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11 Years, 11 Tips for a Successful Marriage: It's the Little Things that Kill
Marriage is a lifelong process, and it's often little frictions that erode the relationship.
My wife and I recently celebrated our 11th anniversary. Eleven years doesn’t seem all that long in the context of a lifelong commitment, but a funny thing has happened: people mention our anniversary with a bit of awe and reverence, and even sometimes ask me for marriage advice.
I’m probably one of the worst people to ask for marriage advice. While our relationship is currently better than it’s ever been, it often hasn’t been easy. We’ve both made major mistakes, gone through cold periods, and times of just straight-up resenting each other.
Such is the nature of marriage. It’s easy to have quick, short flings that end as soon as the honeymoon period is over. To commit for the rest of your lives—even as you grow, change, and falter—takes grit.
This is an important topic for preparedness, because what are we surviving for if not those whom we love? And how can we survive if our foundations aren’t solid? How can we work together in a crisis if we want to kill each other?
We’ve discussed the importance of community in preparedness, and there is no more important community than the one in your own home. And a reliable partner is one of the best preparations you can have.
I recently saw a tragic tale of martial woe that has left me in tears, because I see in it so many pitfalls that can plague a marriage. It’s a remind that in a marriage, it’s not the big things, but often the little things that kill.
A Sad Tale of a Broken Marriage
I recently scrolled past this sad story from Reddit, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it:
After my wife kisses me goodbye every morning, I break down crying until I have to work.
I(m45) cheated on my wife (f41). It changed her fundamentally. She has always been this bubbly and cheerful woman with her beautiful smile never leaving her face. She makes everything better and has the ability to make people happy around her wherever she goes. Now she is distant, silent and I haven’t seen her smile since it happened a year ago. When we got back together after a small break, she told me that she was fully aware about our declining sex life and her role in that. She said that she didn’t know if or when she ever could sleep with me again. She said that she couldn’t handle the pressure of needing to heal fast not to lose me again, for me not to cheat again, so she said that I could still sleep with the OW. She just doesn’t want to know when. And not in our home.
I hate myself for what she has become. Like a broken bird. When I talk to her about divorce, her tears just starts pouring and she asks if I didn’t love her anymore. I do. More than anything but I want to set her free. But her tears. I can’t.
The only thing she hasn’t changed is her kiss in the morning. She starts very early and before leaving she kisses me goodbye and whispers I love you. I pretend that she I’m sleeping. When I hear the door locks I break down crying. I cry for a good hour before it’s time for me to go to work too.
I hate myself every day for what I have done to her.
Assuming this story is real, it’s absolutely heartbreaking and not at all uncommon. I’m in tears writing about it.
It’s perhaps foolish of me, but I desperately want to offer this couple some advice, but the account has been deleted. So I’ll offer my observations here in the hopes that it helps someone.
First of all, this woman clearly doesn’t want a divorce. She bursts into tears when he mentions it. She kisses him goodbye every morning. She even gave him permission to continue the affair because she doesn’t feel she can meet his needs. This is a woman who clearly loves her husband very much—in spite of his faults.
And I think this is clearly a man who loves his wife. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be crying these tears. That is good. It means that his heart is set toward repentance. That tells me there is hope.
Beware the Delusion of Pride
Before I continue, I want to address you, the reader. Because I’ve seen many comments on Reddit and Twitter along the lines of: You suck. I would never do that. She should divorce you. And so on.
If that is your attitude, you are deluding yourself with pride, and pride cometh before a fall. As Fr. Thomas Hopko said in his 55 Maxims of the Christian Life, “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.”
You always hear these stories in the news about pastors who preach about sin from the pulpit, only to fall into the same sins themselves. Each one of those is a case of a man tragically deluding himself into thinking he’s better than his neighbors. That his will or his connection to God will save him from himself.
I have been tempted in my marriage. My wife has been tempted. And I’m willing to bet you have tempted. And even after our eleven years together, if my wife and I aren’t mindful it could all be flushed away tomorrow.
It takes only minutes to wreck years of hard work put into a marriage, and it’s all too easy. Our only hope is to be radically honest—most of all with with ourselves, and recognize our temptations and weaknesses. To do otherwise is to fall prey to delusion.
Likewise, I believe this man has deluded himself. Is he offering her a divorce because he wants to free her, or because he wants to free himself? I suspect that deep down, he feels like he has broken her and the only solution is to start fresh.
I’ve seen many men do that, and all to often it leads to yet another broken woman, because he hasn’t fixed what is broken in himself. He needs to man up and clean up his mess.
Beware the Little Things
The good news is that it often isn’t major sins like this that destroy a marriage. The big mistakes are easy to grasp. They have a lot of handles. Married people cheat, they lie, they lose their temper. These major missteps are fairly easy to confront, and—assuming they aren’t part of a consistent pattern of behavior—can sometimes lead to a better place, because it’s an opportunity to confront the little things—those grains of sand that wear down a marriage over time.
Those little offhand comments. The disapproving looks. The feelings of resentment that build up over time but are never properly addressed. This is illness in a marriage, and usually the big blowups are merely the terminal stage.
Another Sad Marriage
Let me tell you about a marriage that recently failed. A good friend of ours married a man that seemed to have a good head on his shoulders. They got married and had a baby. Then… he couldn’t hack it. He quit a good job and only took on minimum-wage work. He stopped making love to his wife. He didn’t help around the house. In short, he gave up.
She asked him to move out. He did so without complaint. Finally, she filed for divorce.
I don’t think she wants a divorce. I don’t think she wanted him out of the house. I think these were cries for help. A desperately plea for him to wake up and fulfill his role as husband and father. The divorce proceedings are still ongoing, and I think he could put a stop to them at any time, if he really wanted to.
Marriage Is Struggle
Now ladies, let me ask you: if given the choice—and these were you only options—which flawed husband would you pick? The one who cheated but cries tears of repentance or the man who just gave up and shuffled away without a fight?
I can’t answer for you, but I would gladly take the repentant but unfaithful wife over the woman who just gave up on life.
Marriage is an ascetic struggle. We break—and hopefully heal—each other every day. But as I look back on our eleven years of marriage, we are drastically better people than we were on that October day in 2012. Still far from perfect, but iron sharpens iron, and even through our trials and tribulations we have made each other better.
What I Would Tell This Man to Do
Divorce isn’t the solution in this case. No, he needs to do something much harder: genuinely repent.
The core issue is that he is not in control of his steering wheel. He has let his passions—specifically lust—control him, and I suspect that has been the case for some time. I’m willing to bet that his wife recognizes this on some level and that’s part of why she became withdrawn in the first place. His lust created pressure around sex, and pressure is the opposite of sexy.
What I would advise him to do is to work on detaching himself from his lustful passions. This won’t be easy. If he watches pornography, he needs to stop, along with anything else that stirs up these passions.
Needless to say, he needs to avoid the other woman at all costs. It was very loving and selfless of his wife to offer to let him continue the affair, but it’s a trap.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is instructive. Sarah couldn’t give Abraham the child he wanted, so she offered her servant Hagar to him. He impregnanted her, and it ended in heartbreak. Sarah couldn’t stand to see the woman or the child, and made Abraham send Hagar and the child away. Some would even say that Abraham’s mistake lead to terrible war between Israel and Hamas, but that’s neither here nor there.
What this man needs to do is to conquer his passions. He needs to be willing to give up sex, perhaps for the rest of his life. However, this is potentially a trap as well, because it opens the door to resentment and coldness.
As he goes to war with his lust, he needs to rededicate himself to loving his wife, not just through feelings but through action. He must take on this battle with a cheerful heart and out of selfless love for his wife. She has selflessly offered her marital bed as sacrifice for love, and now it’s his turn to sacrifice out of love for her.
At the same time, he has to be careful to not become a defeated and hollow shell of a man. If he lives his life with his head held in shame, acting as a passive servant to her, she will lose her remaining respect for him.
His tears are an excellent start, but he cannot wallow in them. He must stand up straight, take charge of himself, and put in the hard work of loving his wife and saving his marriage. In short, he must be a man.
And when he stumbles on this journey, he has to be willing to accept it with humility, dust himself off, and get back up.
While there are no guarantees in marriage, I have hope that if he goes down this path with full commitment, his marriage may turn out better than ever.