topic for which I had a clear agenda, she concluded that she was just another to-do project on my list.

That's at the heart of the "quality time" myth: You simply can't get to quality time except through quantity time. Going straight for "quality" will make her feel unimportant to you, completely shortcutting what you hoped to accomplish.

The Block System

A practical suggestion: Divide your day into three blocks of time. The first goes from about 7 a.m. to noon; the second from noon to about 5 p.m.; the third from 5 p.m. to about 10 p.m. Each slot contains a meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) and a block of time.

While every couple is different, many couples find it helps to have 6 blocks (30 hours of awake time) together per week on a regular basis. If that kind of time together is normal, your relationship will be more able to handle the occasional week in which extenuating circumstances give you less shared time.

And note: What you do together during these blocks need not be anything special, though a date night every week is probably a good idea. During the five other blocks you can run errands, shop together, serve together in a church activity, or just share dinner and then be in the same room reading. What matters is that you intentionally guard your schedules so that you "do life" together.

Side-bar: Let's say you work during 10 blocks (40-50 hours/week) and you spend six blocks with your new bride. That still leaves each of you with five blocks of time to get together with friends, be in a sports league, or whatever. So while you may need to be more strategic about your commitments, there's no reason you and your bride can't maintain significant same-sex relationships.

Your "Normal" May Not Match Her "Normal"

We had come up to northern Minnesota for a short get-away trip a few months into our marriage. That Saturday, it was a great day for a hike: good visibility, sunny skies, the leaves and flowers in the full bloom of spring.

Only one thing missing (from my perspective): Marni had forgotten the camera. Except from her perspective the problem was the opposite: I had forgotten the camera. But why didn't she realize that it was not my job to bring the camera? It was hers! She saw it the other way: I should have known to bring it.

We spent a few minutes trying to discover why we each thought this way, and the discovery was very helpful: Her father enjoyed photography and had always brought a camera with them on family excursions. In my upbringing, by contrast, my mother was always the one who remembered to bring a camera. Unconsciously, we had each brought in assumptions from our families of origin.

The first thing to realize about these "assumptions of what's normal" is that they are often amoral. Her assumption about the camera was not somehow worse than mine. What matters is that such assumptions (and the associated expectations) be discussed and that together you agree on a plan of attack so that neither party feels taken advantage of.

The example of the camera is relatively benign. In other areas it will be more crucial that you work out a strategy before problems unfold: Who shops for food? Who makes dinner? Who cleans up afterwards?

For example, Marni interpreted seeing extended family as a legitimate use of vacation. But vacation for me means getting away from everything (and everyone except our immediate family), sitting by a lake or ocean, swimming and reading (books, not blogs). So we now have a written vacation policy that includes time with each of our extended families and time just for us.

What's an appropriate amount of money to spend on recreation? Make a budget that you both own. Does a date require seeing a movie in a theatre? How important is being on time? You get the picture. (Trust me, do this now before children come along. They will really complicate things, but in their own wonderful way.)

Arguments are Inevitable

You will have arguments. The only question is: Will they be fair and clean, or dirty and mean? Marni and I set a few house rules from Day 1. We're by no means perfect at following these rules, but it helps a lot to have them and to strive for them.

First, we seek to understand the other person's perspective well enough that we could articulate it ourselves. That prevents us from making straw men out of each other's viewpoints.

Second, we don't air dirty laundry in front of others. If we disagree, that's private. Once we make a decision, then it is our decision, and we are both for it. That avoids the response, "This is your fault. I never wanted to rent this house in the first place."

Third, we treat each other (especially when we disagree) better than we treat anyone else.

And last, we don't let the sun go down on our anger (Eph. 4:26). Wherever possible, we resolve our differences before falling to sleep. But this can be counterproductive if we're too tired to think. In these cases we resolve to not be angry as we're nodding off. A brief prayer and a commitment to revisit the topic when we're both coherent go a long way in such times. It works the same way if we arrive at a friend's house during an unfinished argument.

The Crucible of Marriage

For guys, it seems a lot of the fear of marriage comes from the absolutely irreversible nature of the commitment. You know it can't be undone, and there are huge unknowns on the other side. By now you've found out that whatever furniture you had got re-arranged (if it even made the keep list) and at least a third of your perfectly good wardrobe is gone. (Why? Don't ask.) All you ever do is talk and you're relationally exhausted. What's happening to you?

You are developing capacities that were hitherto barely tapped. Whatever closeness you had with your guy friends, this is something totally different — something that calls your entire self to attentive love and practical sacrifices. The self-centeredness being revealed was always there, just not as exposed. Far from losing your identity, more of the real you is coming into full bloom.

"Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself" (Eph. 5:28). Learn to live with your wife in an understanding way (I Peter 3:7); that is, study her, and become an expert at making her heart sing.

Thank God daily for your bride and best friend, and know that in the crucible of marriage, God will sanctify and mold you into a more effective servant and leader. Enjoy the ride.


For Further Reflection

Robert Wolgemuth & Mark Devries, The Most Important Year in a Man’s Life: What Every Groom Needs to Know, Zondervan, 2003.

Dave Harvey, When Sinners Say "I Do": Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, Shepherd Press, 2007.

Copyright 2009 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.

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