True confession: I got choked up during the season premiere of Duck Dynasty. The Robertson children & grandchildren threw Miss Kay and Phil a surprise wedding ceremony since they had been married by a JP 49 years before. Kay’s matter-of-fact vow was the thing that got me: “From the time I was 14-years-old, I loved you. I loved you when we were poor, and you were not so nice. Now you’re really nice and kind, and all I can say is I’m not going anywhere.”
Phil responded, “”We been runnin’ together since we were teenagers. You have cooked me many a good meal; from your loins came four healthy, godly men; you are my best friend, and I love you dearly. And I’m gonna be with you for the long haul, ’til they put me in the ground. Deal?”
Their large, bearded children were weeping in the presence of 4 generations that had been created and/or nurtured by this one union, and I was pondering what the “deal” of marriage really is. Most of us don’t have this kind of legacy to brag about, or haven’t found the person to build one with. Or we feel stuck with someone, and wish we felt differently. Either way, there is hope—beyond the relationship or the lack of one.
Here’s what I notice about the not-on-TV long-haul marriages I know and admire:
1. Partners are married to Jesus first. That may sound weird, but there’s eternal wisdom in Jesus’s call to “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.” Couples that agree to seek God first, then each other, and then kids are anchoring themselves in a love that will sustain the whole enterprise. When each partner knows themselves as beloved by God and attends to that primary relationship, I see good things follow for the marriage relationship and the parenting.
2. Kindness is like glue. In long-haul marriages I notice a gentle undertone in how partners greet and communicate with one another. There’s a respectful consciousness between them that reaches down to the seemingly ‘small’ things. The relationship is always developing, and tenderness builds it. There’s an acceptance that none of us is ever so actualized, tough, or self-sufficient that we don’t need grace gently-delivered.
3. Touch is not withheld. Everyone is uniquely wired, so partners who are invested in understanding how the other physically receives and expresses love seem to reap the harvest of easy-looking affection. In our hyper-sexed culture, it’s easy to get unconsciously messed up on this point and have unclear understandings around desire. Sex is not the meaning of life. Pornography can be a killer. So can expectations of Hollywood romance. Giving and receiving affection (sex and otherwise) with a real person is a gift to be tenderly explored.
4. Agreements can be made (and usually kept). Moving in some common directions requires communication. Partners who work on talking with one another and listening in order to make agreements (instead of assumptions) seem to bear good fruit, even as individuals.
5. Hanging out is fun. Partners who seem to enjoy each other’s company have usually been intentional about spending time together throughout the life-span. In modern life, this can take some planning. But it doesn’t require a lot of money, contrary to popular belief. Intentionally making conversation over the dishes or on a common project can grow intimacy.
6. They are part of a community of faith. “We can’t do this alone” seems to be a theme in long-haul marriages. They are not an end unto themselves. Being part of a missional community where covenant love brings people together informs and takes unnecessary pressure off of the marriage relationship. Partners don’t have to figure everything out on their own. It’s impossible to get all of one’s social needs met in one relationship, too. We all need a larger context in which to serve and grow into our fullness.
7. This is not the end of the story. Long-haul partners seem to have a hopeful understanding that all people grow and change throughout the lifespan, and that we are part of a bigger—and yet just as personal—redemption plan that God is working. We don’t need to fossilize one another at our worst stages. We can laugh, a lot. The graciousness of taking the long view of ourselves and each other—like God does for us—makes room for growth and development.