What Singles Need to Know About Marriage

Tonight at Taylor University, my dad Bob Lepine and I co-hosted a session for college students called What Singles Need to Know About Marriage.

This was my portion:

At first Dad had titled this session “Keys to a Successful Marriage,” and I was stumped.  I’ve only been married for seven years, and it hasn’t really been that hard!  All I could think was that the key to a successful marriage seemed to be marrying Jack, and since I’ve already done that, the rest of you are out of luck!

But honestly, I started thinking -- ten or fifteen years ago, when I was your age, would I have come to an optional evening session about marriage?  Almost definitely, I would not have.  When I was in college, I wasn’t that interested in getting married.  At the time, marriage felt to me like a loss of identity.  I was afraid that getting married meant closing all the other doors that were open to me upon graduation.  I was afraid of that level of commitment.  I wanted to see the world, I wanted to write a book, I wanted to live overseas, I wanted to work in publishing in Chicago, and I wanted to own a tea shop on the East Coast.  I had dreams, and they just didn’t seem compatible with the idea of marriage. I was afraid marriage would mean giving up my dreams and following my husband’s.  

I wasn’t truly interested in marriage until I met Jack.  We met after college, when we both moved to Southeast Asia to teach English as a Second Language.  I was interested in him almost instantly, though I played it cool for a very long eighteen months. Finally, at our mid-year conference after a year and half in Asia, he sat down next to me at breakfast and said, “So, what are we doing today?” And we’ve barely left each other’s side since that moment.  

In Jack’s kindness, humility, and integrity, I glimpsed a strength of character that I wanted to companion me all my life.  I began to understand the value of character over achievement.  I began to see that marriage might not mean a surrendering of my other dreams, though it would certainly alter my life’s path.  Instead, marriage might mean having a partner: together we could sharpen each other, support each other, and make each other more Christ-like.

Jack and I have had a happy and life-giving marriage for over seven years now, but it’s not because we’re awesome people or we never have disagreements.  It is, of course, by the grace of God -- and I think one of the most important foundational graces he’s gave to both of us was the benefit of growing up in Christian families where we got to observe functional, loving marriages for the first decades of our lives.

So tonight I can’t tell you exactly what “singles need to know about marriage” - I don’t know you, your specific story, your longings, your fears. And I certainly don’t know everything about marriage.  I think I might still be in the honeymoon phase.  But I would love to quickly share with you some of the things that I observed in my parents’ marriage that have been instructive for me in my own.

1)Prioritize quality time and communication.
I’m the oldest of five children.  My mother miraculously managed to homeschool each of us through elementary school.  By the time Dad came home from work at the end of the day, it might be true that we were all a little tired of each other and super-excited to see him.  We tended to attack.  

One day, my parents told us that from now on, when Dad got home from work, he and Mom would need ten minutes together on the living room couch before we got our turn with Dad.  They called it couch time, and their decision to value communication with each other in such an obvious, dedicated way communicated to us kids how much they valued each other and prioritized communication.

2) You're on the same team.
Maybe you tried this trick as a child: you ask Mom if you can have a cookie.  She says no.  So you go to the other room and ask Dad the same question, because he’s kind of a softie and a pushover and you can usually get what you want from him.  He says yes.  The first time my parents caught me trying this sort of a thing, I was in big trouble.  “If mom has already given you an answer, you may not come to ask me,” Dad said.  “Mom and I will always agree.”

As an adult, I understand that “Mom and I will always agree” is shorthand for “Mom and I may not always agree on everything,  but you can bet that we always have each other’s backs, and we’re always on the same team.  I’ll support whatever answer she gave, just as she would support whatever answer I gave.”  

Whenever Jack and I have a disagreement, it’s helpful to remember this perspective: that though we may disagree, we are on the same team, and we have each other’s best interests at heart.

3) Marriage unity doesn't equal loss of individuality.
But just because you’re on the same team, rooting for each other, doesn’t mean that you’re not also individuals!  In some ways, my parents are wildly different: my Dad loves watching tv and staying up late, but my Mom loves going to bed early and getting up in the morning to exercise.  My Dad could happily eat at Chickfila for every meal for the rest of his life, but my Mom is a vegetarian who is a little bit obsessed with healthy, organic food. My Dad excels in public speaking and my mom has no desire to be under the spotlights.The fact that my parents support each other doesn’t mean that they give up their individual identities or their spiritual giftings.  

Marriage can feel so consuming, in a good way, even, that for a while, you may lose part of what makes you you.  I had journaled every day of my life from about age thirteen on, but after I got married, I didn’t journal as much.  For a time, I lost that part of myself: but now, it’s beginning to return, and that’s a good thing.   Jack and I enjoy a lot of the same music, but sometimes I like to listen to female indie folk-pop singers that he can’t stand.  That’s ok. In fact, it's good to understand and value your unique identity,cultivating the specific gifts God gave you.  It's not good to attempt to erase parts of yourself to fit another person.

It’s vital for the health of the church that each person uses the gifts God has given him or her, rather than sublimating those gifts to try to fit into a gender stereotype within a marriage.

4) A strong marriage is hospitable, and welcomes singles and other families to join in family life.
As Dad admitted when we were talking about this last night, this might be something I’ve learned from other people even more than I learned from him and mom.  Recently, especially, I’ve been reading a blog called Spiritual Friendship,  and I’ve been convicted of the importance of families including single people, especially people who are anticipating a lifetime of singleness, into their family community.  

But there are many ways in which I did see my parents doing this too.  My mom had several friends while I was growing up who were single, and they sometimes came over to dinner with us.  My parents would often let another family’s kids come home with us after church on a Sunday, so that their parents could get some time alone.  And my parents have made investing in our extended families a priority, too.
5) A strong marriage is grounded in a larger local community of believers.
One of my early childhood memories is of sneaking out of bed at night and sitting in the hallway so that I could hear my parents’ Bible study.  Every week they’d host a group of couples from our church for discussion of the Sunday sermon or whatever book they were going through together.  There’s never been a time in my life when my parents were not deeply invested in their local part of the body of Christ, involved in Bible studies, preaching, music leadership, sunday school, short term mission trips, and community service projects.  

Their legacy of investment in community has helped me to understand that while my marriage can be a good and beautiful thing, and while some of my roles now include “wife” and “mother,” I am also a part of a something larger, that spans time and cultures and continents, that is the body of Christ here on earth. My most foundational identity is that of a human created in the image of God, part of the body of Christ on earth, working in the Spirit to bring his kingdom here.