The “Secrets” to 20 Years of Marriage

By Roscoe Lilly

Recently, my wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary! How in the world can that be? In some ways, it feels as if it were yesterday that we said, “I do,” and in other ways, I feel the miles we have traveled together.

My wife is a “Disney nut” (I kind of like it, too!) and she has always wanted to go on a Disney Cruise. It seemed like the perfect splurge to celebrate our special milestone. So we went.

Disney is great at asking if you are celebrating anything special, and as word about our anniversary got out on the cruise, several “cast members” asked us, “What’s the secret to staying together so long?” I found the question a little off-putting because I still consider myself somewhat young-ish. One particular waitress waited until we gave an answer. I blurted out, “Forgiveness and never giving up.” But I wasn’t happy with that answer.

When we arrived back in New York, I was asked again, “What’s the secret to love that lasts?”

The question caught me off guard because I didn’t expect to be answering it until we had added a few more decades to our grand total. Sadly, in our culture, when it comes to marriage, 20 years is a long time.

I certainly don’t think we have any “secrets,” but we have several beliefs that we have learned from others that we believe have gotten us this far – beliefs that don’t seem to be so common anymore. So I’m going to take another run at the question.


  1. It Takes Two People

Both people have to be equally committed to the marriage for it to last. Some of you know the painful truth of this. You were committed to honoring your vows, but the other person wasn’t. And in the end … “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

(For those of you who have been through a divorce, I recognize this could be a painful read, and in no way is my intent to cause you pain. In fact, my heart is to save people from the pain you know all too well.)

  1. Remove the “D” Word from Your Vocabulary

Divorce can’t be an option or you’ll eventually take it. Don’t even use the word in an argument. It should be completely off limits. Once you start using this word, the more comfortable you’ll become with getting one.

If divorce isn’t an option, then you are forced to push through the conflict and find a way forward. Of course, you don’t have to push through, and you could choose to become bitter and resentful, but what a miserable way to live.

There may come a time when you will want to hit the eject button, but it’s hard to press it if it’s not there.

Stop using the “D” word! Make it completely off limits.

  1. Remember, You Married a Human Being

I read somewhere that more marriages die because they refuse to admit they married a human being.

You didn’t marry a savior; you didn’t marry someone to rescue you; you didn’t marry a counselor. You married a human being. You married someone who isn’t perfect, who gets moody, who has stuff he/she is still trying to overcome from his/her family of origin. You married a work-in-progress.

When two people come to each other with their hands out, saying, “Fix me,” it’s a recipe for heartbreak. Only God can complete you and make you whole.

It’s why you need to do some hard work on yourself before you get married.

Two healthy people coming together to form a family are a powerful force. I wish I had known this earlier on. I wish I had worked harder on myself before marriage. Marriage doesn’t fix anything that’s already broken inside of you.

  1. Go to Counseling Now

My wife and I have engaged the help of a counselor a couple of times throughout our 20 years of marriage. Sometimes you reach an impasse, and you don’t need a divorce – you just need an objective voice to help you see the way forward.

It took us six months and quite a bit of money to get an appointment with the counselor we wanted, but afterward, we wondered why we had waited so long to make the initial call.

It was a game changer.

Too many people think counseling is only for people who have “serious problems.” The real serious problem is how blind we can be to our own shortcomings. It’s always easier to see other’s faults than our own.

You don’t have to be miserable, and neither does your spouse.

  1. Large Doses of Forgiveness

Living in such close proximity to each other, you will hurt each other, unintentionally and intentionally. You have a choice. Make him or her hurt as you do, or give up your right to get even. One choice leads to 20 years of marriage and one doesn’t.

Because you live in such close proximity, you know where the buttons are that cause the most pain. A healthy, loving person refuses to push them. If those buttons do get pushed, a healthy, loving person forgives … just as Christ has forgiven him or her.

  1. Celebrate Your Differences

Chances are extremely high you married someone who was the exact opposite of you. You’re a saver and they’re a spender. You’re an extrovert and they’re an introvert. When you were dating, you valued those differences. Your spouse helped you feel more secure about your future because he/she planned and saved. You liked how your spouse helped you loosen up and brought you out of your shell. But now you resent those differences.

It’s one of God’s blessings to give you someone different than you. You now have a fuller picture of life and the gift of a different perspective.

God has put you together to complement each other, not to destroy each other. It takes a fork and a knife to eat the “steak of life.” When we insist our spouse is just like us, we lose out.

Don’t just tolerate your spouse’s differences, celebrate them! Never speak ill of your spouse and his or her differences, especially to other people.

Be your spouse’s number-one cheerleader!

  1. Love Every Version of Your Spouse

When you said your vows, you not only promised to love the person in front of you, but every person he or she would become in the future. (I’m grateful to Tim Keller for this idea.)

Your spouse will change over the years, as will you, which isn’t a bad thing – it would probably be a sign of immaturity if neither of us change. Can you imagine a 50-year-old man acting like a 25-year-old?

Even if you don’t love the current version, love your mess. (Hey, your spouse is loving your mess.)

To replace your spouse with someone new is to just replace your problems with new and different ones. Every person has issues. Every person has things that will drive you crazy. See number 3.

  1. You’ve Got to Keep Putting Gas in the Tank

Your marriage isn’t going to keep running on the love you had when you first met and were dating. You have to keep doing the things you did that caused you to fall in love in the first place. The adventures, the new experiences, the notes, the flowers, the gifts, the words of admiration, the thoughtful acts of service, the physical affection – all of those things put gas in your tank. They helped you fall in love, and they will help you stay in love.

A car wasn’t meant to be pushed. A marriage wasn’t meant to run on willpower.

Over time, it’s easy to get in a rut and do the same things over and over again. Adventure and trying new things together will keep your relationship fresh.

  1. Have a Mission Together

It has to be a mission that’s bigger than your kids because one day your kids will leave. Raising healthy kids who love Jesus will be a big focus and one of your great accomplishments together. But the reality is that you’ll spend more years without kids in your home than with them.

What if you could have a mission that you could invite your kids to be part of, too?

For my wife and I, the great mission thus far has been starting and leading a church that shares and shows the love of Jesus to everyone in the Capital District. It’s a mission that many other families have made part of their family’s mission, too! They would all say it’s made their marriage and family stronger. (I’m not talking about just attending church together; I’m talking about being a vital part of church.)

What’s your mission together?

  1. Keep Your Vows

Marriage isn’t just a box you check on a form, it is the pinnacle of a commitment you make to another person. You can’t find a higher form of commitment.

It’s why guys are totally fine with just “living together” and not getting married. Marriage is a serious commitment – why commit if I can get all of the benefits of marriage (sex) without any of the responsibilities of marriage? Ladies, if your man really loves you, he will commit.

Because marriage is the highest level of commitment, it is always accompanied by vows, vows that are designed to protect the definition of love. Vows that ensure the couple knows love isn’t a feeling, but actions. Vows that transcend circumstances (“sickness or in health”/“for richer or poorer”) or feelings (“for better or worse”).

And when you said your vows, you didn’t say, “I’ll try.”

Be a trustworthy person. Be a person who keeps his vows as in “I do.”

For those of us who are Christians, this is an even bigger deal because we not only made the vow to our spouse, but we also made the vow to God.

If God will give you the strength to love your enemies, He will certainly give you the strength to love your spouse.

The Future

I wish I had had a firm grasp on these things 20 years ago. My wife would have had the husband she deserved.

If we can make it this far, I know you can, too! My wife and I are about as different as they come, but at the end of the day, we love Jesus and each other, and we are committed to our marriage. It’s made all of the difference! And we’ve never been happier!

The secret is … there is no secret. It’s showing up day after day and doing what you committed to do on day 1. You bring great honor to yourself, your family, and Jesus when you do.

The good news is that it does get easier! There is so much joy on the other side! It’s not hopeless. It won’t always be this hard. Don’t give up now! Keep doing the hard work on yourself. Be more concerned about your flaws than your spouse’s. God is growing you both!

I can’t wait to celebrate your big milestone with you!



Ready to grow your marriage? Check out these books:

Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller

His Needs, Her Needs by Willard Harley


If you’re single read this one first:

The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating by Andy Stanley

Roscoe Lilly serves as Lead Pastor of StarPoint Church in Albany, New York. This article first appeared on his website, Follow Roscoe on Twitter @RoscoeLilly.