I’ll never forget that morning, 15 years ago. Up at 6:30am after going to bed at 5 in the morning. I had stayed up all night making my wedding veil. I was tired… nervous. Was I really ready to commit to a lifetime with this man? To be honest, it scared the heck out of me.
I was terrified of commitment… I had struggled my whole life with fear of rejection. One of my favorite songs was sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and the part that I used to sing with ALL my heart was “When I fall in love, it will be forever, or I’ll never fall in love…. When I give my heart, it will be completely, or I’ll never give my heart.”
You see, Trent was my first “boyfriend.” The first man I committed to for more than a week. Yeah… there were guys that I had hung out with here and there, but I REFUSED to give my heart or any real piece of it, except to someone I could actually see myself marrying, because I was so terrified of what would happen if I was eventually seen as not good enough… unworthy… and cast aside. I simply couldn’t bear the thought.
So here I was about to commit my entire life to ONE person. Put my heart in his hands and say… it’s yours! Yours to love, to cherish… have and to hold forever!
But under those typical bridal romantic sentiments… deep down, hidden under layers sealed in brick were those fears… I’m giving my heart to you… you can hurt it. You can step on it. I’m giving you the power to reject me. I’m giving you the power to crush me. I’m opening my heart… Please, please, please don’t hurt me!
So I put on my dress. I arrived at the church, and my father walked me up the aisle, tears streaming down my face. I knew I was doing the right thing. I knew this man was meant for me, but I only saw one piece of the puzzle. If only I could see the full picture… I would have been LEAPING down that aisle to the man who would become my best friend. Who would love me in spite of my faults and love me through my failures. Who would accept me as a I am… difficult and crazy personality and all.
So I wanted to share with you some very important lessons that I have learned in 15 years of marriage. Lessons that have helped us overcome many moments, many opportunities that could have led to dissolution.
These lessons are like tiny pieces of a big puzzle… every piece laid down reveals yet another section of the beautiful life-size picture that is called marriage.
7 MOST Important Lessons Learned in 15 Years Of Marriage
Lesson #1: Accept each other for who you are, faults and all
It doesn’t matter whether the toilet seat is up or down or the toilet paper is facing in or out. Yeah… We had a rule in our house when we first got married… everyone puts both seats down. If you forgot, you had to lift it up and down 5 times. And yes! We had a serious discussion about which way the toilet paper roll fits on the holder.
15 years later, with 5 kids and one on the way… now, we’re just lucky that we don’t go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and land in the toilet because some kid left the seat up!
Point is this… we can’t let our small daily irritations cause a rift in our friendship. I can name a million things Trent does that used to drive me CRAZY!!! From leaving the seat up to opening every single kitchen cabinet door when he cooks and not closing them. It used to really make me mad. I’d go through the kitchen slamming the cabinet doors just to make a point.
What I’ve learned is that in the end, these little things really don’t matter. They’re small imperfections that we agree to love when we exchange those rings and make promises. And honestly… if he leaves the seat up or the cabinets open, does that mean he doesn’t love me? Of course not! So after a kind reminder or request for change, we have to learn to let those things go and move on.
Lesson #2: Don’t be ledger people.
When we went to our engagement classes for church, they had us watch this really corny skit about a couple. They were called the “Ledger people.” Every time the other did something good or bad, it would be marked in the ledger. “Oh! He gave me a massage! 5 points!!!” “He left the cabinet open AGAIN, that’s definitely a -10.”
Corny or not, that skit made an impact on us and we decided right away that we would not become “ledger people.” The past is in the past. In agreeing to love through good times and bad, we are called to throw away the ledger. By holding past grievances against each other, we’re only compounding a situation and saying, to our spouse, “You are not worthy of forgiveness.” When we use a ledger, under the surface, we’re just afraid of being hurt or taken advantage of, so we harden our hearts and build a wall against the one we’ve promised to love. Walls that only lead to trouble later.
15 years later… every once in awhile, Trent will do something, and I’ll dramatically bring out my pretend ledger, mark it down with a charade. Yes, we have had some really rough times where that ledger came out and points were marked over and over… But after years of learning and growing, we both know, the ledger HAS to go. By banning the ledger, we’ve been able to keep our hearts open and our love strong.
Lesson #3 Set boundaries on arguments.
Yes. We argue. BOY do we argue. I’m a mixture of German, Irish and French. I have the stubbornness, the temper and the passion, so my fire lights FAST! Trent being Belgian and Polish is pretty quick to react to my fire. So YES, we argue. We fight. I get HOPPING mad and don’t like to back down. He likes to make sure I understand his point.
So what do we do? From the get-go, Trent and I had an agreement. Once we get in the ring, we adhere to specific boundaries.
1. Don’t bring up the past, unless it is to help explain a current situation. NEVER to blame.
There are times I will bring up the past to explain to Trent why I’m so upset, so he can understand our miscommunication. But I try to NEVER bring up the past to blame him or shame him or try to prove my point. The only reason to do that would be to try to hurt him. And if I bring up the past for that reason, then I am NOT truly loving him.
2. No name-calling. This is so important!!! Trent would never call me the name of a female dog, and I would never call him the name that refers to him having no father. I can get really angry, but it doesn’t matter HOW angry we are, that boundary NEVER gets crossed.
Honestly, what’s the point in name-calling? In the end we’re trying to protect ourselves and our hearts by tearing the other person down. The only thing it breeds is hate and resentment, which are the opposite of love. If love were the water that keeps a plant (marriage) alive, then hate and resentment would be poison. You poison a plant, what happens? It dies! There is never an excuse to poison marriage or each other by spewing words of hate. It will only lead to destruction. So we bite our tongues and turn to our communication technique listed below.
3. Use words like “feel, felt” to explain why we’re upset. What’s the point of an argument without having some sort of outcome? One thing I know to be true is that feelings are valid. If I feel like Trent did something hurtful, then I feel hurt, even though the intention behind what Trent did was not to cause hurt or anger… and of course this works the other way around as well.
So we communicate like this… “When you did -x-, I felt like -y-.” This way, we can explain how the other one’s actions upset us, without falling to the point of calling someone a liar or a whole bunch of other bad words. We use the argument to get to the heart of the matter and make our relationship stronger in the end.
Lesson #4 – Always Forgive
Oh, we’ve had our moments. 15 years is a long time to spend with one person. It’s a long time to live with someone’s failures and faults, and believe me… we all have them! In 15 years, we’ve had times that we’ve really struggled and times that we fell in love all over again. How did we get through these times? One word, of course… forgiveness.
“To err is human. To forgive, divine.” ~Alexander Pope
Most of us go through a trying time in marriage… circumstances that can make our marriage stronger, or completely shut it down.
Do you know what it’s like to be virtually homeless? Living in someone else’s home for years? For 3 years, Trent and I lived with his parents, between his mom and dad. We struggled financially, because Trent was in project management in construction and back in 2007, construction jobs were rare. He worked hard to get a life insurance business started, and in the meantime, we depended on his dad for help financially and physically with the use of his basement for our little home.
Talk about losing sight of who you are. Of feeling completely crushed… hopeless… depressed… during this time, there were times I could hardly breathe. I was pregnant, then with a new baby, working part-time from home, homeschooling our son, living in my father-in-law’s basement and barely surviving. There were many times where I’d drive down the road and just imagine driving into a tree… end it all. It was a time where I felt hopeless. Forgotten. Completely and utterly abandoned by my God.
During that time, both Trent and I suffered. Our marriage suffered big time. We finally had to reach that ‘come to Jesus’ moment when we had to decide if we were going to move forward, get out of town, start fresh and forgive all the past, or if we were going to just end it all and start fresh on our own.
At that point, I was so broken, that I’m ashamed to say that on the surface, I didn’t really care what happened. I just wanted OUT of our current situation. I was DONE. I hated myself. I hated who I had become. I felt worthless. I felt completely and totally unloveable and unworthy. After three years of stuffing my personality in a box, I was so cut off from my emotions that I was desperate to feel anything.
So we made the decision to move to Virginia. To start over. To heal. Because even though we had been through the fire, our marriage was WORTH saving. Our children deserved it, and we knew that with effort and hard work, we could work through this.
It wasn’t easy. Fixing a hurting marriage is NOT easy. It took a good year of deciding to love. It took both of us putting down our pride and working hard to fix our marriage. FORGIVING. You see, marriage takes two. One person can’t fix it. We need to remember who it is we married and ask ourselves… is it worth letting those walls down again? Is it worth becoming vulnerable again? Can I dare to truly open my heart up and to trust that you’ll carry it tenderly… again?
Without forgiveness, without letting go of ego and pride, there would be no Hillaert family right now. So I can’t emphasize enough how important forgiveness is to building a solid, beautiful marriage. Like love, forgiveness is an act. We forgive the same thing over and over and over every day, every moment that we’re hit with a memory or fault, we need to say, “I forgive you.” We need to drop the ledger, leave the past in the past, and continue deciding to love… deciding to forgive.
Lesson #5 – Don’t stop being YOU. NEVER stop dating.
One BIG mistake we tend to make in marriage is always putting the children first. We tend to put off getting new (or new used) clothes for ourselves. We put off showering. We put off shaving our legs. We put off dates. We put off so much, because now the children are priority.
Should children be a priority? YES! Of course! But for a marriage to be AMAZING, the priority should be spouse, then children. Without keeping that fire ignited. Without continuing to make each other a priority, romance starts to fizzle. Friendship starts to fade. Before we know it, we become more like partners in a business then friends building a dream. And then what happens when the children are grown and it’s just the two of us again? It’s called empty nest syndrome. Couples not knowing how to relate, because everything has been about the kids from the day they were born until they day they leave home.
Moms! It’s so important to take that shower. We need to take the time to fix our hair, put on make-up (if you wear make-up), to make an effort to feel like a human being, not just a mom who’s touched out, overly tired, covered in spit-up and food stains from kids.
After we moved to Virginia, Trent and I started having regular date nights. We surprise each other with cards filled with words of love and appreciation. We do little things to romance each other. Trent will often bring me coffee in bed, which is a huge love-language for me. I’ll make an extra effort to get dressed up for him. To try to look my most beautiful and best for him. To give him extra hugs and attention and let him know he’s important to me, which is a huge love-language for him.
Romance is the life-blood of marriage. We can’t ignore it and expect to keep that fire for each other alive. So date… let your guard down… write love letters… always remember who it is you married and why you got married in the first place.
Lesson #6 Never grow up
Part of being vulnerable and really opening our hearts to each other, is being allowed to be ourselves. To be silly… to dance… to have fun, and KNOW we’re not being judged. To go out in the rain together. Dance! Splash in the puddles with each other… with our kiddos.
We just love our little family dance parties in the rain! Do I always want to jump at the chance? HECK NO! I’m honestly really concerned about getting too cold! BUT, I remind myself that I’m making a memory to last a life-time. Then I jump out of my chair on the porch and run to join them to create this moment… this memory.
Whether it’s a dance party in the rain, impromptu dancing in our kitchen while cooking, a living room dance party with our kids (strobe light and all), karaoke night where everyone sings, or getting down and dirty in the mud while building a garden… we try to take those moments to remember what it’s like to play… to be young… to just completely let go… together. To build yet another memory, one by one… like laying bricks for a strong fortress!
Lesson #7 – God first
There have been times where we have really struggled with our faith. Were we wanted to come up with excuses not to go to church or to pray. Honestly… there have been times where I completely questioned the existence of God.
In 15 years of marriage, I’ve learned that without God. Without our foundation in HIM, it would have made this whole journey much harder if not impossible.
God is love. GOD = LOVE.
For marriage to survive, we have to be able to put down our pride and ego. We have to be able to forgive. We MUST love at all costs. So if God truly equals love, then we must make him the center of our lives and our marriage. He gives us the strength we need to walk in humility. To lay down our lives for each other. To truly serve each other.
So yes. I walked down that aisle 15 years ago, crying the entire way. Terrified of this life-long commitment I was about to make. In love with this man, but afraid of what was to come. I knew that he was the one for me. I just knew it. The way we met. His heart. I had this intense intuition that in spite of my fears, this was the man that God had hand-picked for me. I had that one piece of the puzzle… but oh… if only I could see the whole picture!
If only I knew. If only I knew that I was marrying a man who would teach me what it meant to be loved… to be cherished! That would gently, over the years, help remove the layers, one after the other, that I had built around my heart. Teaching me… showing me… that I am lovable. That I am worthy. That I forever belong!
The more pieces of the puzzle that I have received over the years, the more beautiful the picture has become. The pain. The heartache. The suffering. If that’s what we had to go through to get to where we are now, then it was all worth it! Because our marriage is stronger… our love is DEEPER then it has ever been before.
What I want to leave you with is this… marriage is not easy. Staying with the same person forever… and ever… and EVER, is not easy, but when you’re both on board… when you both decide that you’re worth setting boundaries for, worth letting go of ego and pride for, worth forgiving, loving, accepting, becoming vulnerable for… something beautiful beyond description is built. A friendship and a romance that has no bounds, a love that’s deep, a bond that’s unbreakable.
In the end, life is made up of little moments and those moments are made up of the love that we pack into them. Our goals… our dreams… our plans for the future… they’re all wonderful and necessary… but walking hand-in-hand, day in and day out, SEIZING each moment. Grasping the BEAUTY of the present moment and the love that is in that moment. THAT is where life is. THAT it is where memories are made. THAT is where relationships grow.
To the love of my life. Thank you for 15 amazing years.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I love you with all that I am and all that I have. Thank you for protecting my heart, for cherishing me. It is such a privilege and an honor to spend every day with you. My dream, my why that pushes me constantly, is to spend every day with you.
Love Alway and Forever,