It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I’m old. I must be because this past year, my husband and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary. That is just weird. Until now, I thought only old people were married over two decades. Obviously, I was wrong.
Ever since my epic essay on marital fighting in Rocking Ordinary, I’ve been getting a lot of private messages about marriage. My husband and I are the most unlikely marital experts; when we eloped from Bible college (he an under-documented immigrant and me with $20 cash and two suitcases of laundry was all we owned). No one would have bet on our lasting a year. And I’m going to tell you the truth, I didn’t have high hopes for us, either. But God’s grace was far greater than either of us ever imagined. We stumbled and floundered and fought our way to our first anniversary, at which point David declared a fresh start to our marriage. That night, during a candlelight dinner of pan-fried steaks, he optimistically and convincingly laid out a bold, new vision for our own personal happily ever after. From that point on, our relationship has grown and matured each year, like a tree finally finding its roots and slowly, little by little, growing them deeper and further into the ground.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
that bringeth forth its fruit in its season;
its leaf also shall not wither;
and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
— Psalm 1:3
So by nature of trial and error, by watching friends make it (or not), by grabbing counseling sessions and reading aloud marital books together and wrestling through our own raw brokenness, we have learned a few things about marriage. Lessons I hope my children can learn an easier way, though I imagine that the best lessons are learned in tears.
Top 20 Truths from 20 Years of Marriage
20. Opposites attract.
You cannot find two more different people than David and me. He’s an immigrant from Peru; I’m a middle-class midwestern Daughter of the Revolution . He graduated from South Florida public school; I graduated homeschooled. He played soccer his entire life; I played violin and piano nearly as long. He sees all of life as a happy, fun adventure; I’m sure catastrophe waits around every corner. He loves ice cream; I prefer spicy food. He could watch movies and talk all day; I want to read and be left alone.
I could go on, but you get the picture. We’re different. And you and your husband are likely different, too. One of you snores, and the other throws pillows. One of you does the laundry, and the other tosses clothes on the floor. One of you is a bargain hunter, and the other thinks coupons are a waste of time. One saves, one spends. One eats, the other diets. An introvert and extrovert, pessimist and optimist, male and female created He them.
When we first meet, those differences were endearing and attractive. Then through real life, they become grating and annoying. Finally, we remember that this is why we fit together like puzzle pieces. God designed us to match, not copy, each other. It’s almost like we were always meant to complete, not compete with, him.
19. Closeness grows similarities.
The longer we create a life together, though, the more David and I have grown similar. I’ve noticed this, especially, in the last five years or so. Our values, our perspectives, and our passions are matching up and overlapping more and more. Part of this is due to our shared history (two decades is a long time!). Some of it may be due to our influence on each other. But mostly, God is growing that marital tree deeper and stronger, making us more one than separate.
We grow similar, though. We don’t magically become similar. I think a lot of frustration in my early marriage was from my trying to force us into agreement too quickly. It wasn’t until I relaxed and accepted our differences that our personalities began to merge. That’s something I would encourage new brides: practice daily accepting him as he is. That’s true love.
18. You each need your own outlets.
When we were first married, David and I did everything together. We even worked at the same employer for the first several months. We were beside each other all the time, and that got to be a little crazy-making. Stifling. Suffocating.
A lot of that was just necessity. We were living hand-to-mouth for the first couple years, so we did what we could to survive with what we had. But it soon became apparent that we had different strengths and abilities, so working separately was better (once we could figure out the transportation issues). And then we started to realize that we each worked through the struggles of life differently, too. He wanted to communicate immediately and fix the problems fast. I needed space to figure out my feelings and consider if or how the problem could be solved.
Over the years, this principle has become more apparent. We each have different needs and abilities, ministries and talents. Our marriage has grown and thrived by helping each other achieve our individual dreams: career goals, extra-curricular activities, projects, and relationships. He owns his own soccer club now, and I attend his games and cheer really loud. I play in local orchestras, and he claps at my performances. With each small separate success, our marriage wins big.
17. Your relationship also needs common interests.
On the flip side, there’s nothing like working together to strengthen our bonds. Having hobbies in common is definitely helpful. Some couples golf or run or collect antiques together. But we don’t do any of that.
We both do love, however, history and culture. So attending live performances, touring museums, and watching documentaries really get us excited (we may be weird). Also trying new restaurants, walking through cultural festivals, and wandering through thrift stores. We have made a lot of memories and grown together by seeking out these fun opportunities.
16. God has a purpose for your marriage.
A few couples tie the knot knowing God’s big plan for their love. Like Jim and Elizabeth Elliot, whose courtship included their mutual plans to reach the lost tribes of South America. I am reminded of Bible college couples, pastoral studies majors who look for matches in the elementary education or piano classes, hoping for a super-ministerial “help fit for me” kind of bonus gal.
Most of us aren’t like that, though. We have to struggle for years to find our separate and together ministries, seeking God earnestly through good times and bad, wondering what His ultimate plan for our union and family means for eternity. David and I had faith that God did predestine us together, but we have not always been clear why. The past year or so, we’ve come to a steady, firm resolve that we do not have to find these answers now. or ever. We simply must trust that following His plan day by day will work His image through us until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).
For instance, it only slowly, over the past twenty years, dawned upon us that adopting is part of God’s plan for our family. And it took a few years for us to understand how homeschooling was part of our family’s design. Sometimes it takes more faith to simply go like Abram, unsure where God’s path will lead. But lead He will.
15. Two are stronger than one.
At any given time, one of us is down while the other is up. He’s discouraged about his career, while I’m thankful for the provision. I’m disgusted with writing, and he’s proudly pushing my book. We can each see hidden opportunities, benefits, and blessings that the other can’t recognize. It’s what keeps us going when we want to quit.
But woe to the whole family if we both get discouraged at the same time. I think it only happened once or twice ever, which is good, because that would bring the Garfias machine to a standstill. YIKES!
14. Fights happen.
Like, every day. There is no way two human people will ever agree on everything. Disagreements should be expected. Arguments happen. But what makes or breaks the relationship is how we fight: are we fair? are we listening? are we honest? are we fighting together for the solution? Are we committed to making sure our marriage wins every fight? That’s how the fighting makes us stronger, not weaker.
13. Listening is mandatory.
I have a deep, scarred need to be heard. My first two decades of life were marked by unheard cries for help, unanswered questions, unnoticed tears. The last two decades have been the story of finding all that and more: a love that listens, a God that answers, a joy that wipes every tear from my eyes. And it all began with a husband who lived God’s love before me every day.
Listening is love. It’s loving enough to really hear, hear the hard truths and the scary, sinful ugly and the terrible troubles. It’s listening not to fix but to find the other person, to bear their burdens, to cover their sins, to carry them through the wilderness, to join their journey toward God Himself. Listening is the intimate love language of marriage.
12. Romance can be learned.
I am probably the least romantic person I know. I have a huge personal space issue (as in, please don’t come within a ruler’s distance of me) and this can be a problem for a touchy-feely Latino (pray for him). But with commitment, practice, and trying again and again for years, two people can become experts in what that other person wants.
Is there anything more important to learn than how to love the one you’re with? It is a slow lesson for a lifetime of learning, so keep practicing every day.
11. Sexy is a decision.
Sexy is not a week of the month or a scent of perfume or color of lingerie or a texture of sheets. It’s the mental decision I will show up and love the one I’m with. So some months it’s a jump on the mattress but others it’s the mental fight to put someone else’s desires first, to overcome the clutter inside the brain and the turmoil within the soul to reach outside of myself and away from what else consumes me. To let someone else consume me instead. To overflow the love God gives me every day, allowing that love to touch hungry skin and naked heart. To give myself, utterly and completely.
10. There’s something to this leaving and cleaving thing.
When we got married, and then when we started over again after year one, we still wondered can two mismatched youngsters overcome two broken families and two flawed upbringings to forge an entirely new path? And time and time again, the answer was in the leaving: leaving expectations, leaving others’ dreams for our future, leaving others’ ways and wishes and launching into our own unique, God-ordained future instead. It was boldly going where no one in our families had gone before, taking jobs and ministries and family goals that no one believed possible or even wise. It meant learning from our own mistakes, closing our own front door, and saying, “No thank you” to other plans.
Have we felt alone? Often. Did we mourn the loss of support? Absolutely. Did our gamble pay off? One hundred percent. Would we do it again? Every single day of the week.
9. Financial hardships make or break your relationship.
Since the day we got married, we’ve struggled with financial issues. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve regretted decisions. We’ve scrimped. We’ve struggled. We’ve fought. David confessed to me last week that in those early years, when he was working two jobs over 15 hours a day, he was often hungry.
The most difficult, scariest, darkest fights of our marriage were over money. The desperation, the disappointment, the blame can run deep and strike hard. Every time the issue comes up (it will until the day we die, I think), David always says, “I don’t want money to become a problem with us.” Which used to make me snort, because obviously it is a problem, that’s why it keeps coming up!
But it doesn’t need to be a problem with us. With who we are, with what our marriage represents, with the foundation that holds us together. Finances don’t need to poison the roots of our tree; because money is not what our planted union survives upon. It’s just one more obstacle, one more test, one more storm to ride together. Financial obstacles — like every struggle — could actually strengthen us as we work through the trial together.
8. Parenting requires teamwork.
In the early years of motherhood, I frequently felt alone in parenting. And I was, because David was working so many hours to keep a roof over our head and food in our mouths. When he was home, he was worn out. If he sat down, he fell asleep. Why can’t he hear the baby crying or the boy pulling his sister’s hair or the glass shattering across the floor? How could he possibly miss the very clear message my dirty look is sending him loud and clear?
But I didn’t understand the season our parenting partnership was going through. I’m uniquely suited to the hyper-busy, uber-vigilant, ultra-consistent days of early childhood. Routine, correction, encouragement, nap time — I’m all over that. Then comes puberty and teenaged independence, and my boy-heavy brood increasingly turn to their father for advice, activity, and discipline. He’s first up at bat on the parenting issues now (dare I say it, now he’s the bad cop to my good cop? Yay!).
Teamwork doesn’t mean everyone works an equal time today. It means we’re here for our part, and his part cometh. Oh, how it cometh!
7. There’s a time and a place for asking for help.
That’s not the minute he trudges through the door with the grime of work and the weight of the world on his shoulders, when I’m all about hurtling a half-naked savage toddler in his face with an “I’m done! Your turn now!” I’ve tried that, it doesn’t end well for any of the parties involved.
I don’t appreciate it when he unloads his list of todos on me at the dreaded 4pm Thursday, either, after all.
Instead, I’ve started making a list. “Things I need to bring to his attention on date night.” On bad weeks, I even write it down. Halfway through dinner (or at least after ordering!), I can broach the subjects: these chores need done asap; this child needs the hammer brought down; this issue is driving me insane; this world problem must be solved immediately.
Half the battle of fair fighting, after all, is picking the right time and place to dual.
6. Marriage is always hard.
Every time I think we’ve got it made, things unravel. I sat down to write a chapter on marriage for Rocking Ordinary, only to be interrupted by the epic fight of the year. We are always human sinners, and we keep coming up with new ways to fail each other.
So every day is a fresh opportunity to love and forgive, to listen and commune. Twenty years of fair fighting, passionate making up, and happy resolution has left me with hope. We’ll find our way back together.
5. Date night is essential.
When am I going to unload that list of complaints, anyway?
It’s become somewhat fashionable to declare date night unimportant lately. Because “we’re doing great without it” and “the Bible doesn’t say Friday night is for noogie,” but I’m here to tell you if you cannot give a tithe of your time to your marriage, how sacred is it? If we prioritize attending church and spending one-on-one time with our child and going out with friends, how much more should we reserve our time and attention to the one person we covenanted our union?
Do we really always have date night? Yes. We had date nights when we were childless, taking a bucket of chicken to the beach at midnight when we got off of work to sit in the dark and listen to the waves and each other’s munching mumbles. We had date nights on the floor over pizza and a video while the babies were in bed early. We had date nights with takeout in bed when my arthritis depressed my spirit.
Every major decision in our relationships was made over date night. That staggering fact just dawned on me. Babies, moves, ministries, family issues, job changes, everything was discussed, prayed over, started and celebrated on date nights. Intentional intimacy cannot but move our relationship forward, week by week. Date nights are number one.
4. So is getting away.
Ten years ago, a woman bragged to me at church that she had never, ever left her children to go away with her husband. She said it like it was a badge of honor, something to be congratulated. A few years later, she was divorced.
For the past fifteen years, David and I have gotten away for a weekend nearly every year. Sometimes just driving to a hotel a few hours away. Sometimes flying to an exotic destination we’ve found a good deal on. But, like date night, our travels away are intentional.
We’re throwing money at our marriage. Because where our treasure is, that’s where our heart is. Our heart is in running away from distractions toward each other. Our heart is in spending private, uninterrupted time together. Our heart is in making memories that only the two of us share, part of our intimate story together.
We’re showing our children they aren’t number one. Hey, they are awesome and talented and super important. Have you met my children? They are the bomb! But they aren’t the end all of our relationship. They know Mom and Dad like them an awful lot . . . but we’re madly in love with each other. And pretty soon, they’ll all be outa’ here, and then there will be singing and dancing and running around in our underwear . . .
3. You never have to stop growing together.
As the sun crept up over the Carribean Sea outside our Cancun resort, I looked down at the graying hair of my sleeping husband and realized, this is not the man I married. He’s way sexier. I married a twenty-year-old college drop out with a funny accent and a soccer obsession who made my heart stop when he talked about his dreams about us together. But now I’m married to this accomplished banker, soccer club owner, children’s ministry director, wise father, and attentive husband who has spent the past twenty years showing me happily ever after day after day after day.
I’m in love with that man!
2. Every day, month, and year is an adventure.
When we first celebrated the New Year 2016, it was with high hopes and lofty plans. And some fear and trepidation. Together, we walked through some pretty incredible experiences, logged some serious travel miles, and accomplished bucket-list goals.
But we also faced some significant business, ministry, and relationship losses that rocked us unexpectedly.
So when 2017 began, we started off date night with me crying into my paella, “I don’t even want a New Year! Take it away! It’s just too scary!” But in true Peruvian optimist fashion, my heart throb only saw the menu full of exciting possibilities and delicious favorites: family, work, ministry, opportunity. All of it thrown together for surprise and enjoyment.
At least we don’t have to face it alone!
1. Happily ever after is possible
I didnt’ believe it as a girl, I didn’t trust it as a new bride. But I’m here to tell you as a comfortably married middle-aged (sigh) matron . . .
Fairy tales do come true. Enjoy every glorious moment.