Keep Your Marriage Strong by Rethinking Your To-Do List

There are actually some very good reasons not to put your spouse on your to-do list.

to-do list

Last time I suggested that you might need to rethink your priorities in order to go after a strong marriage for the long haul. Today I want to encourage you to rethink your to-do list as well. But my suggestion is actually that you NOT put your spouse on your to-do list.

Although you’ve probably heard suggestions to the contrary, and I’ve given that kind of advice myself, let me explain why I’m suggesting you do otherwise.

Your marriage is unlike any other relationship in your life. God designed the marriage relationship so that you and your spouse are one: physically, emotionally and spiritually. This one-flesh existence is only true of your marriage relationship, and the implications are far-reaching, including your to-do list.

A New To-Do Outlook

It’s easy to treat your spouse as just another “to do” item. How many times do you see your husband or wife as one more demand on your oh-so-limited time and energy? How often do you see the things you do for your spouse in the same light as the things you do for your kids, your job, your home or your church?

It is actually nothing like any of those things.

We need to renew our thinking and take a different attitude. When you look at it through the lens of being “one flesh,” you can begin to see that giving your time and attention to your spouse is actually doing something for you, rather than taking something from you. Yes, it’s actually upside down from how we normally look at it, as is so often the case in Kingdom thinking.

When you feed your marriage, you are also giving life to yourself. When you give lavishly to your spouse, you actually accrue the benefit. When you act unselfishly, you still get to receive from it, although your motivation isn’t to manipulate or to get something in return.

Re-Thinking the To Do List

Here are some examples of how to renew your perspective away from the “to do list” mentality.

    • Say your wife asks you to pick something up at the grocery store on your way home so that she doesn’t have to go there for the fifth time in a week. Instead of being annoyed by the inconvenience at the end of your long work day, consider also buying her a little treat or some flowers when you stop, just to bless her. Do it without grumbling or complaining and let yourself really enjoy doing this small act of willing kindness… and then some.
    • Say you know your husband is “in the mood” or “it’s been too long.” Rather than resisting his advances, putting him off for a future time, or complaining about how tired you are or how much the kids demanded of you all day, fall into his arms willingly. Enjoy the connection and intimacy, even if you are too tired to get all worked up. Let yourself be blessed by his desire for you and by giving him pleasure. You will receive pleasure whether or not you decide to go for the “ultimate pleasure,” and it will jump-start your desire for more.
    • Say your wife has to run the kids to soccer practice after dinner and says on her way out the door that she’ll take care of the dishes when she gets back. Or maybe she even asks you to load the dishwasher while she is gone. Remind yourself that these are “our” dishes and that when you help her out, you are helping yourself out too. (Many women actually consider their husband doing dishes a form of foreplay.)
    • Say your husband has to work late for the fifth night in a row. Rather than feeling neglected and annoyed and reminding him with guilt-laden overtones that he really needs to get the grass cut and the hedges trimmed, hire a local boy to do the work for him. Or go out and trim the hedged yourself. Greet him cheerily when he finally does get home and thank him for working so hard and being such a good provider. Watch what kind of welcome home kiss you’ll get for that!

The fact is that when you are taking care of your husband or your wife, you are taking care of your marriage. And when you take care of your marriage, you are taking care of you, because you and your spouse are one.

The Importance of Being Intentional

Now having said all this about not thinking of your spouse as an item on your to-do list, I actually do want to encourage you to be intentional about doing things for him or her. Being intentional about taking care of your spouse and your marriage usually takes some planning and forethought. But when you do that, try thinking about it in a different light. Rather than thinking of your spouse as another “have to,” think of them as a “get to.” Consider it a privilege to serve your spouse, not a chore.

And remember, when you do something deliberately to bless your spouse or to take care of your marriage, some of that blessing will flow back to you too!

Keep Your Marriage Strong by Rethinking Your Priorities

Leftovers: good for Thanksgiving; bad for your marriage.

Leftovers

Today I’m continuing my series on how to keep your marriage strong for the long haul with a discussion about priorities. (You might want to catch up on parts one, Keeping Strong for the Long Haul, and two, Asking Different Questions.)

Today’s Choices Affect Tomorrow

It’s incredible how many things we have competing for our time and attention – perhaps more than at any time in history. The pressure to have it all, do it all, and excel at it all is pervasive in today’s western culture.

We tend to live our lives in such a driven fashion that it’s easy to unknowingly trade the important for the immediate. I’ve done it many times in my own life. What we often fail to realize is how much the choices we make today affect our marriages in the long term.

While there are many distractions that can detract from our marriages, today I’m going to choose two of the biggest. While both of these affect young couples the most, they are factors that allow your marriage relationship to drift into roommate status in the early years, and this often has significant long-term impact.

The Parent Trap

There is more parenting advice available today than ever. It seems as though we are preoccupied with becoming the perfect parents and raising perfect children. The pressure is tremendous, especially in the Internet age. There are more than 4 million mommy blogs offering advice and constant reminders of all we aren’t doing. Social media is full of posts about perfect children of perfect families living in immaculately decorated homes. The poison of comparison keeps us striving to do more than we can possibly do for our kids and homes, all the while feeling guilty for all we are not yet doing, not to mention the damage it does to our marriages.

Here are two facts that may help you when sorting out your priorities:

    • The best thing you can do for your kids is to have a strong marriage. Showing your kids what respect and sacrificial love look like will bear fruit into multiple generations.
    • You and your spouse are one; you and your children are not. Your marriage relationship is based on a unique kind of covenant. Don’t make the mistake of relegating it to equal status with any other relationship, including the one with your kids.

Consistently prioritizing your children ahead of your marriage, however well-intentioned, is a significant reason so many couples facing the “empty nest” season suddenly find themselves rooming with a stranger.

The Quest for Success

Particularly in America, the desire for more stuff is deeply ingrained in our marketing-saturated culture. Success is defined by having the nicest house, the most “toys,” the highest corporate position, the most influence or the biggest bank account.

These definitions of success don’t line up very well with the Kingdom of God. Yes, I believe God wants to bless and prosper us, but I believe it breaks His heart when we sacrifice our time, effort and attention for worldly success to the detriment of our marriages. That’s always a bad trade!

Yes, providing well for your family is important, and having a good work ethic matters. The problem comes when we are giving so much to our careers that we have nothing left for our spouse. This is another priority issue where comparison works like a poison as we continually strive to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Avoiding Leftovers

Historically, men fall into the career success trap more than women, whereas women tend to have more priority issues concerning their children. However, such stereotypes are shifting with the huge increase in women in the workforce and the increase in the number of stay-at-home dads. And of course, there are many other areas where priorities can get out of line besides these two.

No matter, the real issue is putting our marriage and spouse first so that we keep our marriages strong for the long haul. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will all be better once the kids are grown and our careers are well-established. Putting your marriage on the back burner for any reason, for any period of time, inflicts serious damage on your relationship. And while nothing is irreparable or beyond God’s ability to redeem, the best choice is always to avoid only giving your spouse your leftovers.

The problem with relying on leftovers is that we run our lives with such little margin that there is typically nothing left after we’ve poured ourselves into everything else. Like it is with food, leftovers are fine for a while, but eventually, they no longer satisfy.

Choosing Daily

Revamping your priorities requires you to be continuously vigilant and watchful. Remain aware of the dozens of daily opportunities to choose your spouse and marriage over the other things in your life. Find little ways to stay connected throughout your day with text messages, hidden notes, or phone calls. Such small connection points are especially important when spouses travel frequently or work different hours, but truthfully all couples would benefit from such frequent positive interactions. It pays to pay attention!

Set aside regular time together. Find ten minutes a day for genuine conversation, perhaps immediately after the kids are in bed. Try to keep these conversations focused on more than just functional matters. Regular, meaningful conversation is an important part of building intimacy between you.

Another important way to build intimacy is to make sure you leave time and energy for sex. Few marriages can survive for the long haul when sexual intimacy is lacking or missing altogether. It not only weakens your marriage and makes it vulnerable to outside temptations, but it robs your relationship of the pinnacle of intimate expression.

The point of this post is not to lay a big guilt trip on you. Rather I’m encouraging you to reexamine how you prioritize your marriage among all the other demands of daily life and wake you up to the truth that keeping your marriage strong for the long haul might require you to change how you invest your time and energy.

 

Keep Your Marriage Strong by Asking Different Questions

Shift your perspective by training yourself to ask different questions than you might naturally ask. 

Think differently

In my last post, I promised to continue this week with some specific suggestions to keep your marriage strong from the long haul. Today’s suggestion is that you learn to ask different questions.

One of the forces weakening marriages and causing an uptick in “gray divorce” in the past decade is that the wrong belief that the purpose of marriage is essentially our own personal happiness. If this is true, then our marriages can be sustained only as long as our fickle and fleeting feelings are maintained, or as long as our mate does the thing that we insist they do to meet our needs.

Instead, I say, let’s look at marriage as a covenant based on selfless love – something higher than ourselves and our own happiness.

An Unhealthy Focus On Self

It seems this “me-centered” marriage paradigm has grown immeasurably since the baby boomer “me generation” began passing through mid-life. This unhealthy pre-occupation with self-promotion, self-protection, and self-centeredness has spread throughout subsequent generations.

I used to write for Your Tango’s now-defunct Traditional Marriage section. I wrote a post there entitled, “Why After 30 Years of Marriage the Best is Yet to Come.” In that article I said this:

If you have a habit of holding your spouse responsible for your happiness, you definitely need to learn to take that responsibility upon yourself. However, remember that if you view your marriage as being mostly about your rights and what you get out of the bargain, in the long run, you are going to end up bitter and disappointed.

On the other hand, if you see your marriage primarily as an opportunity to selflessly love and generously serve your wife or husband to the best of your ability, you will the reap the long-lasting benefit of a strong and close relationship.

Don’t buy the lie that a 50/50 marriage is ideal. Instead, go for 100/100, where each of you holds nothing back and gives all you have to the other.

My wife and I strive to live a paradigm of selfless love. We aren’t nearly perfect at it, but I believe this is one of the many reasons we keep believing that our best years are always in front of us. We refuse to believe the lie of inevitable marriage decline.

Asking Differently

Selfless love is the cornerstone of a strong marriage – one that will stand the test of time. It’s not necessarily easy or natural to love without conditions especially when our spouse isn’t doing the same.

One approach to changing your thinking is to retrain yourself to ask different questions.

    • When you are tempted to ask, “What’s in it for me?” ask instead, “How can I bless my spouse?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “What are my rights?” ask instead, “What is the right thing for our marriage and for my spouse?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “What will advance my cause?” ask instead, “What will enhance my marriage?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “What will I get out of this?” ask instead, “How can I be generous in this situation?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “How can I win this argument?” ask instead, “How can we keep connected during this discussion?”

Learning to live as one flesh means we have to let go of the battle for self and learn to press into the reality that because we are one, we win when our spouse wins. Blessing him or her actually blesses us too! Taking such a one-flesh view of your marriage will totally change to way you see your spouse and your relationship.

Take the Risk

This thing of selfless love is risky business. There is no guarantee that your spouse will respond in kind. While selfless love is a compelling force for intimacy and passion, not everyone will respond to it. Remember, people are free to make their own choices; you can only control you.

Yet this is the kind of love we were shown by Jesus and the kind of love we are compelled to show to our spouses. He took the risk. He gave everything for us, for the sake of intimacy with us, knowing that many would reject his sacrifice and continue to live for themselves. He did it anyway.

So I urge you to step back and consider the reckless, selfless, sacrificial love of Christ. Rather than buying into the lies exemplified and extolled by the “me generation,” take the risk to love like Jesus does. It’s worth the risk.

Keep Your Marriage Strong for the Long Haul

Keeping your marriage strong means shifting your focus from yourself and your own happiness to your spouse and marriage and to keeping intimacy alive.

Strong for the long haul

“Gray divorce” has surged in recent years as older couples are increasingly ending their marriages at an alarming rate. News outlets from The Wall Street Journal to NPR have featured stories on this heartbreaking phenomenon.

These stories reference a 2012 study called The Gray Divorce Revolution, co-authored by sociologists Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University and I-Fen Lin. In 1990, one in ten divorces occurred in couples ages 50 and older.  In 2009, that number doubled to two in ten.  For those previously married, it has skyrocketed to one in four, a 250% increase. (In 1980 45% of singles were divorced. In 2009, that percentage increased to 58%. The marriage failure rate is historically much higher for multiple marriages.)

While general societal acceptance of divorce and the increased earning power of women are both sited as key factors influencing the rise in gray divorce, I only see these as enabling factors. The root cause lies elsewhere. In fact, the root cause of gray divorce later in life is also a key cause of reduced marriage rates among younger generations.

The Problem of Self

The baby boomer generation, to which I belong, is also called the “Me Generation” That’s a fitting but sad moniker and also a key to understanding the gray divorce epidemic. But the problem of self-centeredness isn’t isolated to my generation. No, it’s rampant throughout society.

Dr. Brown describes the attitudinal shift concerning marriage that occurred with baby boomers – an attitude which has only strengthened in the generations since. There is now “a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy, rather than on how well each individual fulfilled their marital roles.” She goes on to say that the problem “springs at least in part from boomers’ status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment.” In other words, with the “me generation,” marriage became all about me and my happiness, rather than living as one under the covenant of marriage and loving and serving one another – and it’s pervasive today.

Here is a great quote that gets at the very heart of the problem.

Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University Ethics professor

A New Happiness Paradigm

I shared in this post my three rules of happiness in marriage:

    • The primary purpose of your marriage isn’t to make you happy
    • You need to take responsibility for your own happiness
    • Love and serve your spouse as if their happiness depended on you

Happiness best viewed as a by-product rather than a goal. A relationship that has personal happiness as its main goal is going to miss some deeper things that underlie a long-lasting marriage. Selflessness, surrender, intimacy, joy, peace, and holiness all come to mind as worthy goals. These also tend to produce happiness as a result.

In addition to my three happiness insights, I suggest that if you choose to be happy now by choosing to focus on the good dimensions of your marriage and spouse, you actually stand a better chance of achieving the happiness you so desire.

More Than Roommates

As Dr. Hauerwas points out above, “Learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married” is a really good idea.

The problem is that many couples who choose to focus their efforts toward each other in early marriage, eventually, through inattention, devolve back into strangers many years later. If they don’t grow so far apart as to become strangers, many wind up as little more than roommates.

Intimacy is the antidote for the roommate syndrome that wrecks so many marriages. Intimacy reaches its zenith when we are fully known (weaknesses, warts and all) and completely, unconditionally loved. Intimacy is the main goal of every marriage (in all forms: emotional, spiritual, sexual, financial, etc.) God built us with an innate desire for intimacy; intimacy with Him and intimacy with our spouse. I also believe God designed us with a huge capacity for intimacy and that we can continue to grow closer together regardless of how long we’ve been married.

There is always more intimacy available in your marriage than what you are experiencing right now. To keep your marriage on The Path of Intimacy, vigilantly guard your connection to each other. Focus your efforts on allowing yourselves to be deeply known and on loving each other well in little ways every day.

Don’t buy the lie of inevitable marital decline. It doesn’t have to be that way. My wife and I have been married 35 years, and we are closer and more in love now than we have ever been. And we believe that the best is yet to come!

Next week I’ll share a few other ideas on how to keep your marriage strong for the long haul. (Sign up here to get my posts in your inbox so you’ll be sure not to miss these important posts!).

 

PS  Please understand that I do not mean to imply that everyone who gets divorced does so because they are selfish.