Shelves, both physical and virtual, are lined with books of advice about what makes marriage great. Newspapers provide advice columns; magazine pieces are devoted to marital issues in enticing ways; and there is always a friend or family member with a word on the subject.
The advice given is usually good but in its flow I see a neglected or under-emphasized element.
My wife, Kathleen, has nailed that element several times since the celebration of our sixtieth anniversary six years ago. Whenever asked, “What’s the secret of a loving and durable marriage?” Her answer is always the same: Respect!
On the face of it, that answer may seem too simple – too all-encompassing, too naive. There’s a lot more to a fulfilling marriage than the experience of a husband and wife sitting in their family room all evening respecting each other.
There’s stretching income to pay the monthly bills, teaching children right from wrong, dealing with the crisis of joblessness, and knowing how to ease up on demands when one’s spouse is under special stress.
But simple as Kathleen’s answer may seem, a fundamental commitment to respect flowing both ways between a husband and wife is basic to a loving and enduring marriage.
It is like the shock absorbers in a car. If the car has only springs it may rock gently as it speeds along a smooth highway. But without shock absorbers whenever it comes unexpectedly to a rough, potted section in the road it will bounce around unpredictably, perhaps eventually landing its passengers in the ditch.
Shock absorbers don’t fill the potholes or make the road silky smooth. But they counter the freedom of the springs, and they hold the car relatively steady until it passes the rough patches and arrives at smoother pavement. So it is with practiced respect in a marriage.
Respect is a learned art. We don’t always feel like saying “please” and “thank you.” It takes years of faithful teaching to fix the practice in the head of a rambunctious boy or the mind of a self-absorbed girl. But when established, these niceties — and many others such as “You first,” or “Let me help you with that,” and especially “I’m sorry” — add excellence to a marriage’s early stages and beyond.
Blessed are both the young man and woman who enter their marriage with such training in their social repertoires!
One major manifestation of respect is the ability to say, “I’m sorry.” No matter how noble the intentions, marriage partners may slip from time to time.
In the early 1970s a film called Love Story hit the screens. It was an emotional story with a repeated line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Even some young people of faith were drawn into its emotional but amoral treatment of love.
The saying for Christians should be, “Love means always being ready to say you’re sorry.” Because we are imperfect at best and sinners at worst there will yet arise from time to time a circumstance that merits an “I’m sorry.” In fact, “I’m sorry” is a needed accessory to respect and when we say it we reflect that our love is deep.
Respect in marriage is not an act. It is not a luxury known only to the few. It is a shock absorber for all husbands and wives who mean their marriage to survive through all the seasons of life and to prosper in its many and varied stages.