Don Follis | Love is strongest element in our 40-year marriage

Don Follis | Love is strongest element in our 40-year marriage

Late in the afternoon 40 years ago today, I pulled my light-blue 1974 Ford LTD onto Interstate 17 and headed north out of Phoenix. At 10 a.m. that morning, my bride and I were married at Central Christian Church in Mesa, just east of Phoenix. She sat next to me on the car's navy vinyl bench seat. I was 23 and feeling like quite the man, smiling at my desert bride with flowing blonde hair and an Arizona summer tan. Holding hands, we headed off into the wild blue yonder.

For the next nine days, we meandered our way across the country before finally pulling into Champaign-Urbana. When we got out of our car, it was so hot and muggy, neither of us felt we could breathe. We pretty much decided right there and then that our stay in East Central Illinois would be short.

And well, that young man from the High Plains of Northwest Kansas, and his college-student bride now have lived in Champaign-Urbana 40 years. We've tried to get on our horses and get out of town, but we're still here, still calling this university town our home.

On this 40th anniversary of saying "I do" back in the valley of the sun, I was thinking a good-old country western song might be in order. Back in the day the country western group Asleep at the Wheel sang "Dance With Who Brung Ya."

"You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you; Life ain't no 40-yard dash; be in it for the long run; cause in the long run you'll have more fun if you dance with who brung you to the bash."

Canadian writer Sheila Wray Gregoire writes about marriage and recently got me thinking about the wife I've been dancing with for 40 years. While it is a given that every good marriage is hard work, my dance partner and I have stuck with a few basic steps that still make our dance a lot of fun.

We are each other's neighbor. We treat each other the way we want to be treated. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is clear that a person near or far who needs our love is our neighbor. That automatically includes our spouse. So we try to treat each other just like we try to treat our fellow humans, whoever they may be. Mr. Rogers said, "Please won't you be my neighbor." That includes our spouse, too.

We are each in charge of our own thoughts and actions. We try to capture our thoughts, deciding which ones will determine our feelings and actions and letting the others go. We work hard not to criticize and let gratitude flow. We work hard to believe the best about the other even when we get disappointed and our feelings are hurt.

We were not put on earth to make each other happy. We are grateful, thankful people. And really quite happy, too, most of the time. Still, a verse in the Old Testament says, "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." If focusing on justice and mercy is the purpose of life, it is also central in marriage. That focus leads to peace with the One who created and sustains us. Trusting God more than each other might be the most enduring security-producing choice we make.

We don't mold the other person into our own image. Accepting that makes marriage much stronger. We each have the right to be ourselves. Marriage is not a competition. Besides, we always are changing. Thus, we humbly and mutually submit to one another, never blindly obeying or pulling rank on the other.

We are peacemakers, not just peacekeepers. As much as possible, we take our pain on the front end, not the back end, when it's usually much worse. Conflict is good for marriage but comes with the proviso that conflict and fighting are not the same. Conflict simply means two people coming together with opposing views. We try to press in when the knives are out. Difficult as that is, those knives often turn to butter when we truly listen and try to understand another point of view.

We believe being one is more important than being right. We do our best to find win-win solutions. We serve each other, freely offering words of affirmation, respect and support.

We are intentional. We plan. We check in. We listen. We tease. We laugh. We date. We touch. We smile. We say "Please," "Thank you," "Excuse me" and "Please forgive me. I am sorry." When we aren't intentional, we start to drift apart.

Forty years running, we still follow the advice from the good book that tells us to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We try to be even tempered and quick to forgive an offense.

And we know the bottom line: Love is the greatest virtue in all good marriages. Without question love binds together all the other essential qualities. That gives us hope, leaving us feeling peaceful, thankful and deeply grateful.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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