What is the secret of a long and happy marriage? That question has been on my mind because my 21-year-old son got married yesterday. In my remarks at the wedding service I suggested that they start with a community of love and then that they develop eight relationship proficiencies: court each other daily, put service above self, share each other’s interests, never be jealous, pitch in, fight fair, keep talking and laughing, and trust in God. This Provision recaps what I had to say.
I’ve decided to interrupt this series on spiritual wellness not for another running story but for a relationship coaching Provision. Yesterday, my son Evan and his fianc•e, Michelle, both 21 years old, became husband and wife. Some have asked if I was concerned about their getting married so young, but given that they are the exact same age I was when I got married 29 years ago and given that my marriage has become so central to my identity, vocation, and fulfillment in life, I feel nothing but excitement for the life that lies before them.
I tried to communicate that excitement during the message I had the opportunity to give during the wedding itself. For most of the service I sat with my wife in the congregation, as fathers rightly do, but when it came time for the homily I donned my old pastoral hat and did my best to put into words some of the relationship coaching lessons I have gleaned through almost 30 years of a wonderful marriage. I hope you don’t mind if I share my reflections with you as today’s Provision.
Of course, hardly anyone remembers the message given at their wedding. Too many other things, including a host of emotions, are going on. I know I can’t remember a single word of what the minister said at my wedding. So I started my message by having my son and daughter-in-law turn around and look at the congregation. Then, group by group, I had the congregation stand.
First, I had everyone stand who was at my wife’s and my wedding, 29 years ago. Then I had everyone stand who was at the bride’s parents’ wedding, 24 years ago. That, I reminded the couple, was when and where all this started. Next I had everyone stand who received notices of their births, 21 years ago. From there I had everyone stand who had known them since primary school, secondary school, and finally college.
Once the whole room was standing, I had everyone reach back…way back…and on the count of three to blow them a kiss. Now chances are good they will never remember a word of all the coaching they received at their wedding, but chances are just as good that they will never forget being blown a kiss by more than a hundred people all at one time. I could feel the breeze all the way up in the chancel.
Having gotten the important stuff out of the way, I went on to make the following observations about what goes into a successful marriage.
1. Court Each Other Daily. If there is a near universal tendency in the institution of marriage, it’s to start treating each other differently once the wedding and the honeymoon are over. Men are particularly prone to this disease, since courtship so often represents an accomplishment for men. Once we bag our prize, we move on to other things. But women are not exempt from this tendency. It is easy, as time goes on, to take each other for granted and to act as though we no longer have to extend ourselves on behalf of the other.
For some men, this happens within hours of the wedding. At which point you have the duped-bride syndrome: “This isn’t the man I married!” they lament. And, indeed, they are right. When the marriage license becomes a license to use and abuse the other, rather than a license to care and to share till death to us part, it becomes a license that kills the spirit of love. One person starts nagging, the other starts doing their own thing, and before you know it, the two are drifting apart rather than moving together.
Well it doesn’t have to be that way. We can stay in courtship mode for as long as we want. We can go out of our way to do special things for each other, on a daily basis. We can communicate about the big things and the little things, before they become big. We can keep our worst selves in check. We can give and receive pleasure, not only on the honeymoon, but increasingly so as the years go by and as we come to know one another’s habits and delights. By courting each other daily, marriage becomes a continuous source of goodness, peace, and joy.
2. Put Service Above Self. When my wife and I got married, we had a strong sense of being called together because we thought our marriage would enable us to do more good in the world than either of us could alone. We also understood that we had to take that same approach with each other if we had any hope of making our youthful marriage endure. And it has worked out just that way.
If there is one thing people tell us, it’s that they can see how much we love each other. That’s because love is not just a “soggy feeling around the gizzard,” as one of my mentors used to describe it. Love is more a “willingness to extend ourselves for the purpose of nurturing spiritual growth,” to quote M. Scott Peck’s most challenging definition. It’s a matter of putting intention together with action in the service of a higher calling.
Love, in other words, is a decision we make and an effort we take, each and every day. It is a framework that pays big dividends not only in terms of spiritual growth, but in all other ways as well. Those who make worldly success their goal will find that it frequently eludes their grasp. Those who make service their goal, both in their homes and in their way with the world, will generally end up being successful, no matter what their financial bottom line.
3. Share Each Other’s Interests. The other day, when Evan and his sister were home, we asked Evan what, if anything, might contribute to this marriage being difficult. He thought for a minute and then said, “Me.” I know what he means! In spite of Evan’s sweet demeanor, he inherited some of my messy and distractible ways. But I hope he also inherited my appreciation for the importance of listening to and taking an interest in his wife. That has served me well over the years.
Ironically, I learned what I know about listening from her. No one has listened to me more or taken more of an interest in my life. When I became a pastor, she became a pastor’s wife. And she was a far better pastor’s wife than I was a pastor! When I became a runner, she became my cheerleader • shouting encouragement both for me and for all the other runners she sees. When I became a business owner, she became a 50% partner • noodling through the problems and sharing in the management of operations. When I became a coach, she became my coach that I might be successful.
Do you see the pattern here? These things were not necessarily her interests. But because they were my interests, she took an interest and that made all the difference. So it was easy for me to reciprocate. When my wife became a school principal, I became the maintenance man, general contractor, and fund raiser. When she became a Ph.D. candidate, I became Mr. Mom so she could seclude herself in her writer’s garret. When she became a college professor, I became a trailing spouse to move with her and to support her in life and work.
These things were not necessarily my interests, but she taught me to listen and to take an interest. By sharing each other’s interests, we have allowed our passions to enrich rather than to threaten our life together.
4. Never Be Jealous. Thirty years ago, we were working in the hills of Kentucky to assist impoverished mountaineer families with home repair, when we got to know an elderly couple, Jack and Oshie Clark. They had lived all their lives in a remote area without electricity, plumbing, or running water. Those challenges not withstanding, they had been happily married for 60 years, so we sought them out for relationship wisdom before we got married.
Oshie, a woman of tiny stature but enormous strength, grabbed the two of us in a powerful bear hug and simply said, “Never be jealous of each other.” Those were good words to live by then and they are equally good words now.
Never be jealous of each other’s accomplishments. Never be jealous of each other’s friends. Never be jealous of each other’s time. Never be jealous of each other’s interests and passions and pleasures. Accept them all as precious gifts, to be shared and enjoyed together.
5. Pitch In. There’s no way to have a great marriage if you don’t both pitch in and share the workload. M. Scott Peck, the same guy who defined love in such challenging terms, was also famous for his straightforward proclamation that life is difficult. There’s no way to get around the truth of that statement.
But two people, sharing the difficulties together, can sure make them a lot easier. By failing to pitch in and work together, however, they can also make those difficulties a lot harder. Resentments build up and before you know it there is a mountain of guilt and blame, hard feelings and antagonisms to work through. Carrying your fair share of the load, right from the very beginning, will cut all that off at the pass and make your marriage a blessing to you both.
6. Fight Fair. Even the best of marriages get into trouble at times. Everyone has opinions and habits that are, at times, in conflict with those of the other. That’s as true, and sometimes even more true, with those we are closest too than with those with whom we work or play.
The point, then, is not to avoid conflict but to fight fair and to work it through. One decision my wife and I made early on was to never call each other names. There is a huge difference between saying, “I don’t like how you handled that situation,” and saying, “You are such a jerk!” The one is an invitation to conflict resolution and spiritual growth; the other is a put down that slams the door on conversation, reconciliation, and love.
Fighting fair is all about respecting each other even in the midst of conflict. When I work with my coaching clients, I come from the framework that says they are usually doing the best they can with what they have to work with and that whatever they are doing it is always perfectly designed for where they are on the journey of the life. That is a great framework to come from in marriage. It is an invitation to be curious, to look for solutions, and to see the silver lining behind every cloud. Conflicts are not the end of the world. They are a part of life. Treat them as potent opportunities and you will long be married.
7. Keep Talking and Laughing. One of the most delightful things about Evan and Michelle is how much you laugh when you are together. The longest time that you two have ever spent together under the same roof was the summer you both lived at our home in Williamsburg. Your raucous laughter was contagious. It was often enough to get me going as well.
I hope you never lose that precious quality! It adds so much gusto to life. It speaks to the connection that brings the two of you here today. I also hope you keep talking. I know that’s not always easy for two introverts to do, but I also know it’s essential to a good marriage and to keeping the laughter alive.
Talk to each other as much as you possibly can. Don’t just talk about who is going to do the grocery shopping or mow the lawn. Talk about the measure and meaning of life. Talk about the deep places in your hearts and minds. Talk about your hopes and dreams, your hesitations and fears. Connecting on that level will serve you well over the years.
My wife and I have noticed that our environments impact our readiness to talk. It has helped us to establish special talking times and places. Early on we went out on a date every week. Vacations have also proven to be great opportunities, as I hope you will discover on your honeymoon. Going for long walks has been a favorite conversational habitat. Now, as you know, we like to end the day with conversation in the hot tub. Those swirling waters help to coax out our thoughts, insights, and feelings about the day.
8. Trust in God. This last one may be the most important proficiency of all. I know that Evan has a scientific mind, with a utilitarian orientation, so consider this: if life was not on the side of life, if there were more catastrophes than there were near-misses, then we would not be here right now for the two of you to make your vows. As someone who once almost went down a mountain waterfall and, on another occasion, got hit by a car on the 4th of July, Evan knows what I’m talking about. Something there is in life that pulls for us and wants to see things work out.
I call that something God, and I think it helps a relationship to share that awareness and to embrace that presence together. It has certainly been a central part of our home, ranging from habits, like saying grace before meals or going to church, to invocations, as we invite and recognize that something to be an intentional part of our lives.
The U.S. currency routinely proclaims, “In God We Trust.” That’s good advice for a nation. It’s even better advice for a couple. It takes more than money and a solid portfolio to make a marriage work. It takes trust, trust in each other and trust in God, to see our way through the many ups and downs of life. I hope you will find your own ways to cultivate and nurture that trust.
These eight tidbits of relationship wisdom, combined with that great group kiss, are enough to get anyone’s marriage off on the right foot and to keep it there. Court each other daily, put service above self, share each other’s interests, never be jealous, pitch in, fight fair, keep talking and laughing, and trust in God. Do these things and you will always be fit for love.
Coaching Inquiries: How often do you talk with the one you love? Do you go deeper than talking about the daily grind? Do you discuss the meaning of life? What about heartfelt passions? What are you doing to extend yourself for their spiritual growth? How could you make love more central to your life?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
After reading last week’s Provision, Embrace Responsibility, I, like another reader, was surprised to hear a very similar message at church on Sunday. The pastor said we are able to choose how to respond to whatever happens in life. We are response-able. Thanks for a great Provision.
I got your weekly Provision, Embrace Silence, and wanted to tell you that I enjoyed it. I frequently talk about these same issues with my counseling clients and have been interested in meditation, body-mind communication, etc. for some time. In any event, when I was reading your description of Queens Lake I thought that you might enjoy the movie called “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” It speaks to some of the spirit you were writing about. (Ed. Note: Glad you enjoyed the Provision. It has been updated online, with new material, so you might want to read it again in our archive.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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