In the past three years, my husband, Dan, and I have both changed careers; we've moved twice, bought a house, and had a baby. These changes have all been good things for the most part, but even so, they've brought quite a bit of stress with them.
Reflecting on these changes got me thinking about what actually stays the same over time in our marriage. What are the things I can return to when life is hard?
I can return to our vows, absolutely. We're learning what "in sickness and in health" means right now, and we're standing firm in our ring vows, which we wrote together:
"I promise to grow in holiness with you, never leaving and never forsaking you. I will choose to love you and be loyal to you every day of my life."
Not every day is as grand and emotional as our wedding day, so as I consider the vows Dan and I made to each other, and the vows other married couples have spoken, I'm doing some thinking about what these vows can look like as practical, everyday promises.
1. Promise to only build him up when you're in public.
(Note: not to build him up only when you're in public!)
Early in our relationship, Dan and I were at a gathering with several of his friends. I got to laughing and teasing Dan with one of his friends, and I didn't realize until he told me afterward that I had taken things too far and hurt his feelings in an area where he was already sensitive. The look in his eyes broke my heart, and I knew right then that I never wanted to be the cause of his embarrassment or pain.
Women aren't the only ones who struggle to feel secure in their identities. The rest of the world is slowly tearing down men, especially husbands who genuinely want to provide for their families -- stress at work, financial pressures, and feelings of not measuring up to the next guy can do serious damage. Wives are in the unique position to speak truth directly into these areas and to champion our husbands in front of other people.
2. Promise him intimacy.
I don't mean say yes to sex all the time if you're not in a healthy place for it. I do mean make an effort to be intimate and vulnerable in other ways. Look your husband in the eye when he's telling you about his day, instead of bustling around the kitchen. Hold his hand when you're watching TV. Snuggle him when you roll over in the middle of the night. Ask him what he's learning about, dreaming about, and worried about, and then really pay attention to what he's saying.
One daily practice that helps Dan and I connect is this: instead of asking "How was your day?" we share with each other one thing that drained us and one thing that brought us joy that day. It not only gets to the core of our feelings, but it also provides a platform to speak truth and encouragement to each other. These little acts keep us emotionally connected and build intimacy one small brick at a time.
3. Promise to be on the same team.
Now that we're parents, it is a constant battle to remember that we are on the same team and not pitted against each other to be the "right" parent. Especially in the exhausting newborn days with a first child, when neither of you has any idea what you're doing, it can be so easy to slip into the mindset that the other person is trying to undermine you.
When you start to feel things escalating, name your shared purpose either to yourself or out loud. For example, "We're both trying to find a home that's going to meet our needs" or "We're both trying to protect our finances" or "We're both trying to make sure our baby gets all the food and nutrition she needs." It's an instant perspective shifter to remember that you may be choosing different actions, but you're both after the same thing.
4. Promise to tell him what you need.
You know how people say men are not mind readers? I thought I knew this going into marriage, but it turns out that on some level, I did expect Dan to read my mind. Even still, it's easy to believe that if Dan knew me at all, he would know what I need at least most of the time. Sure, he sometimes senses what I need, but how much easier would it be on both of us if I just told him from the beginning?
Tell your husband what you're aching for, share with him when your heart is heavy and lonely, and ask him for what you need, even if that's as simple as just being heard. You may not even know what you need or what the solution is, and that's okay--share anyway and ask him to problem solve with you. He'll feel empowered to have a way to help, and you'll be able to stop relying on telepathy to get him to see your perspective (hint: it wasn't working anyway).
5. Promise to challenge him appropriately.
I'm sure you know by now that your husband is human and flawed, just like you are. I think many relationship grievances should be forgiven and forgotten quickly. For the things that are not in that category, though, speak up. When you notice him acting out of character, gently point it out and ask what might be underneath it. Extend the grace you'd hope he would extend to you when you're out of sorts, and give him the opportunity to react positively. When we come at our husbands in attack mode, we limit their power to react in growth-oriented ways. Consider your approach carefully while not letting hurtful behaviors slide.
6. Promise to choose him every day.
For me, this one starts in my own head. When I give my husband the benefit of the doubt and reflect on all the things I love about him, I'm much better equipped to serve him unselfishly (and the same is true for him--this is not a one-way street). But when I spend my time focusing on what he lacks and letting myself become overwhelmed by self-imposed pressures, I start to grow resentful of our perceived effort gap (which often does not actually exist).
Choose the story you tell yourself about your husband very carefully. I don't mean that you should turn a blind eye to ways he may be treating you unfairly or an area where he may need some tough love (see #5). I do mean in the nitty-gritty parts of everyday life, choose to believe the best about him. Remind yourself which qualities you love most about him, and actively watch for him to live those out (then let him know when you notice it). We often see in people exactly what we're looking for, so aim to look for the good. Choose to remember and encourage the man you married, not the perfect version you wish he'd be.