The groom-to-be sat nervously next to his fiancé, clutching her hand tightly, and trying to get words out, as the three of us talked in my office one winter afternoon. I was officiating their wedding, which was a few months away in the middle of March. We had walked through the ceremony style, my fees, how many were in their wedding party, and whether or not they would do a sand ceremony, traditional unity candle, or exchange roses and kiss their parents.
I could tell he wanted to ask something but was struggling to get it out. So, I looked at the two of them and said, “Do you guys have any other questions for me?” He lifted his eyes and fixed them on me. His mouth opened and a question came out that still rings in my ears all these years later.
“How do you build a successful marriage?”
In terms of a wedding, it really was the million-dollar question. As a person who had been married for more than a decade at that point, and had officiated hundreds of weddings, I should have been able to give him an answer. But I hesitated. Not because I didn’t have something to say, but because I wanted to send the two of them home with something concrete.
“I don’t know,” I responded.
They both looked at each other, puzzled. They were probably thinking, “This is the guy who’s going to pronounce us man and wife? We need to get our money back!”
“What I mean to say,” I continued, “is that I want to make sure I give you the right answer. That’s a big question you just asked. Looks like we’re scheduled to meet again next week, so give me some time, and I’ll give you a solid answer.”
They smiled, shook my hand, and left.
I went home that evening and began thinking about his question. How do you create a successful marriage? I continued to ask myself, over and over again.
And then, I thought about all of the years I had been married to my wife at that point. I thought about what has kept us together, even through the dark days. Was it that love at first sight thing? Was it our ability to knuckle down, and work through any problem? Was it our drive to succeed? Was it a commonality between us that allows us to agree on most things?
Nope. It was none of those, actually.
To be honest, we didn’t experience the love at first sight thing. We experienced infatuation at first sight. And we can’t honestly say that 18 years ago, we each married our best friend. Not the case. We married our very good friend, but not exactly our best one. At least not at the time. Our friendship, as well as our love, has grown over those years into what it is today: Something so much stronger, so much deeper than I probably could have imagined.
But it was not an instant deep love.
Like fine wine, it became better tasting as the years have gone by. And if you know the two of us, we are the definition of “opposites attract.” Seriously — we are the furthest thing from two like-minded people we know. We disagree more than we agree (not on everything, but on a LOT of stuff).
So as I sat there, thinking through all of this, I came to this conclusion: The one thing that has saved our marriage — the thing that’s kept us going, and helped our relationship grow healthy and stay successful — is our commitment to put each other’s needs above our own.
From day one, all those years ago, we made a choice to serve one another. It hasn’t always been easy, nor have we always succeeded at this; but it has kept us going, even when it felt like we were falling apart. It’s the one thing that acts as an umbrella over just about every area, or issue, of marriage relationships.
Disagree on something? Choose to serve one another. At odds over parenting or finances? Choose to serve one another. Can’t see eye-to-eye on a major life decision? Choose to serve one another.
When both of you are committed to this, it’s a win-win.
I walked back into my office the following week, sat down with this young couple, looked them in the eye, and shared this advice with them.
“Submission is not a one-way street,” I said. “It’s two-way, all the way. You both need to choose, everyday, to submit to one another. Serve one another above yourself, and you’ll succeed.”
They walked out with a spring in their step.
This is a hard thing to do at times, but I do think it leads to success in any relationship (particularly marriage), and my wife and I are living proof of that.
Call it a secret ingredient; call it a hidden truth. All I know for sure is this: We never would have made it this long without it.