14 for 14

On a snow-covered day in March of 2008, my life changed forever. I was just a kid back then, and I didn’t have any clue what I was doing. But it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. I haven’t been the same since. And now, in March of 2022, I get to celebrate the fourteenth anniversary of that momentous day along with the amazing woman who shared it with me.

As Elizabeth and I cross the goal line to score our second touchdown of marriage, I’ve been taking some time to reflect on how we got here. I was so ignorant when this journey began. And although I’m still more ignorant than I’ll be (hopefully) at year 28 or 42, I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few nuggets of wisdom along the way. Perhaps there’s nothing profound about any of them. But they’re lessons I feel thankful for, and I decided to put them down in writing so I won’t forget. 

Just to be clear: I’m no expert. There’s nothing prescriptive about what I’m about to share. Each relationship is made beautiful by its uniqueness, and offering any definitive “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” is a tricky proposition. But just in case my experiences prove relevant or helpful to anyone else, here’s my list of fourteen lessons about marriage that I’ve gleaned over the last fourteen years of being married:

1. There is no ideal marriage. I’ve wasted a lot of time reading marriage books, fervently searching for the universal key to lifelong wedded bliss. Somehow I got it in my head that it was possible to have the perfect marriage, and it was my responsibility to get there. But one of the most liberating things I’ve come to learn in the last fourteen years is that perfection is an illusion. Every relationship has its warts. Every marriage has its challenges. To spend our lives constantly comparing ourselves to some nonexistent, unrealistic standard is nothing more than an exercise in futility. Nobody has arrived, and nobody knows what they’re doing. So maybe it’s okay to stop chasing what some dumb book told me my marriage is supposed to be and start celebrating the one I actually have.

2. Sometimes you just get lucky. For many people, marriage is a source of disappointment, heartache, bitterness, and even trauma. Of course, that’s never part of the plan. But when imperfect humans attempt to love each other in the most intimate of ways, it’s inevitable that suffering will occasionally be involved. For the past fourteen years, Elizabeth and I have somehow been spared much of that. I don’t know why – it’s certainly not because we’ve done anything to earn happiness, or because we’ve mastered the art of being married. But for some reason, we each stumbled into just the right person at just the right time and fell into just the right circumstances that have allowed us to still be in love after a decade and a half. Call it luck, providence, destiny, fate. Whatever it is, we don’t feel superior because we’ve made it this long. We just feel really, really grateful and really, really fortunate. 

3. Nobody makes it alone. Like a running back who rushes for 200 yards because of the dominant offensive line in front of him, our marriage has been the beneficiary of some tremendous teammates helping to clear the path for our success. At every turn, we’ve been supported, sustained, and encouraged by the generous love of people around us. Financial help in tough times, supportive words on a discouraging day, meals while adjusting to a newborn, childcare for a romantic getaway, gifts that arrive at just the right time – we wouldn’t be where we are without a supportive cast of people carrying us through and cheering us on. It doesn’t just take two people to make a marriage thrive; in our case it’s taken a village.

4. Change is beautiful. The thing about being married to the same person for fourteen years is that you can’t actually stay married to the same person for fourteen years. People evolve. Who I am today isn’t who I was on my wedding day, and the same can be said for Elizabeth. We’ve adopted new perspectives, we’ve updated our beliefs, we’ve altered our habits. (And let’s not even talk about the gray hairs.) It may seem scary to love someone who is always in the process of becoming someone else, but I think this may be one of the most fulfilling aspects of our marriage. It has given us a safe, secure environment in which to grow and change. We don’t just love each other for who we were; we love each other for who we’re becoming.

5. Learning never stops. Speaking of change, I love the fact that I’m still finding out new things about my wife after knowing her for almost half her life. I’d like to think that I made a pretty good decision back in the day when I hitched my wagon to hers, but in hindsight, I realize that what I knew about her at the time was only a fraction of what I know about her now. Our marriage has been a constant journey of discovery and exploration. There’s always been something to learn. I’m rarely as alert to those lessons as I should be, but I’m enjoying the adventure of loving someone I’ll never completely figure out.

6. Unity leaves room for individuality. I like listening to music while driving or washing dishes; Elizabeth finds background music noisy and stressful. I like running long distances on the streets; she likes lifting heavy things at the gym. I like reading long novels and watching uneventful movies; she likes to fall asleep. As similar as we are in so many ways, we’re profoundly different people. And although it bothered me early in our marriage that we didn’t share every single interest, I’m not freaked out by our differences like I used to be. The longer we’re married, the more freedom we feel to be our unique selves. We don’t have to enjoy the same hobbies, vote for the same politicians, or share the same Facebook account. Loving each other means embracing one another’s unique personalities, not erasing them.

7. Some days are a grind. I’ve heard plenty of people say that marriage is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and I’ll be honest: I can’t relate. Marriage has never felt like pure drudgery to me. But at the same time, I’ve learned that it’s not exactly constant passion and unending romance, either. In our own marriage, we’ve endured our fair share of days (and weeks and months) when we’re just getting by – when we’re relentlessly busy, or when the kids haven’t been sleeping, or when stress has been mounting. But even in these seasons, marriage has allowed us to share our unfiltered presence with one another and carry each other along. It’s not always glamorous, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s just about making it to the next day.

8. It’s okay to have fun. The beginning of our relationship was painfully rigorous and calculated. Part of it was the result of my overly analytical obsession with achieving marital perfection (see #1 above), and part of it was the pressure of the unhealthy religious expectations of our environment. (Case in point: Just ask us about the story of our horrific first kiss…which happened 5 months after our first date.) Thankfully, we’ve both loosened up since then, and the result has been refreshing. We’ve slowly realized that we don’t need to overspiritualize every little detail or suffocate ourselves with seriousness. Our best days are the ones when we’re laughing at a stupid internet video, telling each other dirty jokes, or singing along to ‘90s country music (which we did recently to the great embarrassment of our children). What’s the point of any of this if we can’t have some fun along the way?

9. Memories are free. For most of our married life together, our primary household income has been derived from two fields of employment: church ministry and public education. And if you know anything about either of those vocations, you know that they’re not exactly lucrative. Thankfully, we’ve always had our needs met, and we’ve been able to enjoy comforts most of the world doesn’t. But we’ve never had much extra, and we’ve always had to stick to a tight budget. There are times when we grumble about the things we don’t get to do – yeah, it would be nice to hop on a plane and travel someplace exotic every now and then. But when I think back on our years together, what stands out are the long walks holding hands, the deep conversations about our lives and our future, the laughter around the dining room table, the solidarity we’ve experienced when facing a challenge. These things have no price tag, and they remind us that a fulfilling life of love doesn’t need to be expensive.

10. Some things are worth repeating. We’ve been married for over 5,100 days, so by my very rough calculations, Elizabeth and I have exchanged the words “I love you” somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 times since our wedding day. You’d think it would eventually become unnecessary to keep saying that same thing over and over. But it’s not. Just like it never becomes unnecessary to say, “I’m sorry.” Or, “Thank you.” Or, “Hot dang, you’re looking super fine today.” There’s something undeniably repetitive about marriage. Every morning, we wake up next to the same person and inhabit the same space. The same as we did yesterday. The same as we will tomorrow. And every morning, we choose to keep loving, keep forgiving, keep holding on to each other through good times and bad.

11. Small investments bring big returns. Nearly every night, once dinner has been eaten and the kids have gone off to play (or harass each other) in other parts of the house, Elizabeth and I sit at the table by ourselves and take a deep breath. Sometimes it’s for five minutes; sometimes it’s for an hour. Sometimes we don’t have much to say; sometimes we do. But night after night, we’re there. With each other. Completely present and available. Unwinding and decompressing at the end of the day. These are relatively unimpressive moments, but I firmly believe that they are a big part of why we’re still going strong after fourteen years. We don’t need grand gestures and cinematic spectacles. What has paid off the most for us is a commitment to showing up for one another in regular, consistent, and often boring ways.

12. It’s about partnership, not power. In our wedding vows, we went all in on the whole idea of “biblical complementarianism”: the husband is the head of the house, and the wife is his docile and submissive helper. We’ve come to regret that. (And one of these days we’ll get around to updating our vows accordingly.) Looking back, the worst decisions we made were the ones when I thought I was “in charge.” Come to find out, having a Y chromosome doesn’t make someone inherently smarter or more mature. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. This realization has been transformative for us, and it’s allowed us to create a more collaborative atmosphere in our home. The further we’ve gotten from the idea of hierarchy, the healthier our relationship has become, and I’m slowly waking up to the fact that Elizabeth’s instincts are almost always far more reliable than mine.

13. The honeymoon isn’t the highlight. Entering marriage, I had a fear in the back of my mind that after the newness wore off, it would all be a slow and depressing slide toward silent dinners, stale grudges, and separate twin-sized beds. Maybe that was because of cheap cultural narratives I had been told, or maybe it was because of unhelpful comments by cynical and unhappy married people. But my experience has been the opposite. Every season of our marriage has been better than the one before it. So either we’re naively enjoying a fourteen-year honeymoon, or else it’s possible for relationships to get better with age. We’re finding ourselves more sensitive to each other’s emotions, more in touch with each other’s thoughts, and more tuned in to each other’s bodies. (Sorry, but it’s true.) I have no desire to turn back the clock. The glory days aren’t behind us.

14. Tomorrow is a new day. There’s a common disclaimer in financial services advertising that goes something like this: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That’s as true in relationships as it is in investing. Making it through the first fourteen years is great, but it doesn’t mean the next fourteen years are a given. So although we celebrate milestones and anniversaries like this one, we do so cautiously, keenly aware of the work left to be done. We haven’t reached the summit. Complacency is not an option. Yes, we’re thankful for the past. But our focus is on the future and all that it holds in store. Tomorrow morning will bring fresh possibilities, and we’re eager to make the most of them – hand-in-hand and side-by-side.

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