Marriage is a divine mystery and the process of two people becoming one. That process comes with some unforeseen challenges, but hang in there. It’s worth it.
The doors swung open. There she was, beautiful and confident and everything I’d ever dreamed. This was it. A few long minutes stood between me and Tiffani and marriage.
I’m ready for this. And I was. As much as I could be considering I knew nothing about marriage. I’d never tried it, after all. Watched a few movies. Read a book or two. But I had no idea. Who does?
Marriage is a fearless act of faith drenched in naivety. If God granted us access to the future, if we could see it all in the beginning—all the failed promises, all the struggles of daily living in the same home with one person, all the frustration and pain-induced tears—would anyone exchange vows? I’m not sure. Sure, there are good times, laughter (lots of it), intimacy, companionship. Thankfully, though, God doesn’t give us a preview.
If I’m honest, an article like this one is almost futile. Marriage, much like parenting and riding a bike, is learning as you go. You will make mistakes, skin a knee or worse. Maybe you know someone who got the bike riding thing on their first try. I don’t. If such a person even exists, they don’t have any friends. I’m sure of it.
Marriage is not about avoiding mistakes. It’s about learning from them. And articles like this one become valuable once you get on the bike, and particularly after you fall.
Why, then, write to people on the “before” side of their wedding day? Because you will fall down. Reality will inevitably crush your expectations and what you thought about marriage. In those moments, I pray you remember what you’re about to read. It might help you to get up and keep moving forward, to fight for your relationship, to extend grace, to ask for forgiveness.
So, here we go. Here are six things I wish I had known before I got married.
1. The first year (or two) is really hard.
You’re married the day you exchange vows, but you will spend the rest of your life becoming one.
And that’s what marriage is, two people becoming one. A divine mystery.
Those first weeks and months, you will feel anything but one. Mark my words. Excruciating best describes my first year of marriage. I questioned so much. Who is this woman I agreed to marry? Why do we argue every day? Is there an escape clause?
If—no, when—you experience something similar, don’t take it as an indictment on you, your spouse or your relationship. It means you’re married.
You’re learning how to become one. You’re learning how to be naked with another person. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. You’re learning that the person you married isn’t as perfect as you once thought. You’re learning to exchange expectations for reality. You’re learning to accept her flaws, to forgive her when she hurts you. You’re learning intimacy. The costs are high, but so are the rewards.
Don’t give up. Put in the work. You will reap the benefits in the years to come.
2. Sex will not fix your problems.
I was addicted to porn long before Tiffani and I exchanged “I dos.” No worries, though. Marriage would cure my addiction. Who would watch porn when they could have sex whenever they want?
Our culture paints an impossibly perfect picture of sex. It’s the answer to all your problems. Do your marriage a favor; throw that picture in the wastebasket.
Sex won’t fix your addiction; only hard work, faith and most likely, a counselor can do that. Sex won’t fix your marital problems either. Excessive, unhealthy fighting, growing bitterness and resentment? Sex masks those problems. It doesn’t fix them.
Sex isn’t bad. Far from it. But when you expect sex to solve your problems you will always find it falls short.
3. Forgiveness is not simply saying, “I forgive you.”
Forgiveness is more than words. Forgiveness is letting go, from the heart.
This has been a learned skill for me. For many years I would verbally accept Tiffani’s apology, but I didn’t mean it. This became obvious the next time she did something I didn’t like. I would lash out passive-aggressively about a past wrong that had nothing to do with the current issue at hand.
Friends, this is called victimization. It’s holding someone’s past against them. It’s a grab for power and control, and it will destroy your marriage.
You must learn to forgive from the heart, to let go. This will feel like losing or weakness. It’s neither. Forgiveness is strength; it builds your muscles so you can fight against the evil forces that want to destroy your marriage.
4. The only way to intimacy is through conflict.
You will argue. You will get frustrated, upset even. For some reason we’ve been taught that conflict is unhealthy. The opposite is true. The only way to intimacy is through conflict. You can’t experience true intimacy by going around conflict or pretending it doesn’t exist.
Conflict is not dysfunction.
You might need to remind yourself of this often, especially early on. The absolute worst thing you can do is remain silent. If you bury frustration and tension, they will resurface as bitterness and resentment. Be honest and transparent, even if it means more conflict in the short-term. You’re paving the way for a strong marriage down the road.
5. You can’t change or fix your spouse.
Say this to yourself, “I cannot change my spouse.” Write it on your heart.
Not long after you tie the knot, you begin noticing deficiencies in your spouse—things you didn’t see before you were married. That’s because he’s human. He’s a perfectionist. He’s hyper-focused on being right (All. The. Time.). He’s selfish sexually (or emotionally).
I need to fix this, you will think, and just like that your spouse now becomes your personal salvation project.
Don’t do this. Please.
You can’t fix people. You can only love them. You cannot love your spouse and try to change them at the same time.
So, Frank, I should just accept this behavior? That seems wrong.
No, you should first get to work on yourself. It’s the only way. You become more loving. You become more forgiving. You change your perspective. Don’t enable—be honest about your frustrations and your spouse’s behavior—but don’t resort to fixing.
Continue to love. Be patient. This sounds silly and counterintuitive and even dangerous. I get that. Just trust me.
[Editor’s Note: If you are in an abusive relationship, take the additional step of seeking outside help.]
6. Selflessness and sacrifice are the foundations of a healthy marriage.
In the earliest days of marriage, when I felt like Tiffani wasn’t meeting my needs, I doubled down on the selfish behavior. I intentionally avoided things I knew she wanted me to do. Simple stuff like take out the trash or unload the dishwasher. Stuff I knew would upset her.
The quality of your marriage hinges on the little things. Over the years I’ve learned that serving Tiffani changes my attitude and perspective about her and our marriage. It seems to wash my selfishness away, if only temporarily.
This sounds counterintuitive, but whenever you feel your needs aren’t being met, try serving your spouse. Ask yourself, “What would she want right now? How can I help her, make her life easier today?” Double down on your serving. Try it. See if something changes.
Marriage is beautiful, but it’s not easy.
Remember, God is for you and your marriage. Trust him. Find a Christian community. Lean on them. Find older couples. Learn from them. Make friends with other married couples. Let them hold you accountable.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank Powell is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside Church in Granite Bay, California. He is also a husband, father and Jesus follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee. You can find more of his content at Blog.BaysideOnline.com.