• Ryan Dunlap

What Jiu-Jitsu Taught Us About Marriage

Updated: May 9, 2020

Submission, sacrifice, team work and consistency all lead to progress.

Married couple training Brazilian jiu-jitsu

I'll never forget walking into my first class at an Alliance gym in 2010. At that time, I had already been on the job as a cop for 6 years. I assumed that my previous training in defensive tactics would put me way ahead of most beginners, so I waltzed into class feeling more than a little confident. I borrowed a GI (the uniform we train in), walked out onto the mats and was immediately thrown down to the mat by a 16 year old kid. Reality hit me like a ton of bricks; I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was.

For most of us, marriage is like that. We think that we are ready but we have no real idea of what we are really signing up for when we say "I do." We jump into marriage with the wrong mindset, expecting to be in love and to make love all day, everyday. Then, once we face some real friction with our spouse for the first time, we find ourselves sitting in the corner of a dark room, rocking rhythmically back and forth while clutching our knees in our hands, asking, "What in God's name did I get myself into!?"

Last year, after a few years of formal training between gyms and informal training through law enforcement, my wife and I decided to begin training Jiu-Jitsu together. We enjoyed training together so much that a few weeks later, we signed up all three of our children as well (Shout out to SBG Buford!). As a family, we've grown exponentially. An unexpected advantage was that we also grew as husband and wife because we discovered that BJJ and marriage have a great deal in common. As we learned and grew in training, we also grew in marriage.

The Truth Is That Marriage Is Warfare.

Marriage is a spiritual battleground but most of us are trying to fight through it with physical weapons. It doesn't work. Like a training ground, marriage is the place we go to discover our weaknesses and build upon them until they become strengths. Like Jiu-Jitsu, it stretches you, causes you to hurt in ways you've never hurt before, so that you may grow in ways you've never grown before. It tests your fortitude, your emotional strength and your endurance. It'll break you if you are not careful. Most people who begin the process don't finish. They reach their first milestone and then walk away feeling content with at least having given it a shot. If you desire to grow beyond the basics and to be promoted in your marriage, there are some things you need to learn and put into practice now or you may not make it.

Kids practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

1. Learn To Submit. Do It Often.

Submission is not losing or quitting. It's simply acknowledging that someone else has control.

As you train in BJJ, you will inevitably find yourself in a compromised position that will require you to submit or "tap out." Doing so is necessary for two reasons:

  • Tapping allows you to focus on how you ended up in a bad position in the first place so you can avoid getting back in that position again

  • Submission protects you from injury

In marriage, we tend to fight against our spouses when we should be training with them. The goal of fighting is to defeat an opponent, but the goal of training is to make both you and your training partner stronger. Training is necessary and beneficial to both, but fighting is bad for everyone.

When Alicia and I find ourselves in disagreement, we take time to evaluate how we ended up there in the first place. What was the problem, miscommunication or offense? How can we avoid ending up here again? Our goal is to learn from our mistakes so that we can avoid them more successfully in the future. At the same time, we have to know how to pick our battles. Sometimes we want to push the limits and avoid humbling ourselves for the sake of "winning." In marriage, no one wins when either one of us is beaten. We only win when we both win and when we learn something new about ourselves and our capabilities. In that regard, submit to one another often. Rather than blame your spouse when you end up in uncomfortable positions, take time to evaluate how you got there and agree to learn from your mistakes, bump fists and restart.

Married couple training no-gi Brazilian jiu-jitsu

On Submission

The Bible says that a wife should submit to her husband, but submission usually carries with it a negative context. Submission doesn't mean that my wife will bow down to me; it means that I will cover her. You see, when you are being submitted in BJJ, you have to speak up. By speaking up and making it known that certain limits have been met, the submitter will know clearly when to back off or slow down to protect their partner from incurring injury. In marriage, husbands may be the head of the household, but wives are the foundation of that house. Everything I've built doesn't stand without Alicia's support. Husbands can't effectively lead their family without their wive's wisdom, input and feedback. When wives make it known that certain limits have been met, husbands have to listen to their wisdom to avoid pushing too hard or too far.

It's also important to recognize that no matter how good you become at BJJ, there is always someone out there with superior power and knowledge than you. That means that even though someone may have to submit to you, you will undoubtedly have to submit to someone as well. In BJJ, we learn from a coach - a black belt - who trains us up in his image. In marriage, we submit ourselves to God - our creator - who made us in his image. As powerful as we may feel, we are still fallible. If we become the ultimate authority in our marriages, we will likely discover that we have holes in our game. If we are going to learn anything about marriage, it's best to learn from the one who created it. In this way, a marriage is most effective when a man submits to God, and a wife submits to her submitted husband.

A couple with Jiu-Jitsu injuries

2. Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable.

In early 2018, Alicia and I both suffered significant injuries while training BJJ. I dislocated my shoulder which required surgery to repair a torn labrum. One week to the hour later, Alicia dislocated her elbow which required a trip to the emergency room and weeks of physical therapy for the both of us. In addition to those injuries, we've both suffered a combination of broken ribs, dislocated and sprained joints, and torn ligaments. Even as I write this, I'm certain that I either broke or severely dislocated my finger in class today.

The thing is, we knew that this training would be uncomfortable. Granted, I didn't expect it to be this uncomfortable, still, it was expected. As we get better and learn to train smarter, our injuries decrease and our ability to train together increases. Similarly, marriage is also uncomfortable at times. That doesn't mean we should up and quit on our spouses though. To the contrary, we should accept that everyday won't be fun and recognize that it's up to us to use these down moments to reflect on what I mentioned in the first point. Ask yourself, "How did I get here and how can we avoid getting back here in the future?"

The other thing that stands out to me is that both Alicia and I were injured by other people, not by each other. This is important to point out because often times, our marriages are attacked not from the inside, but from the outside. We allow our friends and family members to have too much power over our relationships and they inevitably cause us harm. Be careful about who you allow to speak into your marriage. Not everyone has your marriage's best interests at heart. They may do and say things that hurt you and your marriage in the long run by encouraging you to walk away from something uncomfortable that was actually intended to make you better and stronger. Just because they are afraid to get on the mat doesn't mean you should be in a rush to get off.

*It should go without saying that we aren't advocating for abuse in marriage. We're talking about being uncomfortable enough to stretch beyond your comfort zone while adjusting to healthy discomfort in marriage. We are not advocating for any form of abuse. If you're in an abusive relationship, get out.*

3. Don't Compare Your Progress To Others

I mentioned that I took my first class BJJ class in 2010. When you first begin, you put on a white belt. As you progress, you earn higher belts on your journey to black belt. Well, it took me 9 years to earn my blue belt. By comparison, Alicia earned her blue belt in about 18 months. Life's circumstances, injuries, work and extended time away have all contributed to slow growth and development. To make matters worse, many of the people who began training BJJ after me have gone on to be promoted already. That can be incredibly discouraging if I allow it to be.

For many people, marriage is like this. We are always looking for the next "belt" in marriage. The wedding, the first house, the first kid, the shiny new car and other firsts become priority. In our quest to keep up with the Jones', we leave each other behind and our personal development suffers because we rush. What began as an exciting journey with someone who we intended on spending forever with ends up becoming unbearable and a huge disappointment. Eventually, we may look around and start to think," Man, I really thought we'd be further along in our marriage than we are." Making matters worse, we may have friends around us who are thriving in their marriages while we trudge through our own marriages that give us no hope for tomorrow, let alone forever.

BJJ is a marathon, not a sprint; everyone's journey is different. Likewise, marriage is a marathon and not a sprint; your journey will be unique. If you plan on finishing strong, you have to focus on your marriage and only your marriage. If you fall into the trap of comparing your journey to someone else's, you are going to be unfulfilled for the rest of forever. Like I said in point 1, there will always be someone who is seemingly better than you. Instead of trying to beat them, work on beating the old version of yourself. In marriage, you will always see other couples who appear happier than you and with what appears to be a healthier marriage than yours. The key is to focus on making your marriage better than it was yesterday, not better than someone else's. Learn to win daily battles within your relationship, and in the end you may actually gain fulfillment from measuring small improvements along the way to forever, instead of waiting for big milestones that come at unpredictable times.

A married couple training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

4. You Are Stronger As A Team

The purpose of your BJJ team is to help you become the best athlete possible. Your training partners and your coaches have as much to do with your growth as an athlete as you do. Without someone to practice on and someone to learn from, you wouldn't have the opportunity to grow and improve as much as you do.

Your marriage is no different. Marriage is the place where bad habits (sin) and bad character (unrighteousness) are exposed. Your spouse helps to expose your dirt and brokenness which gives you an opportunity to become the best version of yourself. That's why it is uncomfortable. I mean, who wants to sign up for a marriage that constantly has you on the ropes and always seems to beat you up? In BJJ, many people quit in the first few months because they get tired of being exposed, and tired of feeling as if they are "losing." But they aren't losing; they are learning. It's the same in marriage. Stick it out long enough and you may discover that your partner isn't trying to beat you; they are trying to better you.

5. It's Going to Cost You Something

Between the 5 of us in our family, training costs, uniforms, trips to see fights and competitions and an astronomical amount of medical bills, BJJ costs a lot. Like... a lot! No question, it requires intentional sacrifice. We've sacrificed more than money too. We've sacrificed our bodies, time with friends and family, and time away from other hobbies and other interests as well. But because it is important to us, we make it a priority.

Marriage costs you something. As an individual, you will have to sacrifice selfishness and exchange it for selflessness. Personal goals and dreams may need to be paused or halted for a season so that the goals and dreams of your family can be fulfilled. Financial plans will change as you begin planning for your financial future together.

Marriage, like BJJ, is a long term investment. If you invest a little today and then try to get too much out of it tomorrow, you likely will see little to no gain. It takes years to see a return on the investment. Alicia and I coach married couples who have only been married for a handful of months and are contemplating divorce because they don't feel that they are getting anything out of it. Many of these couples are attempting to make early withdrawals and they are finding the penalties to be insurmountable.

Alicia and I invest in our my marriage daily. We recognize that marriage is not a death sentence; it's a life sentence. Knowing that we'll have someone dedicated to honoring and loving us until death do us part is a good thing. It gives us peace of mind to know that for the rest of our lives, we will always have someone by our side, fighting for us. To us, it's a worthwhile investment.

If you are a BJJ athlete (especially a BJJ couple), let us know what lessons BJJ has taught you about relationships. We've love to hear from you!


About The Authors:

Married couple drinking coffee in Bali, Indonesia

We are Ryan and Alicia Dunlap, marriage coaches and the the founders of ThisIsKnotLove.com. Like a knot, we believe there are two types of marriages; those which are miserable, tangled messes and those which are intentionally fashioned together to join two separate things together as one. We work to remove the bad knots that cause marriages to unravel, and fashion secure knots that hold marriages together. We're just here to help you get the kinks out! #TIKL #KnottyLove


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