June 19, 2024

A few weeks ago, I found myself seated at a wedding reception with complete strangers. I was confused. We knew lots of people at this wedding, and some of our closest friends were just two seats away at the same (round) table. But the seating was assigned so I covered my surprise and greeted the strangers, a husband and wife pair.

Within minutes, it felt like I had known her my whole life. After we exchanged a few initial details, she dove straight for the heart of things: “Wow, you’ve been married for so long!! What marriage advice do you have for us?”

I paused for a beat. It had been a while since I had shared any marriage advice, and the guarded part of me that screamed, “DON’T GIVE UNSOLICITED ADVICE!!” clammed me up while my brain tried to think of something useful to offer. But she had asked, so this wasn’t unsolicited.

What advice did I have to offer someone who I had just met, whose husband’s name I was struggling to recall at the moment, and whose personality honestly seemed so warm and open and sweet that maybe the lessons and struggles I had wouldn’t even resonate with her?

“Hmm,” I wondered, mentally sifting through clichés like communication is key, and date each other, and the couple that plays together stays together! Nah. Anyone who actually asks for marriage advice has probably heard all of this. Then I mentally pulled up an email I had sent to myself just last week, full of marriage tips and reminders I had noted to myself over the course of the last couple years: Don’t bring up serious stuff with Ben right before bedtimeAsk more follow-up questions when Ben shares about work… Hmm… These all felt very specific to me, and I couldn’t recall any more of the reminders I had written to myself. And then I saw the answer right before me.

“You know what’s been super helpful for my marriage?” I began, “Emailing myself to keep myself accountable. After Ben and I have one of those big serious talks concluding with different ways we can both do better, I take a few minutes to note what I need to do differently or do better and email it to myself, scheduling it to send a week later. When I get it in my inbox, I read it over, evaluate how I’ve done so far, then snooze it to resend to me a month later. And whenever new things need to be added to the list, I just reply to myself and add it on. So every month or two, I get an email from myself called ‘Relationship Reminders’ that keeps me accountable to the ways I planned to improve and do better as a wife.

It’s not only keeping myself accountable, but it’s also super encouraging! For example, the first thing I have on there is a reminder to NOT bring up serious, heavy stuff to talk about with Ben right before bed. It really stresses him out and then he can’t sleep for hours after. This concept seems obvious to me now, but there was a time when it wasn’t, and it is encouraging for me to see my own growth in that area. It’s nice to see that it’s obvious to me now, but it did take a few rounds of email reminders to let it sink in. Even now I have to pause myself once in a while and remind myself to wait until tomorrow.”

We continued to share and chat, and had a really fun time getting to know each other and the other guests at our table later that night. It turns out we had a lot more in common than I had originally thought, and had so many points of connection that I was grateful for the chance to unexpectedly meet and make new friends!

I was glad to be able to share this tip with this sweet new friend. No matter how different our personalities and issues are, we could all use a little accountability as we strive to be the better versions of ourselves. Over the course of our marriage, it used to be pretty common for us to have the same conversation with the same conclusions again and again. I would feel discouraged that I wasn’t doing well as a partner and kick myself for forgetting. Each time, it felt like I wasn’t loving him well by not following through with what I had said I would work on. But we haven’t had to do that for a while now, and I think a lot of that growth stems from this simple accountability system I have made for myself.

It might seem more romantic to expect your partner to accept you just the way you are, but the goal isn’t always romance. Movies would have us believe that you meet “the one” and they’re perfect. But even if they start off “perfect,” they will change. YOU will change, and what you need from your partner will change as seasons in life change. So we grow with each other, and sometimes for each other, or else we grow apart. And it’s not romantic to say you’ll make changes to love your partner better, and then turn back to your old ways. What’s truly loving is finding ways to support and care for your partner better, then doing whatever it takes– even something as mechanical as emailing yourself– to keep it up.

Ben and I have been married for a long time now, and we have both come to know so many different versions of each other over the years. Becoming parents was one of the greatest joys but also one of the greatest personality changers, and we’ve both had to work hard to become better versions of ourselves for the kids and for each other. Some changes naturally stick, but a lot of the important ones require reminder after reminder before they really become a part of you. Finding a realistic and effective system to keep yourself accountable to your goals is key to making all the other marriage advice meaningful and lasting, so if you don’t have a system in place already, then send yourself an email reminding yourself to send yourself more emails!

September 8, 2020

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I am happy that I can recall the exact moment I suspected she was expecting. We were driving in the car on the way to an amusement park when she remarked how she felt oddly queasy that week. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye and there was a pregnant pause as I waited to see if she would finish that train of thought. “Soo…” I finally ventured, “Queasy, eh?”

And here we are, eight months later, and she’s a mommy!

I’m so glad I can remember that moment together with her: the anticipation, the excitement, the wonder of it all, sitting next to her in the car. Part of me is also sad that we weren’t able to see her grow over the last few months, talking strollers and baby carriers and morning sickness after church service on Sundays. When it was time to plan her baby shower, I wanted to do everything I could to make it as special as we could, despite the distanced nature of everything.

You can find lots of ideas for how to throw a virtual shower online, like sending out electronic invitations (evite is great!), setting up a Google Meet or Zoom meeting, and ideas for games to play online together. Today, I want to share with you some specific ideas and special touches we tried to think of to make her baby shower extra special! These can be adjusted to work for any celebratory event, such as a bridal shower or birthday party, as well!

Group Gift: Start Baby’s Library

I love this idea that I came across at another friend’s baby shower: bring a book (can be secondhand) and write a note in it for the baby! What a special way to start the baby’s library, or grow a young child’s library! It’s a treasure they can enjoy for years to come. I saw this really cute poem on Zazzle that I wish I had used:

Just one last request
that won’t be too hard,
please send baby a book
instead of a card.

Whether a book that is old
or one that is new,
please sign the inside cover
with a note from you.

Since it was a virtual shower, we invited each guest to send a book to us ahead of time. Some wrote their notes in and mailed the books to us, others ordered off Amazon and had it shipped to us (we wrote the notes in for them), and some local friends simply dropped it off at our homes. We put all of the books on display using this cute book rack and gave it to her the day of her baby shower. She loved it! It was a sweet way to put a personal touch on things when we couldn’t all be together in person.

Updates From the Guest of Honor

Whether at an in-person event or a virtual one, there is always that time early on in the party where guests get to (have to?) mingle. Usually we do it in small groups over snacks or drinks, but in a virtual gathering, let’s be honest: it’s kind of weird. If making small talk in a small group was a little awkward before, imagine being the host to a virtual party where dozens of attendees stare at you, muted, waiting for you to get things rolling while you wait for everyone else to arrive.

I was kind of dreading it when I got a GREAT idea! People weren’t here to see me, after all. They wanted to see and celebrate HER! It occurred to me that most friends of the mom-to-be had not seen her in person for months, and would enjoy getting updates on how things were coming along– baby bump photos, fun little moments throughout the pregnancy, and other ways that she was preparing. Since my friend isn’t super active on social media, I invited her to send a few photos showing some highlights from the last few months, or any photos of her nursery if she wanted to share.

I put the photos together into a simple slideshow using Google Slides and I used “Screen Share” to allow all the attendees to see my screen as I presented the slideshow. We started off the baby shower with her sharing about each photo. It was cute, heartwarming, funny, and a great way to get things started while putting all of the social attention on the person we all came to see!

Games to Play

There are so many options online for games to play online. A simple search on Etsy for “baby shower games” will yield dozens of options in adorable themes. This Nursery Song Emoji Pictionary game was especially fun! One idea I got from another friend was to use Zoom’s “Breakout Room” feature to make small groups that could work together. We would explain the game, then send everyone into a breakout room for 5-10 minutes to work on the game answers together. We all came back and shared answers before breaking out again. It definitely made the party feel more intimate and personal instead of only a large group gathering.

Read Aloud for Baby

read aloud is just what it sounds like: someone reads a book out loud. If you do a quick search on YouTube, you can find a read aloud on almost any popular children’s picture book! I thought it would be cute if we put something together so the baby could still hear our voices, especially since many of us wouldn’t be able to meet the little one in person for quite a while. A read aloud seemed like just the ticket.

Since the baby shower had the safari animal theme, I thought of one of my kids’ favorite books: Giraffes Can’t Dance. The storyline was great, and the text was also conveniently divided into rhyming stanzas. For a group gift, we asked each guest (attending or not) to take a quick 10 second video or audio clip of themselves reading a stanza. They sent me their clips and I compiled them into one long audio file (I used Windows Movie Maker), and then played the audio while taking a video of the book.

We were able to play the read aloud during the baby shower, and now the parents have the file so they can play it for their baby any time they want!


It’s not easy planning something that is engaging, interactive, personal, and fun during this time, but at least we have virtual options! I’m sure some of you have had to plan a shower or virtual party during the last few months, and I’d love to hear other ideas you have for making the party more fun, smooth, or special! If you have a party coming up, I hope some of these ideas are helpful and that your special person feels the love and warmth from everyone!

January 7, 2018

Last week, I emailed out our family newsletter and was pleasantly surprised with all the responses we got. Not only did we hear back from a lot more people than usual, but they actually responded with personal updates of their own! I was delighted to have “real conversations” with old friends and connect with them in a meaningful way despite the miles and years between us.

In my newsletter I broke from my usual goal of keeping everything short and concise, and decided to share real stories about real things that happened this year. One of the stories was a marriage story, and gave a glimpse at my efforts to love Ben better this year:

About halfway through 2017, I (JoEllen) had a realization: Ben did not seem very happy. He was loving and self-sacrificial and as much a family guy as anyone could hope for, but the spark of laughter and happiness seemed far off and hard to find. He always insisted he was fine- just tired- whenever I asked and probed again and again…  yet the bits and pieces of extra sleep I gave him did not seem to do the trick. So I decided to start my own personal mission, which I called The Ben Happiness Project.

In the end, the solution was simple. The problem was me, and I had to exercise more self-control, hold my tongue, vent at him less, and be generally less selfish. It was not easy to admit or fight against, but I was determined. A few weeks later, the happy man I knew was inside began to peer out from behind the distancing walls of safety and the sun began to shine on our marriage again. It’s been a game changer. Still a work in progress, but there has been progress!! Feel free to ask me for the long version haha.

It wasn’t easy to pull back on all the selfishness and self-centeredness I had grown accustomed to throwing his way, but it was a good exercise in putting someone else’s interests before my own, and praying for and receiving the strength from God to be a better wife to Ben. And, of course, this has made me immeasurably happier, too.

I guess this resonated with people, because several people asked me for the long version and now I have several coffee and Skype dates in my future.

A lot happened between Paragraph 1 and Paragraph 2.

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October 5, 2017

It’s not Valentine’s Day. We’re almost half a year away from our anniversary, and birthdays have passed. But it’s ALWAYS a good time to send little love notes to the special people in my life! I actually think about sending notes of encouragement to others pretty frequently, but I usually think of it when I’m in the middle of doing something else like driving or showering. By the time I get to my desk, I’ve forgotten all about it. One of the best ways to make it happen is to just buy a nice set of greeting cards to send! It not only sits there on your desk as a reminder to write up the cards, but also compels you to write something very meaningful and thoughtful, since you actually spent good money on the adorable cards.

When I bought a bunch of these gorgeous cards from my friend Dakota Midnyght a few years ago, I started writing down all these thoughtful notes to people with affirmations and encouragement that I had been meaning to say for years. After only thinking kind words for a long time, they finally all got written down and sent out. And it was GREAT! I’ve been meaning to do it again ever since, but again… it’s hard to remember and carve out that time.

So when Julissa sent me these adorable food pun cards, I felt like we were a matcha made in heaven. HEHE.

Ok, ok, that was their line, not mine. My artwork is never that good. But it’s so cute, isn’t it??

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August 15, 2017

We threw a bridal shower for my friend this past weekend, and one of the activities I was excited to set up was this tower of blocks:

It was pretty easy to put together, and offered a nice twist from the usual pen and paper version of this station I usually see at bridal showers. I searched for some blocks (that didn’t have “Jenga” written all over them), lettered some instructions, and that was all it took to put this station together. It was a fun opportunity to practice my lettering, bust out some watercolors, and put my collection of Sharpies to use.

I especially liked this idea because it would not only serve as an activity for guests to participate in during the shower, but would make a nice, personalized keepsake for the bride afterward, too! I can just imagine her playing this game with her kids someday, smiling at the ideas and words written on the blocks and remembering this special day when we showered her with love! If you’ve got a bridal shower to plan in the future, keep this idea bookmarked!

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June 16, 2017

I’ve shared some thoughts on submitting to husbands before, but today, I want to share an image of what it can look like for husbands to love their wives in a Christlike way:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

This passage is talking about how Jesus Christ loved the church (all the believers of the world) and gave himself up for her (to the point of dying on the cross) to make her holy and blameless so we could have a relationship with God.

On first glance, there is one key idea that stands out to me: husbands love wives the way Jesus loves the church. And what did Jesus do for the church? He did everything he could to make it possible for the church to be one with God, even to the point of dying. So, husbands, you’re supposed to do everything you possibly can to bring your wife closer to God, even to the point of dying. It’s a big job.

But what does it really look like today? There are very few instances where men have to sacrifice their lives to save their wives, and even if they did, that doesn’t necessarily make her holy and blameless. So what does it mean for a husband to give himself up for his wife, for the sake of allowing her to be more holy and blameless before God? What does that kind of love even look like in today’s world?

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March 8, 2017

I like that he knows which fork I like to eat dessert with.

I like that he knows how I like the blankets to be arranged when I nap.

I like that he urges me to shower earlier so I have time to let my hair air dry. Because he knows that’s a thing, and that sleeping with wet hair is annoying.

I don’t just like it. I love it. And I feel loved by it.

When we were dating in college, it was a delight to study my new boyfriend Ben and learn his likes and dislikes. When I found out he liked brownies with ice cream, I took the bus to Safeway and got ingredients and made it the first chance I could.

When I learned that he didn’t like corn, I decided I didn’t care much for it, either.

It was easy. It was fun. He brought me chocolate and I cooked him meat. It was bliss.

Our first year of marriage was a similar school of learning and joy, finding ways to delight one another and show love with our study of one another’s habits and preferences. Somehow, though, over the last decade, the novelty of studying my husband has become less thrilling. I figure we’ve been together for over ten years… I probably know him better than he knows himself, right?

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July 22, 2016


Don't keep things fifty-fifty

Ten years ago, Ben and I attended a marriage conference as newlyweds, and there was one piece of advice that has stuck with us both after all these years: Don’t go 50/50. It’s marriage advice we’ve revisited again and again- for ourselves, with our small group for newlyweds, and with anybody else who wants to hear anything we have to say about our marriage relationship.

Going 50/50 is just what it sounds like: you do your half, I do mine. Let’s keep it fair, right? I cooked dinner, so you do the dishes. I do the laundry, you take out the trash. But there are a couple problems with the 50/50 mentality. For one, it gives you a reason to hold back. You cleaned the shower last time- now it’s his turn, right? Or, it’s his job to take out the trash, so I’ll leave it, even though it’s overflowing with garbage. There are things you could do to pitch in, but well, it wouldn’t feel even. And no one likes that feeling.

Another problem with this 50/50 mentality is that it encourages you to keep tabs. And we all know that whenever you’re keeping track of stuff like this, it’s going to feel unbalanced. I think this is because we are mostly only aware of what we’re doing. I am aware of it each time I change the toilet paper roll, put away the dishes, or vacuum the floor. When Ben does those things, I rarely take note, and it doesn’t really get accounted for in my mental balance sheet of Let’s Keep Things Even.

So what’s the alternative? Instead of a 50/50 mentality, we should have a 100/100 mentality: I will always give my 100%! Sounds a little cheesy, but the perspective change makes a huge difference! Instead of keeping track or feeling disgruntled at how he’s not pulling his weight, you take the opportunities to do what you can to take care of things. Sure, it’s still fine (and probably wise) to have some sort of division of labor. We do, too. But the difference is that when I cook, I make an extra effort to clean up as I go in the kitchen because I know it will result in less work for Ben after dinner. When Ben sees the basket of unfolded laundry sitting in the corner, he puts it away because he knows it will make me happy! We help each other out because we’re not busy thinking about how the other person isn’t doing their part or pulling their weight- we’re thinking about how we can give 100% of ourselves to love them. And it doesn’t have to be even. That’s not the point. We just keep giving.

It might sound a little crazy or radical, but the best example of love that I know is one of crazy, radical, self-sacrificial love. And Jesus definitely isn’t keeping tabs or trying to make sure things are even between us- if He did, then there is no hope for us. He just gave all of himself for us, and marriage is a great place to practice mirroring that kind of self-giving, self-sacrificial, unconditional love.

This mentality has made a lot of difference for me, as someone who has a tendency to keep tabs and try to keep things even in a relationship. I can imagine a version of myself that would get annoyed about mundane things like filling up on gas, changing the baby’s diaper, or even bringing in the mail. But after years of seeing Ben give and give and give 100% of himself to make our marriage thrive and keep our household running well, it only seems natural to try to do the same.

I’m definitely not perfect, and I still get huffy about things sometimes, but I am often humbled by his humble and servant-hearted response to me that reflects a 100% attitude. It reminds me that it’s not about proving that I do more or work harder- it’s about how we’re both going in 100/100 in our home and marriage! It’s an attitude I really hope to adopt in every relationship, but marriage is a great place to start!


May 23, 2016

I’ve heard myself talking about this book so much in the last two months that it’s time I talked about it with you. It’s called You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity by Francis Chan:

There are plenty of great reviews of the book online, so I’ll let you peruse those here. A major theme in the reviews is that this is not a typical book full of advice to improve your marriage. It’s a book about getting your perspective on life and focus on God straight. A byproduct of that is an improved marriage. For example, if you really lived life with eternity in mind, you probably wouldn’t get as caught up in the petty, selfish details that can run rampant in a marriage.

Really, he says it A LOT better. Because he’s Francis. It’s in the intro. I recommend reading at least that much!

Instead of a general review, I want to talk about one point in particular that stuck with me: humility. As a Christian, I try to be like Jesus. I try to think and do and love like He does. I fail all the time. I mean, Jesus was everything good (and nothing bad). The expectation isn’t that I’ll ever be 100% like Jesus, but that I keep trying. Still, it’s overwhelming. Where do you even start in an effort to love perfectly? In chapter 3, Francis says:

Both Lisa and I believe that more than any other attribute of Jesus, His humility is the key to a healthy marriage. If two people make it their goal to imitate the humility of Christ, everything else will take care of itself. It really is that simple. Arguments escalate when we want to be right more than we want to be Christ. It is easy to get blinded in the heat of disagreements. Soon, all we want is to win, even if victory requires sin. The one who wins the argument is usually the one who acts less like Christ.

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May 8, 2016

Change your marriage in ten minutes

“Can we talk about this tomorrow?” he’d say, not even lifting his head off his pillow to face me.

“…Sure,” I’d say, dejected as I flopped my face away from him.

“You really want to talk about this now?”


“It’s fine. Let’s talk.”

I hear him turn his head slightly.

“No. I don’t want to. Night.”

“Are you sure?”

OF COURSE NOT! But I’m not going to be all needy now. Humph.

“Yes. Good night.”

He snores. I simmer and sigh and feel my “love tank” approaching empty.

Well, it’s not like he cares. He’s sleeping.

It’s a lie, I know, but when it’s late at night, those are easy for me to dwell on. This is probably because late at night is not really the best time for anything except sleeping, even for night owls like me.

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