It all began at Cassidy’s pizza parlor—alas, long gone—while I was an upperclassman during the ’80s at the University of Florida. Our InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter was hosting an event to connect with new students, and as everyone knows, there are few approaches more effective with college kids than food.
Our gathering was well underway when a pretty blonde wearing glasses and carrying a backpack walked in and tentatively approached our group. I caught her eye and said, “Are you with us?”
After several changes in our majors, numerous inductive Bible studies, a series of sweaty Florida Gator home games, movies, many earnest talks about God and faith, and, yes, not a few slices of pizza, by God’s grace, this petite beauty with a fetching combination of intellect and nuttiness was with me. Thirty years ago this week, Christine and I tied a knot that has endured.
In a culture in which adultery and divorce are far too common—even among Christians—the natural question that comes to mind is, “How did it happen?” Though we both did some good things that—in hindsight—helped our union endure to this point, we know that God’s grace has been paramount, and there are no guarantees in this world. Here are a few ideas that have helped us.
1. Choose wisely.
While there are many tips out there to strengthen your marriage, I know of none more important than this one. Love may cover a multitude of sins . . . but character will cover the rest. As Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
There is nothing more critical to marital success than character in both husband and wife. While physical beauty and ability inevitably will fade, character, if nurtured, likely will grow into eternity, becoming ever lovelier. If you see character defects in the other at the beginning of a relationship—when he or she has every incentive to present a façade—don’t kid yourself. You are unlikely to change him or her, no matter how hard you try.
In 30 years of marriage, Christine still has some of the same foibles she had when I first met her, and no amount of complaining or “instruction” on my part has changed that. And she can say the same about me. Thanks to each other’s patient (and usually wordless) encouragement, we are both better people than we were before—but not because we tried to “fix” one another.
In marriage we vow to remain together “for better, for worse.” Make sure the other’s worse is something you can live with, because you likely will.
Of course, no one can perfectly decipher the other person’s character before making a marriage commitment. Far better people than I have gone into their marriages believing their partners were solid, well-adjusted Christians, only to find out (sometimes years later) that they were cads. As Christine told me, tongue in cheek, there’s an element of “dumb luck” in all this. We thank God nearly every day that it worked out for us.
2. Take your time.
Everyone’s experience is different, but I’m glad Christine and I took our time before we took the plunge. In all, we knew each other for over three-and-a-half years before we walked down the aisle of Faith Presbyterian Church on May 30, 1987.
This unhurried time allowed some of the initial passions to cool and enabled us to see each other when we weren’t always at our best, to joyously explore what we had in common and to negotiate the areas where we differed, and to see if our goals in life, our personalities, and our spiritual commitments were congruent.
In my case, the early romantic passion that young lovers often experience burst into flame sooner but burned away more quickly. We had two breakups during our courtship and very nearly a third, which likely would have ended everything. I learned some painful lessons about myself and grew to respect Christine’s strength and patience enormously during this time of personal and relational formation.
If you want to build a relationship for the long haul, take your time in the early days. If yours withers because one partner decided to go slow—and I’m not talking about the guy who strings along a girl for years, unable to commit to her—then it was probably not meant to be.
3. Cultivate one another’s sexual fidelity and enjoyment.
Contrary to what you hear in the media, sex is not easy—at least not good sex. It took me longer than I care to admit that sex is not about my enjoyment but ours. As long as I approached the marital act for what I could take, frustration was common. But the more I began listening and surrendering my “rights” in the bedroom, the better our mutual enjoyment became. It’s a lifelong process, likely not mastered during the honeymoon. As Jen Pollock Michel says in her book “Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home,” “The mystery of self-sacrifice in marriage is that it is not an obstacle to self-fulfillment but a means to it.”
So, husband, learn to give yourself to your wife. You’ll learn the truth of the Lord’s promise, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (see Acts 20:35)—because in the act of sexual giving, you will receive even more: a happy wife, a sense of mutual caring, and progress toward true sexual fulfillment for both of you. Who knows? She might even ask for a night together more frequently than you do.
To make this delicate balance work, of course, requires absolute sexual fidelity from both partners—physically and mentally. Adultery is never right. Nor is lusting after or becoming emotionally entangled with someone not your spouse—in the media or in the next cubicle. Don’t think you are immune from temptation, even in a good marriage. You’re not, and nothing can bring down your good name faster than committing adultery. And your kids will never look at you the same way.
Knowing my own weaknesses, I have chosen to keep a certain distance from women, both personally and professionally. This is not without some pain. I probably have had to pass up some rewarding friendships as a result, but the larger goal—remaining faithful to Christine—is well worth it. I try to make Christine a part of any friendship I have with another woman.
I have often told my wife that if I accomplish nothing else in life, I want to remain faithful to her and to my children. This is not heroism on my part, but a minimum standard for every believer. I want to maintain my family’s trust and respect for me as a man of God and as a dependable husband and father. As the late Robertson McQuilkin said, I want to “get home before dark.”
4. Be your spouse’s biggest protector and advocate.
God’s Word says that the Christian marriage is to reflect the relationship of Christ and His church, with Jesus paying the ultimate price so that His bride can be holy. Husbands are to play a similar role in laying down their lives for their wives, who in turn are called upon to submit to their husbands’ loving leadership (see Eph. 5:22-33).
For me, such self-sacrificing leadership means that I must always seek Christine’s highest good. Though we try to live out a traditional marriage, we do not always practice traditional roles. Christine, because of her gifts and my lack, often does the yard work or various repair projects around the house. I pay the bills and handle the investing. Though I am “the leader of the home,” rare is the decision I make without her wise counsel. I gladly take full advantage of her experience and intelligence. We are not beholden to what “other” families do but try to maximize our time and skills and find what works best for us.
Whether that involves sharing the chores, packing her lunch, encouraging her when I ache to be encouraged, helping her with family decisions, giving her some uninterrupted time without me, or standing up for her when necessary, I aim to be her protector, supporter, and advocate. I try to seek her good in the workplace, at home, and in church, encouraging her to develop her gifts and increase her sense of fulfillment and joy. Though she is a “helper suitable to me” (see Gen. 2:18), she is not some sort of secondary appendage, there simply to help me reach my goals. She, too, is the Lord’s servant.
5. Be grateful.
The longer I have been married, the more thankful I have become. As the years have given way to decades that add up to a life of shared joy, sacrifice, pain, and purpose, the more gratitude I have experienced. When I see Christine making the morning coffee without complaint after I have forgotten it, I realize it didn’t have to be this way. There is no law that says I had to be married to a beautiful, stimulating, and vivacious woman—but I am! That’s pure grace, not at all deserved. And I’m grateful.
According to Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, “Gratefulness is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness.” In my marriage, I know that I’m the recipient of goodness. Such recognition puts the strains and sorrows of life in perspective. Over the last 30 years—and, I hope, at least 30 more—this gratefulness has helped sustain my marriage.
And I suspect it will help sustain yours, too.
Image courtesy of PeopleImages at iStock by Getty Images.
Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is “The Seven Signs of Jesus: God’s Proof for the Open-Minded.”