Well, when you are bound by covenant to another human being, you will find that the answer is: more than you can imagine. The learning curve is steep in the beginning, to be sure. However, I think couples who have been married for years, even decades, would say that the rate of learning slows down eventually… but will never stop.
I wish someone had given me practical advice about relationships a long, long time ago. Not just about marriage, but about relationships in general, including my relationship with myself. So, I’m sharing these thoughts with you in hopes that it could prevent some heartache and assist you, even in the slightest, along your journey to finding and being with your life partner (if that is your path to Salvation). Maybe some of this, or all of this, will not be news to you. If so, please forgive me for redundancy, and feel free to disregard.
An ancient, philosophical phrase attributed largely to Socrates (and many, many Orthodox church fathers), this is one piece of advice I truly think would have helped prevent the majority of my heartache I experienced in school, work, family, friendships, dating…basically everything. I did finally figure out that I understood myself more when I sincerely and consistently interacted with God on a regular basis.Which makes sense because I was made by Him and in His context, if you will. So, “me” out of His context (i.e. not sincerely, consistently communing with Him) was not really “me” at all. Ugh. The result was years and years of anguish and, quite literally, mind-numbing, self-destructive living. Note: I was never “away” from the church during this time. Just because I was going through the motions did not mean I was truly communing with Him. I was truly and thoroughly dead inside. The work of knowing myself will never be finished in this life, but starting on the journey of self-discovery through Christ was one that changed my life drastically for the better. (p.s. I highly suggest Meyers-Briggs personality test as a guide to help you make sense of why you do the things you do! It’s not the end-all be-all, but I found it helpful.)
Deal with the past. ASAP.
I started seeing an Orthodox counselor to address my past. Thankfully, I started this process before marriage, and have continued since. Professional counseling may not be needed for all, but if you have something in your past (or even in the present) that you have not faced head-on, gather all your strength and wits, pray/research for a good counselor (very important), and march yourself to his/her office. It is unpleasant and yucky work. But the benefits are immeasurable. Note: Seeing an Orthodox counselor was/is very important to me, but may not be for you. I personally needed to discuss my anxieties/concerns in the context of my spiritual life.
So, I thought I was a “present” person before I met and hung out with my husband. Phew. My idea of being present was child’s play compared to his. It is one of his best qualities, and I can only hope to attain his level of “I’m here with you right now”-ness one day. His phone is not a leash to him, he has social media but does not check it frequently (a gift I do not have – hence, no social media for me anymore), and most importantly, where he is physically, he is also mentally and emotionally. Practice being present in that way…in a total way. If you are already, major kudos to you. I missed out on huge chunks of my life because I was not present while it was happening. Between not dealing with my past sooner and not being truly present, I used to mourn and weep over the years I lost in my life and the people I hurt along the way, but I find comfort in the fact that God can and does redeem time, if I give Him space to: “So I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten, the crawling locust, the consuming locust… You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the Name of the Lord your God who has dealt wondrously with you. And My people shall never be put to shame” (Joel 2:25-27)
Mostly dictated by my Middle Eastern culture, I definitely had an image in my head of what kind of person I was supposed to be with. His resume included: a large salary, excellent chanter/deacon, Sunday School/church servant, perfect family, terminal degree, four years older than me, six inches taller than me…you get the picture. What I finally realized was that I was putting way too much emphasis on the outer characteristics of a man (and if I’m being honest, of my friends, too) and not enough on his insides. Please understand me, though: I am not saying that the aforementioned resume items are inherently bad. What I am saying is, however, that sole emphasis on those aspects can leave you gravely disappointed and miserable both in your marriage and in other relationships. Look at potentials/suitors with the eyes of God more than your own. “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). If held closely to your heart, this principle can help you with many of your relationships. Additionally, be open to different ways of meeting your spouse and to giving long-distance relationships a real try. I didn’t want to do either of those things, but I am very glad that I did.
Focus less on your age.
Remember: God is not loving you and seeing you in the context of Time. He loves and sees you in the context of where your heart is and in the context of your salvation. If you have to wait 43 years for your life partner to come along, but it means a more secure path to eternal life, take it. Moreover, if God sees you need more time in order to prevent self-destruction and spouse-destruction in marriage, also take it. I thought I was ready to be married almost 10 years ago; I shudder at the thought now. Additionally, you really are only as old or as young as you feel. Though I am 32 now, I feel younger and better than I ever have before! And not because of marriage. It’s because of my mental, physical and emotional health. I feel like I’m starting life anew.
Practice loving people who annoy you.
I am really good at loving on the people who I want to be around and who don’t bother or annoy me. Oh and when I was dating/getting to know someone, I was especially good at being loving and sweet and accommodating. But here’s the catch: those people (whether they are your friends, family, long-distance potentials, etc.) who you don’t interact with on a regular basis, who you only see on trips/visits/for short amounts of time and in controlled environments, might actually annoy you, too, if you spent more time with them. We are all imperfect human creatures with peculiarities and insecurities (Read: you can be annoying, too! lol ). Practice loving people through their annoyances or maybe spend time with those you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with and listen to them. If nothing else, it will give you an occasion to practice patience. Your future spouse will inevitably annoy you. So practice now 🙂
Practice having difficult conversations.
More yucky and unpleasant work. There were countless times I really needed to have a difficult conversation with others. Countless times. And each time I chose not to engage in these conversations, I swallowed the contents and negative emotions of the situation like a small dose of arsenic. No, one dose didn’t kill me..but since I kept swallowing it back, over and over again, in various situations with various people, it quickly started causing internal damage. Make time for these conversations. It’s good for you and others involved.
What you put into your relationships now, you will receive back… eventually.
I have had more than enough (in my human opinion) one-way relationships in my young life, and I thought I was destined and doomed for a marriage of the same: giving, trying, hoping, praying, discussing, loving, excusing, forgiving, etc. with little to no reciprocation. I was sad (at best), and in my lowest points, I was dejected, bitter, and not even desiring marriage. I believe now, with all my heart, that every bit of sweat, tears, love, hope, and effort I sowed in the fields of my past relationships, though unrequited at the time, came back to me a hundred-fold through my husband. God will never forget the love you give to others. Never.
Positivity is powerful and transformative.
It’s pretty easy to be positive when things are going well…but to have the ability to see and feel the sun with your heart and mind when all your eyes see is darkness: that is a gift and a treasure. In my limited experience, I have found that most women tend to have more anxieties, fears, and doubts than most men, but our present society as a whole is breeding negative attitudes and complaining minds. When you’re getting to know a marriage prospect, look for a genuinely positive attitude, and be friends with genuinely positive people. A positive outlook on life can really transform difficult situations, and as you may very well know, life can be full of those.
Be the type of person you want to marry.
Marriage is life-long learning.
Know this: when you sign up to marry someone, it’s not because you know everything about the person at the time you make that decision. It is more of a decision to commit to getting to know someone for the rest of your life than anything else. Neither of you will have the other totally figured out. It’s a journey of discovering yourselves, each other, and God… day in and day out.
He gives and takes away.
God doesn’t take away anything (or anyone) from you to leave you empty-handed; He does it to protect you and prepare you for something greater…if you let Him.
I struggle(d) a lot with this one. Sometimes, when priests and family members and friends throw opinions in your already teeming mind as you sort out potentials and make decisions both big and small, your brain can feel fried and your soul very tired. As long as you are praying with sincerity of heart, trust yourself. Note: I am not saying to disregard the advice and guidance of family, clergy, mentors, etc. I am saying to listen to them, listen to yourself, and listen to God. There usually is a consistent message that can help guide you with ease. It may not be evident right away, but it will come.
Life is really, really short.
Like really short. Do not allow yourself to be caught up by the little things. Please don’t. It’s so not worth it.
When I actually got down on my hands and knees and started really discussing my mind and heart with Him, He gave me clarity and peace. It wasn’t anything big or theatrical. It was a small whisper in my heart. But it was clear. I prayed through many confusing relationships, confusing feelings/signals, family pressures/desires, doubts, fears, anxieties, etc., and I didn’t budge until I felt He gave me a signal. My tear-filled, frustrated, broken-record prayers were: “God, you know me way better than I know myself. What I think may be good for me, may not be good for me at all. Please decide for me. I know you gave me free will, but I’m giving it back to you. Please help me decide.” and “There are so many difficult things in life to face. Please give me grace that my life partner would not be a burden to me, but that he would help me shoulder life’s burdens as we walk hand-in-Hand.”
I hope some of this is helpful.