The Last Marriage Post You’ll Ever Need to Read

Marriages aren’t destroyed by lack of knowledge. They’re destroyed by our unwillingness to listen to the knowledge we already carry within us…

marriage

Photo Credit: LyndaSanchez via Compfight cc

Around this time last year, in Chicago, we were in the middle of a polar vortex. The thermostat hovered around zero. The schools were frequently closed. It was painful to go outside.

And my wife went to New Orleans without me.

It was a business trip, and she went out of her way to make provisions for the kids and me—she even flew her mother in to help with childcare while I was at work. Nevertheless, on the night the thermostat short-circuited and I discovered dog poop wedged in the couch cushions, she sent me a video of her enjoying Bourbon Street.

And I got as bitter as the weather outside.

When that happens—when I feel like I’m on my own and nobody cares about me—I put a big, invisible wall between me and everybody I love. When she returned from New Orleans, I wanted to be good to her but, to be honest, I also didn’t want to. So, I wasn’t. The problem is, after a few weeks, I was lonelier than ever and I just wanted my wife back.

I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish it, though. I felt like something big needed to change. I felt like something new needed to happen. I got away for an evening to brainstorm ideas, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Until I realized:

I had fallen prey to three big fallacies about how to make a marriage thrive.

Three Marriage Fallacies

  1. We think the key to a thriving marriage is a mystery. As a marital therapist, couples come to me to save their marriage or make it grow. They think I hold the answers. They think they don’t know how to do it. Most of us think we have to read a bunch of books or talk to a bunch of counselors to discover the hidden solutions to marriage.
  2. We believe something new must happen to get a marriage firing on all cylinders. It’s a consumer approach to love: when it’s broken, we shop for something new to fix it. It’s a medical approach to love: when a marriage is ailing, we try a new medicine to heal it.
  3. We think the new thing must be big. We think our marriage requires open-heart surgery, not penicillin. Which is why we end up having kids to save the marriage. Or going on expensive vacations to rekindle a cooling love. Or buying a new house. Or orchestrating extravagant dates. Or having big fights. When the problem feels insurmountable, we assume the solution must be big, as well.

Yet, marriages aren’t destroyed by a lack of knowledge, lack of innovation, or lack of grandeur. Marriages are destroyed by ego. And it is ego that keeps us from hearing the voice inside, which is whispering the answers we already know about how to make our marriages come alive.

Listening for the Real Answers

On the night I got away to come up with some mysterious, innovative, and grand ways to get my marriage back on track, I sat in a quiet nook and observed my ego doing its thing—it had put up the wall between my wife and I and now it was trying to take the wall down. My ego is attached to shiny-new things, grand displays, and sophisticated answers and solutions.

I watched my ego do its thing, and I realized it was masking the real answers.

So, I stopped watching my ego and I began listening for the voice beneath my ego. The voice I call grace. It is the voice in me—indeed, in all of us—that knows exactly how to love. As I listened, I heard this: You haven’t put her first in years. And then I heard four very specific answers: kiss her on the forehead first thing every morning, say goodbye to her last before leaving the house each day, send her one text every day while apart, and say hello to her first when you walk in the door at night.

The answers were not mysterious, new, and grand.

The answers were obvious, old, and small.

Obvious, Old, and Small

Marriages aren’t healed with big things; they’re healed with small things done every day. They aren’t healed by doing new things; they’re healed by doing old things we used to do and quit doing somewhere along the way. And, if we can set aside our ego for a little while, we don’t need anyone to tell us what those things are. We already know.

Beneath all of our hiding and pretending and protecting and defending and accusing and criticizing, there is a voice always whispering the answer.

Marriage can change on a dime, and that dime is the moment we look past our ego and listen to the voice of grace within us. Marital therapy isn’t the place we go to for someone else’s answers; it’s the nook where we get quiet, look past our egos, and listen for the answers already within us. What we hear will be obvious, old, and small, but it will also be unique and specific to who we are and to the love we share. Because the voice of grace is that good.

Find a nook. And start listening.

Listen for the small things.

Listen for the old things.

Listen for the obvious things.

Become aware of this: your heart is writing its own marriage post every day. Your task is simply to transcribe what you hear onto the pages of your life together. Then, you may want to read more marriage posts, but you probably won’t need to.

You’ll be too busy doing the ordinary things that make your marriage an extraordinary thing.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: Dear Dad, You’re Doing It All Wrong (A Letter to Myself)

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Carrie

    Reading that you will kiss her on the forehead every day brought tears to my eyes. You are right. It’s not the big things. It’s the many small things that add up. It’s nice to be noticed and cherished. As you have written before, we just want to be seen.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, I think you’re right. When we pay attention to the small things, we’ll discover most of them just involve paying a little more attention to the ones we love.

  • A wonderful post, a very blessed reminder of the truth that lives just under our egos. Thank you for your truthful and vulnerable sharing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Carolyn, and you’re welcome.

  • Kate Pieper, LMFT

    After 20+ years of being a therapist and 27+ years of being married, I couldn’t agree more! Tools are not useful unless hearts are soft and FOR each other!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for the affirmation from someone else in the field, Kate! “For” is a great word by the way, and can indeed be the condition of a heart.

  • Nada

    Thank for sharing this post with us; I really needed to read this article today! … I hope all the best for you & your family & may God bless you & fulfill your life with tranquility, serenity & love, Amen.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for your blessings, they are gratefully received, Nada.

  • Gloria Wall

    A gifted blog read and deeply appreciated by someone whose marriage finally dissolved a week or so ago. Ironically, my last two entries on my own blog, suddenlyseptember.com, echo your words and comfort my disappointed heart. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Gloria, I’m sorry to hear about your marriage. I just read your most recent blog post, and you and I really are tracking together. Thanks for redeeming what you’ve been through at least a little by putting such important words out into the world.

      • Gloria Wall

        How kind of you. Thank you. All is well. God bless you in the very fine work that you are doing.

  • scribemom7

    Thank you so much, Dr. Flanagan. Very wise words….if only we can try to remember this each day. You do realize you just fired yourself though, right? Hehe, just kidding. We’ll always need people to help us tear down the walls. I’m glad to have found your blog and I’m really enjoying it!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ha! The irony of being a therapist is that you’re always working to put yourself out of business. I’m glad you found the blog and I hope it does help with those walls!

  • Tina Jones

    Once again, spot on! My husband and I have been married for 32 years, we have gone for some marriage counseling, raised four children together, and this is still true. Hubris gets us in trouble every time. As we watch three of our four children striving to keep their marriages strong while working full time and raising children we see it come up in their relationships as well. It is nothing new. The thing that needs to be made new each and every day is our heart’s. We need to rededicate them each and every day to our God and our marriages.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this, Tina. It is wonderful to read through these comments and to hear the same themes in reactions from so many vantage points. Thanks for sharing the wisdom of your years and the perspective of the parent of adult children!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Kelly, you make small, old, and obvious sound wonderful. It’s amazing that it can require such an epiphany to return and retune to what works because it is simple, joyful, and loving.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Shel. If somebody hasn’t said that heaven is hidden in plain sight, they should have. : ) It really sounds too good to be true, which is why we need epiphanies to return us to the truth of it. I hope you’re well.

  • donna

    My husband and I spent most of last friday night with our small church committee discussing all of the details of what our upcoming marriage retreat should be. Scratch that..I just sent this to all of them and said we just need to do THIS. (: We like to call ours a marriage “advance”, not retreat..and this post is all about that, for sure. Really enjoying your posts..helping us all to advance..thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Wow! I hope it went well, Donna, regardless of what you decided to do!

  • CJ

    I so disagree with the connection between what happened….your wife going off to what seemed like a fun, stress-free time away from the difficulties of life, your feelings of envy and the suggestions you made in this article. Your problem was with her being gone when things got tough around the house. She was having what you perceived as freedom from inconvenience while you had to deal with a bunch of hassles. You “wanted your wife back.” I think you wanted someone to suffer with you, and her being gone to a fun, warm place while you dealt with real life made you mad. This piece really disappoints me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      CJ, I actually agree 100% with your analysis of my experience. I think I felt all of those things. The question is, do you respond to such feelings with your ego, or with your soul. At first, I responded with my ego. Later, I tried to listen to my heart. I’d like to reverse the order if I could. : )

      • Cari White

        I love your honesty. To relate an experience like that to the public takes someone who is willing to be vulnerable. Some people respond out of judgement rather than just appreciating the fact that you are a human being who makes mistakes just like everyone else and is real about it. Your response to CJ was profound. It is always best to respond with humility and hopefulness.

  • Kim

    My Husband and I have been married for 14 years. We have 1 child together, and I had 2 children when we got together. We have really had our share of ups and downs. Our biggest problem was infidelity on his part. It was really hard for me to swallow. But we did sit down and opened up to each other. It was the absolutely the best for us.
    It seems like we got into the everyday stress of the world. And forget that we have each other to love, lean on, cry to, and depend on.
    We will always have our moments, good and bad, (more good than bad now…:-) 🙂 🙂 🙂 but we canface anything now that we found each other finally!!!!
    By the way thank you for the being another caring person in this sometimes hard world we live in.

    Kim

  • Edith

    This is so good to hear! I love your honesty and willingness to share how you felt. I shall keep this ego in check to allow me to enjoy my life. Thank you Dr.

  • Casey

    When I started sharing your posts with my husband, his response was that they were just making him feel that he was falling short and I was sending them as suggestions for what he needed to improve. I was disappointed by that because that was not my intention. I love what you have to say, your posts are fortifying to me and I wanted them to fortify him. Now I’m going to share this post with him, because it shows all the things he’s doing RIGHT, the things that he has always done in the natural rhythm of our relationship. Thank you for highlighting their significance.

  • Dave G

    Thank you for sharing this simple but effective insight Kelly. I have learned firsthand how my ego tries to control me, others and my circumstances… Or how I respond to them all. I almost destroyed my marriage, looking for “mysterious, innovative and grand”. I thought I had to have major change and was bent on satisfying my ego at any cost. Fortunately, the grace you describe is doing a good work in me to restore health in my marriage. We are in counseling but I like your idea of using therapy to help find that “nook”. I’m going to do more listening and doing of the small, obvious and old things (so long as they are the good things).

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  • Kevin

    Well I agree with the post, as I am seeking advice before my second marriage. A good friend told me recently these things, so I have a lot of work to do…still!

    “You can’t help her grow up because you haven’t done your own work”

    ” you already recognize your proclivity to being a savior”

    “Until you are closer to being healthy, you will only attract unhealthy people, and that will keep
    you forever focused on trying to get other people to do what YOU think they
    should do and not at all focused on your journey and being your best self.”

    And so, I’m seeking help…

  • Denise Mehl

    I have been married for 25 years(background) lot’s of troubles as with most couples. I love what you wrote here. and agree wholeheartedly that it is the small and everyday things that give us the strongest foundation and then we may enjoy some of the bigger things that may make things fun.The other thing besides the little things, is a very big thing, and that is gratefulness! I am 60 years old and in my life the most important thing (besides love of course) is having a heart that is thankful and grateful for all the little things my husband is and does. Of course number one is OUR relationship to God our creator, both of us! Thank you for this reminder! Thanks for showing your heart.

  • Rebecca

    Dr. Flanagan, I read something on a post once that I can’t find and have searched and searched, wondered if you might be able to help me. It was just a simple paragraph that said something about how the most damaging marriages are those marred by the effects of addiction (and I think you listed some other things there), and why that was. If you remember anything like this, or if you have a whole post on it that I haven’t seen yet, could you post the links for me? I am right now facing the reality that my husband hid a return to alcoholism and a downward spiral of porn addiction to actual sex worker addiction for two years from me and I’m trying to wrap my head around what I would need in order to try to heal this marriage. Everything you say about marriage rings so true to me, but I need some context of how much I want to sacrifice my ego in the face of what I’m realizing has been emotional abuse. Thank you for all your sharing, people like you help me not feel so hopeless about this world that I am facing and raising my three children to face.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Rebecca, I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I wonder if the line you’re referring to can be found in “The Reason Every Kid Should Talk Back to Their Parents”? I hope that helps.

  • Thank you for your honesty, Kelly. It touched something in me as I recognised the way in which I build my own walls. Behind these walls it is lonely, but the ego thinks it is safe. Yet, the wall makes me small, disconnects me from my heart, from Love. But it is true, behind the ego, there is that voice of Grace, that connection to my heart and back to love. I felt something open up again when I read your words and I felt the release of the sorrow of the disconnect and pain. I am most happy when I just give love, because it simply feels good to give without expecting anything in return and love with abandon, without ego. This is what we do when we fall in love, isn’t it? I believe that those 4 gestures you mentioned are small steps to help us get back there.

  • Jenn Richard

    This is old, but I came across the site having some serious marriage issues. I want to show this to my husband but I’m afraid he will take it the wrong way. We both need to remember this advice every day.