20 Ways to Ruin a Perfectly Good Marriage

20 years ago today, I was getting ready to walk down an aisle and marry the woman of my dreams. Right before that moment, I unexpectedly found myself in a room all alone.

Suddenly, I was hit by the weight of what I was about ready to do.  I was overwhelmed thinking about what it would take to be a loving husband for the rest of my life.  Tears rolled down my cheeks. I dropped to my knees. I prayed that somehow God would give me the strength and courage to be the man and father that He wanted me to be.

After all these years, I realize how much I still need that prayer today. If 20 years of marriage has taught me anything it is… “I’m a mess!” Marriage is the most beautiful experience on earth. It is also the most difficult thing you will ever do.

I can’t count the number of ways that I’ve failed as a husband over the last 20 years. I could have easily ruined everything on multiple occasions. I’m so thankful for the love and grace my wife has extended toward me.

In hopes that you can learn from my mistakes, here are 20 ways to ruin a perfectly good marriage…

1. Ignore your baggage– Everyone carries wounds from their past into their relationships. Like it or not, your past will always impact your present. Marriage became a lot more fulfilling when I started to unpack the luggage of my life and admit it openly.

2. Be selfish– Selfishness comes naturally to all of us. Marriage requires sacrifice and sacrifice hurts.  I have a daily decision of how selfish I will allow myself to be.

3. Don’t acknowledge your fears– A lot of our conflict revolves around actions. Sometimes we fight over the deeper level of our hurts. Our core fears often drive those actions and hurts. I wish I uncovered the fears that influence my actions a lot earlier.   

4. Live with unresolved conflict– Believe it or not, conflict doesn’t evaporate when you ignore it. It needs to be brought out into the open and discussed in order to move forward. It’s been 20 years and I’m still learning how to do this in a healthy way.  

5. Defensiveness– We all want to protect ourselves. Sometimes I resort to defensiveness as a way for me to feel safe. I’ve discovered that when I’m defensive it builds walls and kills the type of connection that I crave.

6. Believe your spouse should think and act like you– Differences are beautiful! Two people who are exactly alike probably don’t need to be married. The things that make you each unique can bring you closer together or drive you farther apart. My life is happier when I embrace those differences.

7. Refuse to be vulnerable- It was far too long into our marriage before I wept openly in front of my wife. Hiding what is really going on underneath the surface of my life didn’t help either of us.

8. Try to control the other person– When two people are grasping for control, nobody wins. I learned this the hard way about a year into our marriage and have been re-learning it ever since.

9. Always have expectations associated with your service– Doing nice things and expecting nothing in return is a lost art. Learning to serve with no strings attached requires intentionality…well, for me anyway.

10. Don’t have fun– Life can be difficult. Learn to enjoy the little things in life and laugh a lot together. Fun has been a great bonding agent in our relationship.

11. Play it safe– As I reflect back on the last 20 years, I don’t regret the risks we have taken. Each risk might not have turned out the way we envisioned but life is more fulfilling when you treat it like an adventure.

12. Refuse to forgive– I’ve been hurt. I’ve also been the source of a lot of hurt. I can’t think of a single time when harboring bitterness helped our relationship grow.

13. Rely on your feelings to guide you– The “butterflies” stage of relationships are fantastic, but they won’t be there through every phase of life. Feelings are great…but they are temporary.

14. Assume that sex won’t take effort- Sexuality takes intentionality. Sex is connected to every other aspect of your relationship. I was pretty naïve about the challenges that this could present.

15. Don’t express appreciation– The words “I love you” never go out of style. Neither does the phrase “Thank you!” It might seem like a small thing but being grateful rather than critical actually reframes the way I think about my wife.  

16. Look to your spouse to build your confidence. Confidence only comes through knowing the One who made you and embracing who you were created to be.  No person on this earth can give me this…no matter how amazing they are.

17. Pretend you don’t struggle with anxiety. Deal with your anxiety early. If you don’t, it will spread. Not every relationship has to deal with this but I did so I included it on this list…Thank you counseling!

18. Underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep- Many arguments can be solved if both people get some rest. In my life, there is a high correlation between agitation and exhaustion. 

19. Value “solving” your spouses problems over being present with them- There’s nothing more annoying than sharing your heart with someone and having them give you a checklist of things to do to “get over it”. I’m been guilty of this on multiple occasions. I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing I can do is simply be “with” my wife.

20. Try to work through things on your own- We weren’t intended to go through life alone…even in our marriages. First and foremost, our relationship is infinitely better when we are making God the center of our lives. It’s also tough to underestimate the importance of having other people speaking into our relationship. Sometimes these people have been mentors or other couples. We have also benefited in huge ways by going to counseling. I wish I had the courage to go sooner.

My tomb

I know what it’s like to live a privileged life. Sure, I was born with certain advantages but I have also put a lot of effort into my success.

I’ve dedicated myself to working hard and living a moral life. In return, I’ve been blessed with resources and respect.

There is only one problem. All that striving and all those possessions don’t bring me joy. There is an ever-present ache inside my soul that won’t go away. Like a cancer that spreads silently underneath the surface of my skin, this gnawing pain is always with me.

In desperation, I turned to a man who seemed to have a peace that evaded me. His life was not dominated by the pursuit of wealth or status. He was clearly not anxious or driven by the opinions of people.

It took courage to ask him a question. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth but I managed to blurt out, “What do I have to do to have a life of true meaning?”  Underneath the question was a longing to make the aching pain stop NOW. 

His response was nonchalant. I’m used to people paying me more respect. He simply listed off commandments that I needed to follow.

Frustrated, I replied, “I’ve done all that since I was a kid!”

I think he heard the desperation in my voice. He turned and looked me directly in the eyes. It was only a few seconds but it felt like hours. An expression, I can only describe as “love” radiated from his face. Somehow I knew he truly cared for me.

Like a good doctor, he saw the disease that was destroying me. “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Then you will have the life you are seeking.”

Tears filled my eyes. He knew the one thing that was in control of my life. How could I give up the comfort and safety I had worked my whole life to attain? He could have told me to fly to the moon and it would have been easier.

I couldn’t look at his face anymore. I was seen for who I truly was. I bowed my head and walked away weeping.

My story could have stopped there…but it didn’t.

That look of compassion continued to haunt me. I secretly began to follow him. I watched as he cured the ill and cared for people that no one else thought worthy of respect. THIS was the life I desperately craved!

Just as I was about to leave my successful life behind, I was shaken again. He was sentenced to the brutal death of crucifixion. The hands that healed the sick were nailed to a piece of wood. The body that embraced outcasts was beaten so badly that you couldn’t even tell he was human.

Yet, as I stood at a distance, I saw him look at his tormentors with the same love that he showed me. He never cursed them or demanded justice. He forgave them.

He willingly gave EVERYTHING he had.  In his death, he showed me how to live.

I watched in stunned silence as he gasped his last breath. Once again I wept the bitter tears of regret as I thought about “What could have been”.

Suddenly a feeling of resolve came over me. Today is the day it all changes! No more being dominated by the expectations of others or pursuit of wealth.

Even if the entire world is ashamed of him, I won’t be. I boldly went before the governor and asked for Jesus’ body so that I could bury it. Yes, associating myself with a convict could have cost me my life too, but I didn’t care anymore.

My relationship with my possessions began to change as well. One of the first things I did was buy as many burial spices as I could. I spared no expense. It was a small way for me to symbolize that money was no longer my priority.

Finally, I put him in MY tomb. I thought I would be the one laying here one day. It was a way for me to represent the truth that a part of me really did die. It may sound odd, but in dying, I found that I could truly live.

There is someone laying in my tomb yet somehow I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.

Leadership Lessons From a Groundhog

What can I learn about leadership from a groundhog? That’s a question I bet you’ve never asked yourself.  Don’t worry. Until recently, I hadn’t either.

That changed on April 1st when a new blanket of snow covered the ground. I began to mourn the perpetual state of winter and had a random thought about Punxsutawney Phil.

Every February 2nd, a large woodchuck (named Punxsutawney Phil) is taken from his wintertime hole in Pennsylvania. According to tradition, if the creature sees his shadow, we need to brace for six more weeks of winter. Supposedly, if he doesn’t see his shadow it means that spring is right around the corner. This year he didn’t see his shadow! Winter should be a distant memory… It turned out Punxsutawney Phil emerged from a den of lies!

I found myself getting irritated at this large woodland rodent. Why did his prediction of an early spring turn out so blatantly wrong (besides the fact that a groundhog isn’t a trained meteorologist)? He didn’t see his shadow. Isn’t that a good thing?

This prompted me to think about my own leadership journey.  I recalled times I was sure that situations would turn out one way and they ended up going the opposite. In a spirit of unwarranted optimism, I predicted an “early spring” only to endure a longer “winter”.  For the first time, I saw a potential similarity between a groundhog and myself. Namely, my failure to see my shadow doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

As human beings, we all have a “shadow” side to our personality. Maybe you can identify with one of the following examples…

Some of us are analytical. That is a beautiful thing…until we are stuck in inaction because we can’t overcome the fear of what could go wrong.

Others have a high value for excellence. This is amazing…until failing at something causes our whole world to collapse. The need for perfection in our self and in others is a cruel master.

Some of us are born leaders. The world needs those gifts…except when we run carelessly over people because we fear being taken advantage of.

Others are extremely relational. We can connect with people from a variety of backgrounds… but these qualities mask a fear of rejection. We adjust our actions to make the people around us happy and in the process, lose sight of who we truly are. 

One of the greatest dangers to effective leadership is ignoring your shadow.

There is good news. Unlike the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, when we see our shadow, it often initiates a season of growth. Facing our shadow might not be pleasant, but it can lead to a true “spring” in our inner world.  It can also bring life to the people around us. The fact is they probably already see and experience the effects of our shadow whether we do or not.

Maybe next February I’ll focus a little less on whether a woodchuck is seeing his shadow and spend more time considering if I am seeing mine.

The More You Know

We swim in a sea of information. It is so normal that we don’t even think about it.

This week alone, I Googled “When to prune an apple tree”, “Installing a kitchen faucet” and “Eliminating lower back pain”. FYI, the last search had no relationship to the previous two.

Not long ago, I would have needed to go to the library and spend hours in research to find answers to my pressing questions. In the case of my back, I would have needed to call my doctor too. Instead, I simply pulled my phone from my pocket and had countless answers in mere seconds.

Access to this level of knowledge is a beautiful thing. However, it also comes with a downside. One of the biggest pitfalls of our information age is the belief that information equals transformation. In other words, if my mind is filled with enough facts or if I can find an answer to a question quickly, it means that I am automatically growing as a human being.

According to this way of thinking, I am basically a plumber because I watched Youtube video about kitchen faucets.  In actuality, I am FAR from trustworthy around sinks, drains and garbage disposals. There is a missing link in this formula for growth.

We need to move beyond simply “knowing about” things to experiencing them firsthand. To frame it another way, a more accurate formula for personal growth is “Information plus application equals transformation”.

It doesn’t matter how much I know about trimming apple trees if I never get out my saw and pruning shears. I can watch 300 videos about kitchen faucets on Youtube but if I don’t get under my sink, all that knowledge makes no difference.

The same is true in every area of my life. If my knowledge doesn’t lead to action, the only thing the information does for me is make me feel like I am a bigger deal than I actually am. In the end, that can be as destructive as ignorance.

There is a timeless piece of wisdom that says, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up”. That contrast is interesting to me. While knowledge can be passive, true love always requires a move beyond a mental process into action.

So what is one small way you can put your knowledge into action today? Is there an area you’ve been delaying taking action? Maybe it’s the awareness that exercise keeps you healthy…so you jump on the treadmill. Perhaps it is knowing that relationships are important to your well-being…so you give your friend a call. Maybe your life is so busy that it is causing you anxiety…so you take 15 minutes to sit in silence.

Even a little step can make a huge difference.

As for me, I’m off to the chiropractor!

Gauges

There are two types of people in this world…those who can comfortably let their cell phone battery drain down to one percent and those who begin to panic when it reaches the half way point.

I am the second type of person.

Once my phone dips into a range I consider “the danger zone”, I feverishly start to look for an outlet. The same is true in my car. There is nothing more stressful than watching my gas gauge get perilously close to “E”. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I push the limits, but I can’t breathe easy until I know my tank is full again.

Over time, I’ve discovered that I have a set of internal gauges that tell me how I’m doing too. It’s easy to pretend they don’t exist because they don’t light up like the ones on my dashboard. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as real. Often the consequences for ignoring the gauges of my inner world are even more painful than getting stuck along the side of the road or not having access to my phone.

Here are a few of the gauges I use to monitor the health of what is going on inside my soul…

Positivity vs. Cynicism

I’m a pretty positive person by nature. When I am in a healthy spot, I tend to see the bright side of circumstances and believe the best about the people around me.

I know my emotional gauge is telling me that something is wrong when I start to become cynical. When the first words out of my mouth are sarcastic or my thoughts become jaded, I need to take some space and evaluate what is going on beneath the surface of my life.

Rested vs. Exhausted

When my emotional tank is full, I feel rested and at peace. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not busy. It means I have enough margin in my life not to run myself into the ground. Perhaps the best way to describe this way of life is “at ease”.

A clear sign that my tank is running low is the need for multiple cups of coffee in order to make it through the day. When I combine a weary physical state with rushing between activities and no space for silence/stillness, the results aren’t pretty.

Present vs. Distracted

I have learned to pay attention to my interactions with people as I monitor my inner world. When I am at my healthiest, I am able to stay engaged and focused in conversations. I feel “present” with others.

I know something is “off” when my mind begins to dart around in the middle of talking with another person. Living with a distracted mind isn’t fun for me (or the people I’m interacting with).  

Those are just a few of the gauges that I have learned to monitor in my life. How about you? What are some of the gauges that tell you how you are doing?

For Finn

Three year-old boys aren’t supposed to die of cancer…but in this broken world sometimes they do.

Recently, our family attended a memorial service for a super hero named Finn. Finn’s parents (Dan and Brandi Lee) are very special to my wife and me. We had the opportunity to mentor them during their time in college at Syracuse University. We even had the amazing honor of being in their wedding.

Now we were in a crowded church for a different type of service. As I sat in silence, a question came into my mind, “What if Dan and Brandi Lee came up to me right now and said, ‘John we need you to say a few words’?” What in the world would I say? How could I possibly convey anything that would be worthwhile? What follows was the first thing that came to my mind. My words truly don’t do justice to their love, their faith or the struggle of their courageous boy but it is the best attempt I have at speaking from the heart…

“Jesus wept”.

Those two words are more than just the shortest verse in the Bible. They give us a picture into the heart of God. Jesus didn’t need to cry. He knew he was about ready to raise his friend from the dead. Yet, he looked at all the people in pain around him and experienced the grief of losing someone so close to him and he cried…not just a tear running down his cheek. He bawled his eyes out! 

For those of us here who are following Jesus, it’s not just OK if we weep today. It is a sign that we truly have the heart of the person we claim as our King.

So today we choose to weep.

We weep for Finn. No three year-old child should experience the ravages of cancer. We were not intended to have our childhood ripped away by a devastating disease. Three year olds should be playing with cars, not worrying about colostomy bags. They should be outside soaking in the rays of the sun, not going through rounds of radiation. They should be hopping around their house, not shuffling through a hospital. Young lives were not designed to be shattered like this. I believe Jesus isn’t apathetic toward Finn’s pain. Something tells me that as Finn suffered, Jesus wept. As we think about Finn’s strength in the midst of this horrific battle, we weep too.

We weep for Dan and Brandi Lee. How many of us would have the courage and grace to endure what they have gone through as parents? Place yourself in their shoes for a moment. They were already under the intense pressure of raising three boys, one of whom has special needs. Add on top of that, a cancer diagnosis for their youngest. They gave everything they could over the last couple of years emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. They emptied themselves in order to find healing for their child. In the end, their child was still taken away. How many of us here could still muster the faith to sing, “It is well with my soul”? Dan and Brandi Lee, the level of sorrow you are experiencing is like walking through hell. Jesus knows. I believe he weeps with you. We weep with you too.

We weep for ourselves. Finn was courageous, independent, optimistic, wise and loving. Boys with those qualities grow up to be men with those attributes. As we look around at our world today, who wouldn’t want more men with that type of character? When we lost Finn, we lost someone extremely precious. We didn’t simply lose a boy. We lost a future leader and inspiration. Jesus weeps with us in the middle of our grief too.

The Bible tells us that because of Jesus we don’t have to mourn like people without hope. We cling to the hope that Jesus brings today. For that very reason, we are able to enter into our grief without fear. We serve a king who cried and today we cry too.

*FYI, If you don’t know Dan and Brandi Lee personally, I’d highly suggest visiting their blog. This will give you a firsthand look at their journey. You’ll also get the opportunity to meet the avocado-loving super hero that inspired this post.

Fast or Far

Like many of us, I entered the New Year committed to getting back in shape. As part of that process, I began to run…again. Perhaps it’s the endorphins or my best efforts to distract myself from the pain, but I have started to notice more parallels between running and leadership.

Specifically, one of the biggest decisions that leaders need to make is the choice between going fast or going far. Rarely do they end up requiring the same things from us. Neither one is inherently better than the other. Becoming a world-class sprinter or a champion marathoner are both amazing athletic achievements. Yet, they require different types of training and focus.

Here are some post-run reflections…

1. Going farther requires attention to pace and rhythms

When I try to approach a long run like a sprint, I end up dragging and barely able to finish. Similarly, leadership for the long haul requires a pace that is sustainable. You can only go “all out” for so long before you drop over.

2. Train for EITHER quick results or sustainability

Sprinters and marathoners don’t train the same way. The type of muscles that sprinters work so hard to develop would deplete a marathoner’s body of oxygen in the middle of a long race. Similarly, systems that would be ideal to see quick results often don’t end up being what you need to have a long-term impact.

3. Having a community of people around you will help you go farther.

I’ve had the opportunity to run the “Tough Mudder” a couple of times. The first time I did it, the course was 11 miles of mud, obstacles, mud, hills, mud, feats of strength…and mud. It would have been impossible for me to navigate the course on my own. As a matter of fact, the courses are specifically designed so that you HAVE to depend on other people. Life has much more in common with a Tough Mudder event than a sprint. The farther you want to go, the more you need to depend on the people around you.

4. Tracking your progress is essential for staying in a long race.

Why are smart watches that keep track of your pace and distance so popular? Well, one reason is because when you are running for a long time, it’s motivating to know what progress you are making. That’s also the reason why there are mile markers in races. Mile markers let you know how far you’ve gone and give you the psychological strength to keep pressing on. If you are leading something over a long period of time, it is imperative to have ways to measure your progress.

Those are four similarities that I have noticed. I’m sure there are a ton more. I’d love to hear your insights on this too!