It’s February, and romance is in the air as the Big Day of Red, White and Roses approaches. Throughout the years, some have kissed dating goodbye, while others have kissed marriage goodbye. But dating does give you a chance to check people out, see whether you might be a match or if you find each other annoying. On the other hand, chronic short-term dating holds its own challenges and risks, including an unhealthy and unhelpful consumer attitude to relationships, less regard for the needs of the other person and more temptation to touch where you shouldn’t. If you do decide to date, keep a few things in mind.
First off, don’t be Seinfeld. Over the course of that old sitcom, Jerry, George and even Kramer dropped more than a hundred girlfriends, most for little things like shushing or napkin-doodling. Get over these. Realize you will annoy one another. Whatever—love isn’t about finding someone who meets your laundry list of a thousand perfect details.
Next, learn the Mars and Venus stuff—men and women are different. These aren’t straightjackets for how you will (or should) always behave. But you might as well get familiar with the basics and then apply them (with discernment and in addition to other filters, such as personality profiles and love languages) to help you better understand each other.
That brings us to communication. Do it. Talk about everything. Talk about little things, like the first time you hold hands. Talk about past relationships, current needs and future hopes. Talk about what relationships you saw growing up. It feels weird, but starting with the end in mind helps you start off right.
The longer you are in a relationship, the more likely it is you will hurt each other badly. You and the one you love most will probably cause more pain in each other’s lives than in the lives of the other 6 billion people on the planet. Ask forgiveness often, and forgive even more. Because you’re a jerk too.
Oh, and on purity—it’s very difficult to put hard and fast, works-for-everyone rules on this. But waiting until marriage to have sex isn’t about following some outmoded legalistic rule so the virgin bride gets to wear a white dress. It’s about following the caring advice of a God who knows what’s in our own best interest. Having sex feels like a secret and momentary thing at the time, but it’s like getting a 12-inch tattoo across your heart—it will affect you and anyone you’re intimate with for your lifetime. That said, if you have already joined the ranks of the non-virgins, it’s not too late to have an honest talk with God—and then your loved one—about the baggage you’re carrying. Wherever you’re at, give sex the due diligence of commitment it deserves.
Then comes marriage …
Marriage is a funny little ceremony with a lot of special archaic words and rituals and costumes, but at the end of it, your life is different. Dramatically. You have committed to live with someone, love them and serve them for the rest of your living days. This changes your responsibilities and roles not just with this person, but toward the world and God.
So do the deed, have the party, dance a little dance and then what? The honeymoon. Make your honeymoon a significant time to reflect on who you are together. An eight-day honeymoon may not be sufficient time, and maybe a super-luxurious hotel isn’t the best location. You can mentally rope off the first three months of your life, wherever you live, as time to adjust. It can be weird and hard to try to adjust when surrounded by all the same people expecting you to be just the same, especially if you’re on the young side. But don’t escape altogether from community—you will want people you can be honest with and encouraged by.
The sermon at our wedding was all about how love is work, how it takes a lot of sweat equity to build a good, strong marriage. It seemed a bit odd, counter to all the expectations of syrupy sweet gushing that often comes through before the vows. But nothing is more appropriate and more needed at such a time. There was a lot of crying during our first year of marriage. There’s so much to assimilate mentally, so much to adjust to socially, so much to experience physically, that it can be very trying as you get going.
Expect to lose some friends and gain others, but work to not drift from your single friends. They don’t know what you’re going through unless you explain it; they haven’t lived it yet. Don’t blame them for what they haven’t experienced. You haven’t experienced being single at their point in life either. Listen to each other. Keep doing much of the same stuff together, and figure out what looks different between you now that there’s an elephant in the room.
Talk about your life, even when it seems boring. Verbally processing lets your spouse know he or she is valuable enough to be in on the decisions and emotions you face during the day.
And listen to your spouse talking about his or her life, even when it seems boring. They’ve trusted you with the emotional energy of telling you about what happened today, so listen. Learn to ask good questions. Learn to repeat back what they’ve said in ways that say you heard between the lines and you care.
Talk about temptations, and don’t put yourself in temptation’s way. Have close same-sex friends who you can talk to about temptations and challenges. Watch your attitudes and subtle cues in any relationships with the opposite sex, and give particular attention to ones your spouse doesn’t share.
In the same way you aim to stay faithful to one another, stay connected to church and to a community that supports your faith and your commitment to one another. Find a couple who has walked the walk a few more years or stages than you. Soak in wisdom and perspective by osmosis, then ask questions of those who share your worldview and priorities and are happily married. There’s no shame in finding a small group not just to be a perfect Christian, but because you’re really needy.
Pay attention to what makes your spouse feel loved, and do it, even if it seems trite or unromantic. Ask what he or she likes—don’t assume you’ve got this all figured out. Those roses you’ve been pouring your savings into might mean far less to her than a foot rub, an evening snuggle in front of a movie or taking her turn washing dishes. And he might really desire more or different sex, or he might be happier if you played tennis together, read to each other, cooked more nice meals or kept a cleaner car.
Making it last
As the years tick by, some couples settle into an amazing bliss. Those six people are fortunate. The rest of us will run into epic personal struggles, both within our marriages and beyond. We don’t learn in school how to deal with miscarriages, debt, depression or unfaithfulness.
Build traditions to encourage and facilitate what really matters—assign an evening for a tea/coffee/hot cocoa date at home. Make space, time and a routine for prayer together. Read a book that can motivate your love, for God and each other.
Keep finding mentors a stage or two ahead of you. Don’t just talk about your life—talk about theirs. Hear their struggles and how they work through them, from talking to their kids about puberty, to parenting angry teenagers to caring for a spouse with a terminal illness.
Love feeds on the times you stop and thank God for the precious person you have the privilege of sharing life with. So thank God. At the same time, don’t let your focus only and always be on each other. There’s a world of need out there, and some of the finest marriages around are in the thick of it, serving side by side.
And perhaps some day you’ll be that married couple with the smile-wrinkled faces whose lives after umpteen dozen years together still shine with such love that the word “awww” just slips out of your mouth when he reaches for her hand.
The Jeskes have lived lots of amazing days in Nicaragua, China, South Africa, and the U.S. The latest book is This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. @ChristineJeske is getting a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and @AdamJeske leads social media for InterVarsity and the Urbana Student Missions Conference. Connect at Into the Mud and Executing Ideas.