I can’t believe that today is our 20th wedding anniversary. In honor of the beautiful gift God gave us in each other, a few weeks ago, my husband Trent and I shared a Catholic Family Uncorked podcast called, “12 Keys to a Beautiful Marriage.”
Our prayer is that wherever you are in your marriage, the lessons we’ve learned through twenty good, hard, and beautiful years may inspire you to always continue to work on building an amazing and beautiful marriage.
1. Love Is a Decision. It’s Not Just an Emotional Feeling
Let’s get real. Marriage and parenting can be hard. We get married, and then after a while get busy with work or have a couple of kids, and life can get tough. If we have babies right away, we’re often living on barely any sleep while trying to parent teething babies and cranky toddlers while still getting our work done and somehow finding time and emotional energy for each other. We often just don’t feel like pouring into the other one. Or on hard days, we don’t even feel like being nice, if we’re honest here.
When we truly love our spouse, it comes down to this: we have to decide to love them. It’s not just about enjoying the fun parts, like when we were dating and had the butterflies and excitement. After a while, that goes away, and when we hit the hard parts, we decide, “Do I really love you?” and go back to 1 Corinthians 13. Love is a decision to be patient with each other, to be kind. To hold no record of wrongs.
That’s when that heroic love kicks in. Choosing to love even when our emotions might say the exact opposite. We make the decision and just do it. We love.
2. It Takes Three to Be Married
Fulton Sheen had a lot of teachings on this. I don’t think any marriage can hold up the test of time without being God-centered. Not just us having that individual relationship with God, but having a relationship with Him as a couple, and then bringing that into our family. It takes a level of vulnerability to let our spouses into that sacred space. But when we’re rooted in love, and then rooted in prayer, God becomes a central part of everything.
The idea of having God first is to love Him and serve Him and love our neighbor as ourselves. When we do this, everything else will fall into place. God needs to be number one. Having Him at the center of our marriage, lays the foundation, like a three-way, beautiful friendship.
3. Going All-in
Going all in is not holding back. It’s being open and committed to the relationship. Whether it’s learning to trust each other with money, that our spouse isn’t going to leave us, or trusting them with our hearts. This “all-in” attitude is so key to having that openness that comes with a beautiful marriage.
When we start putting up walls and saying, “I’m not going to trust you with this,” we need to ask the question, “what do we need to fix here?” Because if we don’t trust each other, if we can’t go all-in with each other, how can we have an open and honest relationship? We need to find a way to work through it, so we can have that “in each other’s corner” marriage. We can’t do this without letting down the walls.
If we partition our lives and don’t let the other one in, then we’re setting ourselves up for challenges and potential failure. In marriage, “two shall become one” is truly about that openness–loving each other like Christ loved the church and submitting to each other as if to Christ. And when we reach that point where we can be truly open and honest, it takes our marriage to a whole new level, and it’s beautiful.
4. Don’t Keep a Ledger
Way back, in our Pre-Cana class, we watched a cheesy video that stuck with us. It was about the “Ledger people.” They were like, “Okay, you left the cabinet open at breakfast, so you lose a point, etc., and so forth.” “You made me good breakfast. I’ll give you two marks.” Keeping a detailed tally of the merits and demerits.
Even though that video was cheesy and hokey, the message made a lot of sense. So, when we found ourselves keeping a ledger based on who did what, we’d tease each other about being “ledger people.” We’d remind each other that we had made a decision from the start that we wouldn’t go there.
When we keep a ledger, it brings contempt and frustration, feeding interior conversations that lead to resentment and bitterness. It leaves us holding on to hurts and things that rub us the wrong way. It keeps us from forgiving and moving on.
It’s easy to go into marriage and have expectations of what our spouse is going to do and how they’re going to act. When they don’t live up to our expectations, we tend to get the ledger out and start checking off all the ways the other person isn’t living up to them.
Unmet expectations can lead to strong and unwanted walls. Keeping that ledger of, ‘you did this, you didn’t do that’ is only going to create walls and drive a wedge between you both.
An example of this is that for years, I had this expectation that Trent would do the budget and handle the bills, and I was in charge of always getting dinner on the table. After years of frustration between the two of us, we finally realized that I’m better with the budget and paying bills, and Trent is an AMAZING cook whose cooking we all prefer anyway.
Once we let go of the expectations, we had the freedom to lean into our strengths, and those pesky, irritating thoughts and feelings about what we both were or weren’t doing just went away.
5. Sincere Communication
Sincere communication is the key through which the others follow. When we open ourselves up to each other and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can only foster growth in our relationship.
We need to stop making assumptions and begin to seek understanding. When we understand why people are struggling in certain areas, we will accept the other person for who they are and love them where they are. Through this love, we can help them to grow without forcing them to change. Part of that is accepting their strengths as well as their imperfections.
It is important to find a time and a place to communicate as a couple, understand and learn about each other, figure out your strengths, and discover your family’s love languages. Then, you can complement each other with your strengths and give each other the love you both need.
6. Discovering Your Own Stride
To have the strong connection and love of a beautiful marriage, we need to discover our own stride. We need to be careful about who we allow to speak into our marriage, especially our parents or our spouse’s parents.
When we come together as husband and wife, we form our own family, and we need to lead that way. We have to learn who we are and decide what we will incorporate into our family culture. We have to discover our own stride.
To do this, you may need to set boundaries to prevent other people from setting your expectations. For example, my husband and I did not grow up in perfect families, and we both experienced good times and bad. So, we started by taking the best of both worlds and incorporating the good from our family cultures. So, know who you are in Christ and create your own culture.
I want you to ask yourself, what do you want for your family? Then decide who you are, pray about it, and move forward with confidence.
7. Serve One Another
Christ came to serve and not be served. He came to lay down his life for us, and He calls us to lay down our lives for others, especially our spouse, for it is the greatest form of love.
Now there are times where I struggle to serve. This can occur when I go to clean our room and find my husband’s clothes all over the floor. The more I have leaned into my relationship with God, the more I remember to truly love my husband, lay my life down, and serve him.
This can be as simple as going out of our way to help our spouse with the dishes or even bringing them a cup of coffee in bed. We have to keep fighting that pride that is constantly whispering what we do and don’t deserve, because it can seep in and ruin a relationship. Love rooted in humility and service is what allows a relationship to thrive. It enables us to say to the one we love most, “How can I serve you today?”
8. Being Open to Life and Love
It is important to be open to life and rooted and grounded in love. Trent and I use natural family planning, and we are continually praying and asking God to lead our family. I’ll admit–it requires a lot of sacrifice. We have seasons of being together and seasons of being apart. This mutual sacrifice has challenged us to find other ways to show our love for each other and has helped us develop an overall deeper love and friendship.
Another way of being open to life is to look into the possibility of adopting or fostering other children. We can find this in coaching kids or teenagers, in teaching, or in ministry. God has called us to be open to life. The question we need to ask is, “What do you ask of me, Lord?” Our God is faithful. He will lead and guide us. I encourage you to pray about it together and then let Him lead the way.
Do you know that you become like the five people you hang out with the most? It’s so important as individuals, as married couples, and as families to constantly look at our immediate circle and think, is this who I want to become? If we hang out with people that are lifting us up and encouraging us to be the best versions of ourselves, we will grow. If we are always around people who are negative, gossip, or talk badly about their spouse, that will eventually creep in as well.
Part of having a beautiful marriage is taking an honest look around us, a good, hard look at our life, and asking some questions:
- Who do we want in our lives?
- What examples do we want to set and do we want our children to follow?
- What are we allowing into our lives?
- What movies or TV shows do we watch?
- What music do we listen to?
- What lines do we cross that we shouldn’t be crossing?
- How do we handle temptation?
We need to know who we want to be and set boundaries around that. I encourage you to discuss your boundaries and decide what they need to be to protect your family culture. And get ready for your lives to change. It’s amazing what happens when we begin to live with intention.
10. Learn to Navigate the Good Times and the Bad
There is no happily ever after in this life as it is a continuous journey with highs and lows. As a couple, we need to be able to help each other work through them, and along the way, we might even tell ourselves, “This is not what I signed up for.”
To help us navigate the hard times, Trent and I set some fighting rules, certain lines we do not cross:
Some of ours are:
- No name-calling
- No tearing each other down
- No bringing up the past (unless it’s to explain why we’re upset right now and then we tread lightly)
- No screaming
I learned great advice from my great uncle, a divorce lawyer. He shared that so many marriages could have been saved, but “Damn the sympathizer,” meaning that so many marriages ended up in divorce because of conversations held on the side with a friend. Having a friend sympathize and offer unsolicited advice about what one does and doesn’t deserve.
Imagine if our friends first encouraged us to choose to love and to serve? The important thing is always to respect and forgive each other, let go of the anger and bitterness, and be humble.
11. Never Stop Dating
So many couples lose themselves after having kids. They focus on the list of household projects, taking care of the kids, and working. They forget to develop their relationship with their spouse, and when their last kid has left home, they don’t even recognize the person they have built their life with.
This is why it is crucial to keep the fun alive, get dressed up for each other, and carve out time to be alone together. This can be as simple as cuddling alone on the couch while watching a movie or making a trip to the store.
Honestly? I love to flirt with Trent. It’s fun to see his reactions, and it keeps the romance alive. When I get dressed up for church on Sundays, he knows that when I’m ready and flip my hair and bat my eyelashes, I’m looking for his eye raise and “wow,” and I LOVE it!
Ladies, but it’s important to keep flirting with our men. To remember why we fell in love with them. It helps keep that spark alive and keeps us close.
12. Being Intentional
It is easy to drift through life just trying to get through another day without having a goal in mind. To build a beautiful marriage, we have to be intentional. We need to ask ourselves, ‘what does that look like?’
A great way to figure that out is to imagine ourselves in our 60s and visualize what life will look like. Will we have grandkids? What will their values be? What will our marriage look like?
Now we need to work our way backward. What will we need to do to get there? What goals will we need to set? What values will we need to adopt? It’s powerful when we look at the bigger picture and decide where we’d like to be in twenty to thirty years.
When we’re working together to grow both physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we can take control and intentionally chart our own course.
In the end, the underlying key to a beautiful marriage is and always will be Love. When we truly unite ourselves to Christ and strive to live in and through love, everything else will fall into place.
So today, on our 20th wedding anniversary, we pray over you. We pray that the Holy Spirit will breathe new life into your marriage. That He will bring healing, understanding, and guidance in how to draw you closer to each other and closer to Him.
May God bless you!
In His Love,
Michelle and Trent Hillaert