Eighteen years ago, my fiancé Ted and I sat side-by-side on a blue floral couch in a living room in Virginia. Across from us, in a set of club chairs, sat a married couple from our church. As we chatted with them for the first time, both nervousness and excitement cartwheeled in my stomach.
They’d been married at least a decade. They knew firsthand about marriage’s better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. As Ted and I counted down the four months until our wedding, they were there to help prepare us for the days, months and years to come after we promised, “I do.”
What I wish our premarital mentors had said
It’s hard to believe that evening was almost two decades ago. And while our premarital mentors did well to ready us for marriage, sometimes I reflect on what I wish they’d told us — but didn’t.
You see, for the last five years, Ted and I have occupied those club chairs — metaphorically speaking, of course. We’re now the married couple who knows firsthand the better and the worse, the richer and the poorer, the sickness and the health. As we meet with engaged couples, I find myself sharing things I wish our mentors had told us.
Maybe you’re newly engaged or will be soon. Or maybe you intend to date and marry somewhere down the road and want to be prepared. In any case, let me share six truths about marriage that might prove helpful.
1. You can’t know everything about each other before you get married — and that’s OK.
Back when Ted and I talked through issues with our premarital mentors, they focused on whether we’d fully disclosed our sexual history, financial records and spiritual states. Disclosure and discussion like this before marriage are crucial in making a wise and informed decision on whether to marry.
These significant — and sometimes sensitive — issues aren’t topics you talk about to just anyone, so sharing them as a couple creates emotional intimacy. With that closeness often comes overconfidence that you know everything that may affect your soon-to-be spouse’s future behaviors, attitudes and reactions. But that’s simply not true, no matter how long you’re engaged. Only God searches and knows our hearts fully (Psalm 139). As one husband of 25 years shared with me, “Everybody brings baggage and history — [there are] too many details to discuss in a few years or less. I’m still learning things about my wife that affect how we relate.”
With time, you’ll learn new things about your spouse. Ted and I have. And as long as it’s not a case of intentional deception, you don’t need to feel shortchanged or angry. Remind yourself that it’s OK because you couldn’t have known everything before the wedding. Then, ask questions and embrace this new information as an opportunity to deepen your connection.
2. When marriage gets hard, it’s normal to wonder if you’ve made a mistake — but it doesn’t mean you have.
My friend Liz shared that the first six months of marriage were rough for her and her husband. She said, “We clashed over so many things. I know both of us had moments where we wondered if we’d made a mistake. Thankfully, neither of us feared the other would walk out; we knew we both took our vows seriously.”
Now, almost 13 years later, Liz added, “I’ve since told many other newly-married friends to not be shocked or surprised if those first few months are far more difficult than anticipated. It doesn’t mean you made a mistake or that you can’t or won’t have a harmonious marriage. Two becoming one is simply not a clean or easy process.”
When marriage gets hard (and I’m in no way including instances of abuse here), you may feel like you’ve made a mistake. But that’s a feeling, and feelings are fickle (Jeremiah 17:9). In contrast, covenants are not.
Family therapist Glenn Lutjens writes, “When the two of you walked down the aisle, each of you became the right person for each other. Yes, you may look back and second-guess your reasons. But you entered an arena in which learning to truly love someone takes a lifetime.” In those moments of doubt, that’s when you dig in your heels, seek counseling if you need to, and cling tightly to the commitment you made to each other before God.
3. Conflict is useful, but learning how to do it well takes practice.
Several years ago, Ted and I mentored Ben and Katie. While we spent time on conflict resolution, Katie says that looking back, “I wish we had been more prepared for the big fights. Ben and I rarely argue. In the nine years we’ve been together, we may have had three fights. The very few difficult arguments that we have had were so hard for both of us.” But, she says, “It’s learning as you go.”
When Ted and I married, I didn’t know how to navigate conflict in a healthy way. Over the years, though, I’ve come to learn that conflict can be useful for a relationship — that is, if it’s navigated well. As Suzanne Hadley Gosselin writes, “Strong relationships occur when each person is looking to Christ and also to the other person’s best interest. This shows itself in arguments seasoned with humility, kindness and love.”
But just because you want to navigate conflict well and even have practical tools to do so doesn’t mean it’ll come easily. Eighteen years into marriage, we’re still learning how to season our arguments with the humility, kindness and love Suzanne points to. Navigating conflict takes practice — and practice makes progress. The goal isn’t perfection by a particular wedding anniversary. Instead, it’s to remain committed to continually growing better at handling conflict in a God-honoring and other-honoring way.
4. Your spouse will change, but sometimes that change is unpredictable.
Ted and I aren’t the same people we were when we got married. We’ve both changed. In many ways, we’ve grown together; change has strengthened our relationship. But in other ways, change has put a strain on our interactions. Back when we were engaged, I didn’t anticipate we’d disagree in some of the areas we do now. I believed that as long as we were intentional to grow together, we could keep all change predictable. It’s not true.
I’m learning that change in marriage is much like two surfers riding the same wave to shore. They’re in the same ocean, headed toward the same beach, yet sometimes parts of that same wave take them in different directions. They veer apart without meaning to. When it comes to you and your spouse, you can head in the same direction, do your best to stay connected, but life will not only change you both — sometimes it will change you in ways that feel divisive.
How can you navigate the challenge of unpredictable change? Like the surfers who meet in the middle and high-five their successful ride, you and your spouse can — with patience, determination, regular check-ins and course corrections — adapt and modify as change takes you by surprise.
5. You need to “leave and cleave,” but it’s easier said than done.
My friend Jennifer and her husband Mike married not long after Ted and I did. Jennifer says she wishes their mentors had talked to them more about in-law relationships. “We were young, and our parents were local. We found ourselves at times trying to seek the approval of our parents.” She explains, “It was easy to dismiss each other’s advice or opinion in lieu of what our parents had to say about a particular matter. We had to learn to set boundaries.”
Most premarital mentors — Ted and I included — talk to engaged couples about what it means to “leave and cleave.” But this idea that marriage requires a mental and emotional shift where our spouse takes priority over our families is easier to discuss than it is to practice. As I talk about in another Boundless article, it’s one thing to say you’ve moved your parents from “immediate family” to “extended family” and filled the vacant “immediate family” slot with each other. It’s harder to live that out when dealing with the emotions and desires of parents and siblings.
Here’s the thing: While reprioritizing these relationships is critical to the health of your marriage, it’s OK if it takes some time. Ted and I often encourage the couples we mentor to start small. Determining how you want to spend holidays is one place to start. But just like with conflict, remember that practice makes progress. With each new boundary you set, you are one step closer to fully leaving and cleaving.
6. Children are a blessing, but parenting can be hard on your marriage.
Scripture tells us that children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). As the parents of four kids, Ted and I wholeheartedly agree. But we’ll also be quick to say that parenting can be hard on your marriage.
For us, the first year of marriage was fairly smooth. But when we added a baby to our family, we found ourselves struggling with how this tiny human affected our interactions. We weren’t prepared for this because we’d only been told that children are a blessing.
As new parents, we were sleep-deprived and thus much more likely to react rather than respond. And while our mentors spent an entire session talking to us about sex, they only prepared us for it before children. They didn’t talk to us about how sex changes once you factor in the sleepless nights or shower-less days a newborn brings. In these seasons, it’s easy to think that sex is a thing of the past. It would have been helpful to know in advance that it doesn’t stay that way.
We also had to learn how to parent together. Our backgrounds and upbringings influenced our parental instincts more than we anticipated. It takes time to appreciate each other’s perspective even when we don’t understand it, as does learning new approaches to compromise when feelings and convictions are strong.
Mentors for a season, friends for life
Eighteen years ago, when Ted and I sat on that blue floral couch for the last time, I longed to hear our mentors say, “After the wedding, we’re here for you too.”
But they didn’t.
As mentors, Ted and I always make sure we say those words. We want to encourage and support couples as they walk out their commitment to each other. Who knows? Maybe a decade from now, those couples will be sitting in club chairs readying someone else for marriage.
Copyright 2020 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.