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Happy Marriage 2: Love & Respect

Rule # 2: Love and Respect Each Other

I clearly remember the feeling of standing at the front of our church and reciting our marriage vows. There were maybe 150 people in the pews on that Friday night in 1980, but as far as I was concerned, they might as well have been cardboard cutouts during the service.

Nothing seemed real or the least bit important to me from the time I saw that white blur coming down the aisle. (At the last minute, my brothers convinced me to take my glasses off before the ceremony, so it wasn’t until Becky got within a few feet of me that I could see her. People sitting near the front of the church later told me my reaction to seeing her was an astonished, “WOW.”)

When the service was over, and with the processional music ringing in our ears, we walked down the aisle arm in arm. Just as we were about to leave the sanctuary, I experienced a feeling akin to winning an Olympic gold medal.

Being very young, I thought our triumphant wedding was just the staging ground for the life we envisioned, one that was close, unselfish, and harmonious, and it was, for a good two days.

As we loaded our luggage into the car to drive home, the winds were picking up, and the skies looked ominous. We didn’t even make it out of the hotel’s parking lot before the torrential downpour began.  The heavy traffic moved at a snail’s pace, and 30 minutes into the awful drive home, we realized that we had left half of our clothing in the hotel room. Those frustrations were the kindling for our first fight as husband and wife; over the next year, there would be many more.

On the day of our wedding, there was no way I could have imagined us having a contentious marriage. Still, often the only way we learn is by going through the laborious classroom of life, and for me, that meant repeating several lessons more than once.

I base the following counsel on a repeated cycle of trial and error, and while today it seems like the most obvious advice, humans have a way of ignoring the obvious.

One of my favorite movies quotes nails this tendency:

History teaches us that men behave wisely once they've exhausted all other alternatives. — Billy Connolly, Still Crazy

In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives but instructs wives to respect their husbands. Some take this to mean that women are more likely to struggle with doubting their husband’s love, and men are more insecure about keeping their wife’s respect. In my experience, I think this is true, but love and respect are inextricably linked. Both men and women are looking at the same coin, but we focus on different sides of that coin.

Guys, you should think of how you can demonstrate your love to your wife daily. Imagine your love for your wife to be a library book you can keep forever, but one that requires a simple daily renewal.

Here are a few things you can try:

  1. Write little love notes on the eggs with a sharpie. (You’ll get a more positive response if you do this while the eggs are still in the shell.)
  2. Stop on the way home and buy her a small, but meaningful treat. Becky likes Milky Way Midnight bars, and very few stores sell that variety, so when I stop for one she knows I went out of my way to get it. Other times it might pick up $3 worth of red carnations or a Redbox movie she wants to see.
  3. Take some of the responsibility off her. Text her when she’s had a tough day and tell her you’re bringing home a ready-to-eat dinner. If money is tight, look for deals. I’ll sometimes buy fried chicken at Popeyes on Tuesdays when it’s cheap. Becky has made it very clear that she likes any meal that she doesn’t have to cook or clean up after.
  4. Without being asked, take on a task that she usually does. Wash the dishes, collect the trash or put a new roof on the house. A closely related point is to not do things that make her chores more difficult. For me, it means things like picking my clothes up off the floor and putting them in the hamper.
  5. Every good marriage is a partnership and whether in business or marriage, partners tend to specialize in certain tasks. Do the jobs you are expected to do without being asked or complaining. When Becky encounters a bug the size of a Hummer in the kitchen and I hear that shriek I know I need to jump into action and terminate the intruder with extreme prejudice.
  6. Listen to your wife. This is the hardest thing on my list. By the time I come home from school I am talked out and listened out too. I want to come home and read an NFL blog, watch the Simpsons, play some Xbox, or just sit with Becky in near silence, but my wife has an emotional need to talk to me. I may have only the vaguest notion of who she is talking about and the story may seem long and pointless to me, but it’s obviously important to her, so I need to put away the phone and mute the TV and really listen to her.

Ladies, I have less advice for you, but here are a few ideas:

  1. If possible, don’t drop a “problem bomb” on your husband when he walks through the door at the end of the day. If the washing machine is out or your teenager got in a fender bender, that information can probably wait an hour or two. Give him a buffer between the troubles at work and at home.
  2. Realize how tough it can be for men to communicate and don’t press him for a lot of details when he tells you something. Obviously, this is not always possible. If he walks in and tells you he has taken a new job in Brazil, then more details are likely to be forthcoming. If he comes in and says the day was a total disaster, then you might not want to press him for details. Sometimes a gentle hug or a little shoulder massage is enough communication. I am much more likely to be transparent with Becky about my troubles if the conversation comes at a time of my choosing.
  3. Tell him you appreciate and admire him for all he does for the family, and mention a few specific things.
  4. Surprise him. For Becky, this means things like baking me a peach pie, buying me a new Texans bumper sticker, or giving me a new snapshot of her with Henry. If you know your husband, this will not be difficult.

My advice comes down to putting your spouse and their needs above your own whenever possible. Marriage is sometimes referred to as a 50/50 proposition, but in truth, a good marriage may sometimes call for something closer to a 100% commitment.

I am hesitant to share the following story because it looks to be self-serving, but I am doing so because Becky has shared this with countless people over the years.

Fifteen years ago, my father-in-law was in a nursing home and near the end of his life due to the effects of a cancer called multiple myeloma. He went into hospice care right at the beginning of my spring break, and for the next week, we spent every day from 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night caring for her father. It was hardly the relaxing week I wanted and needed before I returned to work to face the end of the school year, but it was something we had to do. I told Becky that we only had one chance to get it right in caring for her father. We would have no regrets that we didn’t do all we could in his last days.

As he neared the end of his life, her father was confused and at times mildly agitated. Even though he was not a big man, he demonstrated surprising strength at times, so I was the one who had to catch him when he was about to fall or convince him not to drag his bed into the bathroom. I felt utterly inadequate for the job, but I was there.

One day while I was walking out of the room to buy a Coke, a hospice nurse came in to check on Becky’s dad. She asked my wife if I was “her man.” On learning I was, she told Becky, “honey, you don’t know how good you got it.”   Apparently, of the hundreds of dying patients she cares for, it is rare for adult child and their spouses to be side by side during the seemingly long and slow death of a parent.

Becky got the chance to be on the other side of this 13 years later as my mother was hospitalized for nearly 9 months before she passed away. I could not imagine facing that alone.

After 37 years we both know “how good we got it” and remember how many years it took to get it too.