After decades of married life, I’ve learned a few things.
By Dennis Rainey
Four decades ago, I married Barbara Ann Peterson. Looking back now on the first 12 months of our marriage, I’d have to describe myself then as an idiot—repeatedly ignoring the dignity of the woman that God had brought me.
But after six children, over 20 grandchildren, and decades of married life, I’ve learned some things. Here’s a list of 40 lessons from over 40 years of marriage … and family … and life.
1. Marriage and family are about the glory of God.
Genesis 1:27 makes it clear: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” From the beginning, marriage has been central to God’s glory on planet Earth. The Bible begins with a marriage and ends with a marriage. What God designed, lifted up, and gave a transcendent purpose, man has dumbed down.
Many today make the purpose of marriage to be one’s personal happiness—of finding another person who meets my needs. God created marriage to reflect His image, to reproduce a godly heritage, and to stand together in spiritual battle. Your marriage, your covenant-keeping love, will be your greatest witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Marriage is about the glory of God—not about the happiness of man.
2. Marriage is taking place on a spiritual battlefield, not on a romantic balcony.
Satan’s first attack on the image of God was to destroy the image-bearers’ relationship with Him. Then Satan went after Adam and Eve and their relationship with one another. If he targeted marriage to begin with, why would we think our marriages would be any different?
I think we often forget that our marriage—our family—can be targeted by the enemy to destroy the image-bearers—to destroy the legacy that is passed on to future generations.
I believe that the very definition of marriage is under attack today because of who created marriage, God.
3. Your spouse is not your enemy.
Ephesians 6:12 tells us that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Have you ever looked at your spouse in the morning as your enemy, asking God, “What did You do in bringing us together?” I have.
But the Scriptures tell us, your mate is not your enemy. Your spouse is a gift from God to you. In all of your spouse’s imperfections, God has given you a gift. You can either receive it by faith, or you can reject it.
4. The couple that prays together stays together.
In the first months of my marriage, I went to a friend named Carl Wilson and said, “Carl, you’ve been married 25 years. You’ve got five kids. What’s the best single piece of advice you can give me, as a young man who’s just starting out his marriage?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “Pray with your wife every day.”
I said: “That’s it? ‘Pray with your wife’?”
So I went home, and Barbara and I started praying together. This worked really well for a couple of months … until the night when we went to bed facing opposite walls. Although it wasn’t the most comfortable position physically, it expressed where we were spiritually and emotionally.
There seemed to be a tap on my shoulder that night, and it wasn’t Barbara. God was speaking to me in my conscience. He said: “Hey, Rainey! Aren’t you going to pray with her tonight?”
I said, “I don’t like her tonight!”
He said, “Yes, but you made the commitment to pray every day with your wife.”
I replied, “But God, you know that in this situation, she is 90 percent wrong!”
God said, “Yes, but it was your 10 percent that caused her to be 90 percent wrong.”
I wanted to roll over and say, “Sweetheart, will you forgive me for being 10 percent wrong?” But after the words got caught in my throat, I said, “Will you forgive me?”
Barbara and I are both strong-willed, stubborn, rebellious people. But we’ve been transformed by praying together. Now we are two strong-willed people who bow their wills before almighty God, on a daily basis, and invite Him into our presence.
Praying with your spouse will change the course of your marriage and legacy.
5. Isolation is a subtle killer of relationships.
Genesis 2:24 gives us a prescription from Scripture: Leave, cleave, and become one. The enemy of our souls does not want a husband and wife to be one. Instead, he wants to divide us.
In John 17, Jesus prayed for the church to be one. He realized that when we are in isolation, we can be convinced of anything.
Isolation kills relationships.
6. It’s easier for two broken people to build a marriage and family from the same set of biblical blueprints.
What would a physical house look like if you had two different architects, two different builders, and two different sets of blueprints? You’d get some pretty funny-looking houses, wouldn’t you? The same thing will happen in your marriage if you and your spouse are building your relationship and family from different plans.
For over 40 years years, FamilyLife has hosted Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. If you haven’t been to this with your spouse, I encourage you to go. Weekend to Remember speakers explain God’s blueprints for a successful marriage and family, and transparently share from their own lives.
7. It is healthy to confess your sins to your spouse.
James 5:16 reminds us, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
If you want to be healthy, develop a marriage relationship where your spouse has access to the interior of your soul. Are you struggling with bitterness over a betrayal? I’ve been through that. I’ve asked Barbara, “Will you pray for me?”
Maybe you’re struggling with a bad attitude … a sense of rebellion … toying with something you shouldn’t be toying with. Bring your spouse into the interior of your soul so that you may be healed.
8. It is impossible to experience marriage as God designed it without being lavish in your forgiveness of one another.
Ephesians 4:32 says we should forgive each other “just as God in Christ forgave you.”
Failing to forgive or to ask for forgiveness kills oneness, and unity, and life in a marriage.
I love this statement by Ruth Bell Graham: “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Why is this true? Because forgiveness means we give up the right to punish the other person. In a marriage relationship there are plenty of things (either committed or omitted) where you’re going to have to give up the right to punish the other person. Bitterness does not create oneness.
9. One of the greatest threats in any marriage is losing a teachable heart.
Proverbs 4:23 reminds us, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Most of us do all we can to prevent a heart attack. Why? Because there’s a simple equation: If the heart dies, you die.
The Bible is filled with references to the heart. In fact, the Great Commandment is one that calls our heart to love God totally and fully, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Pay attention to your heart. Guard it lest it become hardened or not teachable.
A teachable heart is a spiritually-receptive heart. When was the last time you asked your spouse to forgive you? When did you last listen to a child who had perhaps been hurt by you?
Remember, from the heart flows the springs of life.
10. Every couple needs mentors who are a lap ahead of them in the seasons of life.
If you’re a newlywed, you need someone to coach you on the habits you establish at the beginning of your marriage. If you’re starting out with your kids, you need someone just to say: “You know what? This is normal. This is the way it happens.”
Even if you are moving into the empty nest with adult children, I’ve got news for you: You really need a mentor in that phase! Relating to adult children has been more challenging than the terrible twos—not because our kids are bad kids. It just didn’t turn out the way I envisioned it.
Who’s your mentor? Be careful about who’s speaking into your life.
11. What you remember is just as important as what you forget.
We tend to suffer from spiritual amnesia. Wanting to remember God’s faithfulness, I started a spiritual milestone file in 1998. It now has well over a thousand memories in it—remembrances of the little things, and the big things, that God has done.
Milestones remind us of three things: what God has done; who God is—His provision, care, and deliverance; and the need to trust God and walk by faith.
When we forget the deeds of God, we will ultimately forget to trust Him.
12. Marriage was designed by God to be missional.
Matthew 28:19 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” And Acts 13:36 says, “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep …”
I want to be about the purposes of God, in my generation, with my wife. She is a partner in ministry. We are not two individual people who are just successfully going our own way. We are two people who work at merging our life purpose and mission together so that we increasingly share it as we move toward the finish line.
The other evening, Barbara and I sat in our living room in two chairs that we bought in 1972 for $5 apiece. They’ve been reupholstered three times. We wondered whether we should reupholster them again or go buy new ones. I turned to her and I said: “You know what? This shows we have not given our lives to stuff.”
Now, do we live in a nice home? Do we live better than we deserve? Absolutely. But as imperfect as we are, as many struggles as we’ve had, we are headed toward the same mission. We are a part of the Great Commission. We want to be fulfilling the great commandment, together as a couple.
My challenge to you is this: As a couple, believe God for too much, rather than too little. Remember what A.W. Tozer said, “God is looking for people through whom He can do the impossible. What a pity we plan to do the things we can only do by ourselves.”
Life can wear you down. It can wear you out. Disappointment chips away at faith. As a couple, you have to work on this to go to the finish line.
13. It’s okay to have one rookie season, but it’s not okay to repeatedly repeat it.
I was an idiot in our first 12 months of marriage—repeatedly ignoring the dignity of the woman that God had brought me.
The lessons that you learn need to be applied. It’s not good to repeat rookie errors in your 39th season of marriage.
14. Never use the d-word in your marriage.
Never threaten divorce in your marriage. Never let the d-word cross your lips, ever! Instead, use the c-word—commitment, covenant, covenant-keeping love that says, “I’d marry you all over again.”
I can still remember an argument my parents had when I was five years old and divorce was not in vogue. Your kids are highly sensitized to what your relationship is like and how you communicate when you disagree. Let them hear of your commitment to one another.
15. Honor your parents.
Exodus 20:12 is the first commandment with a promise: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Our marriage was brought to life as we honored our parents. We are a generation that has bashed and blamed our parents, ignoring this commandment. It is time for us to return home to our parents with honor. A practical way you can do that is by writing them a tribute and, then, by reading it to them.
Instead of giving your parents a dust buster for Christmas, or a tie, or a pair of house slippers, give them a tribute, thanking them for what they did right. Barbara did this with her parents. I did it with mine. Honoring your parents is a life-giver.
16. Different isn’t wrong; it’s just different.
We marry one another because we’re different, and we divorce each other because we’re different. When Barbara and I moved into the empty-nest phase, we discovered that we are much more different than we ever imagined. Here’s the key: your spouse’s differences are new capacities that God has brought to your life to complete you.
Barbara’s an artist, and as we began our empty-nest years I told her, “Wherever you go, you make things beautiful.” You see, I didn’t appreciate beauty. I had no idea how beauty reflected the glory of God. Your spouse is God’s added dimension to your life.
17. Marriage and family are redemptive.
Being married to Barbara and having six kids has saved me from toxic self-absorption. The way to have a godly marriage and family is the same path as coming to faith in Christ. It is surrender—giving up your rights to Him first, then to your spouse—serving them.
I have a confession to make. I mistakenly thought that God gave Barbara and me six children so that we could raise them. Now I think that He gave me six children so He could finish the process of helping me grow up. Nothing has taught me more about self-sacrifice and following God’s Word than loving and leading my children.
18. A man’s wife is his number one disciple.
Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru in the United States), said countless times that a man’s wife should be his number one disciple.
Husbands, help your wife grow as a Christian. It’s the smartest thing you could possibly do. When your wife grows in this area, not only does she triumph at life, but you benefit as well.
19. Go near the orphan.
When you go near the orphan, as a couple, you go near the Father’s heart. Barbara and I went near the orphan, and we adopted one of our six children. I’ve learned more about the Father’s heart through adoption—of choosing a child and unconditional love. This is pure and undefiled religion.
20. Make your home a storm shelter.
I grew up in southwest Missouri and spent many nights in a cellar, down with the potatoes and green beans, trying to dodge a tornado that never hit. It was a musty smelling place.
In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus compares two builders of two homes—both in storms. We should get a clue from that: We’re going to build our marriage, our family, our home in the midst of storm warnings, floods, wind, and rain.
Barbara nearly died on four different occasions from runaway heart beats of over 300 beats a minute. I often imagined life as a single dad, until we got her heart problem fixed. And then there was a 13-year-old son, our athletic son, who was stricken with a rare neurological disorder. There was a prodigal. There was the day my dad died. There were short paychecks in ministry. There were challenges in my ministry—all kinds of issues with people.
Your marriage covenant is more than just saying, “I do,” for a lifetime. It is for better and for worse. Make your home a storm shelter—a safe place to go in a storm.
21. Suffering will either drive you apart, or it will be used by God to merge you together.
Scripture teaches that our response to God and His Word is the difference-maker in how we handle suffering. You and your spouse have to decide to suffer together rather than falling apart.
22. Men and women process suffering very differently.
It is a wise husband who gives his wife space and grace to process loss and suffering differently from how he processes it. After Barbara had surgery on her heart, I remember wanting her to flip a switch and move on with life. That was easy for me to say. I wasn’t the one who they took away in an ambulance with a heart beating so fast that the bed was shaking.
23. Loss is a part of life and increases as we age.
How you and your spouse process loss, by faith, will determine whether you grow old and bless others, giving them life, or whether you grow old and curse others, becoming a bitter crotchety old person.
Process loss well.
24. Communication is the life-giver of a relationship.
Simply put, find a way to get five, ten, fifteen minutes together to talk every day. Turn the TV off, set the computer aside, take a walk, and just talk with each other.
Barbara and I used to do this and walk in our garden. The kids thought we were just going out there to see the flowers bloom. We were going out there to get away from them, so we could have a complete sentence between each other.
25. No shepherd can lead any faster than the sheep can follow.
You are the guardian of your marriage and family’s direction and vision. C. H. Spurgeon said, “It was by perseverance the snail reached the ark.” Sliming my way to the finish line is the great hope for me as the spiritual leader of my family! After I fail, I’d get back up. When the kids were young, our family devotionals were chaos—flipping peas, spilling milk, crawling under the table. Who knows what they heard? No shepherd can lead any faster than the sheep can follow.
26. Maximize your wife’s talents, gifts, experience, and passion as you would an Olympic athlete.
Ephesians 5 talks to men about loving their wives as they love their own bodies. Help your wife accomplish everything that God has in mind for her.
Do an inventory of her gifts, her talents, her passions. What motivates her? What demotivates her? Pray for her and her vision. What are her core competencies? Dream some dreams together, and don’t wait until you’re in the empty nest to dream the dreams. Start dreaming even when you’re building your family.
27. Wives, your respect will fuel your husband, and your contempt will empty his tank.
Ephesians 5:33 commands wives to respect their husbands. Ladies, keep in mind that 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal. How are you expressing belief in your man non-verbally?
Barbara’s belief in me as a man has helped me excel. It’s not a blind belief, but one that speaks the truth in love.
28. Women spell romance differently than men.
Women spell romance r-e-l-a-t-i-o-n-s-h-i-p. But men usually spell it: s-e-x. God, in His cosmic genius, has brought two very different people together in marriage who are to dance together. And what an interesting dance when I think that I understand my wife. For example, I bring her roses, and I write her a note, and I fix dinner, and put the kids to bed, and that equals sex.
So as a man I begin to think, “A+B+C=D. It did last night.” So, I try it again the next night or perhaps a few nights later. Roses, a nice meal, put the kids to bed—“Huh?” Nada. “Huh?”
So, I go to Barbara: “What’s the deal? You changed the equation.”
Would you like to know her reply? “As a woman, I don’t want to be reduced to an equation. I want to be pursued as a person relationally.”
29. Your marriage must be built to outlast the kids.
Our romance gave us children, and our children tried to steal our romance.
Barbara and I had to make an effort to have special dinners together and go on short getaways two or three times a year. We fought to keep these times on the schedule. It was a hassle finding a babysitter, but time alone together was worth it.
30. Build too many guardrails around your relationship rather than too few.
Men, don’t trust yourself alone with the opposite sex. I’ve got a friend who won’t get in an elevator alone with a woman. You may say that’s a little extreme. Let me tell you something. Given the fallout today in ministry, I’m not sure it’s extreme.
31. Wives generously use your sexual power in your husband’s life.
I think that one of the mistakes we make when we read chapters 5-7 in Proverbs (which is a father’s advice to a son about the harlot) is to believe that sexual power over a man is limited to just a woman in the streets.
I think Proverbs 5-7 gives women an interesting glimpse into how to encourage and bless her husband—by speaking love to him in the language that would encourage him. Ladies, use your sexual power liberally with your husbands.
32. The first essence of rearing children is “identity.”
This has to do with disciplining your child to know his or her spiritual destiny and spiritual address. It also has to do with his or her sexual identity as well. This culture is seeking to distort the image of God imbedded in boys and girls; we have to help our children know how to navigate those waters.
33. The second essence of rearing children is “relationship.”
Disciple your child to know what real love is, how to love another imperfect person, and how to experience love as a human. The Great Commandment makes it clear (Matthew 22:34-40). Life is about relationships. It’s about a relationship with God, loving Him, and it’s also about loving others on the horizontal.
34. The third essence of rearing children is “character.”
The book of Proverbs talks about this, obviousl