Research shows that nearly 20 percent of couples get a divorce within the first five years of marriage — and that was before we were all working from home and spending all our time in the same house.
While my wife, Theresa, and I are not even close to being marriage experts, we have made it through the aforementioned five-year “danger zone,” so I guess that counts for something. Here are five lessons that I have gleaned in these first five years, in the hopes that they can help strengthen your marriage or give you some food for thought on what to look for in your future marital partnership.
1. Your spouse can’t fix you.
This one becomes obvious over time, but can get lost in the dopamine-fueled glow of courtship and the fun/madness of wedding preparations. Once the toasts have been given, the cake has been eaten, and the dancing shoes cast off, it’s just you and your new spouse on a whirlwind adventure for the rest of your lives. Any personal problems that you bring into the marriage — addictions, bad habits, debt, communication issues, etc. — will not simply disappear because you recited your vows.
Instead of being your instant cure, your spouse becomes a warts-and-all mirror that will frequently reveal to you the ugly truth about your weaknesses and vices. Marriage is a selfless endeavor that often requires brutal honesty on the road to self-knowledge and self-mastery. For me, this resulted in an admission of some negative tendencies — addiction to my phone, my need to “win” arguments, and other behaviors that hamper our marital bliss.
As you grow together, your rough edges will become more evident, making it imperative that you do the work to become the person that you want to bring to this union. While your spouse is obviously there to support you in these efforts, and you will never be perfect, you are ultimately the only one who can change yourself.
2. Marriage is service.
There is no marital playbook. If there were, Theresa and I would have known exactly what to do when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma less than four months into our marriage.
This is obviously an extreme example of something that can happen to newlyweds, but the fact remains that it did happen to us, and we had to cope with it as best we could in the earliest days of our marriage. A few years later, we would be dealing with parenting three kids under the age of four during a national pandemic.
So what’s the secret sauce to dealing with the many difficult seasons of life? Remembering that marriage is service to your spouse.
When I was undergoing chemotherapy, Theresa kept our lives running and kept me fighting. When she endured prolonged morning sickness through three pregnancies, it was my turn to take over. In the everyday chaos of parenting young children, we look for opportunities to lessen each other’s loads — whether that means emptying the dishwasher when you really don’t want to, or watching all three kids at once so your spouse can take a much-needed nap.
If each of you is trying harder than the other to make life easier, you’ll probably both end up feeling better. And the key word is “trying.” Again, perfection is a myth, but a general culture of service within your marriage will pay dividends when the inevitable and unexpected challenges show up.
3. Contempt is the enemy of marriage.
The Gottman Institute conducted one of the most famous studies on relationships and concluded that the greatest predictor of divorce was the presence of contempt in a marital relationship. The study defines contempt as treating your partner with disrespect, mocking, ridiculing, or using sarcasm to make your partner feel worthless and assert your own moral superiority.
While this sounds like despicable behavior that no one would ever choose to inflict on their spouse, contempt in marriage can be as unnoticeable and deadly as a carbon monoxide leak. It runs rampant in many marriages after beginning slowly and building in intensity over time. Once it has taken hold and done a lot of damage, it can be very difficult to root out.
The Institute recommends building a culture of appreciation in your marriage by regularly committing small acts of gratitude, affection, and respect to build a positive buffer in your relationship. My wife and I have a standing rule to call each other out when we notice contemptuous behavior in each other, while also trying to exercise and appreciate the positive behaviors.
Our greatest safeguard from contempt is often just one of us reminding the other in the midst of a heated discussion that it is the two of us against the problem, not against each other. This usually deflates an escalating situation, leading to a more rational, productive and loving conversation.
4. “Dating” your spouse doesn’t just mean date nights.
One great way to defend against contempt (and a lot of other marital woes) is to be intentional about continuing to “date” your spouse long after you settle into your marital routine. Most people advise the practice of instituting a weekly or monthly date night to ensure that you continue to enjoy quality time together.
While that sounds great in theory, sometimes it is just unrealistic or can be difficult to maintain. My wife and I have opted to go for something less formal but more intentional by trying to exhibit the habits and characteristics of a dating couple in our married life together. This means playing a board game together at the end of a busy day after our young children are asleep. Sometimes it means waiting to eat our own dinner together after bedtime so we can enjoy uninterrupted adult conversation and focus on each other. Other times it just looks like me telling my wife that I think she looks beautiful today or her complimenting me on how great the lawn looks after I mow it.
When you’re in the romantic throes of a dating relationship, the other person is your complete focus and you bask in each other’s attention and love. Your marriage will similarly flourish to the extent that you can routinely throw that adoring spotlight back on each other and remember the good feelings and commonalities that brought you together in the first place. It’s also important to continue finding new interests to share and thus widen the concentric circles of your love for one another.
5. God has a plan (even if you don’t always agree with it).
A wise man once wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely; in all your ways, be mindful of Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). I married my wife because I trusted that this vocation was God’s plan for my life.
As I look back on all the joys, sorrows, trials and triumphs of our first five years together, I am confirmed in that leap of faith, and I see God’s fingerprints all over our marriage in ways that I didn’t necessarily recognize in those moments. Really, God? I have cancer? Seriously, God? I lost my job? Come on, God, what makes you think we can take care of all these kids?
So many worrisome situations have borne the fruit of undeniable blessings, and challenges have helped us ultimately forge a stronger union. We are getting used to trusting in God’s timing and the unique path He has in store for our family — even when it makes no sense at first.
This recognition is what encourages us both to strive to be the best spouses we can be for one another. And when our imperfections make this difficult, we can rest in God’s providence, which ultimately brings us back to the divine reason for our union: our love for one another is an earthly glimmer of God’s unfathomable love for all of humanity. If we can trust in His love for us, we can trust in His plan for our relationship and ask for His help.
Ultimately, we can ask God to help us grow in personal holiness so that our marriage can be strengthened and continue to radiate God’s love into the world through our union. When you think about it that way, it’s definitely worth the effort.