Recently Debby and I were the keynote speakers at the kick-off event for the new Marrieds Ministry at our church. The following is an excerpt from our address…we pick it up just after I said that we typically describe our marriage as being “amazing.” In this blog post we will discuss the first point and save the second for a future blog entry. Let’s jump in to the dialogue…
When I say our marriage is amazing, I don’t say that because Debby and I are extraordinary people or that we have the perfect little marriage that has no problems, no challenges, and no rocky times.
Truth be told, it’s amazing because our marriage has suffered problems. It’s amazing because we have our challenges, and we have travelled over rocky terrain and we have managed to strengthen our relationship through these times.
And the message we have for you and for couples across this room is that an amazing marriage really is possible.
But our marriage hasn’t always been amazing. If fact, there were many years when we were so dysfunctional as a couple that it was difficult for us to carry on a productive conversation. Sex was nearly non-existent and we were completely frustrated with one another.
In the 26+ years of our marriage, we have dealt with some of the most destructive and challenging attitudes, behaviors, and situations, which have the potential to destroy many marriages, and we have been tested in ways we never dreamt possible when we exchanged our vows.
At the time, we felt that our young love was so deep, so unique, and so strong that we could weather any storm; any testing, any temptation and that we would sail right through life without any wear and tear. Oh how incredibly naïve we were.
There’s nothing unique about us. We’re ordinary people, just like you in many ways. Pastor Daniel’s book Honestly describes the messes in our lives and he could have written exclusively about ours. We’re basically just two sinners who said “I do,” but we’ve learned from our mistakes and we’ve leveraged those lessons to strengthen our marriage. We have trusted in God to make sense of the messes that we’ve created in our marriage. In fact, we’ve been speaking to groups for about 6 years now and the more we publically talk about our story and share our experiences, we find that everyone has a story and far too many are similar to ours.
Today we want to discuss two lessons that we have learned along the way in our journey; lessons that may encourage you in your own relationship with your spouse and in your relationship with Jesus.
In keeping with the heartbeat of Crossroads, that Jesus is real, and that He loves us and we need to simply respond to Him, we will discuss how these lessons played out in our life and what they might look like in your marriage. We will not only share some times where we did things right, doing marriage God’s way, but we’ll also share some examples of times when we did things our own way, in our own flesh, and how those decisions were destructive to our marriage.
Prioritize your relationship.
The first thing we want to share is the priority we place on one another and how we prioritize those people and things that are important to us and to our family. It is important that you prioritize your relationships.
In order for our marriage to be strong and healthy, our priorities need to be in the proper order. When we put God first, and then one another, we are able to fully experience His blessing in our life and in our marriage. However, if we put self first, and live for “me,” there is a constant conflict as we make choices that are selfish and that meet our own needs, wants, and desires.
When you put God first in your life and He sits on the throne, then your other relationships have a much higher probability of being successful. It doesn’t mean that life will be perfect, as Pastor Daniel shared last week. Having Christ doesn’t mean you get everything you want and you avoid all problems. If that was the case everyone would say yes to Jesus. But when our vertical relationship, that relationship between us and God, is right, then our horizontal relationships, those with our spouse, our kids, and other family or friends, have a better chance at being right.
If your relationship with God is not first in your life, you may consider asking yourself, what would my life, my marriage, my career, look like if I focused on my relationship with God first and then focused on my horizontal relationships?
Men, as the God appointed spiritual leaders of our home, let me tell you that if you aren’t living your life for God and you aren’t sold out to Him, and leading your family the way God expects you too, if you make that decision and you start to be the spiritual leader of your home and you truly begin to lead your wife and your family, you will be amazed at what God will do in your life and in your marriage.
This is a truth that we whole-heartedly support and embrace, but it hasn’t always been true of our marriage.
You see, when we were young and immature, we really had no idea what it really meant to put one another’s needs before our own, and what it meant to honor God in our marriage. We thought we were putting God first by going to church faithfully on Sundays and getting involved, but He wasn’t the priority like He should have been.
When I say we were young, we were really young. Debby and I met and started dating when she was 16 and a junior in HS. We dated a couple of years and got married when she was 18.
She turned 19 on our honeymoon and has never lived on her own. After we got married we moved her out of her parents’ house and in with me, and that was a significant adjustment period for her. She had been accustomed to always having someone else around the house – someone to talk to and interact with – and after she moved in with me, well, she didn’t always have that interaction.
This is of course, before the invention of the cell phone and social media, so when she was alone at home she was truly alone (except for the cat, who never talked back).
I was a young assistant manager with a sporting goods company and I was fully committed to my work. So much so that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say I was married to my work. I was trying to make a positive impression on my superiors and working hard to progress through the ranks and earn a promotion.
There’s nothing wrong with working hard and earning promotions, but I was doing it at the expense of my relationship with God and with my wife. Being as though this was a retail position and Sunday’s were one of our busiest days, I worked a lot of nights and Sundays and, as a result, our church attendance dropped off. I was spending so much time at work, working not only my scheduled shift but often times going in early or staying late, that the time I had left to spend with Debby was shrinking.
The combination of the sudden life change for Debby and my excessive work hours was dangerous. On one hand you have a young bride who suddenly finds herself alone when she is unaccustomed to living alone, and on the other you have an eager-beaver mentality that does anything that’s required, and then some, in the pursuit of a promotion. Nothing good could possibly come from that combination.
To make matters worse, I was also in the Army National Guard which meant that when I did have a weekend off from work I was likely on a drill weekend with the Guard and that left Debby home alone, for the entire weekend.
Being an outgoing personality and not wanting to stay home alone, Debby returned to the party scene she had known before we got married, and went to dance clubs with her girlfriends on the weekends when I was working or away with the Guard.
The clubbing and girls nights out were fulfilling a need that I was either unaware of at the time, or unwilling to fill. She needed to be around other people and wanted acceptance. After a very short time, she found herself in increasingly compromising situations which ultimately led to an affair.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a one-time heat-of-the-moment bad-decision affair, but one that went on for a period of time.
While I was at work pursuing my career and trying to provide for our new family, she craved attention and could not adjust to being alone. God wasn’t a priority in her life at the time, in spite of the fact that she was a relatively new believer, and my schedule communicated to her in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t a priority in my life either.
I was either too stupid or too ignorant to notice. Oh, I knew that something was different, that she was more distant, there was tension in the air and things weren’t as they used to be, but I didn’t do anything about it.
The day that I discovered her affair was a reality gut-check for me. Here we were, only three months into our marriage, and we hit this brick wall that stopped us dead in our tracks. It was pretty apparent that our priorities were out of order, and that we were both living for “me” rather than “we.”
Someday we may share more details about this and the days and months after the affair, but for now I’ll just say that the path forward was long and difficult, but we made a conscious decision to stay together and make this thing work. The one thing we could agree on was that divorce was not an option. We had no idea at the time what that would look like or how we would survive, but we were determined to stay together.
It was only by the grace of God and His forgiveness, coupled with strong mentoring from several Christian couples that got us through.
Over the years we have learned the importance of putting God first and foremost in our lives and the importance of our relationship with Him. When we are living for Christ and serving Him, and placing Him first in our actions and our words, everything else falls into place.
Debby would tell you that she is the happiest and finds the most contentment when she is serving others, either in the church or other ministries, and when her focus is outward and not inward.
Once you establish God as your first priority, your spouse should be your next priority. He or she needs to be the one who captures your thoughts and who fills your calendar. It is extremely important that you demonstrate this to your spouse on a daily basis.
Mark my words, and this is coming from first-hand experience, if your spouse doesn’t believe that s/he is your priority and you don’t make them feel special, over time they will seek out someone who will.
Let’s be honest, it’s not easy to keep your marriage at the top of your priority list, since there are so many other people and things competing for your attention. Your kids, your boss and co-workers, your hobbies, your extended family, your church…these all compete for your time, your attention, and your dollars. While each of these do have a place in your life, it is important that you place them in the appropriate priority order and that your spouse occupies the top spot in your life, after your relationship with Christ Jesus.
To say it differently, your spouse needs to believe that he or she is the most important person in the world to you and that you nothing else can come between the two of you.
When you do that, it changes everything. It changes your attitude, it changes the way you think about your spouse, the way you talk to him/her, the way you treat him/her, the way you value him/her…it ultimately changes everything about your relationship.
And let me say this, don’t ever say anything insensitive, hurtful, disparaging, or negative about your spouse on social media. If you can’t say anything positive and uplifting or encouraging about your spouse, it’s best that you don’t mention him/her at all on social media.
One small thing that Debby and I do to communicate our relationship priorities is that we always sit next to one another and do not allow our kids or anyone else, sit between us. Whether we are at home, at church, at a conference, the movie theater, or just walking down the mall, we are always next to one another and we are usually holding hands.
From the early years when they were little, we’ve taught our kids that when we go somewhere as a family, they cannot sit between us or walk between us. It’s our way of letting them know that we prioritize our relationship with one another and that no-one, not even them, will come between us.
I have told our kids on many occasions that the best thing that a dad can do for his kids is to love their mother, and demonstrate that love on a continual basis. It’s a great comfort and sense of security for kids to grow up in a home where their parents model a godly marriage and are deeply in love with one another.
I realize this may sound extreme to some of you and, maybe you like to sit in church with your kids between the two of you because you’re in protection mode, or for better control to ensure they sit quietly and behave. Or maybe you’ve never given it much thought…whatever the case is, that’s fine. We’re not going to judge you for that. I’m just telling you that there are little things you can do to demonstrate to your spouse, to your kids, and everyone around you where your priorities lie.
This is just something that works for us.
Once you establish your relationship with God as your primary relationship and then your spouse as your next highest priority, then it’s important that your kids fall in line next, and then your other family, or friends, or whomever else is important to you.
That’s right; your kids come after your wife or your husband.
We’ve all seen families where the children rule the roost. In these families the kids are the priority and they set the agenda and the tone of the household. It most likely begins innocently enough, but the parents, one or both of them, begins to focus more on the needs of the kids rather than the needs of their spouse. Over time one of the spouses, usually the husband, feels the need to compete with the kids for the attention of his wife and they drift apart. The spouse begins to feel disappointment, which grows into anger, which develops into bitterness, which becomes resentment, which usually leads to 1-800-Divorce.
So where are your priorities? Is your spouse a higher priority than your kids? We’re not saying you neglect your kids or don’t love your kids. We’re just saying that parenthood is temporary, marriage is forever. There are plenty of people out there that say we have that backwards, but marriage was designed to last forever. Oh, they’ll always be your kids. But God willing, someday they will grow up, get a job and move out of the house. If you have spent years focusing on your kids and then they move off to college or get married, it may be too late to begin to build your relationship with your spouse. How tragic for you to have nothing in common with your spouse when the kids are gone and your relationship grows stale, or falls apart.
I told you we haven’t always gotten things right. There was one point in our marriage where I realized that I was spread so thin and I was involved in so many different things outside our home, that the time I was spending with Debby was just about zilch. I was the President of our youngest daughters Gymnastics Booster Club, the Treasurer of the High School Booster Club, and Elder-elect at our church, serving in an Awana Club at church as well as on the ministry team, which is like an advisory board…all in addition to being a husband, a dad, and working a full-time job. Oh, I almost forgot, I was also the Treasurer for a missionary-support organization.
If I wasn’t working, I was either at a meeting, planning for a meeting, or thinking about a meeting, and Debby and the kids were getting my left-overs. The good thing, if there is one in all that, is that this was happening when our relationship was on solid ground and we were really past the most difficult periods of our marriage. However, I realized that my priorities were out of line and I wasn’t demonstrating to her that she was at the top of my list.
I remember making a decision to stop saying “YES” every time someone approached me with a new opportunity and I became very good at saying “NO.” I resigned from most of the positions I was juggling and re-aligned my priority list.
It was easy to justify every position I held, to some degree, but add it all up and I didn’t have any margin in my life. No extra time for Debby, for the kids, or even for me. I knew I needed to make a significant change.
When your spouse is your first priority, after God, it strengthens your commitment to one another, it improves your communication with one another, and it eliminates complacency in your marriage.
Some of you today may find yourself complacent. Your marriage may not be all that great and exciting, but, you’d argue that things aren’t all that bad either. Pastor Daniel talked about this last week when he told us the opposite of love is apathy. Are you complacent, or apathetic towards your spouse? Maybe you’ve settled into a routine and are just going through the motions. Maybe you’ve found yourselves to be more like roommates, with occasional privileges, rather than a happily married couple enjoying your life together.
If so, it doesn’t need to be that way. Marriage can be, and should be, amazing. My challenge to you tonight is to identify one small area of your marriage that you can change, that will have an immediate impact on your marriage and demonstrate your priorities.
Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.”
About the authors
Jason and Debby Coleman are marriage mentors and the authors of Discovering Your Amazing Marriage (Seraphina Press).
They have survived infidelity during the first year of their marriage and have been married now for over 26 years. They have four children and reside in Vancouver, WA.