I was six days short of turning 22 and my wife was 21 the day we married. Fresh out of college, I had a job but little experience in the details of life on my own. What we knew about the world was limited—but that would soon change.
That was more than 40 years ago.
I didn't fully know who I was, nor did she. We barely knew each other. Oh, we had been friends for three years, the last year of which we dated seriously and were engaged. But we had been in a college environment living in dorms, eating cafeteria food and pretty much having the everyday things in life done for us. It wasn't the real world, which was to come. Neither of us realized how much growing up we would have to do. But we were in love and decided to get married.
Looking back, I think I knew her better than I knew myself. It was probably the same for her. The key to our marriage is that as we came to know our own selves, it didn't change our basic orientation in life—we were the same package even though the ingredients seasoned, matured and got better with age. And in our case, our growth brought us together rather than apart.
But not every marriage experiences this. Marriages today are at risk—especially among the generation raised with electronic devices providing much of their communication.
Reading the companion article on marriage—"Why Are Young Christians Divorcing?"—led me to think about why our marriage has lasted when many don't. So many of our friends who married at the same time are divorced, some multiple times. I haven't been privy to the details, but it's clear that a lasting marriage requires more than just good intentions.
I don't mean to discount the basic laws and principles that govern a marriage relationship as typically laid out. But experience has taught me that sometimes more is needed to overcome the challenges in any relationship. So I'd like to share some experiences and lessons of married life.
Challenges in our first year of marriage
Let me go back to the thought of our basic life orientation. Debbie and I were Christians. We had accepted God's calling in our youth and believed that to the degree we submitted our lives to Him, He would guide us. It was a simple faith that would be tested and developed in the crucible of life.
In our first year of marriage we went through a gut-wrenching experience that not only tested our faith but our marriage.
I was a young minister, and the church organization I was working in went through a division. People get emotional in a church split, and we felt the brunt of emotional turmoil unlike any we had ever seen. Our faith was tested. My commitment to the calling of a minister was tested.
For myself, I was no longer an inexperienced rookie. My rose-colored glasses had been replaced by high-definition lenses that showed me just how difficult it can be to work with people in the spiritual arena. I can say we passed through the period and continued on the job, but we were changed people for it. And we were still together as a couple.
The next challenge—hold on for the ride!
The next big life development came with children. Our first son was born within two years, and four years later came our second. We were now parents. What a ride!
Your world changes when you are responsible for developing, rearing and training children. It goes far beyond the physical things you provide. It goes to example, to character, to the everyday episodes you write into their young minds. The young ones develop their personalities first, then their own mind and views as years go by and they eventually become maturing adults.
For us, as with most parents, it was on-the-job training. I've never met any parent fully prepared for the role. It's one you learn by doing. It calls for constant adjustments, what is known in American football jargon as "calling an audible." Like a good quarterback you have to "read the defense" and adjust your play to succeed.
Good parenting demands that you "read" your children and adjust your approach to teach them properly. We managed to impart many of our values and raise our sons to become responsible adults and good parents in their own right.
Years ago a wise member of one of my congregations told me that a parent never stops being a parent. I learned he was right. The job is never done. Being a parent changes you, potentially for the better. Debbie and I were transformed throughout the process and, again adjusting in our relationship together, our marriage was strengthened.
One of the strengths we had was our relationship with each other. After our relationship with God, our marriage was paramount, and we imparted that to the kids. While we both loved our boys, they knew we deeply loved each other. When it came time for them to fly the nest and go out on their own, our marriage didn't falter. We were ready to move on to the next stage of life, together. We had continued to grow together through the years.
Lessons learned in looking back
Today we look back on 40 years from a higher perspective. We see more of the landscape of life, and with that comes understanding. So what I am passing on—to anyone thinking about marriage or perhaps in a marriage that is less than they expected—is this: Know yourself.
Know your passions, goals and dreams. Know what you believe about God and religion. Be sure you have at least a rough understanding of your spiritual purpose in life—enough to begin shaping it with thoughtful care and diligence. Life is going to bring you through experiences that will not only shape you but reveal what is already there and likely unseen.
The renowned sculptor Michelangelo described the sculpturing process as removing the excess stone to reveal the figure inside. That was his way of explaining how he carved a work of art. In the same way, life knocks away our outer shell and the rough edges and reveals what is inside.
That is how we come to know ourselves through life. But as you grow and come to understand who you are, you need to understand another key to making marriage last: Don't let yourself grow apart from the person you married.
Honor the commitment you made. Honor your mate. Don't buy the false idea that you must be true to yourself to the exclusion of promises made to one another before God.
Time and circumstances play a part in life for all of us. Many things happen in life that are out of our control. But one choice is always within our control. My wife and I made a commitment to each other, and we kept it. As we grew as individuals, we didn't let who we were take us away from the care, commitment, affection and love we had for one another.
One of my favorite songs conveys better than anything what I'm saying. The song, "If I Should Fall Behind," expresses the sentiment of two people who pledge to "walk together . . . come what may." And if the darkness of life causes them to "lose [their] way" and "a hand should slip free," then they pledge to each other, "I'll wait for you, and should I fall behind wait for me."
For Debbie and me, we "waited for each other" as we got to know ourselves. If one of us fell behind, the other waited until the one who had fallen behind caught up. I think that pretty well explains a lot of our success. If you wait for the other, then you will meet together, as the song says, "in the evening trees" of life—continuing this journey of life together.