We’ve never hidden the fact that our first eight months on the field was difficult on our marriage. Marriage can be hard in general thanks to a myriad of factors, such as family backgrounds, personal expectations, normal life challenges, etc., all of which are affected by our natural bent towards self-interest and self-protection. Export these challenges into the lives of a new couple living in a new country, with new jobs, friends, foods, climate, energy level and past times, and it is amazing that a marriage can withstand that kind of pressure. Things were difficult for us, more difficult than it ever had been before.
This is why we recently decided that we would register for Family Life’s “Weekend to Remember” marriage getaway. We are aware that going to a marriage conference doesn’t guarantee a successful marriage, just like simply attending college doesn’t automatically make you a straight A student. It was funny, when we told people we were going to a marriage conference, we received a range of opinions, everywhere from excitement for us about how great it would be to warnings that it could make our marriage worse. We’ve heard numerous stories of couples who spent the whole conference fighting or not speaking to each other. Nevertheless, we felt like it could be beneficial, rejuvenate our marriage and maybe give us some tools to take back to Papua New Guinea.
It was cool how the Lord provided for the weekend, by way of timing and finances. Because of the timing of receiving Iris’ visa, we were able to attend, and because of a generous discount that Family Life gives to support-based missionaries, the finances were not an issue at all.
Two weekends ago, we attended the the three-day marriage getaway, which took place just an hour and a half drive up north from where we are living here in southern Michigan. It was a great time to hear different speakers share their insights on different topics of marriage, everything from communication to why marriages fail, roles in marriage to fighting fair and there was even a couple of split sessions for men only and women only. The speakers were excellent communicators, very funny and very practical, with great illustrations and always optimistic about marriage. Most importantly, the taught from the conviction that the Bible has everything we need to know to have a thriving marriage.
One of the nice things about the conference was that they didn’t make you break into small groups or share publicly. That would have been a drawback for me personally, maybe because I’m a man. 🙂 We would go and hear some teaching on different topics, and then after a few sessions, we would have a discussion-based short assignment to do privately with our spouse. Among the many things that we felt encouraged and challenged with, there were two things in particular that I gained from our weekend away. At one point for fun one of our speakers told us to turn to the person on the other side of us, not our spouse, and say, “We fight, too.” It was funny and lighthearted, but the following session dealt with the realities of marriage, and that having a good and thriving marriage doesn’t mean it’s a quarrel-free relationship. One speaker referred to fight in marriage as “intense fellowship.” 🙂
This was important for me to hear, because sometimes it can feel like we are all alone in our struggles. When we were in Papua New Guinea we bickered more than ever before. We had shorter fuses. Of course, we were under a lot of stress and had the pressure of added and unrealistic expectations on ourselves and each other. All of these challenges though, made me feel like we were the only couple, and certainly the only missionaries, who had these struggles. I would think, “What is wrong with me?” Of course, we believe that there is an enemy who likes nothing more than taking those thoughts and running with them. The truth is, every couple fights, and the good marriage isn’t one that has no fights, but the one that learns to fight fair. What does fighting fair look like? It starts with following the belief, which is the second thing that I was challenged with over the weekend.
“My spouse is not my enemy.” Actually, Beth is my best friend. We’ve been best friends since at least a year before we were married, and good friends even before that. Since we’ve been married we have had so many shared experience together: all kinds of road trips, new ministry experiences and training that we have done together, expanding our family from two to three to four, the craziness of world travel, learning a new language and living in a new culture, seeing the Lord time and time again provide for our needs, and even some of our wants, the list could go on. There is no person on this planet that I would rather have shared these experiences with, and wish to spend the rest of my life experiencing new things that life brings our way with. Spiritually speaking, my relationship with Beth is the most edifying friendship I have ever had. She encourages me, supports me and respects me.
I would be lying if I told you that this was always the way I thought about her, though. It is amazing to me the hurtful things that I am capable of saying to my best friend in the entire world. In the heat of an argument, Beth can go from being my best friend and ally, to my sworn enemy who’s only activity is to bring about my personal demise. Of course, this is all in my head, not in anything she has actually done.
This is actually where I think a lot of marriages probably breakdown: relational distrust. Does this person care about me? Does this person accept me? Does this person have my best interest at heart? Can I trust them with who I am? When those questions shift from yes, to maybe or to I don’t know, this has a negative impact on our ability to function as a productive marital unit. It’s easy to get there. Its also possible to get back from there. Your spouse does not have to be your enemy, in fact, your spouse can be your greatest ally. Obviously, you felt this way when you got married, we just need to get back to our roots and stay there.
It is helpful to remember this when we inevitably get into fights. Learning to fight fair includes learning to accept the truth that our spouse is not the enemy.
Anyways, we had a great time at the conference. It exceeded our expectations in many ways, and we feel better equipped to head back overseas and not just survive, but actually thrive in our marriage, thanks to their commitment to a biblical basis for “marriage oneness.”
For us, when we left PNG we were at a place where we felt like we both needed and wanted some outside wisdom and fresh perspective on how to function in our marriage relationship, even if it meant we would have to tackle some hard things. To be sure, we were committed to each other and committed to our marriage. We really do like each other and would not want to go through life without the other. The problem was, we weren’t getting along that well. This marriage getaway helped us to be refreshed and encouraged in our friendship with one another, and to refocus our marriage as a team effort we get to share with our best friend and greatest ally.
For Men Only The things I’ve written in this blog are hard to admit as a man. I can be prideful and the thought of admitting that we could use some help in our marriage, or that I personally needed help in being a better husband did not jive well with my feelings of self-sufficiency. There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Pr. 11:14) Before deciding to go to a marriage conference, I had to admit that a) there are people out there who are smarter and wiser than me and b) the wisdom and insight that they have might actually help me practically in my life and marriage. There is nothing wrong with being a man and admitting you need help in your marriage. In fact, there is everything wrong with thinking you don’t need outside influence from others and that you can be a fine and competent leader of a family by yourself. This is especially true if you are a believer in Jesus Christ and you agree with what the Bible says about husbands being spiritual leaders.
I am convinced that to invest in your marriage relationship is not unmanly; its godly. To expose yourself to outside input from those who have gone before you who might be able to help is not unmanly; its wise. To allow yourself to be vulnerable before your wife, your children and others and admit your need is not unmanly; it is the greatest example you can give them of what it means to be a real man. We all have much to learn in this area.
A Final Word
This conference was great, but I would do a great disservice by not mentioning something that we feel is vital to our growing marriage. We believe that there is a reason that our marriage can not only survive, but actually thrive here in our home country and overseas. Our real hope in marriage comes from our individual relationships with Jesus Christ. Because of our new life in Him, and because of His Spirit in us, we believe that we can actually move from a place of self-centeredness in our marriage to Christ-centered servanthood and experience not just a satisfactory marriage, but a satisfying & life-giving relationship. Sometimes outside wisdom can help us connect the dots between what we have in Christ and how that applies to our marriage relationship.