Marriage is a topic I’m asked about a lot as a pastor. It seems that everyone has questions, whether they’re married, not married anymore, or hoping to get married.
I love marriage and love investing in the marriages within our congregation. I officiate weddings and do pre-marital counseling—and because I spend so much time talking about marriage (and I’ve been married to my wonderful wife for 24 years), God has given me a few things to say about what makes a great marriage.
1. First, build a fence not a hospital.
Some of the couples I do counseling with find it confusing how much time we spend talking about boundaries within marriage. For Christian couples who are about to walk down the aisle, they’re looking forward to the removal of the boundaries that have kept them back for so long.
Boundaries are the last thing they’re thinking about or wanting to talk about.
But boundaries are important because it’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than a hospital at the bottom.
Here’s what I mean. It’s far better to establish preventative measures, fences that are going to protect your marriage from things like adultery, than to deal with the consequences once you fall.
When you’re approaching marriage, or even once you’re already married, don’t ignore conversations on boundaries. It’s better to set limits and expectations on the forefront than try to fix something once it’s broken.
2. In overly-emotional situations, look for the hidden issue.
Have you ever been a part of an argument that seemed to get out of hand? I talk to couples who get in fights over things like directions to the movie theater and which chair to buy from Ikea. They’re baffled at the other’s reaction to the situation, the fact that something like GPS navigation could make their spouse unravel so completely.
In marriage, this happens. Small things cause big eruptions, and we’re often left wondering what happened or how we went from 0-60 so fast.
Here’s a hint:
When the emotion expressed far outweighs the issue at hand, there’s a hidden issue to face (I’ve heard it said: if it’s hysterical, it’s historical—in other words, if emotions get out of hand, there’s a “historical” issue at play).
If your husband unraveled completely over directions to the movies, chances are, it’s not about the directions.
If your wife cried over which chair to buy at Ikea, chances are, it’s not about the chair.
When this happens, begin asking questions. Ask questions about how they feel and keep digging (gently) until you get to the source. It’s not about the directions, it’s not about the chair, but it’s about something, and that small instance is just pointing to a bigger issue.
3. When your spouse isn’t being logical, fill their emotional need.
Let’s go back to the example we used in point two.
If your wife is crying about a chair at Ikea, it might be a signal to you that she needs something from you emotionally. Maybe she needs to feel supported or like you’re in the decision making process together.
Maybe she needs reassurance that she’s doing a good job as your wife, or as a mother, or in one of the other roles she is filling. If she needs one of these things, chances are she’s not in a place to be logical.
We make this mistake often in marriage. We want our spouse to snap out of it, to stop crying and pick a chair. We can’t understand why their emotions have overtaken their ability to be logical, but this is just how it works.
When our emotional needs outweigh our mental processes, we aren’t going to be logical. When this happens, while we may want to demand logic from the other or point out the fallacies in their argument, it’s a much better, much kinder route to simply meet the emotional need and let logic follow.
4. Remember: Hurting people hurt people.
Something we forget about when it comes to marriage is the likelihood of us being hurt. We assume that once we’re married, our days of being hurt are over, but it’s just not true.
Just like we do in friendships, just like we do to our parents or to our kids, we hurt each other—sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.
It’s just a part of relationship.
But something we need to remember, before we become angry or defensive or shocked at the other person’s behavior is this: hurting people hurt people.
We hurt people when we’re hurting. It’s not a conscious reaction usually, and not a helpful reaction, but it’s a true, human reaction: when we’re hurting, we hurt people.
So next time your spouse zings you in a place that hurts more than usual, remember this phrase, “hurting people hurt people.” It’ll help you approach the situation with sympathy and grace, instead of the anger that usually just inflates the situation.
Marriage isn’t easy. It’s two imperfect people coming together and trying to love each other every day. It’s not something we’re good at, not something that comes easily, and something that will challenge us far beyond what’s comfortable.
But marriage is what God designed to refine us into looking more like Him. Refinement can be painful, and so can marriage. But it’s good, and of God, and will make us into His image more every single day.