Another thing that changed was my reading habits. I never hated reading, I just never had the patience to finish a book. It had to be really, really, really good to keep my attention for the required 200-400 pages. But leading up to our wedding, and certainly thereafter, I started reading more books. I still don't read a lot. But I'm normally in the middle of at least two books. It still takes me forever to finish them, but at least I usually finish them now!
I attribute a lot of this to the fact that Kelli and I read quite a few books on marriage leading up to our own marriage. The books we choose to read ended up being just perfect, and all were very helpful. We have a lot of friends getting married before this year is up, so I wanted to encourage them with some very instructional reading.
6. & 5. For Better or for Best and If Only He Knew by Gary Smalley
Gary Smalley has written a ton of books on marriage and relationships, but we found these two to be his best. For Better or for Best is written for wives, and If Only He Knew is written for husbands. Each goes into great detail explaining the inner workings of the opposite sex, and how they react within the confines of marriage to situations that arise. He approaches the subject matter as a counselor, so it can get kinda dry sometimes, but the wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from these books is great.
Kelli and I came up with a fun system to further the experience of reading through these books- I read the book written for women about men first, and wrote notes on all the pages, detailing where I thought Smalley nailed how I, as a man, think and react, and where he missed the mark. I highlighted things he said that especially resonated, and dismissed for Kelli sections I didn't think applied. She did the same thing as she read the book about women written for the men. Once we were done, we swapped, and read the books we were intended to read from the get go, but now with all kinds of notes from our partners as a guide through the process. It ended up being such a good exercise, that we repeated it with a couple more books further down the list.
4. Waking the Dead by John Eldredge
This is not, strictly speaking, a book about marriage. So I'll share a story to qualify it. I received this book as a high school graduation present in the summer of 2006 from my Bible study leader. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've never been much of a reader. So when I started it, I didn't make it past the first chapter. It would be two years before I finally picked it up for another try. I can't even remember why I gave it a second shot - probably Divine intervention! But I informed by former Bible study leader that I had finally set about to finish the book she had gifted to me years before. "You better be careful, Josh!" She told me, "If you take that book to heart, someone's gonna fall head over heels for you!"
I mostly laughed it off and thought it was sweet, even though I didn't really understand why she'd said it. As a nineteen-year-old who had never even had a girlfriend, I highly doubted a book with the flowery language of an Eldredge text was going to dramatically change my love life. As it turns out, however, my Bible Study leader was exactly right. Not even four months after she had predicted John Edredge's impact on the rest of my life, Kelli and I began the two year journey that led to our marriage.
Well? Well?! What did the book say? What was the secret?! I suggest reading Waking the Dead and finding out for yourself. But if you want a brief overview, the book is all about awakening the desires within ourselves as the living breath of Yahweh. I can't do it justice here, but suffice it to say, I never looked at other people the same way again. I began to actively seek out what brought everyone I knew to life. What it was that made their eyes light up. What that one thing was that they were perhaps afraid to really let anyone in on because they were afraid of being rejected.
Of course, I focused most of my attention on a sweet young woman with whom I was becoming quite smitten. And you know what? Kelli told me later that she couldn't help but fall for someone with whom she could share her dreams and desires, someone with whom she felt absolutely safe with her heart! I was too young and naive to have done this on my own, so I'm thankful to this book and my Bible study leader and the Good Lord for nudging me in the right direction. This book is essential whether you're dating, engaged, married, or as single as single can be.
3. & 2. Letters to Karen and Letters to Philip by Charlie W. Shedd
These books are not dissimilar to the Gary Smalley books listed above- one is written for men, the other for women. What makes these books so special is how timeless they are (both were written in the late 1970s) and the perspective from which they were written- These are letters from a father to his children. Minister Charlie W. Shedd was asked by his daughter before her wedding for letters from her daddy on how to be a good wife. The results were published as Letters to Karen, and then a couple of years later, as Letters to Philip when Minister Shedd's son asked the same of his father before his own wedding. The results are deep, intimate, and beautiful. While Gary Smalley's books are largely clinical and fact-driven in their approach, Charlie W. Shedd approaches these books as only a father can- from his heart. He is obviously a man who has counseled many, many couples, but these are his kids, and he approached the challenge with a personal love you won't find in many books.
These are the shortest reads on the list, and could both be easily finished in one sitting. Kelli and I enhanced the experience by repeating our Gary Smalley exercise and trading books first to take careful notes. We had a lot of fun with these. I cannot recommend them more highly.
1. Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
This probably isn't a surprise to anyone that keeps up with this blog. But for anyone who has never heard of it- this is the best book I have ever read on the subject of marriage. Hands down. No questions asked. No debate necessary. Thomas' thesis is: "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?" And he spends the entire book tirelessly defending, expanding, and answering this question.
It isn't light reading, and you won't finish it with a warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach as with the other books on this list. Gary Thomas looks you in the eye for 300+ pages and says "Marriage is the hardest thing you will ever do in your entire life, and you will spend all of that time trying to get good at it. Are you really, truly sure you want to do this?" But this isn't a book encouraging the rising culture of "singleness" that has appeared in Christianity. He sums up his sentiment on the issue early on in the book: "If you want to be free to serve Jesus, there's no question- stay single. Marriage takes a lot of time. But if you want to become more like Jesus, I can't imagine any better thing to do than to get married."
Rarely does Thomas speak about the personal benefits of marriage. Rather, 99% of his attention is spent discussing how best to serve your spouse (and God!) through marriage.
Thomas paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate line in the sand- you will either serve Yahweh and succeed, or serve yourself and be miserable. There is no middle ground. It forces your hand. He details the ultimate irony- that the only way to be truly happy in marriage is to completely die to yourself and your own desires. In doing so, he illustrates what is meant when the Bible says the marriage between a man and a woman is a picture of the one between Yahweh and humanity.
You will finish Sacred Marriage feeling one of two ways- scared to death, or more resolute and excited than ever. If ever there was a litmus test determining a person's readiness regarding marriage, it is this book. I cannot sing its praises more highly. Biblically grounded on every page- you will be thinking about it long after you finish.
That's my list. Each of these books helped immeasurably as Kelli and I prepared ourselves for our wedding day. What books have you found that help in regards to relationships and marriage?