Family Matters: 30 things I’ve learned in 30 years of marriage

Doug and Jennifer Flanders Courtesy photo

My husband and I met in college. He strolled into my life about two weeks before graduation and swept me completely off my feet.

Which was impeccable timing, given that my father had informed me I wouldn’t be allowed to marry until I’d earned my bachelor’s degree. And one of my primary objectives for being on campus in the first place was to get an MRS degree while I was at it.

As a math major, I took some fairly rigorous classes: differential equations, abstract algebra, number theory, Euclidean proofs. Even the electives I chose were challenging: Greek, hermeneutics, pathophysiology, and the like.

Despite the fact I was the only girl in the vast majority of these courses, finding Mr. Right proved difficult. My reputation preceded me. Frustratingly few of my classmates seemed keen on dating a nearly-six-foot tall freckled redhead whose stated life goal was to have and homeschool a houseful of kids.

Even so, my husband was not actually the first person ever to ask for my hand in marriage. Technically, that distinction goes to another college chum of mine. One I’d known for nearly three years, spent most of my spare time with (before meeting Doug), and loved like a brother.

That friend began his marriage proposal with this showstopper: “Jennifer, I’ve never found you the least bit attractive, but….” He then hurried on to explain that he’d lately become convicted I was the kind of girl he ought to marry.

I suppose I should’ve felt flattered. Being “the kind of girl a guy ought to marry” is high praise, indeed.

But I found myself fixating instead on Prince Charming’s introductory remarks. To my sensitive ears, they sounded something like this: Jennifer, I’m repulsed by the very sight of you, but am willing to choke down my vomit long enough to exchange vows at the altar.

“So I prayed,” my friend was continuing, “that God would give me an unquenchable love for you. And that’s what He’s done... so let’s get married!”

“You should’ve prayed God would do the same for me,” I countered, “because the love I feel for you is brotherly, not matrimonial.” (Did you know in Greek, there’s a completely different word for both kinds of love?)

Many men pour a lot of thought into how they will pop the question to their beloved. We’ve been on the sidelines now for five of our own sons’ marriage proposals. Proposals that included such painstakingly planned details as candlelit dinners, secluded picnics, sunset strolls along the shore, blindfolded visits to rose gardens, exploding boxes, treetop kisses, hidden photographers, helicopter rides, and heartfelt declarations of everlasting love.

My dear Doug’s proposal was much less flashy than all that. He took a knee in his grandparents’ living room. Nanny and Poppie were right there, critiquing as he went, insisting that he back up and start again at several key points.

But even without their clever coaching, Doug’s words were music to my ears.

Of course, this was long before Pinterest or YouTube, so my engagement expectations weren’t unrealistically high to begin with. And my other friend’s bungling attempt lowered the bar in my mind even further as to what constitutes a good proposal.

To me, the most notable difference between the two was the sense of yearning that accompanied the request. If there is an opposite of choking-down-vomit, that’s what I saw in Doug’s eyes when he looked into mine that evening. What I still see when he looks at me today.

Even more importantly, he backed up his yearning with whole-hearted commitment. This commitment, this sense of determination, this willingness to put my needs ahead of his own is driven by yet another kind of love (one with yet another Greek word to identify it).

It’s this sort of committed, self-sacrificing love – together with the God who exemplifies and supplies it – that has kept our marriage strong for over three decades now. This is how Doug loves me (and I him) even when life gets hard or money gets tight or health goes south or schedules get crazy or either/both of us feel momentarily angry or annoyed.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about elaborate engagements and fairytale weddings over the years, it’s this: How you begin is not nearly as important as how you finish.

So stay committed. Love selflessly. Forgive freely. Finish strong. Thanks to God’s enabling grace, it isn’t too late to live happily ever after.

Jennifer Flanders met her husband 33 years ago this week. One of the smartest decisions she ever made was accepting his marriage proposal a few months later. To read more from this author, please visit or .

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