It’s funny, sometimes, when you think back on your childhood. There are some things you remember so clearly, and others seem to be ideas or recollections that come out of the blue—they don’t have any context or real explanation, they’re just here. We get a lot of our own identity in this way. We are a product, in many ways, of the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and practices of our families. This means, though, that we are engrained—for good or ill—by the nurturing of our parents. Sometimes, as we grow older and come into our independence, we might rebel against these ways. Sometimes we accept them and flourish with them. But either way, whether we want to or not, they are a significant part of our stories.
I remember thinking and dreaming about getting married at a young age. I must have been four or five when it began, but I remember seeing cartoons and TV shows portraying characters falling in love. The characters were always a boy and a girl, and the story told about how they grew close—and eventually they built a life on that love. And, as many of the stories go, they lived happily ever after. Ironically, this became a strong, idyllic picture of what I looked for in marriage and in my future. This was the pattern I romanticized, even as a young child, and the dream I had for my own life.
None of this was based in reality, of course. I didn’t have any star-crossed toddler loves, or any love-at-first-sight moments—or even examples of love that might be called “fairy-tale”. So this picture was something unrealistic. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t even impossible, but it wasn’t based on any understanding of others, of myself, or of God’s plan. But it was a nice picture I came back to a lot—this image, in my head, when I thought about my future. I would fall in love, deeply and consumingly, and then happy ever after would come. Little boys like fairly-tale dreams too—even if they don’t want to admit it when they’re older. They want to be the prince. They want to save the princess. They want that fabled ending. Sometimes, though, real life looks a little different.
My real-world example, my parents, both loved each other very much, and I and my many brothers and sisters were born from that love. My mom and dad were very public in their affection for one another—even when times were hard. They were a great example of what marriage should be. I saw a little of my dream future in them—a little of happily ever after. It wasn’t the same, because they were my parents—this wasn’t really that kind of love story, I thought. Despite this sentiment I harbored, their love was the truer thing, I have come to realize. Their example spurred me further in thinking about my future, and it always included finding that heart-stopping love, and the happy ever after.
I was an introverted adolescent. I had friends that I spent most my time with, but I still loved stories. Stories were my strongest outlet. And, more often than not, those stories involved love, and romance, and happy ever after. I was immature in most ways but mature in others. One of the things that marked me as mature, at least I would say, was my perspective on the future. I looked toward is regularly, and I often filtered actions in the present through that outlook. You could say I was future-minded before most adults are. I met my wife during this time, at the age of twelve. She was just a friend that I met, but we grew to be friends. I didn’t really know what the words meant, but after I turned thirteen we started to “date”.
Our “dating” consisted of basically the same thing as our friendship did, just that we might stand more exclusively with each other and hang out together without others. We continued in this way for about a year, but I caught what I thought was love in that time. Proximity to someone, and affection for them, can grow what you think is love. Looking back, it was love I was feeling—I can say that now. But I had several people in my life cast aspersions on that feeling. I was getting too close for someone so young, they would say. They would emphasize that they didn’t think I really knew what love was. This wasn’t a serious thing in their mind. But I knew. It was a thing that grew to be the deepest part of me—a part of me that I didn’t really know I had. But my love experienced its first challenge—my girlfriend of a year broke up with me!
I can’t really blame her. She left me because she didn’t feel I valued her. Those sentiments were highly colored by teenage angst and vanity, but there was some truth to that. You have to truly value the things you love—otherwise you just like them sometimes. Love is deeper. So, at fourteen, I bereft of my first and only love. I might not have called it love when I was with her, but without her I certainly knew I loved her—because that’s what the heartbreak felt like. It had to be more than like. That’s another thing, when you value something more and realize what you had only when it’s gone. That’s something that happens with love a lot.
I remember experiencing what I can only call a heartbroken emotional roller coaster. There was certainly an element of depression involved in that—but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn’t stop thinking about if I had missed it—if she was the fairy tale person and I overlooked her. She didn’t want to talk to me, she said, and she removed herself from my life. But she was my best friend, and I loved her, and now she was gone. In my own teenage angst, I thought the world was ending. I didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t sleep, and noting had joy for me. This lasted for a couple months, even to the point where my family tried to intervene, to cheer me up and move me past this experience. But, I have come to realize about myself, I don’t love in halves. It takes all of me. That’s a good thing and a bad thing—and it’s me.
About a month later, I found out she was “dating” someone else. She was two years older than I was, sixteen, and she was dating someone her age. I thought, well that’s it—I’ve missed it. My feelings of depression deepened. Then, about a month later, we both attended the same after school function. And, as teenagers are want to do, she passed me a note. In the note, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about me and she wanted to talk. Of course, my heart was ecstatic—maybe this was a second chance! Maybe I would get my friend back.
We met later that week, just us, in the park. I remember because—as often happens in things like this—all the details became so clear to me. The rain, the bridge, the ducks in the creek. We just met, and talked, and came away together! Not in a superficial way, but in a way that helped us to understand what it meant to be apart—being apart hurt more than the anger or hurt between us. We might have even characterized love as pain, during that time—because it’s what told us for sure that we had it.
We continued to date for the next three years. We completed high school together, we started college together. And life was comfortable. She was my best friend, and we did everything together. It’s hard, though, when you’re close with someone, but you don’t share the bond of family. It puts a wedge between you, a separation. We were “just teenagers”, as some in our lives reiterated, but we had plans for our lives. We had dreams, and we wanted to dream them together. We had love—a love that was deep and thriving—but most people rolled their eyes at it. It seemed, at times, to be us against the world. But that was all right, I had her. Our childhood friendship blossomed into love, and then commitment—and we had the added benefit of having history, then. We had been together so long, it was natural—it was expected. Little did I realize this would be a roadblock to us.
My wife and I, even when we didn’t realize it, lived our lives to please others. It wasn’t wrong, at least not at first. It’s part of honoring your parents when you want to please them. This is true of others in your family and extended family. You want to try to fit into the mold that they think is best for your—you don’t want to buck the system too much, and you want their blessing. But, there comes a time when you have to fly on your own, regardless of the way it will be seen. We had a vision of ourselves, however, that was severely limited by the expectations of those around us. Our plans were their plans—and that was a problem, because they didn’t really involve us.
This was a time of frustration. We could dream about the future, but it was some far-off fantasy. It was a thing that was a thought, and we had no real plans to make it a reality—mostly because that’s what was expected of us. But a very dear friend of ours, a father in Christ to us, sat us down one evening and asked us—why? We laughed at the question, and started to respond with the same things we told ourselves for a long time—but he interrupted us and pressed us further—why? I know that this was the Holy Spirit prompting him to push us—but at the time I was a little offended. Why was he asking us these things? Was he trying to push us to get married and start a family? He left that conversation and the decision with us, but he said very clearly—there was no reason to wait. We wanted to what was right, we wanted to get married, we had already been together nearly five years, why would we wait?
I remember on the drive home afterwards—that question haunted me and my wife. It made us really consider—why? Why were we following the expectations of those around us, the subtle comments that were told to us many times over. It wasn’t what we wanted! We loved each other, through and through, and there was absolutely no reason why we should wait. We could face the challenges of this life better if we faced them together, with each other! From that one conversation, we decided we were going to get married. We loved each other, and that was the most important thing. And, despite intense resistance from our families and friends, we did it. We married each other—as best friends—in spite of those that looked down on us for it.
The challenges for my wife and I didn’t end there, though. We thought we knew each other—but we didn’t. We knew the parts of each other that could take a break. It seems odd to say that, but it’s true. We always went back to different homes at the end of the day. But now we couldn’t. All the good times and the bad times became more concentrated—more in your face—and they were harder to take the time to work through, because it all happened right there. Over the next several years, God did a mighty work in us. We grew closer to each other and closer to Him. It was hard, maybe harder than any other time in our lives—but we had the foundation of our vows to one another, the deep truths we both still meant, even in the worst of times, and that helped to get us through.
This story is an excerpt—a snapshot. It’s peppered with a strong dose of maturity, and filtered through then long years of marriage, but it’s true. And in this story, though it is in many ways unique, there is a lot of truth about friendship, courtship, engagement, and new marriage that I’d like to take some time to share with you—and maybe it will help you. Maybe this writing and my stories will challenge you in your next steps relating to marriage—no matter where you are. Maybe this article will help you, challenge you, just as our friend challenged us—to take stock, to look at the plain truth of things, and to follow after God’s will and purpose for your situation, but just what seems right.
All marriage begins with a relationship. It could be one built over many years, or one newly sparked, but it begins with a friendship. This is something that many people lose sight of after they marry someone—and it is a major contributor to divorce. If you are not married today, and are not with someone, consider this first. Look for a friend. Your spouse is the person you will spend the most time with, share all your important moments with—you should cultivate friendship first. Friendship is a bond upon which other, deeper feelings can grow from. If you are married, and this is something that you struggle with, seek the Lord and ask Him to help to cultivate friendship in your marriage. Friendship should be the beginning of marriage, but it can’t be the end.
The second aspect of my story I would emphasize is that, once the bond of friendship is firm between you and a possible future spouse, you should commit with one another that if you move to be more than friends it is something defined between you. This is often called courtship, and it often takes many forms, but at its heart it’s just that—that there’s a purpose for your relationship and an intention. In American culture, we often want to call this dating a person. But courtship is more articulated than that—dating might be an interim step between friendship and courting, but courting should be something you both understand as working towards something deeper. It should be something that makes you think, Am I going to marry them? Marriage should be the explicit goal of your being romantically involved with someone—if it isn’t, then there will only be heartache at the end of wasted years. However, if you define what your relationship is towards one another, and what the goal is, you both understand what you’re putting into the relationship and expecting out of it.
The next and final step in growing this close to another person is marriage. Engagement and marriage should be the end goal, and they should be something that is always something clearly considered. If it isn’t something you think about, I would submit to you that you need to take time to really consider your priorities. After you are with someone in courtship, with a clearly defined clearly communicated goal, why would you wait. Engagement is an announcement to the world of your intentions, and should be a short, defined time of planning and preparation—moving swiftly to marriage. Again, in American culture this step can sometimes last for many years. Engagement is a public declaration that you have found the one you intend to marry, and you have tested that relationship, and are inviting them to witness that friendship, which grew deeper, move to marriage.
These three stages of growing closer to someone should be saturated in prayer. Pray for God to bring a potential spouse into your life as a friend. Think about that as you spend time with them. Listen to the Lord—He may be calling you to someone. He certainly has a plan and purpose for you. We might often hear that someone might say they never thought of a friend romantically until many years afterwards—or sometimes even when that friend comes to be with someone else. Don’t miss someone out of complacency. You should be actively seeking the Lord, and asking that He guide you. Then, if He is calling you to befriend someone with the intention of becoming someone more, move forward with every step covered in that same prayer—Lord, let you will be done and guide me in every decision. Ask that He show you what He wants for your life—our God is a good Father, He isn’t going to hear your humble prayer and respond with sending you terrible things. But, the important thing is, to listen to His guidance—not to follow our own hearts, or heads, or fantasies and call them His voice—but to really hear His direction, even if it doesn’t take the form we think it should.
Once you have become married, it will be challenging. You will be connected with another person in a way that it entirely different than how you were connected with them before marriage. In this new thing, too, seek the Lord. Lay every annoyance, every frustration, and every thought of leaving down at His feet. Marriage is a commitment, and you can’t have one foot in and one foot out for it to thrive—you have to move forward in faith, even if it doesn’t look like you thought it might. God is faithful to respond to our faith—He sees our labor and sometimes toil with a spouse—but He can bless even the most seemingly loveless, frustrating, and painful relationships, if you seek the truth He has to say about them, and we follow that truth.
Be encouraged today, wherever you are on this road, whatever pain you may have experienced in the past. God has a sovereign plan for you and your life—seek Him to reveal what it is. He is not far off, and He is not idle—He cares and wants to show you. Ask Him, then listen for His answer. Once you have it, walk in faith towards it, even if it might seem like it’s something that won’t happen—that’s what faith is, acting out of the reality of a promise, as if something was, even if you can’t see it now.
The way to a great marriage is not through building it ourselves but through Jesus. When we set aside our own selfish wants and needs and focus on God, and building a strong relationship, other relationships that we have, whether we are single, dating, engaged, or married, will benefit. Taking the focus off ourselves and putting it in the one who truly matters—Jesus— is not easy. We as Christians are sometimes the ones that are most guilty. We want to focus on other things and expect our marriages to grow and flourish. But to have this kind of a marriage takes time and effort. A strong marriage is not built over night. We don’t wake up one morning and accomplish a great marriage. Don’t get me wrong, in the beginning of my marriage I thought it was supposed to be that easy. But, as God has grown in my life, as I have followed Him, things have changed, and my marriage has benefited from it immensely.
Once you have come to the conclusion that marriage is not just between you and your spouse, that’s when marriage starts to make sense. When I take my focus and effort and work towards making a strong relationship with God, which is when I started to see a difference in my marriage. Marriage has been a battle for me. I like to do things on my own. I like to have things the way that I want them, and I can sometimes by nature be selfish. Over the years of my marriage I had to work hard on my prayer life and having a relationship with Jesus. After, I realized that my marriage was not going to get any better with my own hands, I allowed God to be the center and to work in my marriage.
My marriage has been full of ups and downs. My husband and I got married at an early age, I was twenty and he was a fresh adult that just turned 18. Looking back, I wonder how we even made it. In hindsight, I know God has been working through it all from day one. But, my marriage did not come without troubles and tribulations. In the beginning we fought a lot, like most couples do. We were new to each other in our new roles, and frankly we had our own agendas to fill. My husband just started college and I had been in college for a year already. We had plans to finish school, find a place that we were comfortable hanging our hats at, and then start a family. We thought we had it all figured out. Maybe that’s where we failed. We had it figured out. As a married couple, we failed a lot through the first couple years of marriage because we mostly looked to ourselves for the answers. We fumbled through decision after decision without truly considering one another. And perhaps most important, we didn’t make God the center—He was in name, but not in action.
My husband and I had taken “pre-marriage counseling” through our church. It was very eye opening and challenging. We thought that we had this in the bag. Little could have prepared us entirely, though, for the journey that we have been on. We came through with Jesus. I always and will always recommend marriage counseling. We benefited from a lot of the techniques that we were taught.
Two things that I have learned so far in my marriage is that communication is hard when we have our own agendas and when we have sinful hearts. In Jeremiah it says, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NLT) We are all by nature human, deceitful and have wicked hearts. This is something that we must choose daily to strive against, to choose to do good. It’s not just by doing good things—it’s a heart matter. Sometimes we have to tell our hearts how to think and feel.
After you come to the understanding that a marriage is not something that is made perfect once you take the vows, then begins the time that you can start winning and picking your battles. Marriage is a battle field. You must come armed and ready to defend together when the enemy comes whispering lies into your ears, or when you wake up next to each other and can’t stand one another. Marriage is not Hollywood. And what I mean by that is, Hollywood does a good job at portraying marriages in the most fake way possible. They show these fairy tale weddings and relationships, and it clouds our minds to make us believe that our marriages should be the same. That prince charming is going to come and save me, we are going to live these glamorous lives full of so much adventure and we are going to drive off into the sunset happy all the time. Well, newsflash! That is not a marriage!
Marriage takes work, marriage is not built over night, and marriage is something we need to live by in the example of Jesus Christ. God is the one who created marriage. He saw the beauty in it and how we should live as husband and wife. I’m convinced that God wants us to have a deeper relationship with Him first and then our marriage will fall into place. That’s a challenge to all of us!
How do you place in order what’s most important in life? Mine used to be my husband, and then God. When I was first married, I don’t like to admit this, but my husband was a huge stumbling block to me and my walk with Christ. Why? Because he used to be my idol. I was so uncomfortable with myself that I worshiped the ground my husband walked on. And with that false perspective, many horrendous things came—jealousy like no other, trust issues, which turned into anger and rage and self-worth problems. I was headed down a bad road. A substantial chunk of why I was headed down this path was because of the way I was raised and the relationship problems I had been in with my family. This was the pattern I had seen, and I had to move past that if I was going to succeed. If you want to build your marriage you need to let go of the things that are holding you back from having a relationship with God. Now I place God first and then my husband second. Ask yourself this question, “Am I truly living for God?”
Our marriages are only going to benefit from the time we spend with God. Surely, your thinking, how can my marriage benefit if I’m having a deeper relationship with Jesus? Well, it says in John, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NLT) If we do things apart from God, we can do nothing. When we are intertwined with each other instead of God, we will fail and not produce fruit. We must remain in God first.
One of the traps that I fell into early in marriage was that I counted on my husband to make me happy. Looking back that makes me feel so defeated and embarrassed. I felt so aggravated that my husband always failed my expectations and never satisfied all my needs. I placed this huge burden on his shoulders and I never realized it. Are you stuck in one of these traps in your marriage? Do you expect your spouse to fulfill you and make you happy? If so, you are headed down a long road of disappointments. When we have a solid relationship with God, He fills us and grants us happiness. He brings joy that lasts, and your marriage benefits from it. It is not your spouse’s job to make you happy.
When I thought about marriage before I was married, I had a couple married couples that I had in my mind that I wanted to be like. They gave off this “perfect marriage” vibe and I wanted it. They made it look easy, they made me want what they had. But, it wasn’t until I got to know these couples intimately that I found out they were faking it to look good in front of others! I was mortified. They wanted to impress their family and friends. I then got it in my head before I got married that to look good for your friends and family you had to fake it. So for many years, my husband and I never opened up to others about our struggles. We didn’t want to appear weak. But all that did was tear us apart and gave others a view of a fake marriage. A verse that made has helped me to realize one simple truth to live by is, “Each time He said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9, NLT) God uses our weaknesses to demonstrate Himself. God showed me through this verse that when I am weak, God can work through me.
Marriage is difficult, plain and simple. We are all battling different trials and tribulations. Some of us are going into the valleys and others are on the mountain. No matter where you are in your walk with Jesus, we must first recognize where God is in our lives. If He is not first and your spouse or children are coming first, then you are set for destruction. Marriage is not easy. It’s hard, it takes effort on both sides, but it can be done correctly if you both place God first. It can be that simple. I don’t always do things right, but when I see or feel a stumbling block coming up I draw closer to God first and then I know God can lead me through fixing the rest. Are you doing that? Who is coming first in your life?