The Nature of Marriage
In the early days of my career, I was an avid student of anthropology. During my undergraduate and graduate studies in that discipline, I explored ethnographies compiled through the years by various anthropologists. One conclusive finding of these studies was that marriage between a man and a woman is the central, social building block in every human society, without exception. It is also true that monogamous, lifelong marriage is the universal cultural norm.
Of course, some people will deviate from this practice, as in polygamy (which is still found in a few nonliterate cultures) and serial monogamy (which has become common practice in some Western cultures), but these exceptions do not erase the cultural norm of lifetime monogamy from the human psyche. In fact, in spite of the widespread acceptance of divorce in the United States over the past forty years, a recent poll of never-married singles ages twenty to thirty indicates that eighty-seven percent planned to marry only once.1 Many of these people have seen their parents divorce and that is not what they want for themselves. The social institution of marriage is first and foremost a covenant relationship in which a man and a woman pledge themselves to each other for a lifetime partnership. In the biblical account of creation, God's expressed desire is that the two "will become one flesh."2 At the heart of marriage, therefore, is the idea of unity. It is the opposite of aloneness. Again from the creation account in Genesis, it is abundantly clear that God did not intend for men and women to live alone.3 Something deep within a man cries out for companionship with a woman, and the woman has a similar desire for intimacy with a man. Marriage is designed to satisfy this deep search for intimacy. Thus, marriage is not simply a relationship; it is an intimate relationship that encompasses all aspects of life: intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical. In a marriage relationship, a husband and wife share life with each other in the deepest possible way. They view themselves as a unified team, not as two individuals who happen to be living in close proximity. Because the desire and drive for intimacy are at the very heart of marriage, the individuals involved become troubled about their relationship when such intimacy is not attained.
Marriage is also a purposeful relationship. All research indicates that an intimate marriage provides the safest and most productive climate for raising children, for example. But procreation is not the only purpose of marriage. Each person is also endowed by God with certain latent possibilities. The partnership of marriage is an ideal environment for nurturing and developing these gifts and abilities. As the writer of the ancient book of Ecclesiastes observes, "Two are better than one … If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" 4 Every married couple has experienced the reality of this principle. Two are better than one.
Husbands and wives are designed to complement each other. When the man is weak, his wife is strong; when she stumbles, he is there to pick her up. Life is easier when two hearts and minds are committed to working together to face the challenges of the day.
After forty-plus years of marriage, I look back and realize that many of the things I have accomplished would never have come to fruition were it not for the encouragement and help of my wife. I'd also like to think that she has accomplished more with her life because of my support. This brings me a great deal of satisfaction. Together we have committed ourselves to seek and follow God's plan for our lives. We help each other discover our unique giftedness and encourage each other to use these abilities to serve God and to promote good in the world. As we do this, our lives point others to God and we accomplish our highest end. Our marriage relationship enhances the effectiveness with which we serve God.
King David captured the vision for us in Psalm 34:3: "Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together." From a biblical perspective, the purpose of life is not to accomplish our own objectives. The purpose of life is to know God and to bring glory and honor to his name. For most people, marriage enhances the possibility of achieving this objective.
ADAPTING TO THE CHANGING SEASONS
Marriage relationships are constantly changing. Attitudes shift, emotions fluctuate, and the way spouses treat each other ebbs and flows between loving and not so loving. Sometimes, change is beyond our control. For example, when Ben's wife, Nancy, was told she had cancer, the diagnosis changed the fabric of their lives and their relationship. They could adapt to the situation, but they couldn't control it. The same was true of Tricia and her husband, Rob, a member of the National Guard. When his unit was activated, he was sent into a war zone half a world away. Rob and Tricia could adapt, but the circumstances were beyond their control. When it became clear to Jon and Carol that her mother could no longer live alone, they had to respond to a change that they couldn't control. Life is full of unanticipated changes. Our only choice as couples is in how we will respond.
Other changes we create for ourselves, but sometimes with unexpected consequences. When Ken and Melinda moved to Kansas City after living near her family in Chicago for ten years, it created numerous changes that they now had to face together. The decisions we make regarding vocation, child rearing, education, civic and church involvement, and other areas of life create changes that affect our marriage relationships. The manner in which couples process these changes will determine the quality of their marriages.
In the natural world, the four seasons are created by certain inevitable changes that occur as the earth turns on its axis and revolves around the sun. Likewise, the changes we face in life (and the way we process and respond to them) create the seasons of marriage. The birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, illness, in-laws, getting a job, losing a job, the demands of a job, travel, vacations, weight gain, weight loss, financial ups and downs, moving, staying, depression, disagreements, moods, teenagers, aging bodies, aging parents, hobbies, habits, sex, impotence, infidelity --- all these are examples of situations and circumstances that put pressure on a marriage and demand a response. If we respond well, in harmony with our spouse, we can keep our marriage in spring or summer. If we don't respond well or if our response clashes with our spouse's response, we can feel the chill of autumn or be thrust into the icy cold of winter --- sometimes before we know what hit us.
Some changes, such as sexual infidelity, strike at the very heart of a marriage. Other changes are simply a natural part of life, such as illness, aging, or a new job. Our response to change consists of emotions, attitudes, and actions. The combination of these three factors will determine which season our marriage is in at any given time.
The thesis of this book is that the natural seasons --- winter, spring, summer, and fall --- provide us with an apt analogy for the changes that occur in our marriage relationships. As we experience life through the five senses --- hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching --- we feel emotions, develop attitudes, and take action. The interweaving of our emotions, attitudes, and actions creates the quality of our relationship in the various seasons of marriage.
It has become popular in Western culture over the past forty years to exalt emotions as the guiding light that determines our actions. After more than thirty years of counseling couples, I am convinced this is a misguided notion. Don't misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that emotions are not important. Emotions tell us that something is wrong or right in a relationship, but emotions must lead to reason, and reason must be guided by truth if we are to take constructive action. We must not short-circuit the process and jump straight from emotions to action without the benefit of reason. Many couples who have done this have found themselves in winter when they could have ended up in spring or summer.
EMOTIONS moderated by REASON guided by TRUTH = CONSTRUCTIVE ACTION
Let's begin our journey by defining the four seasons of marriage. In the next four chapters, we will look at the common emotions, attitudes, and actions that create a particular season. We will do this by visiting with couples who have chosen to communicate to me the joys and sorrows of their season of marriage. Names and places have been changed to protect the privacy of the couples involved, but the stories are real and for the most part are told in the words of the people themselves.
Perhaps you will discover yourself in one of these seasons of marriage. If not, the Marital Seasons Profile at the end of Part I will help you identify the season of your marriage. In the second part of the book, I will introduce seven practical ideas for weaving your emotions, attitudes, and actions together to move from one season to another.
In Part III, we'll recap the seven strategies and answer some of the common questions I've been asked about the four seasons of marriage.
Finally, to help you use this book in a small-group setting, or to facilitate your own understanding, we've included a study guide intended to promote conversation about the four seasons of marriage and the seven strategies. My hope is that all these features will help you and your spouse enhance the seasons of your marriage.
Why begin with winter? I might begin there because that is where the calendar begins, with January. Although it is not true everywhere, January and February in North Carolina are the coldest months. That's when it snows and there are ice storms. It's when people wear gloves and overcoats and when they go sledding in the streets and skiing at Sugar Mountain. Winter is when children look forward to being out of school so they can play in the snow. It is when only the pansies are blooming and the bears are fast asleep. But to be honest, that is not why I want to begin with winter.
I start with winter because most of the people who have been in my counseling office over the past thirty years have come when their marriage was in the season of winter. Not many come to see me when their marriage is enjoying a time of summer. It is the coldness of winter that drives them to my office. In the natural world, at least in North America, we speak of cold winters, harsh winters, snowy winters, icy winters, and bitter winters. In short, winter means difficulty. Life is much harder in the winter than it is in the summer.
Winter marriages are characterized by coldness, harshness, and bitterness. The dreams of spring are covered with layers of ice, and the weather forecast calls for more freezing rain. If the husband and wife have a conversation, it is merely about logistics: who will do what and when. If they try to talk about their relationship, it typically ends in an argument that goes unresolved. Some couples simply live in a cold silence. Essentially, they lead independent lives though they live in the same house. Each spouse blames the other for the coldness of the relationship. What brings a couple to the winter season of marriage? In a word: rigidity --- the unwillingness to consider the other person's perspective and to work toward a meaningful compromise. All couples face difficulties, and all couples have differences. These differences may center on money, in-laws, religion, or any other area of life. Couples who fail to negotiate these differences will find themselves in the middle of winter --- a season of marriage created not by the difficulties of life but by the manner in which a couple respond to those difficulties. When one or both marriage partners insist on "my way or not at all," they are moving their marriage toward winter. Winter may last a month, or it may last thirty years. It may begin three months after the wedding or hit in the midlife years. It may focus on one problem area or encompass all of life. As we noted earlier, each season of marriage is accompanied by certain emotions, attitudes, and actions. The interaction of these three factors determines whether a couple will stay in a season or move from one season to another.
In this chapter, I want to describe the emotions, attitudes, and actions that accompany the winter season of marriage. So what does the winter season look like in a marriage?
THE EMOTIONS OF WINTER
Some of the emotions of winter are hurt, anger, and disappointment, often accompanied by loneliness and a sense of rejection. All the emotions of a couple caught in winter reveal the coldness, harshness, and bitterness that grip the marriage.
Let me introduce you to some couples who are experiencing the winter season of marriage. Listen to the way they describe their emotions:
George is a forty-four-year-old husband from Jacksonville, Florida, who has been married for eighteen years. "My marriage is totally discouraging," he says. "If I were not a Christian, I would probably give up. I know that I should love my wife, but emotionally I am totally empty. It feels as if my wife does not love me, like me, or respect me. It seems that she just tolerates me --- and sometimes it doesn't even feel that good. I feel terrible about our marriage."
His wife, Helen, describes their marriage this way: "Not fun! Nothing seems to have any flow to it, but I really don't have the emotional energy to get something flowing. My husband has been without a job for a year and a half and apparently is heading in no particular direction. We were in this same position fourteen years ago when he finished graduate school. To have come full circle is extremely frustrating, and to have three children now who have to go through this only adds anxiety. I am very unhappy with the state of our marriage."
Marilyn is forty-five and has been married five years in a second marriage. She says, "I feel disappointed and dejected. We don't talk --- only argue --- and never come to any conclusions or agreements on how to solve problems. Neither of us is happy. We disagree on money issues and child rearing (my three children live with us). He says that divorce is the only answer. I'm not sure."
Mark has been married for twenty-three years but says of his marriage, "It is very discouraging. We disagree on everything. We are both bullheaded, and this has created many emotional conflicts. There is a coldness about our relationship." His wife, Millie, says, "Mark is very hurtful. We have had many years of resentment. I feel there has been more effort on my part than his. It seems to me that he will not listen and does not care about my feelings. He is so critical. At this stage, we spend little time together and give almost no affirmation or touch." Maria is forty-three and has been married nine years to her second husband. She says of her marriage, "It hurts in so many ways and affects all aspects of my life. I carry it around inside, giving it to the Lord and trying to be optimistic and hopeful. We both want more, but we just can't connect."
Emily has been married for two-and-a-half years but expresses the emotional pain of winter when she says, "I am terribly discontented. It hurts really badly at times. I'm just surviving day by day. I've given up hope."
Hurt, anger, disappointment, loneliness, rejection, and sometimes hopelessness are some of the emotions that couples experience when their marriage is in the season of winter.
THE ATTITUDES OF WINTER
Attitudes are the way we think about or interpret what we experience in life. We frequently speak of people having a negative attitude or a positive attitude. By attitude, I mean the way a person generally responds to the things that happen in life. The winter season of marriage is characterized by negative attitudes.
In winter we tend to see the worst. We perceive problems as too big and positions as too entrenched. We think that disagreements have gone on too long and can never be resolved. We tend to blame our spouse for the decline in our relationship ("If only he would …" "If only she wouldn't …"). These attitudes foster emotions that range between mild discouragement and utter hopelessness.
I met a man named Frank in Seattle, Washington. He was twenty-four years old and had been married for only a year, but he was extremely distraught about his marriage. "It makes me feel like we are never going to make it. It just keeps getting worse. We fight 24/7, and we hit each other --- and we have a baby. I can't go on like this, and I don't know what else to do." In his business, Frank was energetic and always willing to take on new challenges, but at home he was clearly thinking negatively.
After nineteen years of marriage, a woman named Martha said, "I think I really tried to work on our marriage in the early years, but it seemed as if everything I suggested he interpreted as nagging. Nothing seemed to work, so I began to shut down. We've had some times of growth and increased intimacy, but mostly it has centered on what he wanted and doesn't involve my needs or desires. That continued pattern has left me not really caring what his needs are at this point. I am now waiting --- probably unfairly --- for him to put some energy into our marriage."
Here is what Martha's husband, William, said: "A year-and-a-half ago, our marriage had just come off the best two years we'd ever had. We were applying biblical principles to our marriage, and it was great. Martha was trying harder and I lowered my expectations. Then I resigned my job --- with her support --- but it has been a rough road ever since. Doors have not opened, and I am currently working four part-time jobs to support our family. Apparently, I dropped the ball with communication, consistent affection, and having a plan for the future during the early months of this transition. Since then, Martha has shut down and nothing I do is helping to turn it around. It seems there is a hole in her love tank, and nothing I do gets credited to my account. She says she is not holding on to unforgiveness, but that is what it seems like to me." Clearly Martha and William are both plagued with negative attitudes, and neither is feeling the support of the other. Sometimes attitudes turn negative quickly. Truett had an offer of another job in a neighboring state. He and Mary discussed it and agreed that this would be a good move for them at this stage in their lives. So they made the move. However, shortly after unpacking, Mary found herself missing her friends and feeling irritated by all the changes that were forced upon her by the move. She complained to Truett about these things and told him how unhappy she was. Truett felt betrayed. He thought they had been in agreement about the move, so he felt that Mary was putting him in an unfair position. He could not resign so soon after accepting his new job, and yet he wanted his wife to be happy.
Mary's negative attitude became a barrier in their marriage, and within a year they were on the brink of divorce. How different things might have been if Mary had taken a positive attitude, sought to make new friends, and looked for the good things in their new situation. Negative attitudes are like a bitter wind that contributes to the winter season of marriage.
THE ACTIONS OF WINTER
Our natural tendency in the middle of winter is to avoid the elements as much as possible. When the weather turns frigid, we retreat inside for survival and wait for it to warm up or for the season to change. In a winter marriage, there may be a similar tendency to "avoid the elements." Spouses may withdraw within themselves, hunkering down and trying to ride out the cold season, hoping for spring but not taking any positive steps to move their marriage toward spring. However, unlike the natural seasons, the seasons of a marriage do not typically change without some positive action --- unless it's a change from bad to worse.
If you are experiencing winter in your marriage, your actions will tend to be divisive and destructive. Consciously or subconsciously, they are designed to hurt your spouse. Harsh words, violent acts, or withdrawal and silence are some of the actions of winter. I remember one woman who said to me, "I was so angry because of Kurt's unfaithfulness that I went over to the apartment of the girl I knew he was seeing, found his car, and flattened all four tires with a butcher knife. I know I could have been arrested for that, but at the time I was so angry I just wanted him to know how deeply he was hurting me."
I also remember a husband who told me in the counseling office, "I went over to the apartment where I knew she was living with another man, took the battery out of her car, and threw it in a ditch. I was so angry and hurt."
I met Melody in Racine, Wisconsin, at one of my marriage seminars. At the time, she was in her second marriage; the first marriage had been, in her words, "physically and emotionally abusive." Five years into her second marriage, she was certain that her marriage could be characterized as winter. "I hate it. I am distant, and I don't know if my husband will react positively to anything I initiate. I am tired. I've actually considered telling him we need to separate because I am sure he will never talk civilly to me again. I am not content at all with my marriage at this time." When I asked her to share an example of what was going on in the marriage, she responded, "Two weeks ago, I asked him to stop teasing our son about being a „momma's boy.. He said I was just playing favorites. Initially, I just walked out of the room, but later that day he said that I was mistreating one of my other sons. It was all downhill after that, and now we are barely speaking. And he avoids me. We are almost never in the same room except to sleep. When he is around, I feel he gets verbally abusive. At times, I have memories of my first marriage, and I wonder if the same thing is happening again."
Chris and Amanda attended my seminar in West Palm Beach, Florida. They had been married for five years, and it was the first marriage for both of them. She was twenty-five and he was twenty-nine. Amanda's comments on their marriage indicated that for her it was winter. "I feel sad and hurt, even though at other times it feels like we really love each other. I'm not happy. I want to feel the love we used to feel. We have been through the birth of a child, my husband had a serious accident and was out of work for three years, and our house was destroyed by fire. Over time, we have grown apart. We have become very negative and continue to put each other down."
Chris's comments were brief: "I just know that my wife grew up in a fighting family and doesn't know any other way to live. She is also very demanding." For both Chris and Amanda, critical, demanding, and demeaning words indicated the coldness of their relationship. Joshua was twenty-two years old and had been married only three years when he said to me, "My wife cheated on me repeatedly with one of my friends in the first six months of our marriage. The way I reacted was by cheating on her. This has caused a lack of trust, among other things, which led us to the winter season. I am definitely not content with our marriage. I've made many bad decisions before, and I worry about making things worse."
Bernice is seventy-eight years old and has been married fifty-four years to the same husband, but she admits that her marriage is very painful. "I feel rejected and discouraged," she said. "My husband is a recovering alcoholic and is often depressed. He lies to me or he doesn't talk to me at all, and lately he's been getting into pornography. My heart is broken, but all I know to do is pray. If I try to talk with him, he is critical and blames me for all our problems. Yes, our marriage is definitely in the winter season. It's really sad after all these years together." In the winter season of marriage, communication fluctuates between silence and arguments. Critical words are spoken that further hurt the relationship. Verbal abuse sometimes leads to physical abuse. The sexual part of the marriage becomes a battlefield, and sexual unfaithfulness may strike the final blow to the marriage.
A winter marriage is indeed cold, harsh, and bitter. Eventually, couples become detached emotionally and sometimes physically. They may sleep in separate bedrooms because they do not want to be close to each other. Sexually and emotionally, they are already divorced. If the warm winds of spring do not come soon, they may take steps to become legally divorced as well. Winter is often accompanied by feelings of desperation. Bryan, who was in his midtwenties and had been married for four years, said of his marriage, "We were obsessed with each other in the beginning. Now we are confused. I am trying to accept her, but just this morning she said that the devil had a foothold in her life. I want to help, but I don't know what to do. I am not content with our relationship. Communication is one sided: from her to me. When I do speak up, she finishes my sentences, so mostly I keep quiet. But I am afraid of how far this might go. I don't push my opinions. I let her rule and don't understand why."
Bryan's wife, Christy, said, "We allowed Satan a foothold in our lives by engaging in premarital sex. Now we are married but I resent his touch, and there is a bitterness and anger that I realize - only God can heal. I hope it comes soon."
Marge is forty-five and has been married eight years to her second husband. "I don't understand why or how it got this way, but our marriage is just an existence. We let the kids --- two of his, two of mine --- rip us apart in our early years. The kids are grown and gone now (all but one), but we are struggling to put our lives back together. I don't know how to fix our marriage." Typically, marriages do not begin in the winter season. And unlike the natural seasons, fall does not always precede winter in a marriage. A marriage can move directly from spring to winter. For Joanie, it seemed that her marriage went straight from the honeymoon to winter. It was her second marriage, and she had a mentally challenged child from her first marriage. "While we were dating, Jon seemed to like Mandy. He was always kind to her. But after the honeymoon, it was like Mandy was suddenly a bother to him. He wanted it to be just the two of us. Well, that's not a possibility. He's living in a fantasy world. He even asked me if we could find someone to adopt Mandy. Why would I want to do that? She's my daughter. I think I made a huge mistake in marrying Jon. I don't know if we can ever get it together. He loses his temper, and his words destroy me. He has to call all the shots in our lives. It's like my opinions don't matter to him." Winter may come early in a marriage or it may come after fifty years. In between, it can occur many times. Couples can recognize it by their emotions, their attitudes, and their actions. The chart on page 19 summarizes the basic signs of a winter marriage.
THE POSITIVE SIDE OF WINTER
If your marriage is in winter, it may appear beyond hope. But don't give up. Just as most people wouldn't lie down in the snow and wait to die, there's no reason to passively accept the coldness of a wintry marriage. There is a way out, and it begins with hope. The coldness of winter often stimulates a desire for healing and health. It is the sick who seek a physician and find healing. A winter marriage often makes couples desperate enough to break out of their silent suffering and seek the help of a counselor, pastor, or trusted friend. Those who seek help will find it. Through the process of healing, couples come to experience the positive side of winter. As one husband said, "We realized that through the pain we rediscovered our roots, affirmed our faith, and grew in character." Often it is the trials of life that produce patience and perseverance.1 God can use marital winters for good.2 Working through the season of winter may never be "fun" or "exciting," like sledding down a steep hill or a ski trip to Vail, but when couples persevere and begin to take positive steps to improve their marriage, they emerge stronger, more committed, and better able to work through their differences.
Through the years, I have seen numerous couples move from winter to spring. When the failures of winter are confessed and forgiven, forgiveness makes room for love, and "love covers over a multitude of sins."3 By extending the olive branch of peace, even in the midst of pain and alienation, countless couples have discovered the potential for deep healing and an even deeper intimacy. The scars of failure are reminders of sin, a desperate need for forgiveness, and the power of God to save. The good news is that forgiveness and God's power are always available to those who seek them. When two people choose to love again, the melting ice of winter will water the seeds of spring, and winter has served its ultimate purpose. In Part II, we will look at the tools necessary to move from winter to spring. But first, let's identify the characteristics of the other three seasons of marriage.
In the world of nature, spring is the time for new beginnings. In my corner of the world, I know it is spring when the crocuses lift their heads above the soil and smile. They are soon followed by the daffodils and the greening of the grass. On occasions when the crocuses celebrate too early, I've seen them blanketed with snow, but this never seems to bother them. It is as if they know that winter's last fling will soon give way to the reign of spring. Inspired by the courage of the crocuses, all nature begins to bud and soon blossoms into its full beauty. As it happens, the arrival of spring often intersects with Easter, which celebrates the ultimate triumph of life over death.
Spring is where most marriages begin, the excitement of creating a new life together giving men and women the courage to make a covenant marriage commitment. "To love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, so long as we both shall live." These words have the ring of spring. What could be more exciting than joining two lives together to help each other accomplish the purposes for which they were created? Yes, marriages begin in the springtime. Janet, a thirty-three-year-old newlywed I met at a marriage seminar in Alabama, captured the excitement of spring when she described her six-month-old marriage: "It's full of joy! It's exciting to watch our relationship grow and develop. That „in love. high just deepens and becomes richer each day. Every day is an opportunity to find a way to live out my love for my husband. In some ways, it's scary because there is that fear of not measuring up. And having older couples express their thoughts of „just wait a few years and it won't be so wonderful. makes me think, Why not? Can’t we make the daily choice to keep this joy alive and maturing?" Janet was excited and happy about her marriage, and she intended to keep it that way. She was a bit ruffled by people who would want to snow on her crocuses, but she was certain that their dire predictions need not become a reality.
Marriage is not a lifelong springtime, but we can come back to the optimism, enthusiasm, and joy of spring many times in the course of our lives. We'll inevitably have our seasons of summer, fall, and winter as well, though not necessarily in that predictable order. As mentioned earlier, the seasons of marriage are not chronological, and thus springtime is not exclusively for newlyweds. The seasons repeat themselves numerous times throughout a marriage, and because we are creatures of choice, we can create new be-ginnings whenever we desire. More about the process later, but first let's visit with some couples who are in the springtime of marriage. As we've seen, the seasons of a marriage are created by the changes we encounter and --- more important --- by our emotions, attitudes, and actions. Emotions typically influence our attitudes and our actions. For example, if I feel angry, the anger can develop into an attitude and I act it out. Conversely, the emotion of joy may lead to an attitude of optimism, which in turn results in the action of encouraging others. When couples describe their emotions, attitudes, and actions, they are describing the quality of their marriage relationships, or the season of their marriage. So, what does a springtime marriage look like?
THE EMOTIONS OF SPRING
Spring is characterized by animated and buoyant feelings, such as excitement, joy, hope, and happiness.
Amanda from Little Rock, Arkansas, is thirty-three and has been married for a year. "It's exciting," she says. "We've been together for ten years of dating, but marriage brings a whole new aspect to our relationship. Now I have a husband whom I love, and I know he loves me. It's new; I see him in a different light. I'm excited about what the future holds for us." Brandon got married for the first time at age forty-five. He's been married for two years and says, "I'm excited about our marriage as we continue our journey together. It's been a little scary as we have tried to take our emotions to a deeper level by learning each other's love language. I am really happy to be married to a woman who wants to continue growing and not let our relationship become stale. I want to keep on learning how to be a better husband." I met Joyce and Rob at one of my marriage seminars in Tampa, Florida. At one of the breaks, after we had chatted a bit, I asked Joyce to describe her marriage in terms of one of the four seasons. She said, "After listening to the first half of your seminar, I feel very blessed to be in the spring season of our marriage. Our excitement over being married has subsided slightly, but I still get that excited feeling at times when I look at my husband. Yes, I am happier now than I have ever been in my life! I love my husband and I love being married."
"How long have you been married?" I asked.
Rex and Bonnie have been married for twenty-six years and live in Richmond, Virginia. Rex said, "Our first child was born the day after our first anniversary, so it seems like we have always had kids at home. Now we are empty nesters and have only each other. We find we are enjoying our time together --- our conversations and our sharing of thoughts, concerns, and interests. We enjoy doing things together. Our grown kids say they want to find marriage relationships like their parents enjoy. That is very gratifying to both of us." After twenty-six years, Rex and Bonnie are rediscovering the springtime of marriage.
I met Ryan and Michelle in Phoenix, Arizona. "We are entering a new stage of our marriage," Ryan said. "It's like we are starting all over again. We moved here three years ago from the Midwest, and it has been like a second honeymoon for us. Before we moved, we were beginning to get into a rut and, frankly, not giving much attention to each other. Since the move, we have spent a lot more time talking with each other and doing things together. Both of us have found a new excitement about life and about our marriage. We are the happiest we have ever been." On another occasion, after I had completed a lecture titled "Making Sex a Mutual Joy," a woman named Leslie said to me, "It's true. I love being married to Sean --- and besides all that, our sex life is terrific! It's like I have rediscovered my femininity, and I feel so loved by my husband. It's a whole new season in our marriage." Sean and Leslie were experiencing the emotions of spring.
THE ATTITUDES OF SPRING
In the springtime of marriage, spouses have positive attitudes toward each other and toward life in general. The typical attitudes of spring are gratitude and anticipation of the future. Change is perceived as an opportunity for new beginnings, and springtime couples fully expect to make the best of those opportunities. We sometimes speak of the pessimist as a person who sees a glass half empty, whereas the optimist sees it half full. A pessimist says, "It looks like it's going to rain." An optimist says, "We may get a sprinkle, but I think it's going to be a beautiful day." In the season of spring, couples have an optimistic attitude about their marriages.
In the world of nature, spring has its pollen. If people curse the pollen, you know that spring is not their favorite time of the year. But if they talk optimistically about the flowers and the butterflies (even while sneezing from the pollen), you know that they are in love with spring. The same is true in a marriage. Even in the springtime, there can be difficulties, but the prevailing attitude is one of anticipated growth rather than despair. Jill, from upstate New York, described the attitude of spring well when she said, "I feel that our marriage is growing. Of course, we have our ups and downs like anyone else. But we are trying to build our lives around the teachings of Christ. We are learning to communicate, learning how to nurture our love, and learning how to be open to each other's ideas and feelings. We are excited about being together and exploring the future with God."
Not only is springtime characterized by an attitude of optimism, it is also accompanied by an attitude of gratitude. Joanie had been married to Alex for twenty-two years when she said to me, "Things aren't where I want them to be, but I am hopeful for the future. I'm grateful for what I have, and I want us to keep growing. When I see other marriages falling apart, I'm glad that Alex and I still love each other and are continuing to work at our relationship."
Alex expressed a similar attitude: "We've learned to communicate pretty well. We've learned that we don't have to agree on everything. Sometimes we agree to disagree and seek to under- stand each other's point of view. But we love each other and that is the central focus, along with our love for God. That helps us overcome any differences we have, because we agree more than we disagree. I'm deeply grateful for the marriage God has given us."
The attitude of love blossoms beautifully in the spring. As Janet from Alabama said after six months of marriage, "Every day is an opportunity to find a way to live out my love for my husband." She is expressing an attitude of love.
Amy, a woman I met in Indianapolis, said, "My husband is very considerate, and that has rubbed off on me. We both are very aware of each other's feelings and try to make a conscious effort to nurture our relationship. We love each other, and we want to keep it alive forever." If it is springtime in your marriage, you will be consciously thinking about things you might do or say to express your love to your mate. Last Sunday, after the morning worship service at our church, I was greeted by a couple who have been married for thirty-five years. The husband said, "Last week we took a vacation, and we took your book The Five Love Languages: Men’s Edition with us. I read your original book several years ago, and I thought I understood my wife's love language. But this week we both learned a lot about each other. It's been one of the best weeks we've had in years. We feel like we are beginning a second honeymoon, only this time our love is so much deeper than it was in the early years of our marriage." It was obvious to me that spring had returned after thirty-five years of marriage.
Springtime is also undergirded by an attitude of trust. Trust is believing that your spouse is a person of integrity --- that he or she will tell you the truth. If your marriage is built on a solid foundation of trust, you are certain of your spouse's faithfulness to the marital commitment, and you will choose to believe the best about your mate, even in uncertain circumstances. The attitude of trust brings a sense of security. I've never forgotten what one young man said to me a few years ago: "We've been married ten years, and one of the greatest things for me is the trust that I have in Misty. My father could not trust my mother; she had numerous involvements with other men through the years. It was a great source of grief for my father, although I always admired the fact that he forgave her and sought to recover. Mom died six years ago, and Dad is now married to a wonderful Christian woman. I'm really happy for him. I guess because of all that, I am so grateful for Misty and her love and commitment to me. Knowing that I can trust her brings me great joy." He was expressing one of the characteristic attitudes of spring. When we foster the springtime attitudes of optimism, gratitude, love, and trust, we will enjoy the fragrant blossoming of spring in our marriages. Such attitudes lead to positive actions.
THE ACTIONS OF SPRING
For most of us, spring brings us out of the house into a whole new world of activity. Who doesn't enjoy a spring picnic, ants and all? In many parts of the country, spring means mowing the grass and planting the garden. On top of that is the whole world of spring sports that provide recreation for the kids and turn Mom into a taxi service. Spring is a time for accelerated activity, and most of us are happy to emerge from our winter dens and participate in the excitement. Similarly, when spring comes to a marriage relationship, it will be characterized by new attitudes and new activities. We look for ways to express our love and stimulate excitement in our relationship. These are not random actions --- activity for activity's sake --- nor are they self-centered. The focus is on bringing new life to the marriage and building up the good that is already there. In this season of marriage, the guiding principle is nurture, which means "to feed." The actions of springtime are designed to feed and nourish the marital relationship. Both spouses seek to do things that will enhance the life of their mate. They ask themselves, "How will this affect our relationship?" If a marriage is in the season of spring, both spouses will do things to deepen the relationship and benefit the other person.
Ashley had been married for seven years and spoke excitedly when she said to me, "We have finally established date nights, to talk or do whatever we want. I am now okay with leaving our children with grandparents." This "fresh start" action --- establishing a new habit of date nights --- indicates that Ashley and her husband, Grey, are moving into spring.
Heidi and Jeremy have been married one year. "We.re newlyweds!" Heidi said. "We are reading books on communication and marriage. We are attending conferences about how to keep our marriage healthy, and we are asking God to lead us in our lives and be a part of our marriage. We are both very fortunate to have come from Christian homes, and we both grew up with wonderful models. We are excited about the future." Heidi and Jeremy are not resting on the laurels of their parents but taking positive action to see that their marriage stays "on track."
In the first two-and-a-half years of their marriage, Jake and Kendra had already experienced a season of winter. But when I met them, they were definitely experiencing spring. "How did you make the transition?" I asked.
"I eliminated my part-time job," Jake replied. "We had realized that we simply did not have time to work on our marriage. The money was nice but it wasn't worth it. We made a move to another town only thirty miles away and it gave us a fresh start. We both rekindled our individual relationships with God. This has made a big difference."
Kendra added, "When we brought God back into our lives, we began to see the positive things about each other and focused on those. We began to pray together and play together. It has made a world of difference for us. We are actually enjoying being married again. We know that God has good things for us in the future."
I met Julian and Dorothy in Richmond, Virginia. Julian opened the conversation by saying, "We want to tell you how much we appreciate your writing. It has opened to us a whole new world of understanding each other."
"For twenty-five years," Dorothy said, "I wondered what made him tick. Then I discovered that his love languages are quality time and physical touch. My love languages are words of affirmation and acts of service. When I stopped cleaning, cooking, and painting; took time to sit down and talk with him face-to-face; and started giving him loving touches, he began doing acts of service and giving me words of affirmation. We have entered a whole new stage of marriage." "It's called springtime," I said. "And I hope you stay there a long time."
Obviously, making positive changes requires a willingness to change. Madelyn was twenty-one and had been married for only ten months when I met her and her husband, Jackson, in Sumter, South Carolina. "We got off to a rough start in our marriage," she said, "but God has worked positively in our lives to get us over the hump. He revealed to us our own selfishness. We still have disagreements occasionally, but I am continually humbled and disarmed by my husband's willingness to look at what he is doing and be open to change. That makes me love him more and more."
Jackson added, "We have only begun this season with God's help and understanding. We took a class on marriage at our church and realized that we are both incomplete people and God has a desire to see us changed. He is using our marriage to help both of us grow." I predict that if Madelyn and Jackson continue with their willingness to change, they will live in the springtime or summer most of their lives. Loving actions, which begin with a willingness to change, create a positive emotional climate between a husband and wife that makes life exciting.
Positive actions require time. Dave, from Atlanta, has been married twenty-one years and has three children. "One of the things that has kept our marriage alive and growing is that we chiseled time into our schedules to spend together doing things we mutually enjoy. We have experienced tragedies in our family, and that has forced us to realize the importance of nurturing our marriage." I like the picture that Dave used --- "we chiseled time into our schedules." If we don't make time for each other, no one else will do it for us.
Learning how to take positive action sometimes requires outside help. For Jerry and Jan, the first eight years of marriage were, in a word, miserable. "We didn't agree on anything," Jan said. "We spent most of our time arguing, and both of us had come to regret that we had married. But all that changed a year ago. We've taken steps, both together and individually, through Christian counseling. We've learned to accept responsibility for ourselves and to enjoy the uniqueness of each other without controlling the other. The one key element for us is having Christ in our lives and learning to be more like him." Jerry and Jan illustrate the reality that some couples will need professional help. Being willing to go for counseling is a positive action that often results in the return of spring.
Andrew and Tricia got off to a much healthier start. When I met them two years into their marriage, Andrew said, "Before we got married, we sought out mentors and wise, trusted counselors to help us prepare for our life together. Communication has been a big part of our relationship. Before marriage, we communicated expectations and how families play into our lives and marriage. One of the things we learned was to laugh together every day. There is something about laughter that makes life easier. We seek at least one way every day to express our love to each other: notes, actions, or words. We've had a great two years and anticipate a great future."
Positive attitudes engender positive actions. And loving actions result in positive emotions. Wrap these three together and you have the springtime of marriage. In summary, a spring marriage looks like this:
THE DOWNSIDE OF SPRING
Lest you think that spring has no problems, let me warn you about poison ivy. A few years ago, as I was getting ready to plant my spring garden, I learned an important lesson in plant identification. The season before, I had erected a wire fence to protect my garden from rabbits. As I was turning the soil, preparing it for planting, I noticed ivy growing on my fence. Where did that come from? I thought. I didn’t plant any ivy. With a few fast pulls of the hand, I removed the ivy from my fence. The next day, when I woke up with itching welts on my hand and wrist, I realized I had tangled with poison ivy. For the next few days, I was greatly irritated by intense itching.
In a springtime marriage, we may encounter poison ivy --- irritations that pop up unannounced and unexpected. These irritations can cause marital itching, even in the midst of springtime. They can ruin a perfectly wonderful vacation or turn a fine dinner into an emotional fiasco. These irritations do not change the season, but they may make spring less enjoyable. As part of Strategy 6, we will discuss how to turn these irritations into assets as we "maximize" our differences. For the moment, however, let me encourage you to share your irritations with your spouse and be open to change.
Spring often leads a couple to make positive changes. It is a time of new beginnings, new patterns of life, new ways of listening and expressing concern, and new ways of loving. If we successfully implement and nurture these positive changes, springtime will give way to the fun and warmth of summer. On the other hand, if we fail to follow through with new beginnings, we may find ourselves skipping summer altogether and slipping straight into fall or winter. But missing summer is like missing the ice-cream truck. It's enough to make a grown man cry. In the next chapter, we will look at the season of marriage that you don't want to miss.
Beyond the elm tree, closer to the creek, I planted five crape myrtles. The first few years they grew slowly --- maybe because of poor soil or my lack of attention. But this summer they are in full bloom, heavy laden with clusters of red. I have learned from others that crape myrtles bloom at different times, even in the same geographical location. Up by the apartment complex on the highway, they started blooming in early June, but the ones I planted bloom in mid-to-late July. They signal for me that summer reigns.
At this time of year, we are also eating fresh corn, okra, and tomatoes. Nothing tastes better than a vine-ripened tomato in the middle of summer. I have some friends who would say the same thing about watermelon or squash. Summer is when the gardener reaps the benefits of what was planted and nurtured in the spring.
For children, summer is the time to relax. School is closed and the pool is open. And if one lives near a creek, as I do, it's fun to catch tadpoles. The sun stays awake longer and so do the kids. Hot, sweaty faces indicate intense activity, but for children, it is sheer joy. "Do we have to come inside? We.re having fun" is the mantra of summer.
Fun is also the theme of a summer marriage. Life is beautiful. We are reaping the benefits of our hard efforts to understand each other and to work together as a team to see the dreams of spring fulfilled. The anticipation of spring has turned into the reality of summer. The initial excitement may have waned, but our sense of connection with each other has deepened. We have fewer misunderstandings, and when we do, resolutions come more quickly.
We may or may not have reached our financial goals. We may or may not have children. We may have good health or poor health. Our vocation may be satisfying or frustrating. But if our marriage is in the season of summer, we will share a deep sense of commitment and satisfaction. And we will feel secure in each other's love.
So what are the emotions, attitudes, and actions that foster and sustain the season of summer in a marriage? From Maine to Miami and from Seattle to San Diego, I've encountered couples who have described their marriage as being in the summer season. Let's look at a few examples.
THE EMOTIONS OF SUMMER
Summer is characterized by feelings of happiness, satisfaction, accomplishment, and connection. Look for the words that describe these emotions in the following stories:
Julia is thirty-seven years old and has been married for sixteen years. "Summer feels good," she said. "We.re on the „same page,. and as my husband always says, it „makes our marriage fun.. It opens up my heart to communication."
Hal is sixty-three and has been married to Geneva for forty-one years. I met them in Pasadena, California. He said, "It is a good feeling to be content with myself and my wife in this season of life. By content, I do not mean that I have stopped working to make it better. I just mean that there is something there that I can't put into words, but I just know that things are right between the two of us. We are there for each other." As Hal smiled at Geneva, she nodded and added, "That's right. And we intend to keep it that way."
I met Marc at one of my marriage seminars in Spokane, Washington. He had been married to Jennifer for twenty years. He said, "I feel that we are in the summer of our marriage. In the past we have been overwhelmed with issues, including work, raising children, and a lot of physical problems. But we worked our way through those and are stronger because of them. Our relationship seems comfortable. There's no longer the struggle of those earlier years. It's a good feeling to know that we have survived and really do love each other." Marc is a quiet, reserved man, and I could tell that his words expressed the deep sense of satisfaction that he felt inside. Jennifer added, "I'm so glad we didn't give up when things were tough. What we have now was worth working for."
Marsha is twenty-nine and has been married ten months. She and Reg live in Tampa, Florida. When I asked her to describe her marriage, she said, "It feels good now --- much better than the first eight-and-a-half months." Looking at Reg, she added, "He finally understands what I meant when I said, „I don't feel special. I don't feel like you love me. You don't do things like you did before we got married.. When he discovered my love language and started speaking it, I felt loved again. The last two months have definitely been summer for me."
"What about you, Reg?" I inquired.
"She's speaking my love language. I feel good about our relationship," he said. "Marsha's pregnant with our first baby. I just hope we can keep summer alive after the baby comes." Obviously, Reg and Marsha were feeling connected again after getting off to a rocky start in their marriage.
Summer may come at a busy time of life, but the busyness need not destroy the intimacy. Tricia is twenty-four and has been married to Rob for three years. They live in Tucson, Arizona. She said, "I feel comfortable with our relationship. Although we are very busy with our jobs, we still are happy and able to spend quality time together. I think we both feel secure in each other's love, and I hope we can keep it this way forever."
Celeste lives in Arlington, Texas, and has been married to Daniel for fourteen years. It is her second marriage, his first. She said, "Our marriage is definitely in the summer season. It gives me a feeling of peace and confidence to know that I can trust Daniel. He is so caring, and I hope that he knows I love him more than anyone in the world." She reached out and held Daniel's hand. He smiled and said, "I really believe that. And I love her more than anyone in the world. We are so happy that God has given us a good marriage." Happiness, satisfaction, peace, fun, comfort --- these are words that describe the emotions of a couple who are living in the summer season of marriage.
THE ATTITUDES OF SUMMER
Our deck is filled with beautiful potted flowers: impatiens, Gerber daisies, hibiscus, petunias, geraniums, and portulaca. They have been blooming profusely all summer long. However, one observation I have made is that if flowers are not watered, they wilt. The first to drop their heads when the water ceases to flow are the impatiens. Perhaps that is where they got their name. Summer marriages are much like flowers: They are beautiful, but they must be watered. Couples who are successful at having an extended season of summer in their marriage are ones who have learned to maintain what they have attained. They recognize that the summer season did not come without preparing the soil, planting the seeds, and nurturing the marriage. Now that they are enjoying the beauty of summer, they want to maintain it, and they have an attitude of work and growth. Almost without exception, couples who tell me that their marriage is in the summer season also say that they have a desire to continue growing.
I met Candace in Auburn, Alabama. She had been married five years to Tim, and they were definitely in the summer season of marriage. She said, "It feels like living with my best friend. It's fun and I really enjoy it. But I realize that we must continue to nurture the romantic part of our relationship. Otherwise, the busyness will push us apart."
Tim echoed this attitude about growth when he said, "I see summer as slightly more mature than spring. Some of the fantasy has faded, and we are learning that love, affection, romance, and time together can still happen --- and should happen --- in spite of the daily routine. Comfortable is really a good word for it. We know each other well enough that we have seen plenty of faults, but we love each other anyway. And we are still growing stronger and more in love all the time. We've seen that life can be hard, but it has drawn us closer, both to each other and to God. We know that love is a daily thing, and our intention is to keep it alive."
Max and Brenda, from Columbus, Ohio, have been married for twelve years. They describe their marriage as being in the summer season, and it is obvious that their attitude is one of growth. Max says, "I am happy to be in the summer season of my marriage. We feel comfortable with each other, but I know we cannot simply drift through this season. We know each other well, and we must continue to seek out each other and not simply get into a rut. I want us to continue exploring new opportunities, traveling to new places, and generally communicating our love to each other."
Brenda's comments reflected the same attitude: "We are content with our lives, jobs, raising our son, church, and many other things. We enjoy each other and are able to work through conflicts quicker than earlier in our marriage. We are more purposeful in caring for each other than we were five or six years ago. I want us to continue working on our marriage, because I know that things can be even better if we continue to communicate and think about how we can serve each other."
Amanda had experienced a difficult life. She was in her third marriage and had been married for two years. She said, "It's very satisfying to be in the summer season of our marriage. I am happy in this state, but I know that there is always room for improvement. I brought five children into this marriage, and my husband had never been married and has no children. So we have had many major adjustments. But God has been so faithful. I'm looking forward to continued growth. I'm just glad that my husband is willing to listen and work with me as we blend our lives together."
Summer does not equal perfection, but it does mean that couples in this season have a sense of accomplishment and a desire to keep growing. Most couples in the summer season of marriage realize that it took work to get there. They have a positive attitude about their marriage, they are enjoying their spouse, and they intend to continue "watering the flowers." These attitudes lead to positive actions that keep the summer happiness flowing.
THE ACTIONS OF SUMMER
For most of us, summer is a time of increased activity. We travel to new places and have new experiences. Or we make our annual pilgrimage to the beach house or the mountains, where we relive the experiences of past summers and make new memories for the future. Summer does not create activities, but it provides a climate in which they can flourish. Typically, children are out of school, we have a couple weeks of vacation accrued at work, and the weather invites us to enjoy nature. Most families are responsive to this invitation, and summer is a busy but fun season.
In a summer marriage, the warm emotional climate fosters positive actions. The atmosphere is relaxed. We understand our spouse better, we accept each other's differences, and we have learned how to resolve our conflicts. Though life is comfortable, we still want to take some positive actions to "water the flowers" in our summer marriage.
Constructive communication is an important component of a summer marriage. I first met Nancy in Bangor, Maine. She was forty-eight and had been married for six years. She indicated that her marriage was definitely in the summer season. "I enjoy being married. I married for the first time at the age of forty-two. I was a happy single person, and I like being married." When I asked what she considered to be the most important thing in their relationship, she answered with one word, "Talk!"
"That's it," she said. "My husband brought a twelve-year-old son and fourteen-year-old daughter into our marriage. We had to talk or we could not have handled the teen years and a drug-addicted, alcoholic ex-wife who rejected her children. I never imagined that the children would not want everything to work out as much as I did. My husband and I had to talk a lot to each other, and we had to talk a lot with the children. Talking has given us a good marriage, and I hope we never stop."
Over and over again, as I interviewed couples who considered their marriages to be in the summer season, they emphasized open communication. Jeremy and Ruth got married at eighteen and have been married for thirty years. They live in St. Louis, Missouri. Ruth described their marriage as definitely in a summer season. "We have been best friends since before we married and are still best friends today --- which makes our marriage fun, comfortable, connected, and happy. Because we have gone through some real problems over the last few years, we have had to talk even more. We both enjoy talking, which is great when you have been married thirty years. It feels very secure and very reassuring to be in the summer season of our marriage." "So what created such a super marriage?" I asked.
"When we married, we had the traditional vows, but privately we had some „extra. vows that we try to live by. One, an open-door policy, no matter what. That is, we agreed that if anything was bothering one of us, the other wanted to be approached and would be willing to talk about it. Two, we never let the sun go down on our anger. We knew that anger could be destructive to a marriage if not resolved. Incidentally, we've spent many a night up till the wee hours of the morning," she said with a smile. "Number three, we each take care of our appropriate family members in the way we see fit, because we were both raised so differently." These, to Ruth, were the keys to "watering the flowers" of summer.
In my counseling practice, I have observed over the years that couples who have open communication also come to practical solutions, such as the one that Ruth and Jeremy discovered about dealing with potential in-law problems. When couples communicate openly with each other, they are far more likely to find workable solutions to what could otherwise be serious problems in their marriage.
Jeremy's description of his marriage was very similar to Ruth's. "It's very refreshing to be in a marriage that has weathered a variety of seasons, to know that the investment you have made in someone's life is paying dividends, not only in our relationship but with our families and children."
"How did you create this summer season?" I asked.
"Simple," he replied. "We decided up front to be open and honest with each other, to never go to bed mad or harbor anger or resentment. We agreed to forgive, forget, and move forward in the love we have that is founded on the love of Christ." It was obvious to me that Jeremy and Ruth knew one of the secrets to continuing to live in the summer season of marriage. Why is communication so important? Because it is the process by which spouses get to know each other and learn to work together as a team.
It is not always easy to make time for communication, but it is always possible. Jeanette and Sam have been married for twenty-seven years. "I am very content in my marriage," she said. "We are looking forward to my husband's retiring from his present job and going into full-time ministry. We have had many good times, but we have also had many very hard times. But we both seek to find ways to encourage each other. The key to our marriage, as I see it, is that we have tried to spend time just talking. Sometimes we will take a walk; other times we will take a car ride so we can be alone to talk. We have five children, and my in-laws live with us. My daughter and her husband also live with us at the moment, but they have bought a house and will be moving out in a couple of months. Most of the time, we have to get out of the house so we can talk. Sometimes we have short conversations when he comes home from work. He finds me, wherever I am, and we talk about how the day has gone. It's that short communication time that keeps us feeling connected."
Acceptance of Differences
A second important action to maintain a summer marriage is granting each other the freedom to be different. Differences are inevitable, but they can also be very divisive. Couples who desire to continue in the summer season will consciously give each other the freedom to think, feel, and react differently.
Lauren and Dean have been married for eight years. It is a second marriage for both of them. They both agreed that one of the things that has kept their marriage in the summer season is a positive attitude about differences. "We accept each other's differences," Dean noted. "This has been and will continue to be a learning and growing process for us. Both of us learned from our previous marriages that if couples don't accept differences, they will spend the bulk of their time fighting. We agreed that we would rather be lovers than fighters, so we give each other the freedom to be different."
I met Vivian in Jefferson City, Missouri. She was seventy-four years old and had been married for fifty-three years. "I feel very blessed to have a great marriage. We have our little ups and downs, but we love each other so much and feel so blessed to have each other. We have learned to overlook our shortcomings and focus on the positive things. We both feel that life is precious, and with the Lord's help we will make it together. We share our hurts and our joys. Recently, we experienced the tragic death of our son. But God is with us, and we are with each other. So we will make it." Learning to overlook your spouse's shortcomings is a key to keeping the flowers of a summer marriage blooming.
Seminars and Books
A third action step that is common among couples who describe their marriage as being in the summer season is attending marriage seminars and reading books on marriage. When I met Gary and Barb from Roanoke, Virginia, they had been married for twenty-eight years and were definitely in the summer season of marriage. Barb said, "I am content in knowing that my husband loves me and I love him. We have had trying times recently with our daughter's divorce, as she and our granddaughter have come to live with us. But our love and marriage have only grown stronger. The thing that I think has helped us the most is attending marriage seminars. Each year for the past seven years, we have attended the fall Festival of Marriage sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources.1 It has helped us tremendously. And, of course, what we are learning today from you simply adds to that. I would encourage couples to attend a marriage seminar every year."
Samantha and Andrew have been married seventeen years and live in Colorado Springs. Samantha describes her marriage as "summer with a bit of fall." She said, "We've had some tough years. But about three years ago we took a class called His Needs, Her Needs at our church. Between that class and studying the book The Five Love Languages, I realized that by seeking to meet Andrew's needs and keeping his love tank full, I make it easier for him to meet my needs. But it took me fourteen years to get to that point. And even now, if I am not willing to communicate my thoughts and feelings, things begin to fall apart. I know we need to keep learning. We've decided that from this point on, we're going to attend a marriage conference every year." I especially like the comment that Samantha made as she walked away: "My mindset for life has been that I would rather attempt to do something and fail than to do nothing and succeed."
With that attitude and with their plans for positive action, Samantha and Andrew, I predict, will spend more of their time enjoying the flowers of summer in their marriage.
Many couples have indicated to me that the most significant factor in their ability to have a summer marriage is that they have found ways to stimulate spiritual growth. Bekah and Jon have been married for nine years. She said, "It feels great to have confidence in someone who you know has the same goal you do in marriage. We have not always been in the summer season, but when we gave our marriage to God and allowed him to work, things changed dramatically. We now know there is a greater purpose for us than having a great marriage, and that is to bring glory to God. It has brought an added dimension to our lives and our marriage."
Van and Maria live in Auburn, Alabama, and have been married for fourteen years. Van said, "We are deeply religious, and we account most of the success of our marriage to that. The church has kept us connected as a couple. We have participated in small groups, both as a couple and as individuals. This has really helped keep us accountable. There is something about being involved with other Christians that stimulates positive actions between the two of us. I can't say enough about how God has used our church in our lives. Maria and I pray together. We both read the Bible individually and share with each other things we've read. We read Christian books together and we talk openly almost every day. We seek to do little things for each other that will enrich our lives. God has given us a genuine love for each other. I wouldn't exchange it for anything."
Because God instituted marriage, it makes sense that couples who seek to learn from him would have the best possible marriages. Research indicates that this is true.2
STAYING IN SUMMER
Every marriage will have its summer seasons, but how can couples keep their marriage in summer? To answer this question, I'd like to introduce you to two couples --- one couple who have been married a short time, the other for longer. Notice the various elements of summer that they weave into their descriptions of their marriages and how they maintain them.
Mick and Lucy live in Augusta, Georgia. Mick said, "We dated for nearly four years before we married. We've been married now for five years. In those years, we have been through a lot: moving across the country, searching for a new job, my parents. divorcing after nearly thirty years of marriage, and many other things. These struggles helped to ground us in our own marriage. Through prayer, Bible study, our love for each other, and the support of Christian friends and family, we have worked our way through these challenges. We have a „date night. once a week, even if it's just sitting on the couch together, taking a walk, or going out for ice cream. No matter what, we make sure we show each other our love daily. We realize that as a couple we have to work on our marriage, and it's actually a lot of fun."
Iris and George have been married for thirty-eight years and live in northern Colorado. George described their marriage like this: "We arrived at this season of marriage by fighting it out through the fall and winter seasons. Our early marriage was a bit of spring and that was fun, but this summer season is so much more joyful for us. We had to recommit continuously through our winters and falls. We made a decision early on that we would do whatever it took to work things out and move forward in our marriage, even though there were times when we didn't feel like it. Our strong sexual relationship helped keep us connected when our other communication was lacking. And I have to say that trusting in God, reading Christian books on marriage, and attending marriage seminars have helped us more than anything."
Summer is an enjoyable season of marriage. The flowers are in full bloom. Sun-ripened fruits and vegetables are there to be enjoyed. Couples who want to remain in the summer season will take constructive actions, which grow out of positive attitudes and emotions. In summary, a summer marriage looks like this:
THE DOWNSIDE OF SUMMER
Before we leave our discussion of summer, I must warn you about the yellow jackets. Last summer, as I was pulling some weeds down by the creek, I apparently ventured too close to the door of an underground nest. Before I knew it, I was under attack by a battalion of yellow jackets. I ran for my life and they pursued. Before I reached the safety of the house, I'd been stung fourteen times, which caused me intense pain for several hours.
In a summer marriage, the yellow jackets are analogous to those unresolved conflicts that nest beneath the surface of our day-to-day lives. We might be in the summer season of marriage, enjoying life together, watching the flowers bloom, doing a bit of weeding around the edges of our relationship; but there's another, unseen, level in our relationship, an underground nest where we have pushed our unresolved issues. When one spouse or the other ventures too close to the door of the nest, the yellow jackets come flying out and we find ourselves arguing in the middle of summer. When we look at Strategy 4, we will find practical ideas on how to get rid of the yellow jackets. For the moment, however, I simply want you to be aware that they exist and must be dealt with if you intend to continue living in the summer season of marriage.
Summer is my favorite time of the year and my favorite season of marriage. Karolyn and I spend most of our time in the summer season, but it has not always been that way. In the early years of our marriage, we spent a significant amount of time in the coldness of winter, punctuated with a few short springs and many extended fall seasons. It took us a long time to get to summer. Perhaps that's why when we finally got there, we wanted to make our marriage an eternal summer. I can't say that we've reached that objective, but we do spend more time in summer than in any of the other seasons.
In any marriage, summer can easily move into fall, almost before the couple recognize it. Fall is not as traumatic as winter, but it is not nearly as pleasant as summer. In the next chapter, we will describe the fall season of a marriage. We'll look at the emotions, the attitudes, and the actions that lead a couple to conclude that "the leaves are falling off our marriage and the flowers have definitely wilted."
In North Carolina and many other parts of the world, fall is the most colorful season of the year. The hills are painted with huge swatches of yellow, red, orange, and burgundy. Botanists can explain the natural causes of this sudden change of color, but most people simply enjoy it as nature's work of art. Thousands of people will drive to the mountains of western North Carolina during the fall season simply "to see the leaves."
What we do not talk about, but know without a doubt, is that this display of color is temporary. Soon the chilling winds will rip the vibrant canvas apart and the leaves will fall to the ground, leaving the trees bare. One interesting phenomenon is that the leaves do not all fall on the same day; but over a period of four to six weeks, the beauty fades and the forest is left unclothed. No one drives to the mountains to see a naked tree.
The falling of the leaves is an apt analogy of what happens in the fall season of marriage. In early fall, the marriage looks fine externally. Outsiders may even comment on how happy the couple seem to be. But inside the marriage, things are changing. And when the chilling winds arrive, the deterioration of the marriage will be obvious to all. Fall becomes the prelude to winter. As with the other seasons of marriage, fall has its own set of emotions, attitudes, and actions.
THE EMOTIONS OF FALL
The emotions of fall include feelings of sadness, apprehension, and rejection, sometimes accompanied by a feeling of being emotionally depleted. Couples in the fall season are aware that things aren't right, though they may or may not be expressing these feelings to each other. But they are troubled by the state of their relationship.
Marge is fifty-three and has been married for thirty-two years. Listen to the emotional words she uses as she describes her marriage as being in the fall season: "I feel a lot of insecurity about my marriage. My husband doesn't seem to be aware of what is going on, but I am very unhappy. We had put the children, Rick's job, and others above each other. Consequently, now that the children are gone, it seems like we are slipping apart. It's very scary, and I'm not sure what to do about it. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed."
I met Kimberly in Little Rock, Arkansas. She had been married for twenty years but was obviously troubled about her marriage. "I think we are in the late stages of fall and getting close to winter," she said.
"What does it feel like to be in the fall season of marriage?" I asked.
"Confusing, kind of scary, frustrating, burned out, and very stressful," she replied. She went on to describe the marriage and tell me what she thought had contributed to her feelings of distress. Her husband, who was listening to our conversation, did not offer any comments. When I looked at him and asked, "What does it feel like to you?" he had a one-word answer: "Bad."
Marvin is fifty-three and has been married for thirty-one years. He described his emotions in the following way: "I feel dejected, disheartened, and unappreciated. It's not a good place to be. I am not content with my marriage. Something has got to change or we.re not going to make it." Marvin is in the late stages of fall. Winter will surely come if there are not significant changes. The encouraging note was that he said, "I believe that my wife and I will both benefit from the seminar, and we have purchased a number of books that we intend to read. I hope they will help us refocus our relationship."
Sometimes fall comes early in a marriage. Jackie and Charles had been married for eighteen years, but they had an early onset of fall in their relationship, "even though we got married in June," Jackie said. "Charles began rejecting me the day we got married. He has had at least one affair that he has admitted. Last year, he went into a deep depression. Through all the talking and counseling, he was diagnosed with a depressive disorder and codependency. He has very negative feelings toward his mother, who is now deceased, and he took all those feelings out on me. It has been like an emotional roller coaster for eighteen years. There have been some good moments, but mostly we have lived in fall. Only recently have I seen any hope. At least Charles was willing to go with me to a marriage seminar. And he has been willing to discuss a marriage book with me, so maybe there is hope."
When I asked Charles, "How do you feel about your marriage?" he said, "Afraid, but hoping for improvement with God's help."
I could cite numerous other examples of couples in the fall season of marriage, but perhaps these few are enough to give you a flavor of the emotions of fall: fear, sadness, rejection, and loneliness. These emotions may also be accompanied by feelings of dejection, a lack of appreciation, and resentment toward the spouse. Stephanie, who has been married for nineteen years and has a debilitating disease, summarized the emotions of fall: "I feel lonely, scared, uncertain, and frightened. I'm not sure how to handle all the emotions that come with overwhelming changes, a dire prognosis, and constant physical pain. We have not learned to handle our emotions together, so I am left alone, emotionally tired."
THE ATTITUDES OF FALL
The primary attitude of the fall season of marriage is one of great concern about the state of the marriage and uncertainty about where things are going. Most people do not want to be living in the fall season of marriage; therefore, they are concerned. They recognize that many changes are taking place, and they feel uncomfortable with what might be happening to their relationship. Ginger, who is thirty-one and has been married almost seven years, said, "I'm very uncertain about our relationship. I'm hoping that we have now put God at the center of our marriage, but I have never been so unsure about myself, my spouse, and our marriage. God is why we are still together and trying. I am not content with this season. We are currently in Christian counseling. Looking back, I realize we have never really spoken one another's love language. We read the book and learned about them, but we didn't effectively speak them. Then my husband had a five-month affair with a coworker. He vehemently denied all my suspicions until he finally confessed. By the grace of God, we are still together and allowing God to work, reveal, and heal. In God's strength, we hope to finally become what he intended."
Harriett has been married for twenty years. She lives in a small town outside Atlanta, Georgia. She said, "Many changes are taking place in our lives. Our oldest daughter is graduating from high school and will soon be leaving. Many years of our marriage have been centered around our children. We have realized that, somewhere along the way, all our focus has been on our children and not really on each other. What are we going to do? My husband, in filling out his survey, wrote, „We are in the summer season of our marriage.. Do we live in the same world? Sometimes I wonder. I am very concerned about our marriage."
Joan and Will have been married only eight months but describe their marriage as being in the fall season. Joan said, "It is fearful. I would like for it to change. There is a lot of doubt as to where I fit into Will's life and whether or not he even loves me. His family was allowed to interfere during the first few months of our marriage, and trust was broken or never created. We are now trying to follow Scripture's advice about „leaving parents and cleaving to each other. in order to restore our relationship. I pray daily for deliverance from my insecurities."
Will described the marriage like this: "I am greatly hopeful, but times are very trying. I know we will come out on top and lead a happy life, but currently we argue almost every day. We are learning how to love and care for each other. The Lord is helping us in this process. I am excited about what I have heard at the marriage seminar and hope we can put it into practice. We had a very rocky start, but we are learning more how to show our love for each other. I am hoping we can move from fall back into spring and begin to build our marriage on a solid foundation." If Will and Joan can turn these hopes into reality, they can discover spring again.
Patrick and Tricia have been married for nineteen years. Because he is in the military, they have lived in many different places. He says, "Our marriage has suffered late fall and early winter. This last year we have worked hard to recover, and we are digging our way out to head back to spring. My being sent to Iraq for a year showed both of us what we could lose. We are making progress by communicating, praying, and reading Christian books. I'm trying to become the spiritual leader of our family and show my wife how much I love her."
His wife, Tricia, described the marriage like this: "We are rebuilding our marriage after being apart because my husband was in Iraq for a year. It feels a little scary, but I know that we will grow closer, because throughout this year apart, we each drew closer to Christ. Only God could have healed a marriage like ours. Prior to Patrick's leaving to go to Iraq, we were eaten up with apathy and pride. It took his being away for me to appreciate him and to realize what a treasure the Lord has given me in him. Every day is one step closer to God's design for us as a married couple."
Obviously, some of these couples have greater hope than others. All of them have a degree of uncertainty; all are greatly concerned about their marriage. Whether they move from fall to winter or from fall to spring will depend largely upon the actions they choose to take.
THE ACTIONS OF FALL
In this section, I want to address both the actions that lead couples into the fall season of marriage and the actions that lead them out. Without a doubt, the number one contributor to the fall season of marriage --- overwhelmingly --- is the action of neglect, or taking no action at all. The underlying assumption seems to be that the marriage will take care of itself. Husbands and wives have their own separate interests, and they forget to do the kinds of things that foster a positive marital relationship. Consequently, they grow slowly apart. They may be jolted into the reality that their marriage is in the fall season by some crisis, such as an extramarital affair, but the reality is that they were in the fall season for weeks --- and perhaps months --- before the crisis came. The leaves had changed color and were slowly falling from the branches, but they failed to recognize it because they were not in tune with each other. How they respond to the crisis will either push them into winter or lead them back toward spring.
Over and over again, in the research that I did in preparation for this book, couples who described their marriages as being in the fall season echoed that neglecting each other was the central ingredient in creating the fall season.
Kimberly from Little Rock, whom we met earlier in this chapter, described her feelings after twenty years of marriage as "confusing, kind of scary, frustrating, burned out, and very stressful." When I asked, "What do you think brought you to this season of marriage?" she replied, "Lack of communication, not spending time together, having nothing in common, leading separate lives. This led to substance-abuse issues, unfaithfulness, lies, and lack of trust." It is interesting to note the progression of distance that developed between Kimberly and her husband, but it began with large-scale neglect.
Marvin is the husband we met earlier who felt "dejected, disheartened, and unappreciated." In describing how he arrived in the fall season of marriage, he said, "I think that the main problem has been lack of communication. We have been so busy having and raising our three children and making a living that we have not made time with each other a priority. Therefore, we grew apart."
Mildred, who lives in Spokane, Washington, and has been married for thirty-three years, described her marriage as "not good. I know the marriage will remain and survive, but I want it to be tender and growing. The kids grew up, left home, and started their own families. When they left, my husband and I no longer had that common focus; we tended to do our own thing and grew apart. We simply neglected our relationship."
Carol from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, echoed those sentiments: "I have been married to my second husband for twelve years, and we have neglected to nurture our marriage. We have turned our attention totally to our children, ignoring each other's needs. In so doing, we have done ourselves and our children a disservice. The state of our marriage is a great disappointment. But I believe the foundation is still there. My husband is open, and we are trying to rebuild our relationship."
Without question, neglect is what leads couples into the fall season of marriage. When a husband and wife allow the relationship to drift, they will always drift apart. When they drift apart, life becomes uncertain and scary. When couples realize they are in the fall season of marriage, they have a choice: They can take positive actions that lead back to spring or summer, or they can make destructive choices that lead to winter and possibly the death of the marriage.
One of the actions that perpetuate fall or lead to winter is a failure to seek resolution of issues. Marti, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, illustrated this dilemma. "We've been married for four years and I am very unhappy with our marriage. I just don't like Jon very much. I feel like I'm out of control and that is not familiar territory for me. He wants sex all the time, regardless of whether the kids are still awake or I'm right in the middle of cooking dinner. I need a few things to lead up to it … you know, kind words, a nice dinner, a quiet house. He doesn't care what else gets done around the house as long as we have sex. It was not this way from the beginning. I admit my response has been negative. I do not consciously withhold sex, but I realize that my resentment controls my actions. Sometimes we have gone months without sex. I'm not proud of that. I try to make conscious efforts to touch him, but he is never satisfied. I try to fill his love tank, but he never fills mine. I've been bitter, stubborn, and resentful. I know that something has got to change."
Marti is exactly right. Something has got to change. Unresolved issues will keep couples in the fall season of marriage --- or, more likely, will lead them to winter.
Sexual infidelity is another factor that has the potential to move a fall marriage to the winter season. As Emily, from Norfolk, Virginia, said, "My heart is broken. After thirty-seven years of marriage, I never dreamed we would ever be in this situation. This is my husband's second affair that I am aware of. This time it is more serious than before. He's a partner in a successful business, very active in the community, and a respected elected official in our county. But I find it hard to respect him. He is an only child and became very selfish. We have three married daughters and six grandchildren, with one on the way. He is willing to lose it all for a very aggressive woman.
"We have tried counseling together. After the first session, he would not go back because he did not like the counselor. The second counselor told us he was wasting our money because my husband showed no remorse, guilt, or shame for what he was doing. He is now in counseling alone, I think. I pray for him and her many times a day. They both say they are Christians, but words are cheap. I have had about all I can take, but I am still praying and hoping that he will be willing to work on our marriage."
Emily's situation illustrates the reality that it takes both spouses to move a marriage from fall to spring, but it takes only one to move from fall to winter. The way we think and the actions we take make all the difference. The fall season of marriage is characterized by a sense of detaching. The leaves of our marriage are beginning to fall, and we are not certain what the future holds. It can be a very troubling time. Here is the summary of a fall marriage:
MAKING THE MOST OF FALL
Couples are often in the early stages of fall before they realize it. They have been busy with the activities of summer, enjoying life but sometimes ignoring each other. As the color of the leaves begins to change, externally the marriages still look good. Couples are living in the afterglow of summer, but internally each partner is slowly disengaging.
In the latter stage of fall the leaves are gone, and the emptiness of the relationship becomes apparent. It is this emotional emptiness that causes concern, uncertainty, and fearfulness. The dawning awareness of detachment often motivates one spouse or both to reach out for help. They may agree to attend a marriage seminar, seek the help of a counselor, or read and discuss a book about marriage. One young wife said, "I never thought I'd come for counseling, but I am so concerned about what is happening in our marriage. I know we need help, and I don't want to wait until it's too late." The uncertainties of fall can prove redemptive if the couple turn in the right direction.
Fall can lead directly into spring or a return to summer. On the other hand, if couples simply allow "nature to take its course," they will inevitably wake up in winter. In the second part of this book, we will look at specific strategies for making the most of the fall season of marriage. Perhaps as you have read these introductory chapters, you have easily identified the season of your marriage. Or maybe you've had difficulty distinguishing between spring and summer or fall and winter. It is true that the late stages of fall and the early stages of winter are very similar. The same is true of the late stages of spring and the early stages of summer. But before we move on to discuss strategies for enhancing the seasons of your marriage, it is important for you to identify the season you.re in. In the next chapter, you will find a seasonal profile that will help you make this determination.
The Marital Seasons Profile is not designed as a scientific instrument to force you into a seasonal category; rather, it is a communication tool to help you and your spouse take an honest look at your marriage. Whatever your conclusions about the season of your marriage, I think you will find the second part of the book extremely helpful in discovering or rediscovering the excitement of spring and the joys of summer. I hope you will also understand that the seasons of fall and winter are not altogether purposeless. They often serve as a wake-up call to stimulate marital growth. No marriage is hopeless! With the help of God, all things are possible.
Excerpted from THE FOUR SEASONS OF MARRIAGE © Copyright 2012 by Dr. Gary Chapman. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.