By Nathan & Kelly Miller
Kelly and I recently celebrated 21 years of marriage, and while she and I have always shared a pretty amazing relationship, it’s not been easy, nor has it been without disappointments, hurts, misunderstandings, and a whole lot of hard work. In fact, these past three or four years have been the hardest. Parenting has gotten more complicated, life has been more stressful, time has been more fleeting. And this whole “midlife” thing is just weird.
We’ve learned more about ourselves and each other in the past couple of years than perhaps all the previous years combined. We’ve also cried more, had to listen more, apologized (and forgiven) more, and been stretched more. Simultaneously, we would both say without any hesitation, that we also love each other (and even like each other) more than ever before.
Recently we were asked by our Re Engage marriage class at the Olathe Campus to share a few of the things that have been most important to us in maintaining a joy-filled relationship. While I’m sure there’s a lot that could be said, and we are definitely not experts here, we wanted to share five habits that help us.
If you’re not married, we’ve written this with you in mind as well, and we hope you’ll keep reading. Each of these habits can easily be translated for just about any relationship you believe is worth nurturing for the long haul.
Habit #1: Stay curious
Stay curious about yourself and stay curious about the people you love. Start with yourself. Never stop learning about and working on yourself. It’s so easy to focus on the other person’s shortcomings, and overlook the fact that I am also a bit of a mess. At the start of COVID, for example, Kelly and I grew increasingly interested in attachment theory, family systems, and how deeply our upbringing shapes our present and future realities. We pursued a variety of podcasts, books, and other resources (check out a few recommendations below).
As we’ve learned more about our own motivations, areas of woundedness, or unmet desires, this has given us new language with one another, greater compassion for each other, and a deeper desire and ability to love one another. We’ve discovered that many of the challenges in our relationship actually started long before we even knew each other. This doesn’t pass the blame (well, maybe a little bit), but rather gives us the ability to truly see ourselves and see each other. We have a newfound ability to see our own shortcomings, so that we can work on ourselves for the good of ourselves and each other.
Start with yourself, but don’t stop there. Never stop being curious about this person you love. For example, I love learning about Kelly, and I feel like I have learned so much about her in the past few years. As she learns about herself, I get to learn more about her, and then I get to meet her in those places of mutual discovery. Always be a student of the people you love, never stop pursuing deeper understanding of who they truly are, and then, knowing better who they are, find new and fresh ways to love them all the more. Stay curious.
Habit #2: Make time
Of course, staying curious takes time. So take the time! Sadly, this is an area that in different seasons, we’ve been a bit sloppy. When either of us feels a bit distant or we’re going through a rocky patch, one of the first questions we ask is, “Are we making enough time for each other?”
This is so obvious and still, we can be so bad at it. One of the dominant factors in any great relationship is time. Sometimes you need time just to plan your week or talk about the kids. You also need time to ask probing questions and to listen well. Those conversations cannot be hurried. For us, one of our best habits for this is taking walks together. It’s so much easier to have some conversations side-by-side rather than eye-to-eye. We also love sitting together at a winery, a restaurant, or on our deck.
We also make time for fun together. Whether it’s going on a hike, having a picnic, going out to dinner or the theater, visiting a national park (or whatever you might consider fun), those experiences together make the relationship more enjoyable. When was the last time you played with the people you love? Those moments of laughter and silliness or shared activity can bring such a bond of intimacy. Make time.
Habit #3: Apologize first
As you spend all this time learning about yourself and each other, it’s inevitable that you’re also going to hurt each other. This leads to Habit #3: apologize first.
I can remember early on in our marriage, both of us feeling hurt and upset by each other, and then just sitting silently waiting for the other person to apologize. Waiting…still waiting… why doesn’t she??? Why doesn’t he??? While we just get a little angrier and a little angrier and a little angrier.
At some point, we were both done just sitting there! I don’t remember what prompted this, but it was in one of those waiting moments in awkward silence that I just made a decision. What if I make it a goal to always be the one to apologize first? No matter what, no matter how much I’m hurting, knowing that I’ve got my own messes and shortcomings, what if I always try to apologize first?
Now thankfully, Kelly joined me in this goal, so we both end up apologizing first from time to time. This responsibility should never land on just one person. But let us tell you, this has been a game changer for us.
We’ve learned (and are continuing to learn) that our relationship’s health is more important than being right or justifying our actions (this should be obvious, but doesn’t always feel obvious). How fast can we apologize—truly apologize without excuses or manipulation—and how quickly can we offer forgiveness to one another? What would this posture do to your most important relationships? Apologize first.
Habit #4: Pray together
We also recognize wholeheartedly that we cannot possibly do any of this on our own, and perhaps the very first habit we ever embraced as a couple was Habit #4: pray together. From our very first night together to last night, every evening before bed we take roughly 60 seconds to remind ourselves and each other that we cannot do any of this without God’s help.
We take turns. One night Kelly prays. The next night I pray. And, yes, I have fallen asleep more than once while Kelly is praying. We don’t say anything particularly profound, and we don’t think anything particularly magical happens, but the habit itself is so profound.
Not only does this make it hard to go to bed angry or even distant from each other, it gives us an opportunity to vocalize in front of each other our need for God. That humbles us, and just about any relationship needs humbling from time to time. At this point, we’ve done this more than 7500 times and there is no doubt in our minds that this is one of the reasons our relationship is so strong.
If you’re not married, find a friend that you can pray with regularly. I know it may seem awkward at first, but it will feel more normal the more you do it. I started praying regularly with my friend Toph even before I met Kelly. We prayed together weekly throughout college and monthly for the past 21 years— 25 years in total. Not only has that provided a rich dimension to our relationship, I think it’s one of the reasons our friendship has withstood the test of time, distance, and a whole variety of different life-circumstances. Finding someone—anyone—to pray with regularly is truly a beautiful gift. Pray together.
Habit #5: Never stop cherishing
This last one is really just a bit of a “catch-all,” but we’re pretty convinced that the most important vow any of us make at a wedding is to cherish. If you truly cherish each other, all the other vows should fall right into place. Whether you’re single or married, it’s easy to take for granted the people you value most, but that’s so perilous to any relationship. Never stop cherishing.
I recently realized that I wasn’t doing a great job at this one. Over time it’s so easy to grow comfortable with one another and then to slowly take each other for granted. You stop saying thank you as much, you stop pursuing each other, and you can so easily begin to devalue one another.
Both of us have just recently redoubled our efforts to cherish more. It’s actually been fun to restart this quest together, even after all these years, to ask each other: what makes you feel cherished? What makes you feel wanted and loved? And then try to meet each other in these places for our own mutual joy.
Again, this applies to all relationships, not just marriage. Ask difficult questions of your loved ones: how can I be a better friend? What would make you feel seen and known and wanted? Then actually take steps to show you care about each other. Never stop cherishing.
As we’ve gotten better at this relationship thing, it’s also been so helpful to remind ourselves and each other that every human relationship is ultimately meant to point us to the relationship Jesus wants with each of us. For our God pursues and cherishes and has time for each one of us. He loves us, and the very best of our human relationships is only a blurry snapshot of his delight in you.
We’re 21 years into this, and while we don’t know what the next 21 will hold, we’re excited and we’re confident that as we continue to press into these habits together, and as we continue to receive and prioritize the love our Father has for us, even in the hard times, we can flourish. For the beautiful thing is that the more we receive God’s love, the more we are enabled and empowered to love each other, and when we do, there is incredible delight.
Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson (and anything else by Curt Thompson)
The Place We Find Ourselves podcast by Adam Young
The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller
The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky