Why Trying to Stay Married Forever Could Kill Your Marriage

marriage

Photo Credit: Shutterstock (Kuznetcov_Konstantin)

Before I got married, I was totally insecure.

And I thought getting married would finally absolve me of my torturously low self-esteem. I figured my anxiety would go away, because I’d no longer have to wonder if I was going to be loved forever. And I figured my loneliness would disappear, because we’d tangle our lives together.

I, um, miscalculated.

My fear and loneliness weren’t sacrificed to the marriage gods on our wedding altar. They survived our union. So, I did the only reasonable thing: I tried to guarantee our marriage would live forever, with anxious attention, constant conversation, and a taxing togetherness.

It wasn’t until later I realized: a marriage is like an orchid.

Orchids are a tropical, flowering plant, known for the vibrant color of their petals, their lush fragrances, and the vanilla bean they produce, which flavors our world. And, with the proper care, they are incredibly resilient—in the words of some botanists, “nearly immortal.” But they are most frequently killed by drowning. Anxious caretakers, aware the plant is of tropical origin, assume it must be watered all the time. In their attempt to ensure it will live, they accidentally kill it.

I almost killed my marriage by watering it too much.

Worried about how enduring it might (or might not) be, I showered it with too much attention. Too many demands for it to heal all my childhood wounds all at once. But mostly, I just poured upon it my demand for some certainty that it would live forever.

Thankfully, at times, my wife was like the sun, drying up all my extra moisture.

The years have come and gone, though, and these days I’m totally secure. Ahem. Okay, these days, I’m a little less insecure about myself, but I’m pretty secure about our marriage. I’m beginning to glimpse its immortality. I see it in the passing touches and looks and words and gentleness, and in how quickly our conflicts pass, as well. Which means, these days, I run the opposite risk:

The risk of watering our marriage too little.

Because I’m starting to believe our marriage might actually last forever, I’m in danger of not giving it enough of the attention it requires. This is actually one of the biggest and most common threats to marriage: we say we’ll stay together forever, and oftentimes we say it in front of people and the church and God, so we assume the deal is sealed.

And it leaves us a little too assured of its immortality.

There’s been a lot of speculation about why Protestant marriages are more likely than secular marriages to end in divorce. Well, speculate no further: when you believe the beautiful flower that is your marriage must and will certainly survive forever, you’re far less likely to water it as often as you need to. And then this potentially immortal thing shrivels up and dies.

So, instead of trying to ensure our marriages will last forever or, just as fatally, assuming they will do so, what if we focused on discerning just how often our marriages need to be watered?

Orchids need to be watered approximately once a week.

I think marriages need to be watered weekly, too.

One date a week. I know that sounds absurd. But you can find a way. Sell all your old albums so you can afford a babysitter. Or drink one cup of coffee, in the small, dark hours before the kids start demanding all the water from your watering can. Or go for a walk. Or go to therapy, where a weekly hour will be given to you for as long as you need it. Whatever it is, schedule the watering of your marriage like you’d schedule any other life-or-death event—put it on the friggin’ calendar. Make it happen.

Be ruthless about it.

And then, in that weekly watering hour, pay attention to what kind of soil your time is made of. In other words, check your ego at the door, because nothing vibrant and fragrant and immortal can grow in rocky soil made of hiddenness, defensiveness, and superiority.

And remember, nothing lives forever when all you care about is making it live forever, when all you water it with is talk about how to guarantee its survival. Instead, make sure the water you give it contains the most important nutrient of all:

Honesty. Transparency. Truthfulness.

But not the kind truthfulness we’ve started to value in our world—not the careless kind. Water it with the kind of truthfulness that looks like tenderness and feels like vulnerability. Water the orchid of your marriage with those good things. Weekly. And then watch it bloom.

Watch it become beautiful.

Watch it become immortal.

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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.

  • Mike Gates

    Good morning, Kelly.

    Heck, just plain old life can “dry things out”. Raising kids and work can consume so much energy that something has to give.
    Kris and I started having breakfast on Sundays. We we afraid that our natural affection for each other and shared experience wouldn’t be enough to sustain our marriage. We know a few people who got the kids raised and then got divorced. We talked about it and didn’t want that experience if we could avoid it. That’s likely the most important thing – at least for me. We decided what we wanted. Not trying to live to someone else’s expectations.

    Anyhow, 3 or 4 years ago we started having breakfast together every Sunday. As you suggest we make it a priority. It isn’t “Oh, I just realized we haven’t had a night out in 6 months” kind of thing, it is a weekly event. We don’t bring the kids. Occasionally we’ve had friends join us, but most often we treat it as our time. The consistency has been difference-making.
    The main reason I asked Kris to marry me is that I liked being with her. I get along with her better than anyone I’ve ever met. She has become my best friend. Our weekly breakfast time just reminds/reinforces that for me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      That so resonates, Mike. When we get away, especially for prolonged periods of time, we inevitably remember why we liked each other to begin with. It’s kind of like, “Oh, yeah, we have fun together!” So glad you and your wife have chosen to make regular opportunities to rediscover that. Thanks for this.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    While spring has been teasing us with new growth— and snow —your orchid metaphor resonates so powerfully! You are so right that for those green-thumbed gardeners with blooms to admire, after the thoughtfulness of deciding where a plant can thrive, knowing when to shower their plants with attention and when to let them grow undisturbed is their key to success. Here’s to weekly dates, in breakfast nooks, local restaurants, neighborhood walks, and hiking trails. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like the fluidity you capture there, of observing and responding to how much “watering” the relationship requires at any give time. Ironically, it requires constant attentiveness to wisely make that decision!

  • Faye Cress

    Kelly, I really like your posts. They encourage me to think a lot. I save them to a file so that I can read them again. Having said that, (and really meaning it) I do not think it is biblical to use the words “marriage” and “immortal” in the same sentence. Jesus told us that there is no marriage in heaven, because we are all His bride and belong to Him. So marriage won’t really be immortal and go past this life. We have both read and taught John Piper’s “This Momentary Marriage.” But I do understand what you are saying about being intentional about it. My husband and I will have been married for 46 years this summer. We have weekly dates and adhere to what you are taking about and are thriving. Thanks for your thoughtful posts. Keep them coming! Blessings.

  • Sans Fojas Montecillo

    Quality time with your partner can sometimes be overlooked.. I think it’s great how you recommend doing it weekly and as consistently as possible. When you put together all those times you’ve bonded together, nothing beats that.

    Thanks for another awesome article Dr. Kelly! Your weekly posts “water” my thoughts and my relationships towards myself and others. Have a great day!

  • Christy Mair

    I wonder if you were to make a list of all the ways you connect every single day when you live an interconnected life of marriage, what that list would look like? As a single person, there is no one else around the house offering any type of greeting. No one to share a bed with at night. No one to plan or cook or eat meals with. I get it that those things become routine and you need to spice things up once per week. I’m sure I would feel that way too if in that situation.

    I appreciate your insight.