As Eric and I approach our fourth wedding anniversary (November 6!), I have been reflecting on what I’ve learned over the past four years as a wife. “Healthy marriage” has become a passion for both Eric and I, as we could spend all day talking about what we’ve learned (typically the hard way) and how we have seen the Lord use our relationship to refine us individually and refine us together. We love having the opportunity to pour into younger couples and to pray for our friends in their marriage relationships and to spend time learning together how we can continue to grow in this relationship that is ultimately meant to reflect God and His relationship with His people.
When you realize the ultimate purpose of marriage, you should recognize a certain weight from what you have entered into with your spouse. It’s more than just a piece of paper signed by the two of you and an officiant – marriage is a holy covenant and a ginormous responsibility and a wonderful privilege.
As a wistful, wishing teenager, I remember reading books that talked about making lists of the qualities I wanted in a future husband. I confess that I loved daydreaming about being married to Prince Charming one day, so I would fill journals with my hopes and dreams for what he would be like and what fun things we would do together and what I expected marriage to be like.
But looking back, I see a certain danger in this practice. Yes, it was good to think through my standards and prevent against falling for the wrong guy, but I think it can also prevent falling for the right guy if you set unrealistic expectations. I should have spent time talking to married women in my life who could tell me what was actually important in a marriage as opposed to my looking to romantic comedies and classic novels and trying to pull out all of the characteristics I liked about the heroes of my favorite stories.
When Eric and I first got to know each other, I didn’t think he was right for me. I had always pictured myself with someone loud and outgoing to match my own personality. I thought it would be a man who was strong-willed enough to prevent me from running over him, which I had been told by many people was a must due to my own strong tendencies. I was extremely active in high school and college playing sports, and I pictured playing ultimate frisbee or softball with my husband, maybe coaching a kids’ soccer team together one day. And as wonderful as I knew Eric was, I didn’t see these qualities in him. He didn’t meet the expectations I had set for myself as a fifteen-year old, so I felt like we didn’t “click” and I needed to keep waiting.
Six months later, when the man didn’t stop pursuing me, I began to realize I was wrong. His introverted nature and calm demeanor have since softened my rough edges, and he keeps me from running myself ragged always trying to be busy. I have learned the beauty of reflection and of quiet moments in my day. He might not be the strong-willed man who can overpower me, but instead he has the desire to lead me in love, which in turn challenges me to give him space to lead and to teach myself to not be in control. He’s a cyclist, a sport I never really thought about but now appreciate (not only because it’s less impact on my knees and feet, but also because it keeps him in pretty great shape ;) ). I still get to be active with him on bike rides and walks and the occasional run with the dog, which are activities that will last far longer in life than my ability to catch a frisbee or shoot a layup.
Bigger than these things, though, I have learned more about the character traits that are important in a husband and in a marriage. Most of these have become clear as we have walked through life together and had to process unexpected or unchartered experiences.
So for you, dear reader who might be single or dating, let me share with you some of what four years of marriage has taught me when it comes to looking for Mr. Right.
- A growing relationship with the Lord on his own. He can’t be going to church or attending a Bible study just to please you; the authenticity of his walk with God will impact every single area of your marriage, from how he makes decisions to how he handles finances to how he forgives to how he serves to how he responds to his mistakes and your mistakes. It’s okay if he’s not there yet — none of us ever “arrive” when it comes to spiritual maturity — but you should be able to tell whether or not he is growing. And as he grows in the Lord, it should push you to also grow spiritually, to dig more into intimacy with God. Through Eric’s relationship with the Lord, I began to understand a new perspective on how to walk with Him and relate to Him, and he pushed me to go deeper.
- Involvement in community with other believers. There’s the cliche about no man being an island – and it’s true. As women, we know we have a strong need for relationships and for deep conversations, while it can be a harder need to recognize in men. Eric is typically pretty content to come home and just be with me. However, I can tell that Eric is at his healthiest when he is getting regular time with other men, both in his season of life and those ahead of him or behind him. This community keeps him accountable, as well as reminds him that he is not “the only one” who is struggling with work or with something in marriage or in his spiritual life. Especially after college, friend time doesn’t come as naturally, and it requires much more initiative than it did when he was in class or eating in the cafeteria with other dudes.
- Good reputation and respect among peers. This was one of the first things that stood out to me about Eric Barnes. When he introduced himself to me, I knew who he was because I had heard other men mention his name. After he asked me to formal, I had several people come up to me and say, “I heard Eric Barnes asked you to formal! He’s such a great guy.” You want someone who is respected among people, not someone that people make fun of or don’t take seriously at the appropriate times. You don’t want to have to convince people of his character or defend his intentions; when you get married, you and your husband are “one,” and whatever is his reputation will typically be attached to the both of you.
- An attitude of learning. Don’t look for Mr. Perfect. Look for Mr. Willing-to-Learn. The elusive “they” tell you that the first year of marriage is the hardest, and I believe this is true in the sense that it’s exhausting to constantly encounter new situation after new situation: What do we do for a phone plan? Who will pay the bills? How do we handle holidays? What do you need when you come home from a bad day? What annoying habits do I have that you now have to put up with? Are we going to move or stay put? I can only anticipate what new things we will need to learn one day when we have kids and have to learn how to parent. I am so grateful that I married a man who constantly wants to learn not just how to do life with me, but also how he can improve (especially as our situations change).
- Humility. This relates to an attitude of learning, but it also relates to how he handles the authority in his own life. Is he willing to obey God even if it’s a hard decision? Does he even go to God to ask for wisdom? Does he have a mentor whom he respects, or does he criticize anyone who tries to counsel him? Humility also affects how quick he is to forgive and forget. A humble man doesn’t hold grudges or feel that he should be righted for whatever wrong was done to him, whether by you or anyone else.
- Aware of his weaknesses. Eric has learned what things he is good at, and consequently which areas he is most likely to struggle. It’s such a joy for me to come alongside him in his weaknesses, as he does in mine, and we find our rhythm best when we are honest with ourselves in the areas we will probably need help. A man should know in which areas he struggles with self-control, and he should have accountability present (typically not you) when it comes to not allowing himself to be dominated by work or by a hobby or by food/alcohol.
- Speaks well of you in public (whether or not you are present) and saves criticism or questioning for private. I am so blessed by a man who does this well. I have never felt shamed by him or made fun of (beyond appropriate teasing) in front of people I know or even don’t know. When we get together for his work Christmas party each year, one of the first things new people I meet tell me is that they have heard so many good things about me. Now, I am far from perfect, and I often speak without thinking, but Eric is always careful to be gracious in how he handles those situations. He doesn’t go into work in the morning complaining about the argument we had or the plans we disagreed on over the weekend. This is so valuable, and a habit that I pray I cultivate as well.
- Affirming of you. Eric praises me in public, but he also praises me when no one is around. Even if we need to have a discussion on a way I could change or be more considerate, he is careful to also affirm me in other areas of our relationship. He affirms my passions, my dreams, my appearance, my cooking, my work to run our household, my ministry, etc. etc. I feel confident that he supports me in any endeavor I attempt.
I could go on, so please don’t take this as an exhaustive list. However, these are character traits that should be evident in a man’s life before you get married. Putting a ring on a man’s finger won’t change him, as much as you might hope it would. Marriage is less about changing a person into a good husband and more about the two of you growing together in maturity, in life experience, and in the Lord.
You won’t marry a perfect man. You probably won’t even marry a man who hits every single ideal on your list. But, if you marry a man who is godly and teachable (and you yourself are godly and teachable), it will make all the difference for the rest of your life.