In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body...let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Love and respect. I don’t know if there are two more essential words for a healthy marriage. And while Paul specifically instructs husbands to love, and wives to respect, no husband would object to his wife loving him nor any wife resist her husband respecting her. We know there are hundreds of ways to demonstrate love and respect, but let’s consider how love and respect actively build up a marriage and sustain it during hard times.
As children we imagine ourselves growing up and fulfilling some exciting occupation such as pro football player or ballet dancer. As we get older those dreams usually change into something more achievable. In fact, dreams and goals often change many times throughout our lives, but they are always important to us. And it is sweet indeed when our spouse encourages us in our desire to grow and use the gifts God has given us. We feel loved and respected when our spouse tells us that they will support us as we strive to reach that goal.
Some dreams are callings. Imagine the work required to complete medical or seminary training. Consider the work required of the other person in that marriage as they sacrifice for their spouse and family. Now consider a smaller goal or dream. If your spouse desires it, support them with all your energy. If they long to write, or go on a summer mission trip, learn another language, or even change professions, support them with all your strength. If you have misgivings express them in love, but as much as possible, support your spouse in their dreams and goals. Husbands, remember the Proverbs 31 woman. She ran a business as well as a household. Encourage your wife and do not hold her back. In this way you love her and show respect for her as a person as well as a co-member of Christ’s body.
There will be times when one spouse must step back so that the other may achieve their goal. This is loving one’s spouse as Christ loved the church. It behooves the spouse who is being served to show gratitude, love, and return the favor so that the other spouse’s dreams are not left behind. Social science reveals to us that couples who have lifelong and satisfying marriages find ways to support the dreams and callings of the other person. Again, this should not be surprising to us as we know that God has called us to “count others more significant” (Phil 2:4) than ourselves. If God has called us to love others in the church this way, certainly it is God’s design for marriages to demonstrate that same type of sacrifice.
Now consider the couple that actively supports and encourages one-another’s dreams and goals. What does this couple look like? It looks strong–almost invincible. Together they are far more than two individuals. When each spouse loves and respects the other and encourages the other, they are in a far better position to weather a time of trouble. Each act of love and respect strengthens the marriage’s foundation so that there is room to suffer and experience loss without creating irreparable fissures.
Strong couples who love, respect, and support one another can look back at the identity they have formed as a couple. Their growth has formed them into a new being–one flesh–that has endured. Another discovery from marriage research reveals that healthy relationships develop a shared identity that goes beyond just supporting the individual dreams and callings. While it is vital to support one another’s role in the Kingdom, it is just as vital to come together and develop an identity as a couple and as a family. Ask questions about what impact you want to make on your children, your community, and your world. Indeed, God has not only called you to be and do something specific in His Kingdom, but He has also called the two of you to be and do something specific as well. Don’t pursue one at the expense of the other. Ask God to guide you as to how to wisely pursue them both.
Most marriages do not change or deepen overnight. One of the most important pieces of wisdom I have ever received reminds me that we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and tend underestimate what we can accomplish in five years. Pray individually and conjointly and ask God to help you and your spouse develop a vision for how your marriage can grow and deepen over the next few years.