more thoughts on marriage

A while ago, I posted here 10 relationship tips that I had been persuaded to share with a friend over WhatsApp. Phone in one hand and passport/lecture notes/grocery list/bank statement/school report (delete as appropriate) in the other, these were simply the first ten things that came to mind as I considered what it has taken to build a strong relationship over the last 25 years.

Since it would be evident to anyone, whether married or not, that it takes more than ten top tips to construct a healthy, life-giving and enduring partnership, I have been persuaded by the same lovely friend to add this follow-up post to my original thoughts. So here’s my second stab at identifying those practices that have become foundational to what is the most joy-filled and growth-provoking relationship of my life!

(In no particular order, mind you.)

1. Transition moments matter.

When you see one another for the first time - be it that day or that month - pay attention to this crucial opportunity to connect. What would it look like for you to truly ‘see’ the other, and to let him know that you see him? Similarly, although you might say goodbye dozens of times in a week, it matters how you part company. Sometimes we can’t avoid yelling, ‘See ya!’ as we race out the door, but if possible say goodbye with the intention of letting her know that she is a blessing to the world and that you, for one, believe that her unique contribution matters.

2. Know one another and know yourself.

Personality tests are two-a-penny and can be of limited value. What is extremely valuable is to get to know the tendencies, needs and desires of both your personalities. Needless to say, this is the work of a lifetime and never quite removes the capacity we have for surprising one another! However, even a little awareness of our natural way of seeing and engaging the world will help us to figure out why we needle one another in particular ways, and how we can accommodate our differences.

Note: I recommend taking a look at the Enneagram. This is because it is not designed to be a personality test, as such, but rather a guide to the ways we especially need to experience God in our personal stories and ways of engaging the world around us.

3. Be the Change.

In all our relationships, romantic and lifelong or functional and short-lived, we are inclined to focus on all the ways the other person might need to change. If only he or she would stop doing such-and-such, or if only he or she would do the other thing. If only we could get a hold of this truth, it would save a lot of conflict: the only person I am responsible for changing is me! If I can commit to choosing my own attitude, to working on my own junk and to guarding my own heart, then I can remain wholehearted in the relationship. This is different to becoming a doormat; we are each committed to our own process of change first, rather than continually facing the other person with the ways we wish he or she would change. That’s called nagging!

4. Little words are important.

Saying ‘Sorry,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘I love you’ cannot be underestimated. Use them often.

5. Cultivate meaningful community.

Quite simply, we were never meant to navigate our most important relationships alone. We need the support of committed friends. Sometimes that support comes in the form of sharing a meal or a laugh, sometimes in the form of a shoulder to cry on, and sometimes in the form of a kick up the backside. We need it all! Many people - certainly but not exclusively Brits - find it excruciatingly difficult to talk about the things they are finding tough. A difficult patch with your nearest and dearest can feel horribly vulnerable and is not easy to share. Do what you can to cultivate a circle of friends with whom you can be real about what’s going on in your lives - not separately, in the form of complaining or gossip about your other half, but together, as part of letting your friends into your lives. It is not always easy to make friends with people that you both get on with so, when you do, hold onto those friendships (see the next point).

6. Invest in your most valued relationships.

Whether with your families or with cherished friends, life is built around the moments you share. Do what you can to attend those milestone times of celebration or of shared grief. Find a way to get there when significant life events are happening. Yes, it can be costly in terms of finances or time - but it is always worth it. Most likely, if you invest in this way others will respond by being there for you when you need them.

7. Learn to listen. I’ll say that again …!

Introverted or extroverted, inner processors or outer processors, we all have to learn to listen well. Do whatever it takes to stop talking, justifying, solving, suggesting or yes-but-ing and simply listen. Find a tool that works for you both - the intentional dialogue model is our favourite - and make it a priority to give one another focused attention on a regular basis. (This means, you don’t have to wait until you are dealing with a conflict!)

8. Take the long-range view.

Life is long, at least, that’s the hope. Seasons come and go and we do well to bear in mind that our current season is not our forever blueprint. There will be times when I am flourishing and my partner is struggling; there will be times when his career is taking off and mine feels stagnant. Whatever life looks like today, it won’t always be like this. I know that I, for one, often need to be reminded of the long-range view. Whatever our present reality, we are walking together towards a large horizon. What might that mean for the ways we support and champion one another during the present season?

9. Find mentors, even if you don’t call them that.

Amazing people are within reach, no matter what our family of origin was like - and they might be amazing too! The point is to keep your eyes open for people whose relationships seem to thrive. What are they doing that you could learn from? Find people who will not only give you something to emulate, but who will also cheer you on and who won’t freak out when you share with them the hard things. Invite them into your lives and trust them to speak into your most significant decisions.

10. Create a shared ‘rule of life.’

The habitual pattern of your life together becomes the support, or the trellis, on which your relationship grows. Give thought to the rhythms you share, and especially to the ways in which you cultivate an awareness of the presence of God with you. The habits you create around prayer, confession, spoken blessings, worship, community, celebration and communion (among others) become the elements of grace that hold you together as you continue to change and grow. They also become part of what you share with others as you build friendships, family and community.

If all this sounds a bit serious, do remember that 'have fun' and 'celebrate whenever you can' made it into the first series of Top Tips! Let's remember that life moves along more easily with lavish doses of laughter, celebration and kisses!