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The Spouse Checklist

couple sitting on cliff
I wish I'd known then that this list wouldn't prepare me at all for marriage. The real diagnosis was that I had it all backwards.

I had a list. Most of us have one. Whether it’s written down or strung together in a mental daisy-chain of “must-haves,” we’ve built up expectations for our future spouse.

I married my husband five years ago and walked into our new life dragging my list behind me. I wish I’d known then that this list wouldn’t prepare me at all for marriage. The real diagnosis was that I had it all backwards.

It dawned on me a few years later when I heard a wise man mention a spouse checklist (hey, I know what that is!), but not one that I’d made for my spouse (oh, guess not), one that I would create for myself (all right, now I’m listening). He suggested a list of requirements to prepare myself to be the person I knew my spouse would need. As I listened to him explain, I felt a small pressure in my chest. Yes, this would have helped me earlier.

So I’ve begun a different list. This is by no means exhaustive! There’s still plenty of room to add more ways to grow as a spouse. Also, for any given couple, some things will come easily in the relationship, and some will feel unnatural or even impossible. I’ll share my own spouse checklist along with updates on how things are going — all the while fully acknowledging that no line-item will ever be perfectly complete in this lifetime.

The Checklist

1. Teammate/Partner

When my husband and I were dating, and met up with friends to play a board game, I discovered that it hurt him when I teamed up as boys versus girls or jumped on the team of people I thought were the smartest. He only cared about being on a team with me, whereas I was just looking for the best possible outcome for myself. This idea of unity and oneness was harder to grow into than I would have expected. I realize now that competition, especially with each other, has no place in a marriage.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

I’ve had to start viewing life and relationships as team sports, which in turn prepares me to play on the most important team of two that I’ll ever be part of. Rewiring my problem-solving into collaborative rather than defensive strategies has been helpful here. Two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10), especially in marriage.

2. Good Listener

One of the most special moments of my day is when I get to rejoin with my husband after a long time apart. It’s easy to spill the details of my own day. Remembering to listen and ask questions about his day … that’s only the first step, I’m realizing.

Making time to really stop and investigate when I noticed a wounded expression cross my husband’s face, even when we’re rushed to get out the door, is part of this. I can be a decent listener when there’s plenty of time, but when social expectations must be put on hold, it’s more challenging to put my husband first. Then again, it pays off to feel the closeness once we’ve made ourselves heard and known to each other — I’d even say it feels much better than getting to that dinner party on time.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

With friends and family, I try to take the time to ask deep questions and allow conversations to lengthen past convenience, if the need presents itself. A huge component I’d found when listening is to strive to understand my friend’s emotions, even if I can’t relate exactly, to practice compassion and bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).

3. Servant

This is at the heart of how and where I had my checklist wrong. I was thrilled for all the ways that my husband was going to serve me; I’d forgotten to consider my end of the bargain. It’s an uphill battle against selfishness for me, but I’ve found that taking time to write down lists of ways to love and care for my spouse makes me better able to plan ahead and carry it out.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

It’s fairly simple to build a list of ways to serve my friends, too. Thinking over my friends’ and family’s needs and preferences, then keeping track of them in lists or reminders, then offering these things to them is a way to keep my brain and heart inclined toward serving (i.e. my sister loves snuggling, my friend loves handwritten notes, etc). Being a servant of all starts here (Mark 9:35).

4. Lover

While my husband and I were dating, the attraction, chemistry, and eager expectation of marriage made it feel easy to imagine ourselves as fully-fledged lovers who enjoyed every physical and emotional intimacy with each other. After marriage, I realized that, just like almost everything else, sex easily brings along its complications and emotional baggage. There was just as much need for gentle attitudes and teamwork here as any other aspect.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

Pre-marital sex has a huge impact on future sex with our spouse. If you have this in your history, walking through healing alongside a counselor for this is a must. An addiction to pornography is devastating when you lock the door with your spouse and realize you’ve brought images of other people into the bed with you. Habits like this must be broken, even if you’re not seriously dating someone. Whether we approach marriage as a virgin or not, the expectations we have for sex should be dropped completely as we prepare for our role as a lover. Once we get to that point in our marriage, the experience might be wondrous, perplexing, or some version of surprising. It helps me to keep in mind that from that moment on, it’s always going to be an exclusive journey for just me and my husband, because we’re now one flesh (Genesis 2:24).

5. Spiritual Encourager

My husband and I share each other’s Christian faith, but what I hadn’t fully thought through was how we’d need to uplift each other in our day-to-day hardships, push each other to new heights of wisdom and scriptural study, and pray with each other.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

Working on this aspect outside of a romantic relationship looks like sharing my heart and my Christian walk with close friends as well as praying for and encouraging each other. This helps lay a foundation for a more intimate version of this with my husband. Marriage is a partnership, and building each other up on the spiritual level is crucial (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

6. Parent

I’ve wanted to have a family for about as long as I can remember. But it’s so much more than just getting pregnant and delivering a baby into this world. There’s a level of experience that would be nice to have so that the entry into parenthood isn’t such an overwhelming shock. As a new mother myself, I can now confirm that the initial learning curve is very steep.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

In my case, I found a woman who I respected as a godly wife and mother. I asked if I could visit her on a weekly basis for a few hours, just to be a friend to her and spend time with her family. I told her I was hoping she could mentor me through this, but I let it stay informal. Observing a loving Christian parent with her children gave my heart much of the confidence it lacked, and I learned to interact with her little ones so that they became my friends, too. Watching a wise parent model has given me a glimpse of how I will diligently teach God’s way to my own children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

7. Caregiver

There’s that part of the traditional marriage vows in which we promise to take care of each other “in sickness and in health,” but I didn’t think of the gravity of this until I was married. I’m not a naturally patient person. Caring for my husband when he’s sick and I’m bone-tired and pulling more than my normal load is taxing and challenging for me. It forces me to offer affection even when it can’t be returned in its usual way, and to call on God for strength.

How to prepare for this before marriage:

If I don’t let myself get too wrapped up in my own worries, I notice that tragedy and need strikes my friends a lot. I’ve noticed it’s far more helpful to others when I offer specific forms of help (i.e., “Can I bring you dinner?” “Do you need someone to just sit and keep you company tonight?”). It puts me into a more active role of thinking beyond my own needs as I focus on others (Philippians 2:4).

Checking It Off …

I can’t claim to have mastered any of these items, but my awareness of how I initially began this process backwards is a step in the right direction. Slowly I see the woman and wife who God is growing me to be to my husband. I can acknowledge the responsibility I have to love and serve my husband in a way that no other human will ever have the same access to do.

It’s sobering and intimate and beautiful.

Copyright 2013 Elise Stephens. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Elise Stephens

Elise Stephens lives in Seattle with her husband, James. Her first novel, Moonlight and Oranges, was a quarter-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. When she’s not writing, she loves live theater, swing dancing, eating tiramisu, singing and painting. She also regularly craves Dilettante’s chocolate-covered fruit medleys, in case you’d like to know how to bribe her.

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