Our lives are really the sum total of small decisions, made on a daily basis. And that means that small decisions can be turning points in your marriage.
In April, we’re going to look at practical, nitty gritty things we can do to help our marriages improve and build our intimacy. I want to frame this conversation today by looking at how small decisions can actually shape our marriages, either for good or for bad.
Before we do that, though, let’s go back to first principles. What is it that we’re aiming for in marriage?
Can I suggest that it’s that feeling that you are fully known, and still fully accepted and loved? It’s real intimacy. It’s feeling as if you can share things with each other, and that you really know each other. It’s feeling that you’re a team.
Our daily decisions can either move us closer towards intimacy, or further away from intimacy. It’s our decisions in the smaller things that add up more significantly than any one big conflict that we’re having.
So let me give a list of 10 small things that can become turning points in our marriage. Of course there are others–I’m only suggesting these to get us all noticing the trend, and starting to ask the question: “Am I moving towards my spouse, or away from my spouse?” Let’s get to it!
1. Your spouse is heading for bed, but you’re in the middle of something.
Do you turn off the computer or video game, stop the homework, put down the book, and follow your spouse? Or do you keep doing what you’re doing?
Snuggling in bed at the end of the day is one of the best times to feel like you’re one. It’s a natural time to say a quick prayer before you go to sleep. It’s a natural time to chat about what may be going on tomorrow, or anything you’re thinking about. And, of course, it’s a natural time to make love (sex is far more likely to happen if you’re in bed at the same time, after all! And since most sex happens when it’s not particularly planned, then increasing the amount of time when it’s possible to happen really does help!).
One of the biggest differences between marriages today versus a generation ago is that couples no longer go to bed together. That works against intimacy.
2. Dinner’s ready. Where do you eat it?
Do you sit at a table, together, and talk about your day? Or do you turn on the TV and eat without talking?
Especially when you have children, eating together as a family is so important. That’s when you discover what’s going on in people’s lives. It’s a natural time to check in. And it’s one of the few regular times the family will all be together.
When you’re still childless, maybe you like to watch a show while eating, but you talk at other times, and that’s perhaps okay. But eating together is special, and it’s one of the few times that we naturally have to touch base when we’re not rushed, when we’re not stressed, and when we can just enjoy being together. If you don’t have a lot of those times throughout the day, don’t miss this one.
3. You have some exciting news! Whom do you tell?
When something good happens, who is the first person you want to tell? Is it a friend? Your mom? Or is it your spouse? Even if you may want to call your mom, make it a habit to always tell your spouse first. This communicates both to your spouse, but also to YOU, that your spouse is your first priority. And that does matter.
One other thing: Some of us may get good news and not feel the need to share it (introverts may want to ponder it first). Remember that it communicates volumes to your spouse to share almost immediately. That says, “I couldn’t truly enjoy this without you.” It’s a way of saying, “you matter.’
4. You’re upset at your spouse and you need to vent. Whom do you call?
Many years ago, I attended a wedding where the mother of the bride told me, “they won’t last long. He won’t be good to her.” And that statement became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Their marriage was a joining of two immature people, but that didn’t mean that it was doomed. However, the wife was so enmeshed with her mom that every time she was mad about anything, she’d phone her mom for advice. Instead of working things out with her husband, she’d vent to her mom. And her mom would often inflame the situation.
I am very close to my girls. I talk to them daily–and in Rebecca’s case, who works for me, multiple times a day. In many ways they’re my best friends. And yet I know nothing about the state of their marriage other than what I can observe. They just don’t tell me about marriage problems. I remember once Katie mentioned something in passing that Connor and Becca had gone through years earlier, and I hadn’t known it (to Katie’s surprise). But they had worked it out without me, which is how it should be.
Everybody needs a good mentor couple and a good friend to talk to, whose judgment you respect. But if you’re in the habit of venting to everyone, and especially parents, it can take away from the need to actually work at something with your spouse, and it can break trust with your spouse.
5. You think, “It’s easier to just do this myself than to try to explain it.”
There’s a complex errand you have to run–pick up something for a birthday present, plus a card, plus some ingredients to make a housewarming present. Your husband is already going out. Do you tell him what you need, or do you just get it yourself?
Lots of times we have that fleeting thought–is this something he can do for me?–but then we realize how long it would take to explain. And so we just do it anyway.
It’s like what Rebecca and Connor were discussing on the podcast last week about the mental load of the household. It can become so heavy to carry everything, and when you do that for long enough, you can get very resentful. And yet, at the same time, sometimes we back ourselves into that role because we don’t share what needs to be done. If you find yourself consistently choosing to just do things rather than explain things, then you could be setting yourself up for a mountain of resentment in future years.
6. You make love, but your spouse touches you in a way that feels really awkward and not very pleasurable.
For many couples, this is the story of the honeymoon. But the women say little, because she’s not sure what it’s supposed to feel like, and she doesn’t want to make demands. It seems selfish. However, sex is supposed to feel good for you, too! The more you have sex without it feeling good for you, the more you solidify the idea in your own mind that “sex is for him, not me.” That’s going to make you feel used. It’s going to build resentment. And it’s going to rob you of what you were made to feel! But if you speak up immediately, in a kind way, it isn’t being critical. It’s just sharing information that he’d likely love to have. And then you can learn this together, and build intimacy. You don’t want to be in the position 10 years into marriage when you finally want to say something, but it would be like saying, “you’ve been doing it wrong the whole time!”
Need an easier way to have these conversations?
7. It’s Sunday morning, and your spouse doesn’t really want to go to church.
Do you quietly just get up and go anyway, leaving it up to your spouse whether or not he or she comes along? Do you get the kids ready for church and go anyway?
I hope so. As soon as we start thinking of church as optional, it’s far less likely that we’ll go regularly. When we don’t go regularly, we won’t see people who we need to be our Christian community.
Now, if your church isn’t really a Christian community, then find a new church! But meeting together has to be a habit. And it’s all too easy to break that habit.
8. You realize at the end of the month that you’re going further into debt.
The first time you realize that your finances in trouble, what do you do? Do you ask to sit down and do a budget together, or do you decide that he’s taking care of the finances, and you don’t want to criticize? Or is it even that you’d prefer not to know, because it stresses you out?
Money is one of the biggest things couples fight about. But it’s also one of the biggest things that can grow intimacy, if you do it well. You can make a game plan together. You can have goals that you meet together. But you can’t do that if you don’t first talk about it and take it seriously.
9. You get a job offer, but it would interfere with your spouse’s career or education plans.
It’s a job you’d love to take! But what’s your first thought? Is it about how this job will help you (singular), or is it about how this job will affect you (plural)? We need to stop thinking about “me” when it comes to work and we need to start thinking about “us”. Ask, “in our situation, whose plans need to take precedence right now? Who is the least flexible? Whose job/education does it make the most sense for us to plan our lives around?” A marriage can’t survive well with two people aiming towards their own career goals with no thoughts of the other person. You need to think as a team, even if that means that you have to sacrifice.
10. Your spouse says or does something in passing that hurts you.
Maybe he (or she) was inconsiderate. Maybe your feelings were hurt, you felt disrespected, you felt taken for granted. Maybe you felt insulted, or that your spouse doesn’t really honour you or love you. What do you do?
In many ways, this is the most important turning point. When you are hurt, what do you do with that hurt? Do you keep it inside, or do you share it?
Most of us keep it inside, deciding that we just need to deal with it. This is a big mistake, for two reasons. First, chances are your spouse never meant to communicate “I don’t respect you”, “I don’t love you,” or “I take you for granted.” In most cases, it’s a misunderstanding of the significance of the exchange. He may not have bought you a birthday card because nobody did cards in his family (it’s a waste of money and it hurts the environment, they said!), while everyone in your family growing up did cards–and wrote paragraphs of how much they loved you each year (it’s a way of putting our feelings down in writing!). Talking about it allows us to hear their heart and believe the best.
But even beyond that, when we don’t share how we feel, then we grow apart, not together. When your husband doesn’t understand how his actions affect you, then he’ll likely keep doing things that are even more blatant to you that show his disregard–even though that’s not what he meant. And the resentment will grow.
On the other hand, if you speak up right away, before it’s a big deal, your husband will learn more about how you tick and can choose to do things differently. We’ll be looking at this a lot this month–about how smart couples sweat the small stuff.
There you go–10 turning points in marriage.
Like I said, these aren’t exhaustive. There are many other split second decisions that we make that either move us towards intimacy or move us away from intimacy. So form good habits, and stick to them. Prioritize each other. Spend natural time together. These are the sorts of things that impact your marriage far more than big decisions or big things. And they do matter.
What do you think? Which of those 10 is the hardest for you? Or did I miss a #11? Let me know in the comments!
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