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This June 3 will make it 28 years since saying “I do,” “I will” and “I promise” to my wife, companion and partner, Angela. I know she could have done better but, thank God, she said, “I do,” too. I know I am better off in every way because of her.

It’s a good thing no one told us marriage would be the hardest task we would say “yes” to in our lives. I think it’s harder, even, than parenting. Get the marriage right and the parenting has a much better chance of success. (Even successful marriages can struggle mightily with parenting: Children add their own ideas and personalities to the mix.)

The jury’s still out on how the next 28 or so years will play, but I’ve learned a lot from the first set, both in marriage and in ministry to others in their marriages. I’ve officiated many and seen some fail. I’ve sat with, listened to, counseled, encouraged, admonished and prayed with many couples, some of whom should never have been married in the first place. I’ve had the graceful experience of being with couples who truly reflected God’s gentle, loving spirit.

For what it’s worth, here are a few gleanings:

1. Committing yourself to marriage is the hardest, most challenging commitment you will make in your life. If God sends children your way, you’ll face another set of challenges. Those challenges can be met with strength if the marriage is strong. Ask the single and functionally single parents you know if they agree. Do not be surprised at the answer.

2. For marriage to work, you have to learn to say those three little words: “I was wrong.” You may not think you are, but every story has two sides and most disagreements have roots not in what you are being disagreeable about, but in your and your spouse’s unidentified, misinterpreted or misunderstood needs. (Listening to your spouse and your soul is more important than talking, giving advice or being “right.”)

3. For marriage to work, you have to spend time with each other–and not spend time with each other. The time spent with each other–I confess I am not good at this–must be planned, intentional and honest. The time not spent with each other must be that which affirms the separate identities, gifts, callings and needs each person has from God that helps the person grow spiritually and emotionally. The end goal of time apart is not, necessarily, to improve the marriage, but in most cases that will be the result.

4. Constant stress can break the best marriage. Family conflicts, money problems, health crises, faith struggles, job changes, geographical relocations, unresolved personal issues, personality differences, grieving and–that’s right–financial success can strain a marriage. This may be where the church of the Lord Jesus can help most by offering support, hugs, encouragement and–if small children are involved–offering to take the children for a weekend so the couple can have a respite and retreat.

5. If you break your vows–even the smallest, least significant in your eyes–you may never be able to put the pieces of the relationship together again. I’ve seen forgiveness, healing, salvation and therapy do tremendous good, but the task of healing hurt and restoring trust is huge and will take a long, long, long time. Avoid the task; keep your promises.

6. It’s always better to marry someone who shares your faith and values than someone who you think makes you look better, richer, smarter or gets you out of your parents’ house and control.

7. No marriage is perfect. All marriages involve work. Many failed marriages could have been saved with patience, forbearance and forgiveness. Few marriages work when one or both spouses marry not thinking it’s for life. Many marriages will be called “successes” only in retrospect, when the couple looks back and sees all they have negotiated, accomplished or survived over the years and realized they did it all–together.

8. Marriages usually fail emotionally and spiritually long before they fail legally. When a marriage fails, a death has occurred and grieving is necessary for healing. Here’s another place the church of the Lord Jesus could be a balm.

9. It’s nobody’s business what goes on in your house. If the marriage is bad, deal with it together, seeking appropriate emotional, spiritual and–in the last resort–legal counsel. Almost every marriage I know goes through bad times and tough cycles. Almost every marriage I know weathers the storms and makes it to calm.

10. The key question to ask in a marriage–especially before the wedding–may be not who you marry but what you marry. Believe it or not, you are marrying into a family system. That family system has its own practices, traditions, secrets, gifts and dysfunctions. You and your spouse will form a unique bond, but your family systems–with their issues and challenges–will always be near intrusion into the life you seek to build together.

Here’s one more, for good measure. Remember that spirituality and marriage are inseparable. The way God operates in your married life, and the way you feel about God in good times and bad, will factor into the ultimate meaning you find in a marriage.

Robert W. Guffey, Jr. is pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn.

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