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We stumbled into the greatest marriage advice that has saved us countless times.
We got married on a beach in Mexico with 30 of our closest friends (and a party with margaritas watching live back at home). It was awesome.
But the best part was it took almost no planning. We picked “Package B” and showed up. While that may sound amazing enough on its own, the real gift was that it gave us so much time to plan for the marriage, not just the wedding.
We’re a part of a community full of incredible people we look up to, so we sent a bunch of different couples a note saying:
“Hey, we see __ in your marriage, and we’re wondering if we can have you over for dinner to hear more about how you got there.”
For one couple, it was how they handled conflict. For another, it was how they had fun together. For another, it was how they led together. For another, it was how they pursued big goals and so on. Honestly, looking back now, ten years later, I think we hit the engaged couple jackpot. We still live by all of this advice on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Whether you’ve been married for decades or you’re just starting out, see if any of this can take your marriage to a new level.
1. Watch out for expectations
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)
Unspoken expectations are a massive source of conflict. Ever get super annoyed by a simple statement and you don’t know why? It might be because it violated an expectation you didn’t even realize you had. We often aren’t aware of how often internal, subconscious expectations are driving us.
- Like when you’re fighting on vacation because one of you was expecting to sleep in, and the other had 19 sites to see before noon.
- Or when you have a big decision to make as a couple, and you’re driving each other crazy because one person wants to sit on it for a while, and yet it feels insanely anxiety-creating urgent for the other.
- Or on a NIGHTLY basis, when you find yourselves disappointed or snapping at each other because one person hoped to reset the house and the other one wanted to have sex. (Not that this one has ever happened to anyone…)
- Or when you wake up one day and think, this just isn’t what I expected…
It sounds so simple, but this is at play in nearly every fight we ever have. One or both of us has either not recognized or communicated our expectations, and/or we haven’t paid attention to the other person’s.
As much as I wish my husband could read my mind, he can’t. I have to say it out loud, dang it! The sooner, the better. Before time gets wasted, before we’re irritated with each other, before resentment sneaks up on us.
So, now we ask it almost daily.
“Hey, what do you want the night to look like?”
“How fast are you thinking we should make this decision? What do you expect our process to be?”
“What kind of vacation are you hoping for—mountains or beach? AirBnB or all-inclusive? Kids or no kids? Restful or adventurous?”
“How’s our marriage going for you? Is it what you expected?”
You get the idea. It takes a while to get the hang of anticipating conflict and expressing expectations in advance, but once you do, it is AMAZING how much easier things go.
2. Take the first year “off,” because what you do then establishes deep precedents
A newly married man must not be drafted into the army or be given any other official responsibilities. He must be free to spend one year at home, bringing happiness to the wife he has married. - Deuteronomy 24:5
Those first days, months, and years of marriage are quite literally building something. A marriage, yes. A life together, sure. But more practically, they build precedents often without awareness.
If you come home during Year One and automatically plop down on the couch with a remote, it might not be a big deal. But that becomes a very difficult habit to break Year Five, when say, kids are maybe running around, and you know, you need to do stuff.
If you are quick to interrupt each other Year One while you’re still in the newlywed phase, you probably have the capacity to let it go a little easier. But that will be very difficult to course correct Year 10 when the grace of smittenness has faded.
If one is left to do all the chores because “they don’t mind” in the early years, it sets a very difficult trajectory to maintain when kids and more responsibilities inevitably follow. If you form a habit of not sharing how you feel in the name of “keeping the peace” early on, you may find yourselves boiling over with unspoken frustrations that have built up years later. You get the idea.
So I know this sounds intense, but in year one, make your marriage a full-time focus to whatever degree you can. Like the verse says, learn how to bring happiness to the spouse you’ve married. “Taking the year off” doesn’t mean you both have to quit your jobs or do anything crazy, but to whatever degree you can pull back on the other distractions and burdens of life, DO IT. Spending Year 1 making your marriage awesome is worth it. It’s a more important foundation than any other friendship, career choice, or priority to set the foundations strong.
3. Be a student of your [ ever changing ] spouse
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. - Psalm 139:13-14
There is a profound reason each of us is exactly who we are. To become one well (which is the goal of marriage) requires us to become a student of our spouse. The chance to know someone else so deeply is sacred. It’s a gift way too many of us leave on the table. It’s the secret to the intimacy we all want, but so few of us do the work to get the real thing.
Even the most “compatible” of couples are still two very unique, separate individuals. You are different people with different stories. Our stories often run deeper than we even know ourselves. Buried deep inside us are hopes and dreams that took root when we were young. There are wounds (whether well-healed, scar-tissued, or still wide open and gushing) that formed parts of who we are. Sometimes we don’t even know they exist. There are quirks and characteristics that are deeply unique to who we are, but require utmost safety and security to be revealed.
The person you married won’t be the same person you have babies with or retire with—they’ll evolve. A huge factor in how they evolve will be how well they feel known, loved, and safe with you—the most important person in their life. Study one another. Listen first. Soak in each other’s story. Ask questions. Most of all, expect change. To every degree possible, be curious—don’t judge. Stay fascinated with each other. Even when you’re busy. Even when they’re kind of annoying. Even when you think you already know them. In every moment, your spouse is worthy of your attention and curiosity.
4. Guys, share your feelings. Ladies, when he does, JUST LISTEN.
My dear wives (OK, it actually says brothers and sisters, but in this case, wives), be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. James 1:19
Guys, your wife is dying to know you. To understand what you’re thinking, to see what you are feeling, to know the depths of your heart. OK, I know I just lost you there. You may not even know the “depths of your heart.” But give yourself some credit; you’ve got some great stuff in you!
What happened in your day is far more interesting to her than you could ever believe. What you felt during something is gold to her. Watching you be vulnerable is her most treasured form of intimacy (if you don’t believe me, watch Ted Lasso. That’s all I’m going to say.) It may not mean much to you, but it means the world to her. Now that you are one, your feelings aren’t just yours. So discipline yourself to share—the big things and the small, the joyful and sad, the proud moments and the insecure.
And when he does, eager wife, take off your shoes like it’s holy freaking ground. It might not be natural for him. He’s doing it for you. Do NOT speak too quickly. Listen first. Really listen. Don’t touch or talk or even ask questions too soon. Don’t derail him with advice or even kindness. Just listen, then eventually talk. Show him his vulnerability is valued, safe from interruption, and stewarded well.
5. Never stop dating
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:18-19)
For everyone who thinks the Bible is just a bunch of rules, you’re welcome.
Yeah, that’s admittedly a potentially awkward verse choice for some. But the day-to-day of growing old together, raising children, establishing a life together risks veering off into an entirely different sort of relationship. Some fall into just being “partners” who run an efficient home or only parents who collaborate on bringing up great kids. While those are great skills to hone, if that’s not where you want to end up, proactively protect against it.
We all want to keep our “spark” to at least some degree. I think that term means something different to everyone, but think about what it means to you. What “spark” do you want to keep alive? What drew you to each other in the first place? I’m guessing it’s impossible to keep the puppy love phase, but I refuse to believe the attraction has to die. I’m counting on it evolving into a much deeper love that’s even better than the wedding day. The fun, adrenaline, excitement can grow if we keep fueling it. The same things that brought you together definitely evolve, but they don’t have to stop.
Sure, dating while you have a newborn looks a LOT different. There will be seasons where dating feels impossible, but let your definition of dating evolve. There will be seasons where you don’t feel as attractive as you used to, but let your definition of beauty expand.
Your ability to go out and have fun will feel limited in some seasons either because of kids or finances or whatever life throws at you, but you can keep the fun alive. Learn to persevere when dating is hard, or learn to make date nights in work better. Laugh when your kid pukes on you. Have dance parties in the living room. Get creative. Embrace each season uniquely, but don’t let what made you fall in love fall aside.
The way you focused on each other and enjoyed the other person when it was just the two of you on dates can continue on as you grow. Keep putting effort into planning meaningful time together. Keep pursuing one another, admiring one another, enjoying one another as deeply as you can. Don’t stop dating.
6. Family vision
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” - Gen 1:28
God wants to do something beautiful, powerful, and unique with your marriage. You may not believe in God, but He made you beautiful, powerful, unique images of His. When God first created marriage, he made a team. Adam and Eve were partners given authority to rule and expand God’s goodness to the ends of the earth. That offer is still on the table.
You have the chance to build something with your family. (Family starts with you as a couple, I don’t mean any of this is on hold unless little ones arrive.) How do you want to leave the world? What skills and resources do you have that can be used for good? How can your family not just be another statistic? We don’t need more people getting married because it’s “the next step in the relationship” and then feeling largely unsatisfied for most of it. We need couples who stay on fire for each other and for what you can do as a team through your family.
Family is a tool God designed to change the world. Healthy families can redeem brokenness and change family lines. They can bring in orphans (literally and metaphorically.) They can raise powerful, healthy kids who can become even stronger parents to the next generation. The gifts of each family can bring goodness to the communities around them (Encanto, anyone?!)
But it is a growth process. One that few can articulate in the early years. There is no pressure to create a 30-year vision statement your first year of marriage. But it is something you can start leaning into as a couple in simple ways.
Learn about each others’ strengths. Take time now and then to articulate your passions. Where do they overlap? Where do they not? How do your gifts complement each other? If you have kids, how do their skills and dreams play in? What might you want to tackle as a family that would not only bond you together with meaningful purpose but that would spread goodness around you? Notice how God has healed or protected you. Maybe that’s the thing you can pass on to others.
Don’t stress writing something perfect down too early. Just start taking notes. Annually, as a couple, reflect on what God might be doing in and through you. What themes, phrases, experiences, people, dreams are you together drawn to most? Consider your family mission as an adventure to be discovered. Where you notice patterns, lean in. Where you’re prompted to experiment with unexpected missions, explore. As the years go by, it becomes more clear. You can refine it, define it, and then prioritize the rest of your life by it.
7. Be a Charlie Brown tree first
“But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
It’s easy to get excited about marriage and the decades of life together ahead. So easy, it can be hard not to rush ahead. Jump into the big house, try to catch up with all the friends who have been married longer, take on responsibilities of older families, and get crushed under the weight of it all.
You might have big visions for your marriage. And they could be spot on. But big visions take time. We were given the advice to think of ourselves like a budding oak tree. Roots need time to grow deep before the tree can grow tall and strong. However old or mature you are when you get married, you are still a newly married couple. More like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree than a big strong oak. Hang an ornament that’s too heavy, too early— branches start breaking. Instead, fertilize the root.
What does that look like practically? Only you would know what it is for you, but it could be stuff like: Resist the desire to buy things that stretch you financially. Money is one of the biggest sources of frustration in a marriage, so give yourselves lots of margin.
Resist the temptation to fill your calendars too full, and instead prioritize lots of time together. Quality time is what makes room for good conversation, learning each other, and building a foundation. We learned early on that we needed at least 3 nights a week alone—with no one else and no agenda but being together.
Resist the pressure to be something you’re not yet. Maybe you stumble into communication issues. Don’t despair. That’s normal! So go to counseling. Don’t be embarrassed that you aren’t strong yet. Do the work to get strong. That’s what these early years are all about. Enjoy them by leaning into the learning curve together.
Embrace being a little Charlie Brown tree, and receive what you need to grow into a strong, vibrant oak.
8. Learn how to have epic fun together
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. ~ Proverbs 17:22
Hopefully, this one sounds like an easy one. If it does, awesome. Go even further. If it doesn’t sound easy, have no fear. There are ways to build your capacity for fun, even if you feel like you have nothing in common.
Joy is glue in a marriage. The more you are enjoying each other, the easier everything else can be. This may seem like the least spiritual one on the list, but I would argue it’s towards the top. God originally put Adam and Eve in a garden called Delight (that’s what “Eden” means.)
God calls us His kids. What do kids do well? Play! They receive easily! They don’t dismiss a new toy when someone gives them a gift. They unwrap it gladly and wear that thing out. God wants us to do that in life. Sure, not nonstop 24/7. There’s good work to do too, but most Americans are way better at the working part than the playing part. So here are three tips for trying to get a little more fun in your life:
Try their thing. My husband and I had hardly anything in common. That’s OK! You don’t need to adopt all of each others’ hobbies, but I will say, trying each others’ hobbies out can be really eye-opening. My husband does adventure motorcycle riding. This is no small hobby. He has ridden to the Arctic Circle and the southernmost city in the world (Ushuaia, Argentina.) I would have never dreamed I’d be into that, but for our first vacation as a married couple, we took a two-week trip out west on his bike, and it was the best thing ever. Now we’ve ridden through Europe and South America (while pregnant, might I add). It’s been so fun, and I never would have known if I hadn’t tried.
Take time for your own thing. You don’t have to do everything together! Try each other’s thing, sure. But make time to do what refreshes you. Time apart can draw you together too, if you’re doing it in a healthy way. Genuinely prioritize filling yourself up. The more you thrive individually as healthy, well-rested, soul-inspired people, the better your marriage will be.
Practice resting weekly. Again, for the Jesus-following types reading, there’s this thing in the Bible called Sabbath. It’s amazing. I don’t know why this is such a hard sell, but it’s a commandment to not work one whole day every week. We were taught how to try it our first year of marriage, and it’s the best.
9. Put God in the middle of it all
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecc 4:12
So many marital problems come when we are simply missing God. Whether you’ve been following Him for a long time or you’re not sure what you believe about him, give him a bigger shot. Take more risks on how to bring Him into your marriage. He created marriage. He created you. He has good things for you, but we have to let Him in.
Try reading spiritual stuff together, or checking out a church. Go to Couples Camp together, join a group , or try praying together at night. Honestly, even though we both work at a church, the main way we pray together is at night, in bed, when the lights are off, as the last thing we do before we go to sleep. It’s not long or super spiritual at all. It’s honestly the easy-button we found when we were newlyweds and praying together out loud in the light felt awkward.
Good conversation, good sex lives, good times of laughter and play, or good times of heart-sharing and life-building—it all takes time. So, in times of struggle or doubt or thriving, let God into it all.