By Erin Smalley
"What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." (Matthew 19:6)
I have learned that even after 23 years of marriage, I must continue to be intentional about keeping my marriage strong. Here's a story of one surprising way I have learned to breathe life into my marriage.
Recently my husband, Greg, our older kids and some out-of-town family decided they wanted to watch a scary movie. Since I am not into suspense, I decided to go to bed early. But on my way to my bedroom, I realized I had a golden opportunity to strengthen my marriage with something Greg always appreciates: an unexpected laugh. So I decided to play a practical joke on him.
Laughing to myself while I prepared to startle Greg, I found a black mask and a pair of preschool blunt scissors (because I didn't want to trip and land on anything sharp). I pulled the black mask over my face and stood very quietly while I peered through the living room door at my family — all of them engrossed in the intense movie. All of a sudden, someone inside noticed a dark figure holding what looked like a sharp object — and began to scream. Hilariously, Greg got up from his seat and ran from the room. When he looked back, Greg soon realized the dark figure was me! Now, I realize this may seem like a strange way to strengthen my marriage, but each time I take the opportunity to make Greg laugh, it reignites the love in his heart!
We must be intentional about strengthening our marriages by fighting for them. Amid the fast pace and chaos of our lives, we often push aside our marriage relationship while other things, such as children, work and chores, take precedence.
Marriage is a lifelong adventure filled with triumphs and defeats, and all married couples will experience different seasons in married life (1 Corinthians 7:28). Cartoonist and author James Thurber wrote, "Love is what you've been through with somebody." In other words, it's the journey of doing life together — the fun times, hard times, joyful times, painful times, exciting times — that deepens and grows our love for each other in a marriage relationship.
As paraphrased in The Message, Malachi 2:15 says, "God, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage. … So guard the spirit of marriage within you." But how do you guard your marriage?
First, we need to understand that the word guard means to watch over in order to protect.
So what is it that you can do to "watch over in order to protect" your marriage? Couples can often look back to their dating days or engagement to see all they did to build the foundation of their romance. They need to start doing those things again, because a marriage relationship needs care, protection and, in essence, it needs to be "watched over."
If playing practical jokes doesn't work to strengthen and nurture your marriage, here are a few other suggestions that may help to keep your love relationship strong:
1. Value your marriage. You will never guard something you don't value. Take a few minutes to consider what you love, like or value about your marriage relationship:
Having fun and laughing with each other (Obviously, I would list this one first!)
Synergy — doing more together as husband and wife than as individuals
Sharing a spiritual relationship
Raising children together
Making memories to share with each other
Having someone to celebrate with
Sharing the deepest levels of intimacy with each other
Enjoying sex together
Loving and being loved
Being married to my best friend
Sharing the adventure of riding life's roller coaster together
2. Have a deep conviction that divorce is not an option. Take the word divorce out of your vocabulary. The word decide comes from a root word meaning "to cut." You cannot make a commitment to something without deciding to cut off other options that compete against what is most important. Make this your attitude: I'm committed to doing whatever it takes to make this relationship work.
3. Stay alert. 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV) clarifies that we have an enemy working against marriage to destroy it: "Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." So guard your marriage against spiritual attack.
4. Carefully observe. Take note of the state of your marriage. It's easy for couples to get so busy that they forget to observe the health of their marriage. Proverbs 27:23 (NIV) exhorts us: "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." Consider taking the Couple Checkup. Also, take time to notice your spouse. Keep learning about what he or she needs to feel loved throughout the different seasons of life.
5. Regularly invest in your marriage. A great marriage is made of two people making sacrifices for their relationship every day. However, you can't control what your spouse does or doesn't do; you can only control your own choices. So, what have you done for your marriage today? According to one study conducted by psychologists at UCLA, the couples in which both people were willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the marriage were significantly more likely to have lasting and happy marriages. Jesus reminds us in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." Sacrifice every day for the sake of your marriage.
6. Protect your marriage. What can you do to protect your marriage? How are you protecting your marriage from external threats? (Are there in-law issues or opposite-sex friendships that need to be addressed?) How are you protecting your marriage from internal threats? (Consider whether busyness, exhaustion or unhealthy conflicts are interfering with your relationship.)
7. Guard your marriage. Thousands of years ago, King Solomon warned of the little foxes that ruin the vineyards. "Catch all the foxes, those little foxes, before they ruin the vineyard of love, for the grapevines are blossoming!" (Song of Solomon 2:15, NLT). It's usually the little things that creep into your marriage and become issues that damage your marriage. With that in mind, don't sweep your problems under the relational rug. Keep short accounts and don't allow resentment or bitterness to take root in your marriage. Deal with the small conflicts, wounds, hurts and frustrations before they grow into bigger problems.
8. Reminisce about the good times in your marriage. Remember the good times and all the good things you have experienced together. When you are going through hard times, it can be easy to forget the good things. Reminiscing helps you maintain a positive attitude about your marriage. Take some time to remember that although you've gone through some hard times in married life, you've made it through and you're pretty good together.
9. Pursue a shared dream. A French poet described love in the following way: "Love is not just looking at each other, it's looking outward together in the same direction." As described in Genesis 2:24 (NLT), God unites couples to do together what they could never do alone — "This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one." Dreaming together isn't limited to creating common goals like buying an apartment, having kids or going on a particular vacation. These goals are important, but I'm talking about a bigger vision that enables God to use your marriage for His purpose. Have you considered what God may be calling you, as a couple, to do together? Find a cause that you and your spouse are both passionate about — something that benefits others — and give yourselves to it.
10. Don't go it alone. You need couple friends who will commit to doing life together with your family. You need people who will celebrate with you when things are going great. You need people who will fight alongside you for your marriage when things are difficult. Proverbs 17:17 (NIV) makes this point clear: "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity." Who do you know that could become the kind of couple friends with whom you could share life, and what would it take to encourage that relationship to go to a deeper level?
Erin Smalley is the co-author of The Wholehearted Wife and serves in the Marriage and Family Formation department at Focus on the Family.
From the Focus on the Family website at focusonthefamily.com. © 2015 Focus on the Family. Used by permission