Apart from my parents, no one in my life has demonstrated to me the best of what love and marriage can be more than our friends, Mike and Nancy. In a hundred ways, they’ve given Jennifer and me something to reach for. So I took it seriously when Mike sat me down one night and said, “Chance, you’re changing and you’re about to screw up the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Jennifer and I were dating. I had my eyes on a ring and was dreaming of how I might ask her to marry me. But at the time, it happened that several friends of mine were not only divorcing, they were ripping each other to shreds in the process. These were people I knew well and loved deeply. I’d even stood in a couple of their weddings. I thought their marriages would last forever; we all did. But now they were making an enemy of the one they promised to love most. It was hard to watch, and it took a big toll on me. I began pulling away from Jennifer – guarding my heart, putting up a barrier between us, born of someone else’s mistakes.
Mike knew what was going on with me. He grabbed me by the shoe as he passed my chair, smiled and said, “Those are some cold feet you’ve got there. What’s going on with you? Tell me what you’re afraid of.”
I knew I was about to get some answers, so I was honest with him. I unloaded all of my doubts and at the end, I asked him, “How can I be sure we’ll last forever?”
“You can’t. You can only be sure it’s going to last forever a day at a time. You make it to forever bit by bit.”
Good answer, but not good enough. “Okay, but how can I trust that who she is today is who she’ll be down the road? How do I know she won’t destroy my heart someday…or that I won’t destroy hers?”
“That’s the wrong question, Chance. That question will keep you from ever fully trusting or committing, in or out of marriage. You should be asking, ‘Can I trust her heart today? Can she trust mine today?’. Then do what it takes to be able to answer yes. You ask today, and again tomorrow and the day after that… That’s how you get to forever.”
All of that seemed good and true, but it still wasn’t enough for me. I desperately wanted some sort of guarantee I couldn’t get.
The next words out of Mike’s mouth have become a compass for me. They’re simple, so don’t miss the gift they carry.
He said, “Chance, you want a guarantee? I’ll guarantee you this. 100% of the time that marriages get in trouble, it starts with people saying to themselves, ‘My needs aren’t being met. She’s overlooking me. He’s not doing enough. I deserve better.’ Once you start looking at things in terms of what you are or aren’t getting, you’re on a dangerous road.”
Even considering the words as I write them makes my heart beat a little faster. Something in me wants to argue the point, and something else tells me it’s true.
“You wanna know why Nancy and I have something few people have? Here’s our secret. Every day I wake up and I ask myself, ‘How can I serve her today? What does she need? What can I do to make her life better?’ Something always comes to mind, and I do it.”
“That can’t be true, Mike. You don’t actually do that every day, do you? Wouldn’t that just make you a servant or a door mat?”
“I absolutely do. And you’re right, it could make me a doormat…if I were the only one asking the question. But the thing is, she does the same thing. She wakes up and asks herself, ‘How can I serve him today? What does he need? What can I do to make his life better?’ Something comes to mind and she does it.”
“Every single day, for more than 30 amazing years with the love of my life. Both of us are adored and our needs are being met, but neither of us is focused on getting what we want or deserve. There’s no need to fight for it if someone else is fighting the battle for you. And neither of us keeps a list of all the ways the other has dropped the ball. As long as you’re focused on what you’re owed, you’re not focused enough on what you’re there to give.”
It took me a few days to get beyond the surface of his words, but as I did, my trust in Jennifer grew. My trust in myself grew. And maybe for the first time, I began to understand the difference between a good marriage and a great one.
I wish I could say that I get this right all the time. The truth is I still consider it a good deed when I put Jennifer’s needs ahead of my own. I privately pat myself on the back for being so thoughtful. I have so far to go. But I won’t stop working on it.
She’s worth it.
We’re worth it.
Married, single, among friends or with our families, what if we let each other off the hook and started fresh, this time considering each other as more important than ourselves?
What if each of us woke up tomorrow asking what we could do for those we love the most?
What if we fought to see each others’ needs met instead of our own?
What would life look like if we abandoned the thought that we are owed something or deserve something better?
What if we made it our mission to make something better of the beautiful thing we have?
Those are some of the questions that create our happily ever after. Those are the questions that get us to forever… a day at a time.