What Working on Your Marriage Really Means
By Deane Watters, Contributing Writer
An intro from Hannah: My mom is hands-down the wisest woman I know. She is the perfect blend of kind and fierce. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am who I am, because she is who she is. We talk about everything and all my best advice comes from her. We recently were chatting about someone we knew getting a divorce after having been married with kids for several years. It seems sad and a bit scary how common it is. I asked her what her thoughts were on a healthy marriage that doesn't end in divorce (my parents have been married for 39 years in August). She told me that it was just important to "work on your marriage." I responded I didn't know what that meant. I've heard it over and over, but I want more than just advice to have date nights and not go to bed angry. I asked her to write down a few of her thoughts on marriage and parenting. As expected, it is some golden advice.
My husband and I got married after dating off and on for a couple of years. I was 25, he was 34 and neither of us had been married before. We were happy in our life together and within two years our first son was born. Four years later our second son was born and five years after that our daughter came home. We loved our family and had wonderful children but one of the biggest not-so-fun surprises for me in our marriage, was the difficulty I found in co-parenting with my husband.
I grew up in a family divided by alcohol and divorce. So when we married I was determined that we would not have those kinds of problems and we would have a happy family. Don’t we all hope for that? But I had been parented pretty much only by my mother, who had a distinct style. As it turns out, my husband’s parents used a completely different approach and we really had no idea these methods would clash until we started having children.
We made it through those years by strenuous perseverance and by God’s sweet grace. Thirty-nine years later we are still very much in love and thankful for all our marriage has given us. We’ve grown up and our marriage has thrived! Thankfully we have learned a few things (most of them, the hard way) that would have helped us through some of those difficult years. Maybe they’ll help others as well.
1. Know and understand your different personalities. I’m a nine and he’s a one.
This one fact gave me precious insight into what makes us tick. I’m talking about the Enneagram, a test designed to help us better understand ourselves. According to this test, there are nine different types of personalities. After answering all the questions, I found that I am a peacemaker (#9) and my husband is a perfectionist (#1). If that doesn’t say it all, nothing will! Since learning this, I am so much more understanding of his need to get everything, including our children, just right. And he has insight into why I need to have peace-filled relationships.
Because of my childhood, I spent many years searching to understand myself. My constant question was, “Am I OK?” And I always felt I needed to be someone smarter, cuter, thinner, more outgoing and more organized than I was. After taking a few classes at House of Hope, reading a tremendous amount of books, praying earnestly and talking with wonderfully knowledgeable women, I came to the realization that it really was OK for me to be me! It may sound funny, but I was surprised that I could like myself for who I am rather than for who I “should or could” be. It was amazing.
But with “It’s OK for me to be me” came a stunning revelation that “It’s OK for him to be him!” Oh my! I had been trying to change my husband for years. Knowing his personality type made all the difference.
My advice? Take an Enneagram test and find your numbers. Come to know each other better and gracefully work through the strengths and weaknesses of each. Focus on and encourage your husband in what makes him wonderful. Together find ways to allow the strengths of your personalities work for your family.
2. My husband is not a girl.
Early on in our marriage, our pastor’s wife gave me some very timely advice. She said, “Your husband is not a girl. He never has been and never will be so be sure to keep your girlfriends.” She was talking about keeping close friends in my life, but I have come to see this advice as an important part of parenting as well. Since I didn’t get to spend time with my dad, I didn’t know what men were like. I really knew the soft kindness of my mother and I assumed that good parenting was only that. But after reading Wild at Heart by John Eldridge, I discovered that my understanding of men was limited. I found that my husband has very unique heart needs and that his love gets expressed differently than mine.
When he took the boys down to wrestle, I’d get upset and say, “Be careful!”
When the boys wanted to climb trees, I remind them of the need to NOT FALL!
But, because our boys and my husband are boys, they needed to take risks. They needed to fight battles. They needed to compete. They needed to try hard to find themselves in the rough and the tough to see what they are made of. Oh, how I wish I had understood that when our children were young.
My advice: Get a book like Wild at Heart. Come to understand the male need to have a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue. Let him be a man to his children. They already have a mom. They only need one. Your husband is not a girl. Don’t try to make him into one.
3. Tone of voice is everything…and I mean everything.
If you say to me, “Did you put the car in the garage?” you have many intonation choices. If the one you pick is irritated or impatient, I will react. Not to the question, but to the tone.
But when people get home from work after a long day and are stressed and tired and longing for a newspaper and a cold beer, sentences can come out a bit harsh.
I would tell him this story. If I had a gift for you but wrapped it in gooey slime, would you be able to receive it well? No! I wouldn’t care what was in your package I would just reject it to avoid the awfulness of the packaging. So comes the question or the instruction or request “packaged” in a harsh tone. Nothing is heard but the tone.
It’s true with children. It’s true with spouses.
My advice: Watch your tone of voice. If you see a reaction after something you’ve said, check yourself, apologize and try again. It makes all the difference. It is wise to care about how your words are received.
4. Talk, talk, talk then listen, listen, listen.
Because life with children gets hectic, time to talk is usually limited to bedtime or the occasional date night. But true talking about what is in your heart is essential for good parenting and good partnering.
As our children grew older, we made the habit of staying at the table after dinner to talk. Of course this is easier now that our children are grown, and we still do it. We feel this is the best way to “get on the same page,” an important aspect of living and getting along together. Sitting there giving each other time by talking and listening attentively is the best thing we’ve done for our marriage.
My advice: Find a consistent time when you can talk and really listen to each other. It will have great benefits for your family and your marriage.
5. Faith is a binder – when things want to fall apart.
My husband and I are Christians and our faith is important to us. Sitting with my shoulder tucked in under his every Sunday in church draws me to him in a way that I can’t explain. Together we worship, pray, listen to the Bible preached, and gather with others who know they need God too and somehow our hearts find each other again. It happens every Sunday.
My advice: Pay attention to the spiritual part of you. Faith enables you to grow closer to Christ and to each other.
6. Forgiveness is essential.
There came a time in our marriage when I was very angry, like a mama bear, for our children’s hearts. I came to the place where I realized my bitterness was endangering everything I held dear. I admitted this to my husband and we graciously decided it was time to forgive and start again.
I cannot tell you how thankful I am that we were able to hear each other, talk it out and forgive. It has made all the difference in all the important ways.
My advice: Don’t wait. If bitterness gets a foothold, it means someone is not being heard or cared for. Talk about it. Ask for forgiveness. Be attentive. Be forgiving. Marriage that lasts is so worth the hard work. Do the hard work.
My husband is a good man. Our parenting styles may be different but we have many traits that are similar. We are both hard workers and we do our best to make the world a better place. But like our Enneagram report states I (a Nine) tend to take a bit of the rough edge off the criticality and seriousness of my husband (a One), and he is able to inspire me to become aware of my own purpose and want to follow it…I soothe him, while he remind me to strive for excellence. This is so true. And after thirty-nine years together there is still more to learn and cherish about each other.
We made it through the parenting years and are now enjoying the next phase called grandparenting, an easier and enjoyable time of life.