The shirt I wore on my first date with Leah said, “Kiss a frog. He may not turn into a prince, but you’ll make his day and give him something to brag about to his friends.” I had gone on a few dates, but only gotten a second date once before. I spent the entirety of my teenage and 20-something years as a frog. I was a very stubborn amphibian during those years, rejecting the advice of numerous friends, but when I started becoming less froggy, I started learning a few things. For those who are still looking, here are some of the lessons I picked up.
For both genders:
1. Always, always be yourself. There’s an episode of Psych where one of Shawn and Gus’ childhood friends is married to a gorgeous woman, but hasn’t told her he’s a closet geek. He’s been pretending to be a jock for years. If the goal is to find someone you can spend the rest of your life with, then you have to be willing to be yourself and let them judge whether that’s what they’re looking for or not. It’s better to get rejected 100 times by people you like than to be in a relationship where you have to keep pretending. The goal is to be accepted for who you are; that can’t be done when you’re hiding the real you. Plus, it’s unfair to the other person to present a false image of yourself.
2. That said, try to be the best version of yourself that you can be. Ask yourself, “Would the person I want to marry want to marry me?” If you’re wanting someone who is in perfect shape, manages money well, is smart and funny, and little to no previous baggage, but you’re not exercising, are buried in debt, and have tons of emotional hangups, you’re being neither fair to the other person nor realistic. There is some room for reaching and certainly something to be said for having these problems but working diligently to fix them, but it’s unreasonable to expect an overall 8 or higher when you’re not even trying to better yourself.
3. Stop trying for someone perfect. In college, I was pretty foolish. Every semester, I’d set my sights on the prettiest girl I knew, and then fool myself into thinking she was perfect for me. I would look for things about her that matched up with what I was looking for and then put her on a pedestal. Nobody is perfect; it’s cliche, I know, but try to recognize that fact before going out with someone. That person, should the relationship grow close, will hurt you, offend you, and anger you. They will let you down. If you put them on a pedestal, they will disappoint you.
A second side to this is that, while it’s great to have standards, some people have lists so long and specific that very few people in the world can meet them. Compile a list of your absolute must-haves and your deal-breakers; then be open to anyone who meets all the requirements, even if they’re not the absolute dream you had in mind. They may have qualities you hadn’t put on the list, but find you can’t live without. For example, Leah hadn’t put on her list that she needed a man with a sense of humor, but now, she says she can’t imagine a day without laughter. I’ve made her laugh every single day of our marriage and it’s one of the things we both love best about our relationship.
Finally, distinguish between things that turn you on and things you actually need. When a woman has C-cups or a man can play the guitar well, those are attractive attributes, but don’t be like I was in college and let attraction override common sense. The two most important things about anyone are their relationship with God and their personality. Yes, there needs to be attraction, but that fades or gets old and, more importantly, it will never be enough to overcome large personality differences.
4. Be honest with yourself and with your significant other. If you’re not getting what you want out of a relationship, be honest enough to admit that to yourself and to the other person. A lot of people fool themselves into believing that mediocre is good enough and then, when they realize it’s not, collapse or fire back at their unsuspecting partner. A healthy relationship has two people who are both looking out primarily for each other’s needs, but who are also willing to stand up for themselves when they must. You can do that in love and gently, but you have to be willing to tell your partner what you’re going through and what you’re feeling if you want your marriage to be strong.
5. Realize that being with someone won’t make you feel better about yourself. This was a hard one for me to learn. Leah has made me feel better about myself in the sense that I have absolutely zero stress now about finding someone to marry, but there are still insecurities about being good enough for her, particularly when I’m looking for work. Having someone won’t change your insecurities if you have them, it will just change how they manifest themselves. Instead of looking hard for somebody, you’ll try too hard to keep them, even to the point of being willing to change yourself or put up with abuse. Or you might constantly question whether you’re good enough for the other person, which will often make you clingy and/or manipulative. Your partner doesn’t exist to make you feel better about yourself. They can’t accomplish that and they would eventually get tired of trying. They’re there for you to love.
6. Don’t get too attached too early. I used to spend months being friends with a woman I was interested in, only to be rejected when I finally got up the courage to ask her out. I had made myself a permanent resident of the dreaded “Friend Zone.” With Leah, I asked her out three weeks after I met her and about the fourth time we talked overall. It was enough time for me to get to know just a little of her personality and see that we had some things in common, but I wasn’t attached and, if she’d said no, I would have honestly been ok with that. A little disappointed, yes, but it wouldn’t have crushed me like getting so close to a woman for six months and getting shot down did.
And ladies, don’t start doodling your first name with his last name or picturing your wedding too soon. It’s good to have a defined goal set fairly early on in a relationship, but let that goal be realized naturally. Don’t force it or push too hard for it. Love the man you’re with, not the idea of being with a man.
7. Stop looking for someone to love you and start looking for someone to love. For years, I wanted someone to accept who I was as a person and, while that’s still a huge part of a healthy relationship, an even bigger part is simply loving the other person, as close to unconditionally as you can manage (which gets a lot closer when you love God). Don’t look for someone so great that the fact they love you makes you special; look for someone to love just because you think they’re so great. You’ll be a lot happier when you’re truly loving someone and not just loving how they make you feel about yourself. Also, true love will enable you to persevere in loving that person even when they’re upsetting you or not showing their love for you for whatever reason.
8. Once you have someone, you will have to choose to love them daily. Sometimes hourly. No two people are exactly alike, so you’re going to butt heads with your partner. There will be conflict. You have to choose every day to love the person, even if they don’t show you love that day. Some days, one of you will make that choice and the other won’t. Choose the soft answer, choose not to manipulate or guilt-trip, and choose to forgive offenses. Every day, your love should be renewed, just as God’s mercies are renewed daily for you.
9. You can never love the other person enough if you love them more than you love God. When you find that special someone, it’s easy to love them more than anything else. The problem is that the thing you love most, if it’s not God, is an idol, and any idol will lead you further from God, not toward Him. Also, if you’re not full of God’s love, you can’t show God’s love to your spouse; you’ll only have your love, which, deep though it may be, has its limits. Only with God’s love can you truly love the one you’re with unconditionally.
10. Look for someone who can help you grow closer to God and help you with your calling. A lot of people look for someone to make them happy and, while that’s important, it’s at least as important that you find someone who can help you draw closer to God. Our primary purpose on this earth is to know and glorify Him. We also each have our calling to fulfill, and the right person for you is someone who will help with both your primary purpose and your calling and whom you can help with the same. Doing that will help both of your relationships with God, which will let His love for you flow through to each other.
11. Attack issues together rather than attacking each other over issues. Leah and I have an “argument stick” on our dining room table. No, we don’t whack each other with it during an argument; it’s there to remind us that we’re to attack problems, not each other. If the stick is the issue, then we can either stand on opposite sides, pulling on the stick (and away from each other) to try to get our own way, wasting energy fighting each other rather than the issue, or we can come to the same side and focus our energy on the stick itself. No marriage is problem-free; life has too many stresses in it with children, finances, scheduling conflicts, other people, etc. These problems, however, don’t have to come between you; you can approach them as a team, even when you have differing ideas about how to solve the issue at hand. It’s both of you against the stick, not against each other.
Also, don’t villify the other person when you have conflict. When you do argue, be careful to not bring up the past sins that you claim you’ve forgiven, even in your mind. Don’t question all the person’s motives behind what they’re saying or doing. They still love you and they’re probably doing what they honestly think is best; you just have a disagreement at the moment as to what that is. And while it’s possible that your spouse may be just flat wrong in how they acted, that doesn’t change the other things they’re doing that are right. Focus on the love, not on your suspicions, and learn how to truly forgive.
12. Learn your love languages and the other person’s. There are five love languages: gifts, physical touch (including, but certainly not limited to, sexual touch), quality time, acts of service, and words of affirmation. You can take a free quiz here to determine yours and I encourage you to ask your partner to do the same. This will help both of you learn how to speak love in a way the other person will understand. For example, gifts are near the bottom of my love languages. I like getting surprised once in a while, but they don’t help me feel loved. Gifts are one of Leah’s top love languages, however, so I make an effort to give her something once in a while. It doesn’t have to be big – even getting her favorite soda is viewed as a romantic gesture by her – it just has to be something I think she’d like.
1. Be honest when you turn a guy down. We know you’re trying to be sweet and gentle, but the best thing you can do for him if there’s no chance is to tell him something like, “I’m flattered, but I honestly don’t see you that way. I’m sorry,” and just leave it at that. Don’t try to continue being his friend (even if you think it’s now officially “just friends,” odds are he doesn’t see it that way until he’s found someone else), don’t feel obligated to explain, and certainly don’t say things like, “I’m just not ready for a relationship yet,” or, worse, “I’m dating Jesus.” Giving a guy any sort of hope where there is none isn’t gentle; it’s actually cruel. He may be upset, but when he calms down, he’ll actually respect you more and be able to move on more quickly.
2. Take a chance on a friend. While I understand the Friend Zone, I don’t think it should be nigh impossible to get out of it, especially if the guy is put in there by the end of the first meeting (studies show that most men are classified by women as potential dating partners or not within five minutes). It’s not fair to either of you because you don’t know his personality, his past, or his aspirations in that time. If there is a deal-breaker you notice or there’s absolutely no physical attraction, then saying no is fine, but try to let friendships become something more if he doesn’t lack in any must have’s and doesn’t violate any deal-breakers.
Closely related to this and to the above point, if you do say no, don’t say it’s because you don’t want to risk the friendship. The point of love is to find someone you can be with for life and that’s worth risking any friendship if there’s a realistic shot at it. (Besides, don’t you want your lifelong mate to be your best friend?) Be honest enough and kind enough to tell him no respectfully. If he’s a good enough friend and asks why, you can choose not to answer, but if you do answer, be perfectly honest with him.
3. Don’t marry a man with the idea of changing him. You won’t, you can’t. It’s up to God to work in his heart and all your nagging will only drive you two apart and entrench him in what he thinks is right. If you can’t live with his flaws as they are, don’t marry him because you can’t guarantee he’ll ever change.
4. Remember that he wants respect even more than love; in fact, the two are muddled together in his mind. One survey asked participants whether they wanted love or respect more. About 75% of women answered love while about 75% of men answered respect. Interestingly, a large number of men complained that the two answers were the same. To a guy, the idea of being loved without being respected doesn’t make sense. This is why men are often sensitive to nagging or to being told both to do something and how to do it. Comments that seem to say, “You’re not doing it right; let me show you how to do it,” belittle him in his eyes, much like his saying, “You look fine,” might come across as, “I’m impatient and you don’t look terrible; you just don’t look great, either.” If he seems to be offended for no reason, odds are good that he heard something that sounded disrespectful to him.
And, though it shouldn’t have to be said, never insult him in front of his friends or colleagues. Teasing is usually fine, but insults or embarrassing stories are shameful and will rarely be taken well.
1. Once you get married, that’s when you take the wooing up a notch, not when you get to stop. You do not now, nor will you ever, understand your wife well enough. Even if she’s relatively simple, there is always some mystery the depths of which you have yet to plumb, or something wonderful to learn about her. And she will always want a little romance and a hint of adventure. Also, though women tend to care less about looks than men, keeping your appearance up for her will show her that you’re still trying to win her heart, and the effort in winning it equals success in that venture.
2. Guard your eyes. I used to look at porn because I reasoned that I’d never get married, so I couldn’t cheat on a wife I’d never have. I wish so much that I had never looked, because some of those images are still remembered, along with the negative views about sex they fostered. Now, I turn my eyes even when there’s a woman in her underwear on TV because I don’t want to lust after anyone but my wife. I fail sometimes, but I am improving and the more I look only at her, the more I love her.
3. Leadership is service more than it is the right to command. I’ve said it in previous posts, but leadership, done right, is more of a burden than a privilege. Learn from Jesus here (He’s a better husband than you’ll ever be): He could have commanded legions of angels to topple Rome, yet He washed His disciples’ feet, even Judas’, and died for people who could never repay Him. He rarely did things for Himself, but rather kept serving those He was leading, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Are you willing to do whatever it takes, provided it honors God, to provide for your family and to subjugate your needs to theirs? Until you’re able to answer yes, you’re not ready to be married.
4. Tell her she’s beautiful and appreciated; better yet, show her. Women want to be seen as beautiful and they want their efforts for you acknowledged. It takes a lot of work to shave their legs and armpits, put on makeup, fuss with their hair, put together an outfit that accentuates their best features, take care of a household, raise children, and/or have a career outside the home. A lot of women feel overworked. It’s one of the reasons some of them try to take over leadership: to make sure all the things that have to get done do get done.
Regularly tell her she’s doing a great job. Thank her for her contributions and never minimize them by saying things like, “I bring home the bacon around here,” in an attempt to get your way. She’s your equal in this marriage; you have different roles, but hers is no less valuable than yours. And help her out sometimes. If she’s had a rough day, order a pizza and offer to watch the kids while she takes a bath. Take them to the park so she can read a book for an hour. Let her go to lunch with her friends or hire a sitter and take her to dinner. A little appreciation goes a very long way in a relationship, so never underestimate the power of a heartfelt thank you.