Blossoming New Life Into Your Marriage

April is spring and more importantly it is the season of Easter. This is the time we celebrate new life and the new life given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see grass, plants, and trees blossoming as they waken from their sleep. And as part of this season of resurrection, I want to share some connections with marriage. 

One of the most “revolutionary” ideas in my book, Revolutionary Marriage, was the idea that resurrection is part of marriage. 

Marriages unfortunately experience death. Not only do partners die, we grow apart. We injure each other and even kill the marriage through divorce. 

But I suggested a primary goal for marriage was to bring new life – resurrection. The most obvious way this occurs is through conception and childbirth. But spouses also bring new life to each other by our actions and how we live together. In this blog I am wanting to identify some specific ways you can bring resurrected new life to your spouse. 

In my book I wrote the following: 
I have often struggled with those marriage retreat weekends that seem to offer quick fixes for marriages. Their recommended solutions present often illusory experiences that offer emotional highs but don’t resolve the underlying disconnection and relationship decay. They too often feed the myth that excitement and joy are signposts of a successful and vibrant marriage. For example, most retreats suggest the importance of regular date nights. I support that idea, but too often they are superficial acts that cover over a lack of grace and goodwill in the marriage. Date nights are nice, but the small and ordinary acts of grace will keep love alive.
The veneer of financial success, great vacations, and well-behaved children can be very thin. It does not help the husband and wife who are celebrating their 25th anniversary, but haven’t slept in the same room for 10 years. Wives promote the success of their children, but secretly resent their husband and his work. Husbands earn sales awards and build huge retirement funds, while having no desire to share retirement years with their wives.

Those examples are marriages where the interior of the relationship is rotten and dying. Our goal in marriage needs to develop a rich, fertile and vibrant interior of the relationship. It is from that space each partner can grow and flourish. 

Today I want to recommend four ways to bring new life into your marriage and your spouse. 

  • Speak words of life.

I address this topic in Revolutionary Marriage. The wisdom of Proverbs tells us that “the tongue can bring life or death”, Proverbs 18:21. Or in Proverbs 15:4a, “The words of the godly are a life giving fountain.” Your words either brings life to your spouse or in the worst of circumstances your can speak death. Our words are powerful and we should be careful with them. Above all we should avoid criticism. Let’s spend far less time correcting each other pointing out what we did wrong. We should validate. We should compliment, and speak words of admiration to our spouse. We need to express our gratitude for our spouse’s gifts (skills). Our spoken thankfulness is like watering the garden of our spouses spirit. 

  • Listen in ways that makes your spouse feel understood.

Listening empathically is a core ingredient of intimacy and connection in relationships. From a mechanical standpoint this means being able to parrot or repeat what our spouse says. This is a good start but it will never be enough. Listening must be a matter of our heart where we give ourselves over to hearing what our partner is saying. It means putting aside your own personal agenda. It means hearing and accepting your spouse’s feelings even if you don’t agree. It means asking them questions so you can expand your understanding. You should have a heart of curiosity. It means hearing what is not being said and reading between the lines. It means connecting with something in your own experience that shows you can identify with what they are describing. There are so many tools and ideas for being a more empathic listener. Google “empathic listening” and find a few articles. They will all be of help. This is the fertilizer that sustains healthy growth.

  • Serve them in small sacrifices.

We want to do the big stuff in marriage that makes the big splash. Fancy dates, big vacations, and extravagant gifts. But a happy marriage is not built on these things. If you are hoping for more of these things to make you happy, your are setting yourself up for disappointment. Because the thrill will be so short lived and it will never be enough. You need to find joy in providing and receiving the small sacrifices. What little chores can you do to help around the house? Can you take care of bath time? Can you be the one to get up and do night time feedings? Can you fix that broken appliance that you promised to take care of six months ago? It is doing these little things, without looking for rewards that brings life to marriage. These things are the seeds of new growth.

  • Eliminate contempt from your marriage.

I mention this idea in Revolutionary Marriage. But I speak at length about this topic in my marriage conference for couples (It is available online here). Contempt according to Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman, is “fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self. Contempt, simply put, says, ‘I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.'” Contempt is fatal assault on the identity of your spouse. Contempt has no place in marriage. Expressing contempt is committing an evil against your partner. Why? Because you are denying their image bearing goodness. Love builds up – it never tears down. You will bring life to your spouse when you help them be their best image representation of Christ. Encourage and support them in this endeavor. This is the process of pruning for fruitful growth. It must be done with tenderness and love. Contempt condemns the plant as worthless. Love prunes the plant to produce its life-giving best.

Should a Christian Marriage Have Roles?

What is a man and a woman? The definitions of gender have changed over the centuries and have been shaped by myths, culture, economics, religion and families. And these definitions shape how we view and live in marriages right now. In recent decades there has been a frequent debate among Christian communities over Complementarian and Egalitarian views of marriage. 

I address this debate in my book Revolutionary Marriage. The complementarian camp believes there are scripturally ordained roles for males and females in marriage and church structure. They believe there is a created order. This order places men in greater importance than women, and men by virtue of being male, are designated leaders in both the home and church. The Egalitarian camp emphasizes equal value between the genders and there are no ordained roles for men and women in the church and home. In the egalitarian view, women or men can hold any role equally effectively. 

The debate between these two camps sets up a dichotomy or either/or choices. But the world functions in gray more than black and white. We need to get more comfortable with this diverse uncertainty. Paul uses the idea of “mystery” to describe marriage and I think this reflects the complex “grays” that are experienced in most marriage relationships.  

I discuss the  weaknesses of both of these positions in my book Revolutionary Marriage and propose a third way that works outside the dichotomous debate. It was my hope to suggest a view for marriage that helps us navigate mystery in marriage. When we settle for the certainty of either the Complementarian or Egalitarian views, we miss out of the rich diversity that can bless us in marriage. I want to focus on one idea that I suggested in my book to help move past this debate. 

We need to stop thinking about genders having specific roles, and be more concerned with what gifts, skills, talents, or abilities a particular partner brings to a marriage. When we focus on roles we create a context where  people often feel shamed or less than. The constraint of a specific role can lead them to feel stuck, unfulfilled or even a failure. 

The number of conflicts I have seen in Christian marriages over disappointment with roles and expectations are too numerous.  A wife might feel like her husband needs to live up to his role as spiritual leader of the household and the husband feels inadequate to the task. A husband may be hypercritical because his wife does not manage the household like he expected. I have seen husbands feel inadequate because their wife has a larger salary. Wives can feel insecure over their abilities to nurture their children, as their husband might be more skilled at soothing an upset child. 

So if we stop insisting on specific gender “roles” then how does my solution of focusing on gifts, skills, or abilities work?  

God created males and females in His image. This means both genders represent God and reflect his glory to all of creation. God is so vast, the diversity of reflecting his image is immeasurable. Roles are far too limiting. Marriage, the joining of two distinct representations of the Creator, is but one way God allows humanity to reflect His glory. A husband and wife both bring unique gifts and skills to the marriage. It is the responsibility of the couple to capitalize and utilize those gifts to best reflect God’s image to those around them. Teaming together, the couple becomes a witness of God’s identity to their community. Let me give you an example from our marriage. 

Early in our marriage I attempted to manage the budget, bills, and money. And honestly I was not good at it. After a few bounced check fees, my wife took over the duties with our money. Patricia is strongly gifted in organization, planning, and scheduling. She can visualize future challenges and creates structure to best avoid those problems. These are gifts of administration,  and often in complementarian marriages associated with a male type role. But she skillfully managed this part of our home and family with great success. She created a budget structure that we follow today. She also created a system for managing our money and paying our bills that I have since taken over and it works seamlessly. Even though I currently manage it, all the underlying processes were set in place because of her gifts. As a result her gifts have allowed us to be good stewards of our blessings.

This is just one example, and I could give many others with more space and time. So should a Christian marriage have roles? The answer is No. As a couple you should identify and capitalize on the gifts that each of you bring to the marriage. So what steps can you take to escape roles and better reflect God’s image?

1. Identify your gifts, talents and abilities. This is a fun discussion. What are you good at? What talents has God blessed you with? Let your spouse tell you what they see as skills and abilities in you. These talents may be nontraditional for your gender. That is wonderful. List them because God made you that way. 

2. Start planning as a couple how to implement each of your gifts. One of you may be a more natural caregiver so you might be the person who takes kids to the doctor. One of you might be a better teacher, so you might be helping with homework more. There needs to be some balance here, so that the total workload is shared. Remember you are a team and staying in unity with your spouse is a central goal of a Christian marriage.

3. Humbly accept that your spouse’s gifts can teach you. You can learn from your partner. My wife has taught me much about organization and administration. I am a better therapist because of her.  Allow the things you learn from your partner to grow you, change you, and benefit your family and others. 

This work is hard. Don’t be deceived by the notion that you can find the right partner and it become easy from that point on. Diligently pursuing bringing the best out of each other is ultimately rewarding because you get to enjoy the intimacy of your spouse’s best. So commit to the effort and work together. 

Remember the goal is for your marriage to be a reflection of God’s glory. Your marriage should reflect God’s image. The goal should never be to squeeze into a box of a certain predefined role. Rather, how the two of you work together to show God to others and the community is what is most important.

50 Ways to Say ‘I Love You’

February is the month of Valentine’s Day. You may love this day or have some dislike for the greeting card industry creation, but it is a reality that it can put some tension in even the best of marriages. What are we going to do – eating out or staying home? Are we buying a gift, exchanging cards, or will a handwritten note be the most meaningful? Regardless of what happens in your home, this day reminds us of the diversity of ways to say ‘I Love You!’

I would sure encourage everyone reading this blog to not go into the day of Valentine’s blindly. Discuss it early. And I am sure what you decide to do will be good for your relationship. But, we need to be saying ‘I love you’ on more days and in more ways than what we do on Valentine’s day. Expressing love is a way of life in marriage and it should be there air that we breathe. So I want to offer you a list of 50 ways to say ‘I Love You’. 

  1. Give a hug (for at least a minute).
  2. Kiss your spouse good morning. 
  3. Compliment your spouse.
  4. Mail a card to your spouse’s work.
  5. Make your spouse’s favorite meal.
  6. Write a poem for your spouse.
  7. Initiate sex.
  8. Unload the dishwasher.
  9. Fold and put away the laundry. 
  10. Go to your spouse’s favorite restaurant. 
  11. Look at the stars while laying on a blanket
  12. Sit by the fire together.
  13. Make them a playlist of favorite songs. 
  14. Empathy.
  15. Take a road trip to find a new place to eat.
  16. Serve them breakfast in bed.
  17. Email them a video telling them 10 things you love about them.
  18. Go for a long walk.
  19. Take a class together. 
  20. Watch their favorite movie. 
  21. Draw them a picture.
  22. Massage their neck and back.
  23. Chocolate.
  24. Make a video of telling a joke and send it to them by text.
  25. Frame a favorite picture of the two of you together. 
  26. Send a romantic GIF.
  27. Practice and become a great listener.
  28. Forgive your spouse when they disappoint you. Tell them you forgive them.
  29. Write them a note (handwritten).
  30. Give them their favorite snack.
  31. Tell them about your favorite memories that you have shared. 
  32. Pray for them (with them).
  33. Cuddle in bed in the morning.
  34. Make them a favorite dessert.
  35. Hold hands.
  36. Tell them something about them that you are proud of.
  37. Care for them when they are sick.
  38. Give your spouse a foot massage.
  39. Plan a weekend away together. 
  40. Take ownership when you have hurt them.
  41. Exercise together – go to the gym. 
  42. Ask them about their day? – Listen.
  43. Look at their eyes for more than five seconds – say ‘I love you’ just with your eyes. 
  44. Share a dream about your future with them – ask them to share a dream with you.
  45. Go to the store with $10 each. Buy a gift for each other that is less than $10. Go home and exchange your gifts.
  46. Massage their scalp. 
  47. Scratch their back.
  48. Brag about your spouse to others/friends.
  49. Put loving messages on sticky notes throughout the house.
  50. Speak life into them by encouraging them.

COVID – A Comet – Commitment

The COVID virus has shaken our world. The levels of uncertainty we have experienced during this pandemic have been stunning. Economic, Social, Physical, and clearly Political. Our daily lives are flooded with constant change and uncertainty. An invisible virus wields power to create panic and titanic shifts in nearly every aspect of our lives. We don’t go to movies. We wear masks. Churches worship digitally. Schools have become distance learning laboratories. There have been unexplainable shortages for toilet paper. 

This change was completely unexpected. We never saw this coming. During December 2019 as we celebrated Christmas, there were rumors of a virus in China, but the tidal wave of change coming in the next few months was unseen. The result of such change is the virus has raised our threat radar. And for good reason. It has the potential to cause real harm to the point of death. As a result – of both uncertainty and threat –  we often feel out of control. We have had to admit how little control we really have. We feel powerless. 

Then right in the middle of this pandemic mess something else unexpected happened. We have had a surprise cosmic visitor. Newly discovered in March 2020, a small (3 miles wide) comet named NEOWISE. A chunk of rock and ice, on a 7000 year parabolic journey around the sun brightens in our skies during the middle of a chaotic pandemic. What timing. It didn’t show up 6 months ago when we might not have noticed or cared as much to notice. It has been a small glowing jewel of beauty in the middle of great stress and trial. 

Our scientific knowledge of astronomical events makes a comet appearance like this something we can readily understand. But go back 2000 years in the middle of some catastrophe, and a celestial visitor would likely have been considered “a sign”. We do that as humans. We try to connect the dots. Signs in the sky must be trying to send us a message. Pandemics mush be trying to get our attention. What are they trying to say? We search for some meaning or explanation. We want to understand the why – especially in times of chaos and uncertainty. 

I don’t know about COVID or the comet NEOWISE being signs. I am not prophet nor am I the son of a prophet. But such a monumental event can get our attention. They can remind of things that are important and refocus our attention on what is most valuable. 

For me as a marriage therapist, the collision of these two unexpected cosmic realities has reminded me of some very important things about marriage. 

The truth about sharing life with a partner in marriage is that the unexpected is bound to happen. Sometimes this is as simple as an unexplained mood shift in our spouse, or as traumatic as a diagnosis of a serious disease. Sometimes a surprise can come from external causes such as being fired from a job or they can be the result of our own choices such as the revelation of an ongoing affair. Regardless of magnitude, from small to overwhelming what they shared in common is being unexpected and creating uncertainty. As a result we often feel fear, and insecurity. 

We are wired up as humans to respond to threats like these using our fight – flight system. We are created to respond in these ways because we need some form of protection. It is a good system that God gave us. But what can be good, can also become a problem for close relationships like marriage. The fear response can lead to increased conflict and distance. Fighting can cause injury and fleeing can cause distance. 

In my book, Revolutionary Marriage, I suggest a response for these unexpected moments of chaos and change. We have to keep our focus on commitment. Commitment brings stability to the unpredictable. Much like the pandemic has cause isolation, withdrawal, and increased conflict – stress in marriage can lead disconnection. When we return to our commitments in marriage the focus becomes on what we know rather than the unknown. Affirming our commitments to our marriage partner establishes predictability and stability rather than chaos.

I am not going anywhere. That’s what our partner needs to hear.

This becomes an anchor point in the storms of life. The storms pass but the anchors provide stability and security. I think this is what God had in mind when the idea of “one flesh” is expressed in Genesis 2:24. That phrase is all about unity. It means to cling or hold tightly because life is going to batter you so you need something to hold on to. 

So in what practical ways do I reaffirm my commitments? You live by the principles of “I am here” and “I am present’

I am here means that you live out your commitment by making time for your spouse. Dedicated time. Sacred space reserved just for them. This is all about physical availability.
I am present means that you live out your commitment to your spouse by communicating an open invitation to empathic connection. You choose to be responsive and aware of your partners hopes, needs, fears and concerns. This is all about emotional availability.

Some have done these things in the middle of a pandemic and they have been blessed with moments of deeper connection and intimacy. They have shared in conversations that have increased understanding and provided meaning. 

And this is what a comet has to do with marriage. If we anchor with commitment and are open enough to intimacy in the storm we will find some beautiful surprising jewels. People were able to step outside their homes or sit in the yard with the neighbors and catch glimpses of this astronomical wonder. Making time and space for each other, affirming your commitments can result in you seeing something new and beautiful in your spouse.

These experiences are like likely going to surprise us. We can’t manufacture those moments, but just as glowing tail of dust and gas pops into view in the fading twilight, beautiful moments will be experienced in marriage when we make a space and wait for them to happen. We must commit to the process and wait for the treasure.