The gift you can give to your marriage that I want to talk about this week is intentionally to have other friends outside your marriage.
There’s something wonderful you can do for your marriage that will feed and protect it. I’m not talking about reading a marriage book, attending a marriage seminar, or even praying together. Those are all good things, but they’ve been mentioned many times before.
This is something different.
The gift you can give to your marriage that I want to talk about this week is intentionally building solid friendships outside your marriage.
When my wife and I faced a situation in our own lives that left both of us hurting perhaps as much as we’ve ever hurt, several long-time friends poured healing into my soul. Because they cared for me, I could care for Lisa. I am so blessed with the quality and godliness of my closest friends. They are amazing brothers and when they rise on my behalf, they do so in spiritual force. I never feel alone.
Two of them actually cried for me.
The reason outside friendships like this are so important is the dilemma marriages face when both spouses are hurting. If a hit assaults two of you at once, the person you should normally expect the most care and empathy from (your spouse) is reeling as well. This compromises your spouse’s ability to care for you. He or she is numb, just like you are. They have their own questions, their own anger to process. They need to vent, not listen. The challenge is that both of you need to vent, so if neither of you have a different outlet, you’re in trouble.
That’s one of the many blessings of wise friends. They can temporarily step in and serve the nurturing role normally played by a spouse so that you can receive care and go back to nurture your spouse.
The kinds of friends I’m talking about aren’t “couple” friends as much as they are my friends. They know and love Lisa and spend time with both of us, but our conversations and care are more frequently one-on-one. This makes the friendship more personal and provides more care. If there is a time when I need to support one of them with an issue in their marriage, being his friend more than just a “couple friend” makes that a lot easier. It’s not about “taking sides,” as wise friends don’t do that. Wise friend admonish as well as encourage. It’s about focusing care.
Lest there be any confusion, I don’t build friendships primarily as a “safety net.” I build friendships because I believe the Bible (“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, as you are already doing” 1 Thess. 5:11) and psychological science, for that matter, urge me to do it; but when the “safety net” is needed, I realize once again the profound practicality and wisdom of Scripture.
One of the worst things a trial can do to a marriage isn’t just the first hit. It’s the “second hit” you need to be aware of. The “second hit” is how your grief or the circumstance (financial or health or employment issues) causes stress in the marriage and begins to pull the two of you apart.
Solid friends can lessen the blow of the second hit. When a couple loses a child, or a child becomes profoundly ill or addicted, or financial calamity ensues, this is usually one of my primary concerns when working with a couple. The first hit is bad enough, but don’t let the first hit become a double hit and pull the two of you apart. Contain the “bleeding” to the issue at hand; don’t let it seep into your marriage.
Which means, every wise believer will invest in solid, one-on-one friendships outside the marriage. When my kids were young, I did this much less for the simple reason of time. Looking back, I don’t regret that choice; you only have a relatively short season with your kids at home, and I already had solid enough friendships that they could survive on less time for a season.
Just a reminder: all this needs to be done before the crisis hits. True friendships are give-and-take. If you’re not ever giving, the friendship won’t last. You can’t ignore someone for months on end, fall into a life crisis, and expect them to listen with the same empathy and passion. If they’re a spiritual superstar they can rise to the occasion, but that’s different. When someone really knows you, they can provide a whole different level of care.
Release your spouse to pursue and maintain such friendships. Take the time yourself to cultivate and grow new friendships or renew old ones. It may seem like you’re taking time away from your family, but you’re actually investing in your marriage and family in an entirely different way.