Gail and Simon said they wanted me to conduct their wedding service in two weeks time. I knew them but hadn’t been aware they’d been seeing each other.
‘How long have you been going out together?’ I asked
‘Three weeks,’ Simon said.
I took a deep breath. They’d dated for three weeks, and now wanted to get married in another two. At any time with any people, that would give a pastor pause for thought. But I also knew two other things about Gail and Simon. The first was that neither of them were without a load of troubles in their lives. The second was that Gail was twelve years older than Simon, not a disqualifying factor but I didn’t have strong hopes they’d have thought through issues related to their age difference.
I didn’t refuse to marry them, but did make it clear it couldn’t happen in just another two weeks. They were very unhappy, telling me it was my ‘job’ to marry them. I explained gently my services were not theirs to command, and I must fulfil my role as a pastor in accordance with the trust the congregation had given me and what I believed was right with God.
They left, but not before saying they’d find someone else to marry them in two weeks.
In less than two weeks they’d split up.
Gail’s and Simon’s relationship seemed to have little going for it, and the fact that it ended almost as quickly as it began was no surprise. But I have been surprised with other couples, like Amy and Vic who had a strong and loving relationship others might envy. But not so strong or loving after ten years when it ended.
Relationships never come with guarantees. But there are factors that support and help a relationship to thrive. Love is, of course, foundational. But you can’t live in a foundation. You must build on it. And what’s built, and how it’s built, determines if love will grow and flourish. Real happiness in a relationship is not an accident. It has to be built.
I’ve been identifying factors that help, and in this third (and last) in a short series, I’ll set down two more building blocks that Alison and I believe have been important.
Values When very different people get on well, we say ‘opposites attract’. Yet when two similar people do well, we don’t say ‘similarity attracts’. Personally I don’t give much credence to the ‘opposites’ v ‘similarity’ theory.
What does seem to matter are values – how great a value we place on things that truly matter to us. Relationships can work with differences in these areas, but the greater the differences the greater the potential strain on the relationship.
I’ll give examples, but these are mine and you will have other things which, for you, are deep values.
Faith When Sharon was fourteen, the faith she’d been taught from childhood came alive for her, and she became a committed Christian. A few years later she went to university, joined a Christian group where she met Joe and, after some time, they became a couple. He proposed, she accepted, two years later they were married, and eventually they had two children. They seemed very happy. But not entirely. One day Sharon told me that two days before their wedding Joe told her he wasn’t actually a Christian. He wasn’t sure faith had ever been real for him; it certainly wasn’t any more. Sharon had always intended to marry someone who shared her faith, but what was she to do with wedding day so imminent? She married Joe, then prayed and hoped he’d find new faith, but he never did. ‘We’re okay,’ Sharon told me, ‘but there’ll always be a gap in our lives that nothing else fills’.
Over the years many have told me of ‘the gap not filled’ because of a faith not shared. Perhaps some couples haven’t felt that tension, but I struggle to understand how faith can be central to every value and purpose of life and for that not to be the same for the person to whom you’ve dedicated your life.
Children This sub-heading could cover several things, all related to children.
One of the biggest questions is how many? From the start Alison and I felt it right to add to our family number until we knew that more children would seriously harm the wellbeing of those we had already. We reached that point with four. We’d already met disapproval when we went past two, some suggesting that number three must surely have been a mistake. When number four was coming, several reacted ‘Oh no!’ and offered no congratulations. And Alison’s first pregnancy-related medical appointment began with a nurse who assumed we clearly didn’t understand contraception. How could anyone actually want four children?
Well, we did want four. Others may want none, one, two, three or any other number. How many they want doesn’t trouble me. What does is when couples are sharply divided on family size. Several times I’ve been told, ‘We have two children, and I want at least one more, maybe two, but my husband absolutely refuses’. Division on something so fundamental generates pain and frustration for both involved. No-one can know in advance if they’ll be able to have children, nor what family life with children will be like. But some couples admit their pre-marriage conversations about family size lasted only until their differences became uncomfortable and then they backed off. If you asked, ‘Did you talk about this?’ they’d say they had. Did they resolve it? No, and therefore they didn’t realise how different their heart-felt hopes were.
Once there are children, plenty other ‘values’ issues surface:
- About spending time with them
- About discipline
- About education
- About behaviour
- About the role of grandparents
- About the kind of friends they can have
- About ambitions for the children
And so on. When parents don’t agree on values issues like these, they become pressure points in a relationship.
Money Alison and I had very little income in our earliest years together. For seven years we had no car, our furniture was almost entirely second hand, and none of our carpets were new. The children’s clothes were castoffs from kids who’d outgrown them, or bought from charity shops. Summer after summer we never had a family vacation, until finally we got a week’s break because friends loaned us their caravan at no cost. Alison would do our budget three times to make outgoings and incomings at least distant acquaintances. We learned three important things. One, you can be happy with just a little. Two, when having one thing means not having another you value what you buy. Three, money was not a subject that divided us because our attitudes to it were aligned.
But many couples I’ve known were far from aligned about finance. One spent, the other saved. One ran up huge debts, the other begged creditors for time to pay. Some didn’t know the other was spending their money, a secret that always came out and caused great tension. Different attitudes to money can wreck a relationship.
Life goals I was one of a team interviewing people with a sense of calling to overseas missionary work. Harry and Cathy were only in their mid twenties but especially promising: great personalities, clear thinkers, well qualified, full of faith. Everyone enthused about them. Until, that is, we interviewed Harry and Cathy individually, and those who talked with Cathy reported that they’d sensed she had reservations about being far from her family. In the final session Cathy confessed she’d always dreamed of living within only a few miles of her parents, raising her children with their support and having her parents play an integral part in their grandchildren’s lives. Harry’s dream was going overseas to serve disadvantaged and impoverished people, and Cathy had tried to make herself share his dream. But now – at the moment of decision – she couldn’t face that future. So, lovingly, the interview team advised Harry and Cathy to withdraw and find the way forward that would be right for both of them.
Sadly I met some who had squashed a conflicting dream and gone overseas. It never worked. Whether overseas or at home, it’s very hard when one is chasing a dream the other doesn’t share.
My work was always demanding: pastoring growing churches, heading up a mission agency, being president of a seminary. But Alison believed in the rightness of what I was doing as much as I did. Sometimes she’d say: ‘He holds the office, but both of us have the calling’. Jointly owning a life goal is important.
Shared responsibilities One short story will tell the message here. Ken and Jean were part of a small group who knew each other well enough to be open and honest about deep issues. What was shared in the group stayed in the group. One evening Jean talked about Ken’s love of playing squash and football, but they used up any time he had alongside his growing work responsibilities. Jean had a significant career too, but she had cut out hobby-type interests in order to do the shopping, cook the meals, and keep the house organised. Jean’s pain was clear as she described what that was like. Here’s how she finished: ‘I’d always imagined we’d each have home responsibilities and careers, so each with one and a half jobs. Instead Ken has one job and I have two.’
No-one left the group that evening unaware of how those unshared responsibilities were hurting their relationship.
Values matter, and the more foundational they are the more they matter. When they’re in tension with the values of the person with whom they share life, the more difficult that relationship becomes.
I’d rank friendship as one of the most important foundations for a strong and happy long-term relationship. Here’s when I first realised it.
Before Alison I had an earlier girlfriend called Kate. Kate was outgoing, popular in company, great performer from a platform, clever academically and came from a strong family background. We had good times together.
Except there were two problems. One was almost a culture issue. Her parents were wealthy, lived in an impressive stone built house in the suburbs, and Kate had absorbed tastes in clothing, travel, dining out, that were foreign to me. Then we got near to her birthday. She knew I’d be away on the date of her birthday, so Kate was clear she expected a bouquet of flowers to be delivered on the day. I certainly couldn’t afford flowers, but it seemed to matter so I raided the bank account for her. But it left me feeling uneasy.
The second problem was more decisive. I didn’t have a car, but my aunt loaned hers so I could take Kate out for a day. There were good things about that day, but during the longer drives I realised we’d run out of things to talk about and silence was uncomfortable. I began inventing subjects to fill the void. The day that should have been special was actually stressful. Warning bells rang, and the relationship with Kate gradually came to an end.
With Alison it was different, both then and all the years since. From the beginning there wasn’t just romance there was friendship. We enjoyed being together. We laughed, had fun, chatted about anything and everything, and when there was silence we were at peace. It’s still like that. Alison often reminds me that I vowed life would never be boring, and that’s always been true. We enjoy listening to each other’s stories as much as telling our own. We have stimulating conversations on countless subjects. We love visiting places together, exploring, learning, sharing. We support each other through rough times emotionally and physically. Neither of us fears the other would fail to care, no matter what happens, because we’ve already shown we do. When things have gone wrong, we’ve forgiven and moved on. Some marriage books have a chapter about ‘keeping romance strong’ where they advocate date nights, candlelit bedrooms, or meals in expensive restaurants. And there’s nothing wrong with those if that’s what you want. But romance can happen through every day, every event, every experience, every part of life. It’s in the simple joy of being together, a joy that’s never diminished, and in fact gets stronger and better all the time.
Relationships are unique to a particular couple, so our experience won’t be anyone else’s. But a bedrock of friendship seems crucial – enjoying each other, sharing with each other, depending on each other, laughing with each other, moving forward together.
May whatever relationships you have be productive, strengthening, fulfilling, and fun.
(My apologies this blog is posted late, but this last weekend I prioritised a very special birthday event for Alison with all our family. It was the right – and very happy – thing to do. Thank you for being understanding.)