Gary and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary on August 12. How our lives have changed since we first met at Yale Divinity School in Henri Nouwen’s class, “Ministry and Spirituality.” I was a shy church musician trying to discern God’s call in my life, and Gary was a gregarious, handsome scholar intent on wooing me by playing tennis together. We were married at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, PA, in a very simple worship service with no attendants, no processional and no hoopla. Gary wrote a hymn for the service, and I composed the music. The congregation shared a meal in the fellowship hall prepared by women in the church. Our “wedding cake” was carrot cake.
As I have reflected on our 30 years together, I am grateful for the way I have grown as a person and as a Christian because of God’s grace and Gary’s presence in my life. I am not the same person I was 30 years ago, and neither is Gary. Here are some life principles I have learned through our marriage.
- In a healthy marriage, each partner must give their spouse the freedom to become who God is creating him or her to be. One of my favorite quotes about marriage comes from Ranier Maria Rilke, who, in 1904, wrote about the love between a man and a woman. He said, “A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other the guardian of his solitude.” When we marry, we not only link our lives to another individual, we also enter, explore and fulfill essential notions of who we are and who we can be as unique persons created by God. Two separate individuals can be perfect in their solitude and know fully the goodness of that solitude, yet also enjoy the goodness of their lives melting together in love.
- Marriages have their ups and downs, just like anything else in life. Gary and I went through a difficult period when one of our children was struggling as a teenager. It was the darkest time of my life and placed enormous strain on our family. With the help of God, church and friends, Gary and I weathered the storm and have a stronger relationship now because it was tested by fire.
- Marriage is not always about pleasure: my pleasure or Gary’s pleasure. It’s about give and take, mutual sacrifice and perseverance. If our primary goal is our own pleasure, then when hard times come, we bail and find someone else who can make us happy. According to William Bennett in his book The Broken Hearth, 75% of those who said that they were very unhappy as a couple reported back 5 years later that their marriage was very happy or quite happy. I’ve always counseled troubled couples to do everything possible to keep their marriage intact before giving up.
- I’ve learned that sharing common values has helped our marriage remain strong. We were both fortunate to be raised in Christian families with wonderful parents. Our common commitment to Jesus Christ has been a blessing to us. We both love sports, although I am not the U of M football fan that Gary is. We love to travel and enjoy going to the symphony and the theater. We both value people over things and attempt to live a simple lifestyle.
- Change is inevitable and good as we grow and mature as individuals, but the only person I can change is myself. I’m a morning person, and Gary is a night person. I’m a neat person, and Gary enjoys a little creative chaos. I do my best work ahead of time, and Gary works best under a deadline. Gary needs coffee to get going in the morning, and I need to exercise. When spouses try to re-shape one another, it’s a sure recipe for trouble.
- Working together at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids for 13 years honored our differences and enhanced our similarities. Bringing different styles to the table, we learned much about teamwork and compromise. We had our moments of butting heads and brought endless amusement to church members, but through it all, we attempted to model collegiality and respect.
My greatest learning is that our marriage functions at its highest level when our selves remain separate. When Gary and I are free of emotional fusion and the anxiety that is generated when we are undifferentiated, our relationship flourishes. Murray Bowen, in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, writes, “So much energy goes into seeking love and approval, or attacking the other for not providing it, that there is little energy left for self-determined, goal-oriented activity.”
When our marriage displays a good synergy of togetherness and individuality, our family system experiences a high degree of independence where each person is encouraged to develop their own talents and is not caught up in the emotional demands of others. Gary and I have deliberately avoided expecting our three children to become little Laurie’s and little Gary’s but have offered them freedom to become self-differentiated, mature young adults. My hope is that they will experience God’s love, the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit as liberation to discover their unique gifts and use them to make a difference in the world.
When Sarah, Garth and Talitha were teenagers, I would often say to them as they left for the night, “Remember who you are.” My prayer in saying those words was that they would not bow to peer pressure, group anxiety, or the temptation to let other determine who they are. I hope that they will continue to develop well thought-out principles, emotional maturity, and a deep knowledge that they are beloved children of God.
As you might expect, these principles apply to every aspect of our life. By differentiating ourselves from the emotional demands of family, others and our ministry, we’ll have more energy to meet life’s challenges, make disciples and transform the world.
Thanks for 30 years, Gary! The next 30 years will be even better.