Marriage and Lent

Lent is the penitential season of the church calendar that usually involves fasting (or giving up) something that gets in the way of your relationship with God. This season prepares the way for Good Friday, and the celebration of Easter Sunday. One of my good friends is a pastor, and he wrote this as an invitation entering this Lenten season: 

“Is there an area of your life where you would like to experience more healing? Consider picking a fast or adopting a discipline that creates space for healing in that area. I’ve heard of people giving up sarcasm or cynicism as well as others who read a poem a day to increase space for God’s beauty and joy.”

– Danny Bryant

Most wouldn’t be surprised to hear of someone giving up sweets, alcohol, or junk food during Lent. It’s safe to say that these sugary and fatty substances are not good for our physical health. What many of us don’t know about are the types of relational “junk food” we consume every day. All marriages are either growing, or dying, there is no in-between.

There might be places in your marriage that are keeping growth from happening. This Lenten season might be a time to fast from those activities or actions that are negatively impacting your marriage. Things like social media, tv show binging, and other “on-screen” activities all take time away from important relationships. Then there are more relationally focused actions that hurt space for beauty and joy like criticism, shaming, and words/actions of contempt towards your spouse.

Sometimes we have to stop an action first before something better can have space to show up.

What is something you can give up that would open you to God’s beauty and joy in your marriage?


Blackmailing Love

This is a great statement from Virginia Satir about the demands of love:

“One of the truly basic problems is that our society bases the marital relationship almost completely on love and then imposes demands on it that love can never solely fulfill.

  • If you love me you won’t do anything without me
  • if you love me you’ll do what I say
  • If you’ve met you’ll give me what I want
  • If you love me you’ll know what I want before I ask.

These kinds of practices soon make love into a kind of blackmail.”

The last bullet point above is one of the more common ailments I see with couples in my counseling office. It’s a bind that many couples are familiar with. If I tell you what I want, and you don’t provide it, I face rejection and pain. If I don’t tell you what I want, and you don’t provide it, the pain and rejection is diluted. If you do provide what I want without me asking … it’s like winning the lottery!

Don’t hide your needs, wants, and desires. There’s no way others can get to know you and how to love you if these things are secrets.

Too often marriages play a game with many of the cards hidden from one or both partners. It becomes impossible to win the game together, so we instead settle for a victory on our own. Unfortunately when the game goes this way, we ultimately lose and end up on our own.


Married Teens

What were you like when you were 13 years old? How were you as a kid when conflict happened in the family? Where did you go and what did you do to feel safe? What was your role in the family surrounding conflict?

Sometimes when conflict happens, we can become like a teenager again. We freeze up, fight back, run away, blame, stonewall, scream, mope, depress, and cry. I think everyone would agree that a thirteen year old does not do all that great as husband or wife. The reality is we all act like a teenager every now and then. 

What some 13 year olds need is a little bit of TLC, which is probably what you or your spouse needs when the “inner teen” shows up.

Try this: Get a picture of when you were 13, have it printed in a wallet sized print, and put it in your pocket. Do the same for your spouse. The next time you’re in a conflict, grab the picture of your 13-year old self (not your spouses picture!), and hold it up to your spouse. 

Talk to them about what’s going on with you. What does your “teenage self” need in this moment? What don’t “they” need to say or do? 


Use It Or Lose It

Relationships are like muscles, if we exercise them, they will grow (even if we don’t see that growth).

Marriage takes work, and will not naturally grow on it’s own. In fact, left alone, a marriage will shrivel up and die. It takes consistent time and energy much like your muscles.

If you were to sit all day every day for a year, you would notice a significant amount of atrophy in your body. Your inability to function after that year of sitting would likely take you a more painful and greater amount of recovery to return to your previous abilities (if ever at all). Once you have lost muscle mass, it is very difficult to get it back.

Your months and years of dating and courtship are very much like a daily trip to the gym. You exercised the muscles of the relationship that allowed it to grow. Though for a lot of us, when we married, we stopped going to the gym (literally and metaphorically!).

Continue your visits to the gym. Read books together, attend marriage workshops, go on dates, spend quality time together, give each other gifts, surprise each other with good things, and take trips. Do all of these things regularly and your marriage will thrive.


Avoiding Hurt Limits Intimacy

Couples that avoid hurt from happening (or the hurt that has already happened) are preventing intimacy from developing.

No one really enjoys being hurt, and being hurt is a part of all close intimate relationships. It’s going to happen. The difficulty is in viewing pain as though it is a gift, not the plague.

Pain is not fun, but neither is numbness. I don’t know about you, but when I leave the dentist after getting a shot of Novocain, I cannot wait for it to wear off. The feeling of not controlling half of my face is miserable (not to mention drooling and talking like there’s a boulder in half my mouth). People were not made to be numb, we were made to feel.

Mary Oliver penned this beautiful line, and it speaks well to the realities couples face: “I was once given a box full of darkness, it took me many years to realize that this too was a gift.”

Pain shapes our lives either in our acceptance of it or our refusal to experience it. Creating a space for hurts to be a welcomed guest in your marriage will serve you well. A noble calling for every marriage would be to create and live out a relationship that engages the hurt, and heals the pain.

Develop guidelines for how you’ll address hurts in your relationship. Setup a regular time to “clear the air” together, and keep short accounts. Find intentional ways to ask for and offer forgiveness.


Grace & Gratitude

Before I release a pre-marital couple to the wild world of marriage, I challenge them to adopt two words (concepts) as cornerstones for their marriage: Grace and Gratitude. Here’s why.

Showing grace implies forgiveness, acceptance, and a belief that your spouse is a better man/woman than what the offending action shows. It’s easy to get offended or hurt and turn away from them as protection. It’s hard to stay engaged and put hurt feelings aside and believe the best. Next time this happens in your relationship, offer grace by placing your hand on their shoulder or chest near their heart and say, “I don’t believe that you intended to harm me, and that you do love and care for me.” Watch what happens next. 

The second is gratitude. As a whole, we are not that grateful of a people. Instead, we are an entitled people. Sadly, I rarely encounter a couple that genuinely like each other. Most couples remember liking each other, but they’ve long since forgotten that part of their lives. Entitlements will destroy your relationship — Gratitude will repair and heal your relationship. 

Practice giving thanks to your spouse, for even the smallest of items.

  • “Thank you for smiling at me this morning.” 
  • “Thank you for sitting next to me on the couch.” 
  • “Thank you for turning off the TV and listening to my tough day.” 
  • “Thank you for marrying me.” 
  • “Thank you for smiling at me when I came home.”
  • “Thank you … <fill in the blank>”

It doesn’t take a lot to change the tune of your day, or your spouse’s day. Show them grace, and gratitude, and see how quickly you begin to like them again. 


Testing Relationships

Depending on the age difference, kids test out their emotions on their siblings. Kids yell, hit, scream, cry, manipulate, shut down, lie, cheat, steal, and pout. They are working out how to be in relationships with themselves and the people they live with. 

These tests are pretty safe to run, because kids don’t get a choice to leave or stay. So there is a lot of latitude they have with how they treat one another. 

A lot of times these “tests” don’t go all that well. But it’s ok, because kids don’t really know what they are doing. That is not the case as adults. We will run off the people who are close to us if we keep testing them. 

At some level, we all keep running these tests with those closest to us, especially in our marriage. Yes, we’re adults, but we’re still trying to figure out ourselves, and life. 

If we continue these behaviors in our marriages, it will lead to us treating our spouse more like a sibling than a lover. 

What tests are you running in your marriage? What questions about yourself are you trying to answer by testing your relationships? 


The Fifteen Minute Date

Yesterday I wrote about why couples need to keep dating after they marry. Sometimes it’s been so long since a couple has had a meaningful conversation, they’ve forgotten how to do so.

When I say “forgotten” I don’t mean that they (or you, if this describes your relationship) don’t know how to talk together. It’s that they don’t have the memory together of a conversation going well. Perhaps conversations lead to the fights, and thus they avoid talking to keep from fighting. 

Regardless of the need, The 15-minute date is a great solution to kick-start a quiet relationship, guide a difficult conflict, or promote healthy boundaries in conversation.

This short-and-sweet fifteen minutes is structured so that both husband and wife get a chance to talk and listen. (The biggest problem in most marriages is not about communicating, it’s about listening). Both need to talk, and both need to listen

So here’s how the date works. It’s broken up into three 5-minute segments: 

  • Speaking
  • Reflecting
  • Responding

The person who asks for the date get’s to speak first. They get the floor to speak about whatever they need to for 5 minutes. Set a timer and hold to the boundary of this time. The listener is to listen only, no talking. 

At the end of the 5 minutes, restart the clock and the listener is allowed to ask follow up questions, and reflect back what they heard (not the interpretation) the speaker say. This is space is still about the speaker, and their needs.

For the final 5 minutes, the listener gets a chance to respond to what has been said, what has not been said, and to offer any feedback or conciliatory ideas to the original speaker.

At the end of the fifteen minutes, stop the dialogue and let it rest. Take at least 15 minutes to let what has been said and what has been heard to metabolize. If you’re in a good place to revisit the topic, ask to see if the other is open to revisiting. 

Guidelines for the date: 

  • The best time and place for this date is when distractions are at a minimum. 
  • No screens, kids, books, or music. 
  • Try to do it in a private setting. 
  • Use caution if either is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired (Acronym for HALT).
  • Start with something positive about the other person, or the relationship. 
  • Seek to end the date with peace and kindness.


Keep Dating

After a couple marries, one of the first things to go in their relationship is dating. Most couples stop the very thing that helped them fall in love in the first place. And from a rational standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. 

Before you got married, you had separate lives, interests, and routines. Dates were a way that you could connect your separate lives, and create some shared experiences. 

Now that you’re married, you don’t have the separate lives you used to. Now, you go to sleep together, wake up together, and come home around the same time. Together. There are lots of experiences together. 

You might be asking, “why do we need to go on dates now that we spend all this time together?”

The answer is quite simple. You need dates to remember why you fell in love, and to create new experiences to strengthen your love.

If you don’t spend time investing in your relationship, it’ll atrophy.

Relationships don’t grow without attention, and more importantly, intention. Dating is a way to intentionally pay attention. (If you’re a guy reading this, your wife will 100% agree with me that getting asked out by her husband is sexy.)

Go on a date once a week, or at the very least twice a month. Pick a night, get a babysitter that you can count on, and take turns planning what you do on your date. 


When in Conflict: Take Your Shoes Off

The next time you find yourself in conflict with your spouse, take your shoes off. Seriously.

Conflict in your marriage is holy ground. It’s where our life story shows up at a primal, non-verbal level. Our bodies remember things our words can’t describe. We offer silence and respect when entering a place of reverence. Conflict is this place of reverence.

Taking your shoes off puts your feet in bare contact with the physical ground, and terrain. You’re more sensitive to what you’re walking on without your shoes. You will walk slower, with more caution. If you are aware of it, this practice will help you to be more sensitive to what you’re wading into emotionally with yourself, and your spouse.