If you could speak to 70 nearly-married or newly-married couples and give them some practical pointers on marriage, what would you say? That was the question I faced as I prepared for a recent event across town. My first assignment was to speak on the Christian family and then to describe some of the challenges couples may encounter in the first ten years and the ten years after that. Well and good. But then they wanted me to get practical and offer some short-form practical tips on relationship and intimacy. I came up with ten—five related to relating as a couple and five related to sexuality. I thought I’d share the relationship tips today in case they prove helpful to you.
The best gift you can give your spouse is your holiness. As Christians, we know it’s God’s will that we are sanctified—that we put sin to death and come alive to righteousness. We are accustomed to thinking of this as something we do for our own benefit and, of course, there is tremendous personal benefit in growing in holiness. But the second great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” also calls you to prioritize holiness as something you do for the benefit of other people. With this commandment in mind, you will grow in holiness as an expression of love, care, and concern for others. On the other hand, by neglecting this command you will stay mired in sin as an expression of apathy, lack of care, or lack of concern for others. Now think about this: Your husband or wife is the person who is closest to you. No one is more harmed by your sin and no one is more blessed by your sanctification than your spouse. If you love your husband or wife, then give them the gift of holiness. Be holy for the benefit of that person you love the most.
For every one look at your spouse’s sin, take ten at your own. Living intimately with another person presents a special kind of challenge. When you’re dating and engaged, it can be easy to imagine a life of never-ending harmony and bliss. But by the end of the honeymoon, you’ve probably already learned that this other person is going to be difficult to live with. Not only does he or she have some annoying habits, but also some stubborn, significant sins. When problems arise, it’s rare that your first thought is, “Oh, that’s probably my fault.” It’s far more likely that you look to that other person and assume “it’s his fault” or “it’s her fault.” At the very least, you probably look to your spouse and think it’s primarily that person’s fault. If you’re not careful, you can begin to get a little obsessed with your spouse’s sin. Now, part of the joy of marriage is having someone else who is dedicated to your holiness, who is helping you put sin to death and come alive to righteousness. That’s true and good. But while you should be concerned for their holiness, your first concern should be for your own. Don’t confront one of their sins until you’ve confronted several of your own. If you can list ten of your spouse’s annoying sins but can’t list one of your own, you’d do well to dedicate some time and prayer to self-examination.
Invite your spouse to identify your sin. We’ve said that the greatest gift you can give your spouse is your holiness, and we’ve said that your great concern shouldn’t be their sin, but your own. It naturally follows, then, that you’d ask your spouse to help you identify your sin, to confront it, and to put it to death. After all, no one is going to see your sin or be harmed by your sin more than your spouse. Your spouse has a front-row seat to see every way in which you sin. So here’s what I recommend: Ask your spouse to speak into your life. Give them a wide-open door to tell you where they see sin. There are two ways to do this. First, give them free rein to do that whenever and wherever they think it’s wise or necessary. Second, it’s a good idea to formalize it every now and again and to make sure you give them a safe setting to identify your sin where you aren’t going to be a baby or a bully—you won’t sulk and you won’t lash out. Set aside a little time, tell them that you’d like to hear what they are seeing, then listen patiently and impassively, without showing anger or being defensive. Having done that, go away, think about it, pray about it, and don’t respond until a day later. Whether it’s in these ways or another, enlist your spouse as your ally in battling sin. (Note: Don’t ask for this kind of feedback in the manipulative hope that they’ll reciprocate and let you air your grievances in return.)
Don’t go to bed angry, but also don’t try to solve problems after 10 PM. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” But the tricky thing is that some issues cannot be neatly resolved by bedtime. And, as married folk know, one of the most common problems in marriage tends to happen between the time you get into bed together and the time you actually fall asleep. (Yes, you know exactly what I mean!) The concern behind that verse is that failing to resolve disputes leads to bitterness, and bitterness leads to relational separation. So the call is to resolve conflicts quickly. Yet there are other realities in play, like the fact that the later the day gets, the more we tend to operate out of emotion more than reason. Some things seem way worse in the evening when we’re tired than in the morning when we’re fresh. So here’s what I recommend. Don’t try to solve big problems after 10 PM. If you haven’t worked it out by then, call a halt, kiss one another, pray with one another, say “I love you” and “we are going to be alright,” and then go to sleep. You may find that when you wake up, you’ll realize you were making a mountain out of a molehill. You may find that both of you are willing and eager to identify your own sin and apologize for it. But if not, you’ll at least be able to find a time and a place where you can better discuss it. You’ve got to learn the skill of temporarily putting aside disputes and going on with marriage until you can find an opportune time to really work things out.
Learn to bare your soul, not just your body. We know that marriage is a relationship of intimacy. And obviously that intimacy is both represented and consummated in the act of sexual intimacy. In marriage you learn to be naked and unashamed in front of another person. But it always amazes me how many couples will regularly bare their bodies but only rarely bare their souls to one another. This may be especially prominent among men. Many a man is always willing to jump into bed with his wife, but never willing to kneel beside the bed with his wife. But the truest intimacy is more than physical. Marriage’s truest “togetherness” is being knit together in soul, which is then represented by being knit together in body. So learn to be spiritually intimate. Learn to pray together, to read Scripture together, to worship together, to have deep spiritual conversation together. But mostly learn to pray together since prayer serves as a kind of bellwether of spiritual intimacy. Pray with one another and pray for one another. Husband, pray for your wife with your wife; wife, pray for your husband with your husband. Bodies will fail and sex will eventually decline, but this deeper spiritual union will carry on until death and beyond.
So there, out of the many things I could have said, are the few things I did say. I hope you find them helpful!