Our Journey to Finding Joy in Marriage (and the things we lost along the way)

I’m linking up with Velvet Ashes today on the theme of Marriage Abroad. ~Elizabeth


We were in a diner eating pizza. The young couple sitting across the table from us had just asked us how we’ve sustained the joy of our relationship over the years. I wasn’t exactly expecting that question, so my first answer was pretty simple: we spend a lot of time together. Talking, dreaming, laughing, debriefing. Companionship and intimacy require time, and lots of it.

When we were first married, we retreated together to cheap lawn chairs overlooking bushes that barely shielded us from the highway on the other side. We walked all over that university town, in all kinds of weather, for our date nights. We might walk to the library for a free movie and share an order of breadsticks from Papa John’s, where even with the sauces, our meal totaled a mere $3.69.

Later we added children, and enough disposable income for Jonathan to buy me a porch swing. We’d sit in that thing and talk while our children played. At night, we’d tuck them into bed and sneak back out to talk some more, with hot chocolate or bug spray as our companions, depending on the weather.

Even after losing both the yard and the porch swing in our move to Cambodia, we found a way to escape together. We’d head up to our roof and sit in bamboo chairs (with bug spray as our definite companion), watch the city skyline, and share soul secrets. These days you’d be more likely to find us sipping coffee at our kitchen table, the kitchen door conveniently locked behind us.

But the more I pondered this young couple’s question about joy in marriage, and the more I traced our marital history over the years, the more I realized that finding joy was about losing things too. On the journey to find joy in marriage, we’ve shed some surprising baggage.


Who’s in charge here??

I went into marriage spouting ideals of male headship. My husband Jonathan would be in charge and make the final decisions, and I, as the wife, would submit. In any disagreement, his opinion would count for more. We thought we believed that premise, and because we didn’t have a lot of conflict, we thought we were pretty good at following it.

In real life, however, I don’t think we ever actually practiced male headship (or what is sometimes called complementarianism, a term I didn’t know at the time). We thought we did, because we loved God and wanted to obey His Word. And male headship is what the Bible instructs, right??

But Jonathan never pulled the “I’m in charge” card on me. Never. Not even once. Not even when he felt led overseas and I didn’t. I put pressure on myself to submit to his call, but it never came from him.


A little premarital advice from my mom

Growing up, I watched my mom honoring her husband, and she taught me to do the same. When it came to practical advice, though, she focused on “talking things out.” She told me that in her marriage to my dad, if one of them cared about something more — whoever it was — they went with that. The next time it might be different, and that was ok, because nobody was keeping track. She said if they didn’t agree, they just kept talking until they did agree. Practically speaking, my mom and dad were on equal terms in their marriage.

One day my mom told me about a conversation with some other Army wives. One of the women turned to my mom and told her that she must really love her husband. Mom was a bit confused; she hadn’t been raving about how wonderful Dad was or how much she loved him. But something in the way she talked about him (or not talked about him, as the case may have been) spoke her love loud and clear to those fellow Army wives.

Now I know that the type of marriage my mom was describing follows the mutual submission outlined in Ephesians 5:21: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Now I know that people call this type of relationship “egalitarian.” But it’s almost as if back then, we had no vocabulary for the Biblical marriage conversation.


The priesthood of all believers

Even in the early days of our marriage, whenever we needed to make a big decision, Jonathan and I would always pray together. We assumed that God would impress the same thing on our hearts, and that we would be united in both seeking God and obeying Him.

Looking back now, I can see that the path to egalitarianism begins with the priesthood of all believers. We went into marriage saying we believed in male headship, yet in decision-making, we fully expected God to speak to both of us. We believed we could, and would, both hear from God, and that God would say the same thing to both of us. Blame it on the Experiencing God craze of the 1990’s if you want, but this is how we approached God from the very beginning of our marriage.



Love and Respect??

Several years into our marriage I heard about the idea of “Love and Respect,” which claims that a woman’s biggest need is to be loved by her husband and that a man’s biggest need is to be respected by his wife. That seemed like good, solid, Biblical advice. In our marriage I felt loved, my husband felt respected, and we were happy. “Hmm,” I thought, “love and respect must be the key to marital happiness.”

Then I read the book (which is a long one for being built on the foundation of only one verse). About halfway through, I had to put it down. It was so tedious I couldn’t finish it. How many more stories and examples could there be?? The book seemed to be repeating itself.

Besides, I felt like something was missing. I need my thoughts, ideas, and intellect valued: I need respect. Almost as much as love. And my husband needs love, perhaps more than respect. He can’t survive without my compassion, empathy, and listening ears.

(In all fairness to the author of these ideas, he has elsewhere stated that men and women need both love and respect, though in differing amounts. It’s just that I didn’t get that impression from reading his book or from watching his videos.)

Lest you get the wrong idea here, let me make one thing clear: I deeply respect my husband. I value his opinions and consult him on everything. I turn to him for counsel, guidance, and perspective. I trust his advice and regularly defer to him in decision-making. He most certainly has my respect.

But for him, although my respect is nice, if I did not also care about his feelings, his dreams, and his deepest longings, and if I did not tenderly take care of him, he would shrivel up and die (his words, not mine). He needs my open-hearted love. And if he loved and cared for my deepest hurts and feelings, but did not also value my gifts and abilities, I’d be crushed. In fact, if I didn’t have his respect, I wouldn’t actually feel loved by him.

Receiving only love or only respect isn’t good enough for Jonathan and me. We need both love and respect. The teaching of “Love and Respect” was a nice start, but for us, it didn’t go far enough. As a wife, yes, I respect my husband, and as a husband, yes, Jonathan loves his wife. It’s in the Bible; it’s good. But God isn’t going to be offended if wives also love their husbands, and husbands also respect their wives.

In the book of Ephesians, Paul was improving upon the pagan hierarchies of the day. Neither Paul nor Jesus – who demonstrated both love and respect for women repeatedly in the Gospels – is going to be upset if we take these instructions that much further, if we add more love and respect, and more imago dei, to our relationships. On the contrary, I think it pleases Him.



“A marriage where either partner cannot love or respect the other can hardly be agreeable, to either party.” — Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (Sorry, just had to get my Austen on for a minute.)




Encountering Jesus as healer

The more I considered this young couple’s question, the more I kept coming back to the same answer: emotional healing. Emotional healing is what happens when Jesus walks into our pain and binds up the wounds of our hearts. Emotional healing is what draws us closer to each other than ever before.

It’s what enables us to answer Karen Carpenter’s velvet-voiced, pain-tinged question: “Why do we go on hurting each other, making each other cry, hurting each other, without ever knowing why?” Emotional healing shows us both why we hurt each other and also, how to stop hurting each other.

Pursuing emotional wholeness is a journey Jonathan and I have been on for four years now. And though we walk together, our paths look different. The healing Jonathan needed came in the form of expressing long-hidden grief. For me, it meant beginning to feel long-hidden feelings.

For both of us, the path to healing has trodden straight through pain, but it’s been worth it, for the healing we’ve found has deepened our intimacy and intensified our joy.  



Celebrating 15 years of marriage

Perhaps the honeymoon should have worn off by now, but it hasn’t. We have more joy and intimacy after 15 years of the “daily grind” than we ever dreamed possible.

Along the way, we’ve shed strict interpretations of gender roles and lost deep emotional wounds. In their place, we’ve welcomed emotional healing and embraced mutual love and respect.

We are co-heirs with Christ and co-leaders in our home. We lead each other closer to Jesus, closer to love, closer to wholeness. We give each other space to grow, and we say the hard truth to each other, too.

This is what our Joy looks like.


Read more! My absolute favorite posts on marriage EVER:

Zac Allen on Being a Husband Who Unleashes His Wife

Kay Bruner with And They Lived Egalitarianly Ever After

And from my own husband, The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy

12 thoughts on “Our Journey to Finding Joy in Marriage (and the things we lost along the way)

  1. Wow, thank you. Your journey of vulnerability has impacted me. I am starting the process of getting to know a man this way. We are just getting started but I see this in us too, the desire to love fiercely. I want to love with everything, Christ has made it possible. Thank you thank you. It is a bit scary but I am seeing that it is also completely worth it.
    Praying for your family.

  2. What a beautiful manifesto, Elizabeth! We’ve traveled a similar journey with complementarianism and egalitarianism. And I love your point about finding emotional wholeness. Yes, it different for each person, because we’re individuals with individual pasts, but together we can help each other find personal emotional wholeness and WOW, what a impact that has on a marriage. This makes me excited to discuss our fall book at book club with you. 😉

    • Thank you Danielle! Marital love CAN be beautiful, can’t it?? I’m sure your experience at Link Care mirrored our experience in CO Springs. So much healing can happen in such a short time, praise God. As you say, it’s a similar, yet different, and highly personalized, path — and something we all need. And the great news is that we can keep receiving healing from Father, Son, and Spirit, for as long as we draw breath. The journey to joy doesn’t have to end.

      Sending you hugs right now!!

  3. So well written! I love this and wish I had written it myself. This should become mandatory reading for any couple, especially engaged and newly married ones. 🙂

  4. I love so much about this that I don’t even know where to start! I think I like most that I’m not the only one who found the Love and Respect message lacking. 😉 (although it has its place) Thanks for these words! I’m sharing them around.
    Jen @ Being Confident of This

  5. This is a great post. Hits on some areas I had not thought about before and I have been married 51 years. I know it’s an ever growing process this love and respect. In our early years we did not trade roles, now we trade all the time and usually are comfortable with it. Sometimes I am not sure where the love ended and respect started or the other way around. I just know what we have gleamed from years of experience along with the Word and a love for the Lord works for us. To each couple we try to encourage them to individually strengthen their understanding of God’s love for them, not their love for Him but His for them. And out of that understanding will flow a blend of hearts and ideas, love, respect, dreams, and yes even hard times but it will be God as the center of each ones life. His love for us has the power to help us submit, love, respect each other, cherishing, mercy, tenderness, humility and a host of other good things. because everyone starts with different values, up bringing, standards it take something bigger then all those things to really get to the heart of a good marriage, not a perfect one, a good one. Again, great post.

    • ” I am not sure where the love ended and respect started or the other way around.” Yes! I think that is exactly what I have experienced! It’s like they’re just different forms of the same thing.

      “To each couple we try to encourage them to individually strengthen their understanding of God’s love for them, not their love for Him but His for them.” I love this. LOVE it. We need to spread that message everywhere. It’s different from the message I think young couples sometimes hear about work-work-working to put God at the center. Instead, you are saying to first receive God’s love, which will then flow out towards others. Keep preaching this message, sister, and it’s going to change the world!! Thank you for your comment. I so appreciate this hard-earned wisdom. ~Elizabeth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.