This week I’ve been blogging about the most powerful lessons I’ve learned about marriage—tried and true principles born in the trenches over the past eighteen years. Today I think I’m supposed to say this:

Stop playing house.

Kids play house. Girls, mostly—but also hapless brothers roped into tea parties and role playing for half an hour. It’s fun to watch, and so revealing. Kids pick up on the roles we play, but often miss the heart behind it. The result, when they play house at least, are caricatures of the real us. They don’t know how to be a husband, a wife, but they can play a role. So they do.

But when we’re adults, we have to stop playing house, stop game playing, stop pretending, stop filling a role.

The single most epic realization of our entire married life hit me like a battleship square in the middle of our seven year itch. Quite simply, our marriage sucked. Not that we fought all the time or threw things at walls or cheated on each other. It was just that our marriage was lifeless. Like all the air had been sucked out of the room and we were turning blue, waiting to breathe again. Something massive was missing, and we didn’t know what it was.

Least of all me. I mean, I was a good husband. I was doing all the husbandly things a godly husband ought to be doing. I was playing a role, doing my husbandly duty. Jesus says love my wife, so that’s what I’m going to do. But “wife” is a role. A concept. Not a person.

One day I was sitting out in the back yard, praying for us. Seeking God about what was wrong with our marriage, wrong with me. I told God I loved Shauna, and in my heart I could feel him challenging that. And then, as if he were sitting across from me and leaning in real close, he spoke to my heart:

“You don’t see her the way I see her.”

I didn’t argue. The truth stung, but it stuck. “Then I want to see her the way you see her,” I prayed. And I meant it.

I’m not sure how the vision began, but at some point I remember a vivid image taking shape in my mind’s eye: Shauna, like God saw her. She was radiant, dressed in white, sparkling and glowing. Life oozed from her. Her eyes were bright, her countenance reflecting the glory of God. Somehow I knew I was looking at Shauna as she will look one day in heaven, when Jesus completes the good work he began in her.

The blood drained from my face. My jaw went slack. She was beautiful. My angel.

“She’s in there,” God said, referring to the Shauna I’m married to now. “All of that… is already inside of her, waiting to come out.” And then I sensed God inviting me to love her that way, to treat her that way, to join him in giving myself to her so that all this good stuff could be revealed. To love her with this picture firmly planted in my mind.

I no longer like the word “love.” Now I fixate on the word “treasure.” I’m trying to drop the role playing, and to join God in this holy work.

The difference in our marriage was almost immediate. God’s work sent us on a trajectory of intimacy, respect, and friendship that defies description.

So that’s my tidbit of the day. What about you? How do you see your marriage, your spouse?