Once your wedding vows have been said, your reception cake eaten, and your honeymoon photos stashed inside an album, you and your spouse can start on an even bigger adventure - the miracle of merging your lives together. You may be feeling on top of the world as newlyweds. But when the bliss wears off and challenges confront you, you'll need to build the kind of relationship that will stand the test of time.
Here's how you can learn from your first few years of marriage to build a strong, lasting marriage for years to come:
Accept things that you can't change about your spouse. Understand that there are some things about your spouse that were never meant to change - things that are unique to how God has created his or her personality. Ask God for the grace to accept your spouse's annoying habits without resentment. Stop trying to change your spouse, and focus on how you can each grow stronger from working together as a team.
Remember that opposites attract. Be glad that you didn't marry yourself. Ask God to reveal to you how you and your spouse's different strengths and weaknesses can complement each other. Know that what counts in a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with that incompatibility. Don't waste your time asking "What if?" types of questions. Instead, make a real commitment to what is between the two of you.
Work through your small differences (such as how to cook dinner together) to help you prepare for dealing with bigger issues (such as buying a home and having a baby). Move past arguments quickly by forgiving each other and reaffirming your love for each other. Regularly remind yourself of the similarities between you and your spouse, and what drew you together in the first place. Be patient as you work to build understanding and unity as a couple.
Recognize that your way of doing something isn't the only way. Seek to understand why your spouse thinks and acts the way he or she does. Learn from your differences. Give each other space as you each adapt to living with each other. Don't take yourselves too seriously; make time for fun together on a regular basis.
Let your marriage reveal hidden issues in your life. Expect that marriage - the most intimate human relationship of all - will bring many issues to the surface in your life that may have been dormant when you were single. As you wrestle with issues such as insecurity, your history (including your childhood, past relationships, and abusive situations) jealousy, or anything else, don't be afraid to face them head-on. Ask God to heal you and use your marriage to mature you.
Remember your true identity. You may go through an identity crisis when you're married - especially if you're a woman who changes her last name. Take some time to grieve for the single life you've left behind, but move into the future as a married person with courage and joy. Give your spouse priority over your parents and siblings so you can build a new family together without being restricted by ties to your families of origin. Root your ultimate identity in Christ, realizing that you are God's child above all else, no matter what the current circumstances of your life.
Let go of unrealistic expectations. Realize that imaginary fantasies about what your spouse should or shouldn't do are dangerous because they can leave you feeling disappointed and frustrated when they're not fulfilled, and they're not fair to your spouse. Ask God to help you see your spouse as He does so you can get a clear, accurate understanding of who he or she is. Pray for your spouse regularly.
Don't compare your spouse to other people's spouses. Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect spouse. Make a list of specific things you appreciate about your spouse, then express your appreciation to him or her. Don't expect your spouse to react to things exactly as you do, or to fulfill the roles that your mother or father fulfilled when you were growing up. Be humble, flexible, and willing to learn to work together with your spouse.
Maintain your connection. Whenever you become disconnected from your spouse (such as when one of you is on a business trip, or is too busy or ill to spend quality time as a couple), reconnect as soon as possible. Clear your schedule of activities with other people so you can spend time together. Do activities that you both find fun. Genuinely and carefully listen to your spouse. Have sex. Protect one-on-one time with your spouse so you can cultivate your marriage.
Communicate well. Make your communication free, open, and frequent. Create an atmosphere where both you and your spouse can honestly share whatever you're thinking, feeling, and desiring.
Try to talk about things before they become emotionally charged. Avoid making accusatory statements toward your spouse. Avoid making things personal if they could be perceived as hurtful. Give your spouse enough time to finish a story, make a point, or complete a thought. Use relaxed body language. Pray before responding. Focus on sharing how an issue or event makes you feel. Repeat back to your spouse what you think he or she said. Always make eye contact. Make sure the tone of your voice isn't too harsh and negative.
Be aware that conflict is most likely to arise whenever you or your spouse is sick, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, so avoid discussing controversial issues then. Before diving into a discussion, ask your spouse whether or not it's a good time to do so. Identify unhealthy patterns in the way you communicate, and work to change them.
Handle your money wisely. Consider whether you and your spouse are natural savers, natural spenders, or one of each. Figure out what money means to both of you, and what it buys for you emotionally. Remember that all of your money is a gift from God. Trust Him to provide everything you need.
Streamline your finances by merging your individual bank accounts, credit cards, retirement plans, etc. as much as possible to joint ventures so they'll be easy and quick to track. Check a current credit report on yourself, and also your spouse. Develop a monthly budget.
Talk with your spouse about your expectations for spending and set limits together. Decide who will be responsible for duties such as paying bills and balancing the checkbook. Notify your health, life, and auto insurance companies that your marital status has changed. Set up a filing system for financial paperwork. Get out of debt as soon as you can. Give generously to God's work on Earth, through your local church, charities, and elsewhere.
Get rid of excess stuff. Give away, sell, or throw out things you don't need or haven't used recently. If you buy something new, get rid of something old. Keep a few well-organized boxes of sentimental items such as childhood treasures.
Stay physically fit. Don't let yourself go now that you're married. Encourage each other - but don't nag or criticize - to exercise regularly. Work out together when you can. Be willing to spend more to buy healthy food. Eat at home on a regular basis and save unhealthy restaurant meals for special occasions. Take walks together.
Keep the spark in your sex life. Don't let life's demands get in the way of sex with your spouse. Proactively schedule times for sex, as frequently as possible. Talk candidly with each other about how to improve your sexual experiences together. Pray about your sex life and constantly work to make it exciting.
Be the best husband you can be. Study your wife to learn as much as you can about her. Discover activities you can enjoy doing together. Serve God together in a joint ministry of some kind. Commit to telling your wife the whole truth all the time. As the spiritual leader of the family, take time to study scripture and pray for your wife often. Be on your guard against sexual temptation, and strive to protect your wife's heart.
Be the best wife you can be. Express your love for your husband by complimenting him regularly on what you love about who he is and what he does. Don't expect him to read your mind; clearly let him know your needs. Avoid nitpicking and nagging. Flirt with your husband often. Make time for having fun together on a regular basis. Tame your emotions so your husband knows what to expect emotionally as he relates to you. Never make fun of your husband or make snide remarks about him; show respect for him.
Grow spiritually together. Pray and read scripture together on a consistent basis. Keep the Sabbath day together. Read books and watch movies together, then discuss the spiritual issues they raise. Go on a retreat together. Choose a day to fast together. Consider how your different backgrounds enhance your ability to worship and serve God together.
Be willing to make sacrifices. Remember that marriage requires you to put your spouse ahead of yourself for a lifetime. Ask God to help you become more compassionate, even when it hurts. Know that God uses marriage to transform you and display Himself in your life. Realize that the more you die to yourself, the more you experience new life and growth. Thank God that marriage gives you the opportunity to grow beyond your wildest dreams.
Prepare for children. Know that it's never too early to begin praying for the kids you hope to have one day. Talk with your spouse about how many children you plan to have, and when. Discuss the different ways you were raised and what style of parenting you'd like to embrace. When children arrive, remember to keep God as the top priority in your life, and your spouse second (so your children would be third).
Make time for friendships. Let opposite-sex friendships go (or set strong boundaries for them) after you're married, but keep your same-sex friends who are still single. Introduce them to your spouse and have your spouse introduce his or her old friends to you. Make time to get together with your same-sex friends occasionally, but make sure your spouse knows that he or she is the most important person in your life.
Do your best to get along with your in-laws. Avoid speaking negatively about your in-laws, especially to your spouse. If you live close to your in-laws, establish boundaries such as having them call before they drop by. Take time to learn about your spouse's family history. Avoid mentioning disagreements you're having with your spouse to his or her parents. Try to spend time with your in-laws in fun ways outside of a home setting. Pray for your in-laws.
Use conflict to draw closer to God. Take advantage of the opportunities that your conflicts give you to grow individually and as a couple. Pray about your difficulties and tensions. Get counseling. Establish a relationship with a veteran married couple who can mentor you.
Realize that every marriage has seasons of ups and downs. Never consider divorce. Try to understand your spouse's point of view. Don't withdraw; face issues with courage. Apologize when you're wrong and forgive your spouse when he or she is wrong. Focus on the positive aspects of the marriage you and your spouse are building together. Avoid bickering in public as much as possible. If you need to correct your spouse, do so in private.
Create traditions together. Establish traditions that work for both you and your spouse. They can be traditions carried over from your childhoods, or new ones that you build together. Be creative. Remember that not all traditions have to revolve around holidays. Some have deep spiritual significance; others are just for fun.
Keep dating each other. Schedule dates on a consistent basis. Be creative and plan a variety of dates. When you're on a date, don't talk about work, kids, in-laws, money, or any other issues. Keep the focus simply on having fun together.
Adapted from Just Married: What Might Surprise You About the First Few Years, copyright 2005 by Margaret Feinberg. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Or., www.harvesthousepublishers.com.
Margaret Feinberg is an award-wining journalist, speaker, and writer. She is the author of Simple Acts of Faith, Simple Acts of Friendship, Twentysomething: Surviving and Thriving in the Real World, and God Whispers: Learning to Hear His Voice. She has also published many articles in national magazines, including Christianity Today, New Man, BookPage, and Christian Single. Margaret and her husband, Leif, live in Alaska.
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