Sometime back in early 1998, my future husband and I sat in Pastor Norm’s office, tucked in the back of a small country church. We were there for our first round of premarital counseling, and he noted how over-the-moon in love we were with each other. Then he got real:
“There will be days when you don’t feel in love with each other. That’s where commitment comes in.”
What was he even talking about? I didn’t believe it. But 22 years of marriage later? Yes. He was correct.
What we’ve learned in that time is what any couple learns when they’re joined for the long haul: It’s not all roses and steak dinners and romantic memes on social media. It’s hard.
Stress weighs down on both of you, sometimes in weird and unexpected ways. Like during a global pandemic layered on top of a trade war layered on top of years of low commodity prices, with your kids home doing remote school.
And marriage is often where the buck stops, because it’s easy to take stuff out on each other. Or just drift apart. My colleague Tom Bechman reminded me of a story he did in 1991 about farm marriages and divorce, penned on the heels of the 1980s farm crisis. At that time, 48% of farm men and women said financial stress was the greatest threat to farm family life. I’d bet that number’s higher now.
Tom recalled a standout point from that story 30 years ago: Feelings follow actions. So, act loving even when you don’t feel like it. He and Carla have been married 35 years, and he promises, “I have used that one a lot. It works.” It must.
Showing love when you don’t feel it isn’t hypocrisy, it’s commitment — like Pastor Norm told us. Do something for them without expecting anything in return. Like changing the toilet paper roll without mentioning it, instead of getting mad about it. For example.
What we all need
I asked friends on social media for the best things they do for their marriage when things get hard. Two major points surfaced:
1. Look for ways to do things together. Getting away might feel magical but impossible right now, so figure out something lower key. Take a date night if you can. Or make it a breakfast before everyone else gets up. Watch a mindless movie together after the kids are in bed at night. Get takeout and drive around. Find a hobby together; one farm couple started playing rummy during the pandemic and kept a running score — they’re up to 15,000. Drive around on the side-by-side. Maybe with takeout.
Doing things together creates positive associations in your brain (and heart). Shared good experiences make you see the other person as not just part of your problem but part of your enjoyment in life.
2. Communicate. My nephew Matt Spangler, who also happens to be a pastor and a heck of a grain cart driver, is convinced that 99% of marriage troubles in any season relate to communication. Talk about when you’re not OK, when you don’t know what you’re doing, when you need time together, when you just don’t feel like it. Get rid of distractions, stop multitasking (she says to herself) and talk. Listen with empathy and without advice or competition.
When I deliver suppers, I’ve taken to packing my own and then climbing into the combine with John, and we ride and eat. A few nights ago, I talked for 45 straight minutes about work stuff, then got out and went home. We both felt better, because I got it out and he knew what I was up against. And supper was pretty good, too.
What else? Take the love languages quiz and work hard to speak your spouse’s language. Remind each other of the good stuff. Accept that there’s pressure on the farm and you may have to let something go. Give a whole lotta grace, and know harsh words aren’t always about you. Remember, you can’t change their attitude, but you can change yours. Send silly GIFs. Hold hands. Pray.
For heaven’s sake, pray.
And one of my favorites: Be prepared to be the strong one. Sometimes you need to lean on your spouse; sometimes they need to lean on you. Be ready to put your needs aside for a season and focus on their well-being, especially if it’s usually the other way around. It’s OK. Two cords are stronger than one for a reason.
Because here’s the thing, friends: Staying married doesn’t just happen. It’s not like a movie or a meme. It takes work. And prayer. And love. But especially commitment. Just like Pastor Norm said.
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