We take steps to protect the things we value. We teach our kids not to run into the street; we insure our houses and maintain our cars. Your marriage is easily your life's greatest investment. What are you doing to actively protect it?

There have to be rules in place to protect things of value. A good illustration of this comes from the days I spent growing up on a farm in Northern Ontario. My father knew my mechanical ineptitude and was always very diligent to provide specific rules for operating the machinery. One of them was, "NEVER push in the clutch of the tractor when you are going downhill with a large load." Seems straightforward, right?

One day, I was bringing a load of hay from one barn to another, and of course there was a hill. My friend David was riding on top of the load, and as I began to proceed down the hill, I pushed in the clutch. To this day I don't know what possessed me to do it. I would like to say, "The devil made me do it," but I cannot blame my incompetence on him.

With the clutch in, that tractor took on a new life: it thought it was a Formula One race car! I let the clutch out and the gears took over and we started jolting; I punched the clutch back in to smooth the ride and the speed escalated; I let it back out and looked over my shoulder to see David going one way and the load going the other!

I violated a key operating principle and the results could have been disastrous if my friend had fallen down between the tractor and the wagon (fortunately, he jumped clear). Anything you value must be protected. It was obvious that Dad valued his equipment — and his son — and this caused him to take precautions.

God places the highest value on marriage and family. So I want to share with you 8 principles for protecting the value of your own marriage and family. These are principles that we have developed over our 32 years of marriage, and if we were to roll back the clock, we would be more careful to follow them from the beginning.

  1. Give priority to your marriage and family. The greatest gift you can give to your children is to love their Dad or Mom. The subtle trap that so easily besets us is that this priority becomes lost amid other pursuits, like work, children, and our own goals and dreams. In the FamilyLife Weekend to Remember conference we refer to these issues as "extramarital affairs:" anything that replaces the priority of the two of you.

  2. Establish date nights and fun days. One thing Denise's family knows how to do, being Italian, is to celebrate. Every holiday was an excuse for a family party, from New Year's Eve to the next Christmas. In our hectic world, having fun together needs to be a key priority. Once a month, we have a "fun day" with some close friends. We become tourists for a day. The rule is NO BUSINESS talk, just laughter and browsing. One couple that heard us speak on this asked us, "What do you talk about?" They were very serious. When was the last time you and your spouse went out on a date: a quiet dinner, coffee and dessert, a long walk, or a Saturday breakfast? Put the time aside; it will not happen without planning.

  3. Set and maintain boundaries. Boundaries establish margins. Richard Swenson, in his book Margin, defines it this way: "Margin is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence." It sounds like a dream come true. We had a leader say to us recently, "If you are not standing on the edge, you are taking up too much room!" This is a sad statement, but it expresses the reality of the world we live in. It also runs directly counter to the protection of the value of your marriage and family. I focus on two main types of boundaries. One is simply to do my best to consistently live by the principles laid out here. The other is that Denise is number one in my life. One boundary that is difficult for me in the world of leadership is that I do not want to meet alone with another woman for any reason. I realize this is not always popular or convenient, but it is essential to protecting Denise and my marriage. The media screams, "No boundaries — we want freedom!" Yet it is only through the setting and maintaining of boundaries that true freedom is realized.

  4. Set goals together. We have always set goals as a family and individually in four areas: spiritual, recreational, educational, and financial. I think we probably drove our three sons crazy with this at times; that being said, to this day, they continue to set goals and have fun sharing them with each other. As the saying goes, "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Why not take some time this week to sit down together and set one or two realistic goals that you can begin to work towards as a family?

  5. Seek unity in decisions. The violation of this principle has caused me no end of pain, frustration, and money. Early in our marriage, a "Yes" from me and a "No" from Denise just meant, "Stop, pause, and then move ahead anyway!" Many times she could not give me a specific reason for her feelings and would just say "No." It was frustrating, but I have learned the importance of unity in major decisions.

    Two areas in which this is particularly important are finances and childrearing. Work together to develop a budget and to keep each other accountable. Set rules for the children together. If you reach an impasse, pray about it, and if it is still unresolved, seek counsel from a trusted third party. But always remember: you are on the same team!

  6. Be purposeful in resolving conflict. We get angry when we feel that our rights have been violated, our expectations have not been met, or our mate has hurt us in some way. When this happens, we typically respond in one of two ways: we stuff it (internalize it) or blow it (externalize it). However we react, unresolved conflict leads to isolation from each other. Walls are built, brick by brick, passively or aggressively. We have a choice between bitterness and tension on the one hand, and forgiveness and freedom on the other.

    Resolving conflict often requires forgiveness. Forgiveness is not pretending that something did not happen or that it did not hurt. It is not an automatic cure for the heart, because sin has consequences that linger. Forgiveness is not a natural human response, but neither is it impossible. Forgiveness is a choice to set the other party free from the debt or offense that they have committed against you. It is an attitude of letting go of resentment and my right to get even, and it's an action that must be expressed by word and deed. Above all, forgiveness is an act of obedience to a command. The Bible tells us to forgive each other as Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32), and God will give us the strength to do it. As Corrie Ten Boom said, "Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free, only to find out that the prisoner was me."

  7. Pray together. Consider these statistics. One of two marriages ends in divorce. One out of three marriages that begin in a church ends in divorce. One of five couples that receive pre-marital counseling and are married in a church end up divorced. Yet only one out of 1250 marriages between couples that regularly pray together ends in divorce. It's an amazing statistic, and yet for many couples it is so difficult. To pray with your spouse puts you in a very vulnerable position. On the other hand, this is where the potential for the deepest level of intimacy is found. Denise and I have begun to practice this in the past ten years. We don't always pray daily together, but we do make this a priority a couple of times a week, especially for key issues. It has been transforming in our relationship.

  8. Develop your relationship with God. This is the greatest challenge of all: to live life in God’s presence and give him undivided time each day. When is the right time? Only you can decide, for we are all different and at different stages of our lives. But whatever you do, find a regular time and place and book it into your smartphone.

Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones tells a story. One day he was driving to his church in his Model T Ford and it broke down. Dr. Jones had about as much mechanical aptitude as I do and, being late for an appointment, he was beside himself. He lifted the hood, but he didn't know where to start. People were passing by, but no one stopped. Finally, one couple approached him and asked, "What is the trouble?" He responded, "I do not know, it doesn't work."

"Do you want me to take a look?" the other man asked him. "Absolutely!" he replied. The man looked briefly, touched a wire, turned a lever and then said, "Give it a try."

Dr. Jones gave it one crank and it immediately started. "Thank you so much," he said. "My name is Martin Lloyd Jones."

The man smiled and said, "Good to meet you. My name is Henry Ford."

This is a true story, and it demonstrates what happens when we place ourselves in the hands of the Creator. He designed you and your spouse, and he came up with the idea of marriage in the first place. Only by giving your relationship back to him will it become all that he intended it to be.

Photo Credit: Chris Richmond