Staying connected with your spouse over the course of a lifetime is no easy business. Not just because of the expected moments of disagreement in marriage and not even for the unexpected hardships that life throws at you. The challenge is just simply trying to stay connected in the midst of all the dips, changes, twists, and turns that come with being together for years. This is the first of a three-part series where we explore what it takes to stay connected and what do when things start drifting apart.
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a colleague at Notre Dame Seminary, a brilliant scholar and faithful husband. At the time, I was going through my doctoral studies and he shared with me some guidance that he had received when he was doing his graduate work. He said that the gift of graduate work was that you get the opportunity to dive deep into research and grow in the real knowledge of one subject. (That amount of reading and studying may not sound like a joy to you, but just amuse me for a second and go along with it!) Yet, that expertise can sometimes come with an untended price. There comes a moment where you simply know more than the average person on that specific topic and that can cause distance with those closest to you, particularly with your spouse. He didn’t imply that in an arrogant I-Am-Smarter-Than-You mentality, just that it becomes hard to continue a meaningful conversation with the person you are closest with when all your time and energy is focused on something that they cannot share equitably because they have not had the same opportunity to grow in their knowledge of that material. Makes sense?
Case in point, you want to catch up at the end of the day, but all you did was read comparative thoughts on some deep theory, and you want to share that with your spouse, but realize that she is not capable of ‘talking shop’ with you at that level. This colleague said that this situation often causes a disconnect in relationships and the way to avoid it was to keep her connected with your research all the way through the process. I thought he was right on and I took his advice to heart.
I have been married to Kristin for 16 years. That’s a fair amount of time and we have experienced a lot together. I have counseled many couples who have been married for much longer than that. Through my personal and clinical experience, I have seen this dynamic mentioned by my scholar friend as a consistent challenge to many married couples, even for those who are not pursuing doctorates. It is perfectly natural to presume that over the course of a lifespan, your interests will change, your expertise will change, and the things that brought you together will fade in the rearview mirror of time. So again, how do you stay intimate and connected through it all?
I propose four key points. First, it is important to never forget that your spouse is a mystery. Second, always respect their freedom to explore new interests and skills. Third, it is good to cultivate good memory and remind yourself why you fell in love. Finally, the power of physical affection should not be underestimated.
Yes, they are a mystery! (and that’s a good thing)
This might sound a bit too pious, but the truth is that each of us has an eternal soul, some immaterial form that we cannot measure scientifically. In practical terms, this means that we will never fully understand our spouse. That last sentence is not meant to be depressing but liberating. Since that mystery is what connects us to God, there is an eternal goodness within your spouse that surpasses understanding. We can and should take the time to understand our spouse; to know the things that make her tick and to avoid his emotional triggers. Yet, we should never take him for granted or say that we have her “figured out.” If we do take our spouse for granted, then the relationship will very quickly become stale in our mind and heart. This is not good.
Rather, we should presume their mystery and seek to encounter that goodness every day. This means that every day you are growing and learning something new and every day your spouse is growing and learning something new. This means that every day you have something new to discover about your spouse. Awesome! Your relationship cannot be built solely on the interests you shared when you were first dating. Those things change over time, but your spouse is still your spouse regardless of those changes. That is what it means to love a person over time.
When we talk about the day and hear the joys and struggles of our spouse, this is not only a chance to connect emotionally but an opportunity to pray for her. Praying together as a couple gives space for the Holy Spirit to come into the relationship and work like glue to keep you together. Moreover, you should share deeply about what God is doing in your life, things that spoke to you in prayer, and burdens that you might be carrying. It is all part of walking the faith journey together.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for Part 2!