Monday, March 7th, we celebrated our 20th anniversary.
Twenty years of marriage is a pretty big deal. Maybe not to my parents, who have been married over twice that long, or to my grandparents, who tied the knot more than sixty years ago, but in a time and place where divorce rates are high and fewer people are getting married than ever before, twenty years is where the “wows” begin.
Twenty years of marriage is when people start asking you the question. Later, as you hit 30 years, then 40, then 50, they will ask more frequently, and listen more closely to the answer.
The question is this: “What’s your secret?”
I know, because I asked it many times myself as a young wife, gathering up the answers and building them into a shelter to ward off the feeling that I didn’t really know what I was doing.
What is the secret to a long and happy marriage?
There are things I could tell you. Useful things. Wise things. Some morsels of enlightenment have been gifted to us along the way, shared through friendships and group discussions, handed down in the way of old quilts and apple pie recipes, with hopes that their value will be passed on when the original owners are gone. Some have been learned at swordpoint, in the heat of battle, etched into our hearts with fire and blood, the cost of the lesson engraving it more deeply than the ones that didn’t hurt as much. All of them are valuable.
For example, I could tell you to be kind to each other. Speak gently and listen well. Deliver surprise coffee. Give unrequested backrubs. Hold hands. Pay attention to each other. Be generous with your time, your body, your heart. Use your words and actions to say over and over again, “I am thinking about you. I choose you. I love you.”
I could tell you to be honest. Don’t say you’re fine when you’re not. Wounds and secrets fester in the dark, so don’t let them stay there. Don’t hide your feelings, or your text messages, or your struggles. Tell the truth in love, about big things and little ones. When trouble comes, face it head-on, and together.
I could tell you to be patient with one another. Expect occasional bad moods, foolish decisions, and painful mistakes, and decide ahead of time to let them go. Make a habit of forgiveness. Be slow to take offense. Assume the best motives, even when the words don’t come out right. Try to see things through each other’s eyes. Allow for differences of opinion; the world won’t end if you don’t agree on everything.
I could tell you to have fun together. Find things you both like to do, whether it’s mountain climbing or just Netflix on the couch, and do them. Go on dates, especially if you have kids; let them see how important you are to each other. Have lots of sex. Play board games. Go dancing. Once in a while, cross over and try each other’s favorite things. You might hate it, or you might end up playing World of Warcraft together for six years. Laugh every day. Go on adventures. Have private jokes. Carve out a space for each other that is free from worry and responsibility and kids, and go there together often.
I could tell you to commit to your marriage with all your heart. Plant your flag in the country you’re building together and refuse to be moved, no matter what armies come against you. Don’t say the D-word, even in jest. You will go through seasons of drought and years of plenty. Being “in love” comes and goes and comes again over the years, but love, the real kind, is a choice you make every day to put each other above yourselves. That kind of love can go the distance. When you know how to love like that, being “in love” is easy.
I could tell you any of these things, and it would be a good response. A helpful one.
But it wouldn’t be the true one. The things we’ve learned along the way are important, but none of them are the glue that has held us together for this long. You see, we are far from being masters of marriage. We’re still learning, just like everyone else. At one point or another, we have failed each other spectacularly in every single one of these areas. We’ve been unkind, dishonest, and impatient. We’ve hurt each other and let each other down. We’ve lost all sight of fun during dark slogs through hard times. We’ve even wavered in our commitment once or twice.
But there really is a secret. One thing that has held us together and kept our wheels on the the road, even when it’s been bumpy. One thing that will continue to pull us closer together and wrap us in joy for the next twenty or thirty or forty years, until death parts us. One thing that always brings us back to our best selves, and the promises we’ve made, and the love we share.
Here it is, the secret to a long and happy marriage:
It has God in the center of it.
That’s it. We are where we are because the Father brought us here, the Son gave His life for us, and the Spirit lives inside us. God is the one who strengthens us to stay the course. He’s the one who works in us to allow us to forgive, to be kind, and to honor our commitment. He’s the one who pulls us up off the ground and brushes the dirt out of our hair when we fall on our faces. He’s the one who teaches us how to love for real.
Because that’s how He loves.
And now you know the secret.
We’re telling everybody.