In 2020, my wife Toni and I celebrated 30 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 shows us stepping out into the world when we honestly had NO IDEA what life would bring us. We just had hopes and dreams.
I have no data on this, but I think leaders perhaps struggle in their marriages more than others do. Global crises make that even more complicated as all the stress at work comes home.
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 that 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.
Toni recently wrote a book about our journey, and the journey of so many other couples she’s seen over the years (you can get the book here).
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 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 30+ years where we stayed together simply 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.
5. Instagram lies
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 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 counselor 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 counselors who have helped me see where I need grace and redemption.
I resisted going to counseling. 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 a little conflict as a single guy, so who had to be bringing all this tension into 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.
I 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.
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 three decades in, there’s no question I need to lead my wife spiritually. In no way is that authoritarian or even remotely about power. It’s about serving each other in love, humility, and submitting to one another. 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 everyday 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 center of your family
In today’s culture, kids have become the center 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 center 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-centered 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 grown-up) tell us it was one of their favorite 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 license, Toni and I were left standing in the living room waving goodbye.
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 favorite 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?
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. 🙂