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20 Honest Insights on Making It To 25 Years in Marriage

This month, my wife Toni and I celebrated 25 years of marriage.

I love her more than I ever dreamed of.

And it’s also been a totally different experience than either of us thought it would be.

I love this picture of us leaving our wedding reception, because in many ways it show us stepping out into the world when we honestly had NO IDEA what life would bring us. We just had hopes and dreams.

Carey and Toni Nieuwhof

I have no data on this, but I think leaders perhaps struggle in their marriages more than others do.

Anecdotally, at least, I hear from leader after leader who says it’s been tougher at home than they thought it would be. And Toni and I have had our share of struggles for sure.

If you’re looking for a post on marriage that outlines how couples should do 5 things that will make their marriage perfect, you need to read someone else’s blog.

The truth is, marriage is work. Hard work. But it’s wonderfully hard work.

Both of us have felt more pain than we ever knew was possible, and more deep joy than we ever realized existed.

I love her more than I have ever loved anyone or anything (except Christ, of course).

Our love has grown richer and better over time, but we’ve also had a few seasons where we wondered whether love had vaporized. There were seasons where the only reason it wasn’t over is because Jesus said it wasn’t over.

So we stayed. And our emotions eventually caught up with our obedience.

Through it all, Christ has kept us together and brought us a more wonderfully fulfilling relationship than either of us knew was possible.

On the other side of deep pain is deep joy. You’ve just got to make it there.

So what’s the key?

Well, there’s no one key, but here are 20 honest insights about making it to 25 years in marriage.

Some are observations. Some are directives. Either way, I hope they help WHEREVER you are in your marriage.

1. Love is a decision, not an emotion

My dad always told me that love is an act of the will. He was right.

Culture says that love is an emotion. It’s something you feel, not something you do.

Culture couldn’t be more wrong.

True love is a decision…a decision to place someone else’s well being above yours. To stick through the tough times. To love when you don’t feel love.

God isn’t thrilled with you all the time, yet he loves you. It’s a decision, not an emotion.

2. Your emotions eventually catch up to your obedience

There have been a few seasons in our 25 years where we stayed together simple because we were being obedient. (I’d say Toni had to exercise her obedience more than I did.)

So you stay when you feel like leaving. You stay when you feel like doing something irresponsible.

You just obey what you believe God has called you to do in the situation. I believe God has called me to stay married to one woman for life, and Toni believes God has called her to stay married to one man for life.

And in the process of being obedient, we both discovered something incredible: your emotions eventually catch up to your obedience.

Though the joy may have left for a few days, a few weeks, and once or twice, for a season, it came back. Deeper, richer and more abundant than we ever expected.

3. Don’t make tomorrow’s decisions based on today’s emotions

So you can see I’ve learned not to trust my feelings, because like the rest of creation, my feelings were victims of the fall.

A quick lesson: don’t make tomorrow’s decisions based on today’s emotions.

Sometimes we defied stereotypical Christian advice and went to bed angry. But at least we went to bed together. And reason usually returned with the dawn.

Thank goodness on those days when emotion clouded judgment we just decided not to decide.

There’s wisdom in that for life, not just for marriage.

4. Live your story…not someone else’s

You will be tempted to compare yourself to other couples and other ‘leadership’ couples you admire. That can be healthy. It can also be horrible.

Live your story.

I’ve heard famous preachers say they’ve never had a fight about money. I promise you we have.

You can feel terrible about that and think “what’s wrong with me?”, or you can bring that before God and work it out together.

One of my all time favourite Andy Stanley series is The Comparison Trap. If you struggle with ‘why aren’t we more like X?”, watch it.

5. Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook lie

Nobody’s life is as great as they make it out to be on Instagram.

If you’re comparing your real life to someone else’s posted life, you will implode.

Not much more to say about that. You know what I mean.

6. Don’t put pressure on your spouse that only God can bear

I heard this from Tim Keller a few years ago (do not have a source…sorry).

With the disappearance of God from more and more of our culture, people have lost a sense of the divine and the majestic.

Consequently, our desire to worship—no longer directed toward God—gets directed at our spouses and children. It places pressure on them they were not designed to bear, and many marriages and families collapse from the pressure.

Pinterest has placed a ridiculous amount of pressure on wedding receptions and even home decor that the average family can’t live up to. The kind of majesty that used to go into a cathedral now goes into a two year old’s birthday party.

There is something fundamentally flawed with this, and the sooner you take that pressure off your spouse, off your kids and off yourself, the healthier you become.

7. You probably married your opposite

All those things you loved about your spouse when you were dating are the some of the things that will drive you crazy when you’re married.

We just get attracted to our opposites.

Knowing that is progress in itself, and will help you delight in your spouse (when he or she isn’t driving you crazy over said opposites).

8. Counsellors are worth it

Toni and I first started seeing a counsellor when we were in our mid thirties. I should have gone when I was in my twenties.

I don’t know where I’d be as a person, husband, father and leader without the help I’ve had from some incredible Christian counsellors who have helped me see where I need grace and redemption.

I resisted going to counselling. If you’re resisting, stop. There’s freedom on the other side.

9. Progress starts when you see that you’re the problem

We had a great couple of first years, but when tension arose I thought none of it was my fault.

After all, I had little conflict as a single guy, so who had to be bringing all this tension in my marriage? Couldn’t have been me.

I could not have been more wrong.

Now I just assume I’m probably the problem. And I usually am. It’s simpler that way…in life and leadership.

10. Your unspoken assumptions can sink you

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything…or so we think.

In the kitchen, I take an ingredient out, and then I put it back. And wipe the counter. Then I take the next step in cooking whatever I’m cooking.

Toni takes everything out, makes a glorious meal, and cleans up later when the food is cooking.

assumed my way was the right way. But there’s no right and wrong here, just different.

Yet we didn’t know what was driving our kitchen tension until we named it. Now we can laugh at it (most days).

When you surface the assumptions…you mitigate the conflict.

11. When you agree on values, you’ll agree a lot more

Because it’s often the little things you fight about, it’s important to understand where you agree on the big things.

Big things would include your faith, your approach to parenting, your philosophy of life, your priorities, your finances and more.

When you agree on your values, you’ll agree on a lot more.

12. Remember that if you leave, you take all your unresolved problems to your next relationship

This is simply true, and you’ve seen it 1000 times in others.

And you think you’ll be the exception to the rule.

You won’t be.

13. Pray together

Pray together. Out loud.

Yes it’s hard. Yes it’s awkward.

Yes, men resist it. And yes, pastors resist it.

Do it.

14. If you’re a guy, lead your marriage spiritually

My wife and I met in law school. A progressive, left-leaning law school.

Had I even suggested in any way that I was the spiritual head of a home, I would have been laughed out of the school. Or maybe arrested.

But 25 years in, there’s no question I need to lead my wife spiritually. My leadership needs to reflect Christ’s leadership (a servant’s attitude motivated by love), but it’s still leadership.

Most men resist taking spiritual leadership at home. Most male leaders resist taking authentic, Christ-motivated loving leadership at home.

Start leading in love.

15. Go on weekly date nights

In the early days we had no money for date nights. We went anyway.

When your kids are young, it’s especially important because most of your conversation is ‘transactional’ (you cook…I’ll drive the kids to soccer).

In the rough seasons, sometimes we’d spend the first half of date night resolving arguments we couldn’t finish in the hum of every day life. Not fun, but probably healthy.

But we had some awesome date nights too.

Don’t have time? Don’t have money?

Well, if you broke up, you’d date your new girlfriend.

So instead, date your wife. Your kids will thank you for it.

You’ll thank yourself for it one day too.

16. Don’t make your kids the centre of your family

In today’s culture, kids have become the centre of many homes.

Parents have stopped living for Christ and for each other and started basing all their decisions around their kids.

There are two problems with that.

First, your kids eventually leave…leaving you with a gaping hole.

Second, putting your kids at the centre of your home communicates to them that they’re more important than they are. And they know it. As Tim Elmore has suggested, this approach produces kids with high arrogance and low self-esteem.

Child-centered parenting produces self-centred kids.

The best gift you can give your kids is a Christ-centered, healthy marriage.

17. Take personal vacations WITHOUT the kids

We were one of the few couples among our friends who did this, but every year Toni and I would get away even for a night or two WITHOUT the kids.

Our friends would tell us it had been 3, 5 even 10 years since they’d done it.

I’m so glad we took the time to do that. It renewed and remade us. We made significant progress on our relationships so many times we did that. Plus…so much of it was fun.

18. Take family vacations every year

We also took family vacations every year. Often they weren’t glorious. We did what we could afford.

But our kids (now 23 and 19) tell us it was one of their favourite things growing up and something that really bonded our family.

I wrote more about why and how we took those vacations in this Parent Cue post.

Bottom line? You don’t have to go to Disney…you just have to go.

19. Figure out how to be a couple again BEFORE your kids grow up

When our then 16 year old drove off in the car with his brother on the day he got his driver’s licence, Toni and I were left standing in the living room waving good bye.

Then we looked at each other and said “Oh my goodness…before we know it, they’re going to be gone.”

We realized we had WAY more life ahead of us where it would just be us.

So we started new hobbies we could enjoy together (snowshoeing, hiking, cycling) and really worked on our friendship.

My favourite thing to do on my days off is to hang out with my best friend.

20. Open the gift of sex…it’s from God

There’s so much funk about sex. For the record, I believe marriage is the context God designed for sex.

The irony of course is that too many married couples lose interest in sex. I’ve met way too many people who tell me (because I’m a pastor I guess) that they live in a sexless marriage.

Significantly, our culture only glamorizes sex outside of marriage.

When was the last time you saw a married couple on TV or in a movie in a love scene? Right…you can’t remember.

You’re probably even thinking gross, I wouldn’t want to see that. (Not that any of us should be watching steamy scenes, but you get the point).

And now you see the problem.

Why, in our culture, is it not weird when a couple at a bar in a movie hooks up or a wife whose husband is out of town gets it on with her boss, but it is weird when two people who have committed to each other for life have sex?

Why?

Married people: sex is a gift. Open it.

The more emotionally, relationally and spiritually close you get to your spouse, the better it gets.

Okay, that’s about all I’m comfortable saying about sex. 🙂

What About You?

I could not be more excited about the next 25 years. It feels like we have a foundation for more joy, less pain, and more of Christ…together. It hasn’t been easy…but it’s been completely worth it.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have made it through 6 months, a year, 10 years or 50 years of marriage.

What are you learning? What’s helped you?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • Adam Johannes

    I disagree with the opinion to, basically put a low priority on your Kids. It’s very ‘of the world’ to just focus on you, and if you focus attention on your kids then they will grow up spoilt. It’s not true. Kid’s can strengthen a marriage much more than a night at the movies. When you have kids, your marriage changes and you can make it for the better, and enjoy the whole family that god has given you. It’s too easy to forget your kids. Put the hard work in and have both a great marriage and great time with your kids.

  • Great article. The link for Comparison Trap teaching doesn’t lead to the video or teaching…

  • Kim

    This is an excellent list! My husband and I have been married for 22 years and at year 18 it almost ended but God had other plans. The last 4 years have been better than the previous 18 because we learned some of these very lessons. A year ago January my husband accepted Christ! While our marriage is not perfect, we are now equally yoked spiritually. Putting Christ at the centre of our marriage has been key.

    • Kim…this is wonderful. Such good news. Thanks for sharing!

  • melissa

    Love this article because it’s the absolute truth about marriage! I’ve been with my spouse for 6 years, married for 4 1/2. The hardest part of it was after we married and moved in together. Wow! Talk about wake up calls! If we would’ve allowed our emotions to rule our marriage, I’d probably have hit him over the head with a baseball bat! (OK. Not really. But married people understand that joke. 😂 ) I did marriage preparation, and it’s honestly done us wonders! It also helps that we built our foundation on faith and friendship first.

  • Jen

    I celebrated my 25th anniversary alone only because the Lord took my husband home after 24 1/2 years. This is a great list. I might add:

    Communicate. Don’t isolate.

    Give the benefit of the doubt.

    Laugh together.

    Don’t forget the little things. Bring him coffee. Buy her favorite candy bar once in awhile. Make a wish together on a dandelion.

    Treasure the gift God gave you in each other. Remember what made you fall in love. Tell them what you appreciate about them. Remember to say thank you. My husband would thank me for dinner every night, whether it was something special or just leftovers. I would often recognize sacrifices he made for our family.

    • Thank you Jenn!. This is so touching and I’m so sad for your loss.

  • Beth Marshall

    This is pure gold.
    My husband, Paul and I will celebrate our 35th anniversary in June. Wow- that was quick!

    I would add:
    – be your husband/ wife/s #1 fan; and never forget you’re on the same team.

    – say kind things to and about your spouse.

    – life is too short to be serious all the time. Don’t forget to laugh every day.

    Carey, your blog and podcast are a gift to smart people who want to be smarter!

  • Melissa Richard Hall

    Have been married to my husband for almost 7 years this coming September. Loved your points on everything…. Especially the comments about counselling and seeking it out. We are there not bc we are having problems… But rather we both come from emotionally distorted households. On my hubbies side, just about everybody from his own parents has been divorced at least once and considers it acway of life. : (

    On my side, nobody is divorced ( except for 1 dysfunctional, mentally ill aunt). Rather, on my side including my own parents, everyone seems to believe in staying married no matter what… Or better yet…”boasts” about the length of time they have been married, while the quality of such a long marriage is full of bitterness and resentment— unhealthy still!

    So b/c of these 2 opposite extreme backgrounds, my hubby & I find ourselves there: mid 30’s../seeing a marriage counselor on a monthly basis in our recognition and own effort to not repeat the same generational sins in our own family. Talk about feeling ” messed up” for life though coming from such extreme opposite ends of dysfunction! Especially, when my side still holds the belief that ” you shouldn’t have to tell a total stranger you personal problems…. You should be able to deal with them on your own”….a quoted statement from my own baby boomer father, who was suicidal as a young adolescent, doesn’t and hasn’t attended church since I was a young girl, insists that he us still happily married to my mother while simultaneously avoids doing anything together with her, and even still to this day.. resents his own deceased mother of 6 years ( my grandmother whom I favor & admired so dearly). Oh & did I mention…he — my dad professesvto be a ” Christian”. I STRUGGLE w/ that claim!

    • Hey Melissa…love what you’re doing to start a new era in your family, marriage and life. Way to go.

  • Christy Matt Annie Fonseca

    I have been married to my husband for nearly 15 years. We were married at age 22 and 23. I have only ever been with my husband and we’ve always remained faithful to one another. We have a young daughter that has severe classic autism and God is the only glue that keeps us out of the 80% divorce statistic. There has been much pain, like you mentioned in your terrific article/blog, and much joy. God has remained our focus and led me closer to Him than I could’ve ever thought possible. We cannot do date nights out or take vacations due to our daughter’s limitations of what she can handle without meltdowns, but we’ve recently learned to carve some private time out for each other. I’ve wanted to leave many times when I’ve been repeatedly hurt (emotionally) by my husband, but God’s word says he hates divorce and that I should forgive as He forgives all of us unconditionally. I think it’s important to realize that telling/communicating to your mate what you NEED, expect, desire, and depend upon is a GOOD THING. I always felt like if he didn’t know how to anticipate my needs, he just didn’t love me enough….that whole comparison thing came into play! As naked as it made me feel to put all my needs and feelings out on my sleeve, it’s making an AMAZING DIFFERENCE for the better. I found out what I didn’t expect—-that my husband REALLY LOVES ME and…WANTS TO MAKE ME HAPPY! He literally didn’t know how! He said, “I’ve never been married before!! You’re my only….even though it’s been 15 years, I’m still LEARNING!”. He was right….and I’m still learning also because he’s my only. It’s hard for me to speak up when I feel like he’s dropping the ball on helping me out, but I HAVE TO. ESPECIALLY BEFORE I get bitter and angry. I tell him, “Okay, I waited too long to say anything and I’m starting to stew about it, BUT….I need more help from you while my surgery site on my hand heals because I’m feeling overwhelmed and resentful at you.”. He wasn’t MAD! He had NO CLUE until I fessed up! And here’s the BIG thing….when MY NEEDS were MET (sexually and emotionally) from him that I needed, I washed dishes while he sat on the couch playing a game on his phone. AND I WAS NOT ANGRY. I was NOT bitter, resentful, or feeling like a slave while he relaxed!!! I even told him, “Hey! I have all I needed, so I’m not upset doing this myself.”.

  • Gabgabsgabstergabby Gabrielle

    Wow this is something I read at the right time. I was ready ro make a harsh decision based on my right now emotions. Right before reading this God told me the reason my husband and I go through so much is because we don’t pray together at all. Ans that we should pray together. For so long I was frustrated that he wouldn’t take the spiritual lead and do this more and I felt like if I asked him about it , it would put me in a vulnerable position.(crazy i know) But I had a problem with showing him vulnerability for fear of , everything.lol But this was awsome to read and something to really hold on to along with Gods word. Talk about confirmation ! Married almost 9 years this July

  • Tony Barwick

    Hey Carey, I was so stoked to read this blog! I’m South African and my wife is American. We are complete opposites and come from very different cultural backgrounds. Sometimes marriage is like two porcupines in a small box. One thing we’re starting to learn is capitalizing on eachothers strengths instead of seeing them as opposing forces or negative attributes. We run an organization in Cape Town, South Africa, called Yebo Life and started working together the same month we got married! This weekend, June 7th, is our one year anniversary! I look back and marvel at how God has grown and matured the two of us in this short time and look forward to what He has in store for us! I can relate to so many things you wrote! Thanks so much for the wisdom-packed share!

    Heart to God.
    Spread the Stoke.

    • Thanks so much Tony! Congrats on `1 year. Sanctification happens in marriage and through marriage. I think God uses marriage as a vessel to build us into the people he sees us becoming.

  • On POINT! Great article Carey. Colette and I will celebrate 25yrs this year and together for 29! Marriage is tough and we have the opportunity to help younger couples by telling them how we, and by God’s grace worked through it. Anything you love you have to fight for and #13 and #14 are so important in a marriage especially for the men. Our wives want someone to lead them, not by pulling them along but by lifting them up. God has also showed me in so many ways that #7 was so very important in our relationship as husband and wife and I have the ability and advantage now to “Live my life Backwards” so that I can see why He did this for me. He gave me my beautiful wife and all the things that are completely opposite of me to “save me from MYSELF”! The things that used to drive me crazy I love so much about her and we now and get to see that play out in our 19 year old son who is a great mix of both! Thanks for your leadership and posts, you are making a difference in this world for God’s Kingdom!

  • Christy McGee

    This is really helpful. Thank you! often on our few date night outs we spend the whole evening talking about the kids. This scares me as I think “do we not have anything else to talk about?” I really need to be more cognoscent about directing the conversation to other topics! Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks so much Christy. And YES! You are so right. Or…go on another date night that’s truly a date night once you’ve worked out your kid issues! Sometimes the answer is to take more time so all of life is dealt with well. 🙂

  • Karly

    I enjoyed reading this. It was honest and well-written.
    #16 is one I will have to remember in the future. It’s a very good point and I think parents don’t realize they still have a life after their kids leave the nest.

    • Karly…thank you for this. It was a huge surprise for me. I have more energy now that my kids are grown than I did when they were babies!

      • Karly

        Haha! That’s good to hear!
        Now that you mention it, I’m also noticing my parents definitely have more energy now that all the kids have left home.

  • Joanna Rhoden

    Been married for only four years, but I’m oddly thankful to have access to articles like this now before we have kids. It’s good to reflect on; thanks for publishing it!

    With so many of my friends getting married at this age, I keep telling them “Jesus is the greatest romance in my life.” We put too much pressure on our spouses nowadays to “fix” or “fulfill” things. At one point in my marriage I had to tell my husband that something was wrong with me and I didn’t know what it was but that I knew it was up to Jesus to fix it. Long story short is that the Lord did fix it. Our Marriage is better off for it.

  • Eric

    Good stuff, brother!
    Three I’ll add:
    1. On most decisions, but especially big, life-changing decisions, let you spouse come to their own conclusion about what to do, even if it means you don’t get to do what you feel “called” to do, even if it’s glaringly clear that that call is from God. Christ doesn’t force His Bride, but can handle her ways. Leading the way by modeling “submitting to one another one t of reverence for Christ” and respecting her free-will decision (after countless time talking and praying together) cannot be overestimated. While Christ does not need you, but wants you to join him, he’s also patient with you in your hesitancy; too, be that with your spouse. #massivedividends
    2. This is linked to #16, which deserves a post all its own!
    I’ve stated early on to our kids that, while God has given them to us for a time for us to be their parents, really – in eternity – a few decades won’t be material: the first, permanent, and eternal relationship that I see my kids having with us is as brother or sister in Christ….
    3. 99.5% of the time, “happy wife makes a happy life”, but there are (many!) times where what you’ll do/say will hit a sore spot with her. Discerning if that particular time is the 0.5% is really important. There are times when you, as husband, need to step aside and let her first Husband, Christ, deal with her directly and where none of your efforts will help, indeed they’ll exacerbate the situation. Christ’s patience and lead when she goes through those tough patches and your recognizing when you’re out of your league (but *do* point her to Christ!) is where phenomenal growth will happen, and you’ll be thankful that God is the Head of your household….

  • Hadley Brandt

    Thank You Carey! Amy and I will also be celebrating our 25th later this year and have experienced many of the joys and challenges you address in this post. Your insights are inspiring me to look back at our past 25 years through this lens with even more magnification, but most importantly, to look to the next 25 years with even greater expectations. Congratulations to Toni and you!

    • Congrats Hadley! I love the way you’re looking at the moment…as a foundation for better things. Me too! Have a wonderful celebration.

  • Murf

    Thanks Carey! I sent this to my wife, and my four children, and one of my children’s fiancee. This is worth reading, pondering, and absorbing. My wife and I are at 31 years which I tell everyone have all been bliss-filled (Haha…). Seriously though, I appreciate your honesty and openness. My favorite line: “There were seasons where the only reason it wasn’t over is because Jesus said it wasn’t over. Amen, to that brother.

    • Congrats on 31. So glad you stuck it out! And I’ll bet you are too!

  • Cailey Dumler

    This post could not have come at a better time. We are going through extremely difficult time with one of our children (who is young adult and not living in the home.) It is causing much heartbreak but thankfully, we pray together, we cry together, and we get through it together. We make sure we connect with each other. I can relate to you in that we have made sure we had time away from the kids overnight. At first it was difficult but I quickly realized I came back a better daughter of Christ, wife, and mother. We are almost to our 24th anniversary and I can’t wait to see what the next 24+ years hold for us. Brent is my best friend and I cannot imagine my life without him. Thank you for this amazing post. I am using it as reflection to help me evaluate how I am doing in these areas in our marriage. Happy 25th Anniversary to you and Toni! May God bless you richly!

    • Thank you so much Cailey. You and Brent are incredible servants of Christ and parents…praying for you!

  • “There were seasons where the only reason it wasn’t over is because Jesus said it wasn’t over.”

    Yep. I found this out later. I was the cause and my incredible wife was obedient.

  • Congrats to both of you on the big ‘Silver.’ I absolutely LOVE this post. My bet is the longer someone has been married, the more of these insights they can relate to.

    My wife and I have been married for almost 24 years (coming this August). We’re right behind you, Carey. And I can 100% relate to all of these!

    What have I learned? The challenges that come with each new season of marriage NEVER stop. So, embrace them and grow closer to each other and God through them. Otherwise, the opposite will occur.

    • Thanks Brent! Congrats man. Love and appreciate your support and friendship.