Emily and William were deeply in love fifteen years and three children ago, but time and responsibility have taken their toll.
“In the end, we’re different people who want different things. I’m just not sure we can make it work anymore,” Emily said, and William nodded in agreement.
The cynical side of me wanted to ask, “What’s not working?” while pointing to pictures of their three beautiful children, a comfortable home, and a slew of memories, but I knew what Emily meant. They didn’t want to be roommates and parenting partners anymore. They wanted to be married again.
The common thought during this not uncommon stage of a marriage is to assume it’s simply “easiest” to start over with someone new. I can understand this sentiment, but absent abuse, adultery, or severe addiction issues, it’s almost never true. Divorce is never an “easy” option even when necessary. The preferred plan that honors our vows to each other and to God is to build a new marriage with an old spouse.
I’ve qualified for the Boston marathon three times but would be hard pressed to come within twenty minutes of qualifying today because I haven’t been doing the little things you have to do to run long and fast: run a certain mileage base, maintain a certain body weight, perform speed workouts. Having once been in shape—even for a long period of time—doesn’t guarantee that I stay in shape. Once I stop doing what keeps me in shape, my fitness level decreases.
To requalify today, I wouldn’t need to find a new body, a new heart, or buy new legs. I’d just need to train my old heart and my old legs to do what I know they are capable of doing by performing the same things I did before, faithfully and persistently. It’ll take time. If I’m seriously out of shape, I can’t decide to get back in shape in one day, or even one week. It’s going to take several months of persistent, faithful training.
The same thing is true for marital intimacy. If your marriage has been drifting, you can’t turn the passion back on overnight. You have to start feeding it slowly and patiently wait for it to come back to you, still pressing forward even when you don’t see initial returns. But trust me: the happiest road is found by putting in the effort to reconnect with your current spouse instead of seeking a new one.
Set Your Goal. Tell your spouse what you want, but do it as a commitment from you: “I want to be the best husband in the world; where should I start?”
“I want us to be the close couple we used to be. What do I need to change for that to happen?”
Listen to Each Other Again. When we lose empathy, intimacy shrivels. Renew your curiosity about your spouse’s frustrations with life, vocation, relationships, health, etc. It may sound simple, but it’s true and effective: questions for more information are the lifeblood of marriage.
In Cherish, I talk about Dr. John Gottman’s observation that a healthy marriage is one in which each partner is capturing about ninety percent of each other’s “bids”—comments, questions, and communications. Tuning each other out slowly kills our marriages. Learn to pay attention again. Make it a game—if you currently catch fifty percent of your spouse’s bids, aim for eighty the next day. And build on that even more by asking follow-up questions.
Laugh. Go to a Christian based Comedy Date Night. Get together with those friends who regularly leave the four of you holding your side. Play with a baby. If you can’t remember the last time you’ve laughed together, it’s like trying to be married while holding your breath. At least once a month, be intentional about a “laugh date.”
Pray for and then serve someone outside your home. Selfishness is spiritual rust. It spreads and gets worse over time. Having an outward focus—another couple, another family, another ministry—that you pray about, give to, and serve will do more for you than it will for them. If your marriage is only about your house, your bank account, and your kids, it’s too isolated to thrive. Jesus urges us to seek first God’s kingdom, not ours (Matthew 6:33).
Praise Each Other Every Day. Most marriages have tiny moments of frustration just about every day. “Why would you say that?” “How come you didn’t call?” Over time, these build up until the weight of them crushes our affection. One intentional praise is like taking five of those frustrations away: “I’m so thankful that I can always count on you.” “Sometimes I watch you with the kids and am just amazed at how good of a parent you are.”
Read a Book. Romans 12:2 says we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. If you’re serious about your marriage, you’ll read at least one book on Christian marriage a year (or perhaps listen to an audible book as you drive). Marriage is too important of a relationship not to regularly stretch your mind to remember your first vows.
I’m often surprised when people seem shocked that Sacred Marriage isn’t my only marriage book, so just in case, when it comes to marriage I’ve written:
Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make us Holy More than To Make Us Happy?
Devotions for a Sacred Marriage
(For women) Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband
A Lifelong Love: How to Have Lasting Intimacy, Friendship, and Purpose in Your Marriage
Cherish: The One Word that Changes Everything for Your Marriage
I’m hesitant to mention others, because then I’m asked why I didn’t include other books and many of these authors are friends, so ask around. One that recently came out, Vertical Marriage by Dave and Ann Wilson, is certainly worth a read. It would be a good follow-up to Sacred Marriage if you’ve already read that.
Sheet Music by Kevin Leman gets a lot of attention for those wanting to give a boost to their sexual intimacy; Trading Places by the Parrotts is an excellent look at the importance of empathy in marriage; and Kingdom Marriage by Tony Evans and The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller both offer overall studies of Christian marriage in general.
None of the above points are “magic elixirs” that will fix everything overnight. But if you steadily employ them over time, your marriage is likely to be back in shape, “marathon ready” in less time than you might think.
You can change your marriage without changing your spouse. Couples do it all the time. Yes, it usually takes two, so I’m not faulting those of you who are in it on your own; this post may help, but it won’t “fix” your marriage. But if you and your spouse are both willing to grow back together, it can be done.