Do you think your marriage is great now? Well, just wait! As you allow God to shape you and your relationship in the years ahead, your love will mature and sweeten into your most precious earthly possession.
With broken relationships all around us, and the bad press that marriage receives these days, embracing this idea requires significant faith. But God desires true, growing, lifelong marital joy for every couple.
His model for the marriage merger was unveiled in the Garden of Eden—two people designed to complete and satisfy each other perfectly in an unending relationship. Yes, we live “east of Eden” in a world where people are scarred and broken by sin, yet God has given us the resources to overcome all this and experience oneness and happiness.
I’ve said many times to parents, “Your marriage must be built to outlast your children.” Even if you do not have children yet, the principle remains the same for any marriage regardless of the season of life—your marriage must be built to grow through every life stage and still be on its feet at the finish line.
Just what can you expect in the years ahead, and what can you do to make sure your marriage reaches its full, vibrant maturity?
The seasons of marriage
There are other ways to describe the path of a marriage, but after years of reflection and input from others, I’ve found the following helpful to explain the stages of a family’s life, especially in America.
Season 1: Newly Married. Generally, this includes the first five years of marriage. Everything is new, and challenges are numerous. The marriage’s mood swings tend to be frequent and dramatic—in a single day you can experience deep disillusionment and awesome pleasure. But the habits and disciplines formed in this season will significantly determine what your marriage becomes later on.
Season 2: Full Nest I. This occurs when children arrive and lasts until they are about age 5. Little tykes toddle and romp through the house, absorbing enormous amounts of attention from both mom and dad. If you’re about to enter this season, get ready for changes in your lives like nothing you’ve ever encountered before! You will experience the unspeakable joy and awe of ushering a human being into life on this earth. But beware: During this season, many couples drift toward isolation because children are so demanding that they can leave adults emptied of time, energy, and emotion.
Season 3: Full Nest II. This may be the most placid period of the entire family experience. The children are between the ages of 6 and 12. They don’t yet have wheels or jobs, and you can easily schedule family events. For Barbara and me, these years were golden.
Season 4: Full Nest III. Now your children are teenagers in junior high or high school. Gone for good is the predictable daily schedule that allowed everyone to gather for a pleasant evening meal at the appointed time. Now you need to plan carefully those family times, and be ready, available, and flexible to grab moments of intimacy with your children on their terms and at their timing. You spend as much time as possible being a subtle spectator as they “do their thing.” A warning: If you as a couple don’t protect your intimacy and privacy, you will find it withering as your teenagers roam the house until all hours of the night talking on the phone, snacking, listening to music, and working on the computer.
Season 5: Empty Nest I. The children have moved out of the house, and it’s quiet. You now have only each other to talk to over the dinner table or in the family room. You’re still involved in your children’s lives because they may need financial and emotional support during college or in transitioning to adulthood. This season should be reminiscent of those newlywed days when there was much more time to enjoy each other, to make last-minute plans to do something fun. For too many couples, however, these years become a nightmare of broken dreams and cold isolation. Don’t wait until this season to nurture the relationship that drew you together in the first place. This is a time of celebration! Your marriage is seasoned, and you can enjoy marital intimacy and give fully to each other without so many distractions.
Season 6: Empty Nest II. With grandchildren arriving, you have the joy of helping shape another generation to love and follow Christ. A man enters the patriarchal phase of leading and loving his family and continuing to set the spiritual direction he initiated decades before. A woman can be the matriarch, guiding her daughters in how to truly love their husbands and nurture their children. These are the golden harvest years for a couple to savor before their sacred marriage covenant is broken by death.
Three things necessary in every marriage season
I grow excited and motivated when I think about each season of marriage. If you want your marriage to thrive in each season, here are some suggestions:
1. Focus on growing as individuals and as a couple. Pray together; share spiritual truths; share your experience with God together. Don’t wait until tomorrow when you think you will be “more spiritual.” Respond to life’s circumstances today in faith and obedience. Your marriage will become the sum total of every choice made along the way.
2. Seek to understand your spouse’s needs in each season of life and look for ways to help meet them. We need this mindset in each season of marriage; in fact, I regret that I was not more sensitive to Barbara during some of the early seasons of our marriage. As a new bride, she needed my understanding, love, compassion, and a listening ear. I’m not saying I never did this, but I wish someone had challenged me to set that as a goal.
3. Prayerfully anticipate the next season of your life as a couple. Think about the physical and emotional adjustments you’ll make. Make plans for how you will allocate your time and energy. Some couples don’t fully prepare for the seasons of their marriage. It doesn’t take a lot of preparation, but it takes prayerful, thoughtful application of Scripture, for example, to prepare for a child. Work on your values as a couple and what you want to build into children before you welcome your first one.
If you do these things, you’ll grow strong in the seasons of life, and you’ll grow deep.
Adapted from Starting Your Marriage Right, © 2000 Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
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