In less than a month my husband Josh and I will be celebrating 20 years of marriage together. This seems like a big deal. 20 years seems like I can finally talk about marriage with some sort of authoritative experience on the subject, rather than feeling like I am still play-acting as a married adult. (Which is, incidentally, how I felt for 15-ish of those 20 years.)
I was thinking the other day about marriage; ours and others I have witnessed. I was thinking about the advice we got early on in our married life. I’ve spent countless hours over the last 20 years reading many books and blog posts that boasted that they alone held the secret to marriage bliss. I’ve heard it all, and you have too. Communication is usually the number 1 thing people claim as the key to marriage success. You MUST on the same page with your spouse with; finances, sex, parenting techniques, and expectations for each partners role in the family.
Typically the narrative goes that communication leads to success in marriage and a successful marriage is defined by it’s length. Stated another way, a long marriage is a good one and the way you can guarantee a long marriage is with good communication. We lament the high divorce rate, and celebrate people who have ‘stuck with it’ through the hard things. Culture, especially within the walls of organized religion, tells us that it’s always better to stay, because once you have reached “long marriage” you have reached the ultimate goal.
A long marriage does not necessarily determine a successful marriage, however. A successful marriage is one where both parties are thriving; where they have an equal partnership, and where they have been able to go through hard things together and end up closer to each other. Most importantly, a successful marriage is when it is clear that both parties love one another for who they are, and not because they think/believe/act a certain way. This is how we should be defining “success”.
It is empty advice to tell a newly-wedded couple that in order to have a long, successful marriage, they must simply communicate with each other. This is like going to a hairdresser with an idea for your new hairstyle. You can come armed with a photo, you can tell her how your hair works with the texture and where the part goes, and how you usually style it and what kind of products you use. You have done your part to communicate with her, so does this mean that you have a successful hairdresser/client relationship? No. This is a one sided communication. A successful relationship between a client and a hairdresser means being able to communicate effectively, PLUS her understanding what you want, and possessing the desire and ability to serve you in this way.
Sometimes in a marriage (or really, any other kind of relationship, but we’re focusing on marriage) you can communicate your needs and desires until you’re blue in the face and exhausted from the effort, but the other person in the relationship does not possess the desire or ability to meet those needs. This is not a successful relationship, whether you’ve been in it for 6 months or 60 years.
Communication is not the key to a successful marriage. Do you know what is? Love. What Josh and I have done through the years, is chosen to love one another. That sounds simple and basic, and maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it easy. To love one another fully means that I don’t love him because he provides/is a Christian/is a good dad/is a hard worker/fill in the blank. I love him because he is who he is. And he doesn’t love me because I clean the house/take care of the kids/am a good mom/am a Christian/fill in the blank. He loves me because I am me.
We got married when I was 19 and he was 20. Babies. Believe it or not, at age 39 and 40 respectively, we no longer hold the same beliefs and values as we did 20 years ago. Shocking. Much life has happened and it has changed what we believe and what we hold dear. It has changed our theology and our politics and our parenting and how and why we make decisions. We haven’t always agreed, and actually still don’t on some things. We haven’t always changed in the same ways, or at the same pace. The way that the one person has changed and grown has not always been comfortable for the other one.
But what we have done is given each other the freedom to change. We have not tried to control the other. (At least not for long; we learned quickly that control is the antithesis of love.) We have not tried to keep the other in a box, or stop them from exploring new ideas. That freedom has allowed our love to grow and deepen. It has allowed each of us to grow towards becoming the best versions of ourselves.
A successful marriage is not determined by longevity, and it is not guaranteed by proper communication. It may be simplistic, but it really is about love. Love looks like accepting another person for who they are, and not making your feelings dependent on what they do for you. When you love another person like this, you give them to the freedom to try and fail, and to grow and to change. And as your loved one is in processes of all of this changing, love asks the question, “How can I support you? How can I help you become the best version of yourself?” In a successful marriage, each partner does this for the other. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s uncomfortable. Simple, but not easy. In the end though, it is worth it. 20 years and counting, and I wouldn’t change a thing.