19 Years: Natalie and Chris Dittmer
Natalie and Chris Dittmer, who have been married for 19 years, share their wisdom on marriage, persevering through difficult times and what it means to live their vows through the dailiness of life.
“Everybody that’s trying to do life so that they’re an inspiration to others has to be comfortable being countercultural,” Natalie Dittmer says on a July afternoon from she and her husband Chris Dittmer’s living room, outside of Cape Girardeau.
This, she says, means, “Working harder at things that other people think are dumb.”
This is what she and Chris work to do in their marriage and in their family’s life, despite people who think what they are working toward in their family is too hard.
One example of this in particular stands out: when Natalie and Chris announced they were getting married — and later, when Natalie became pregnant with their first child — one woman’s reaction was horror.
“She just mourned for me and how my life had been derailed,” Natalie says. “But I’m not about that ambition. I want to be deeply happy, and I’ve found somebody who wants to help me be deeply happy. So I’m not worried about whether I achieve the potential that my high school teachers said I had.”
Chris and Natalie Dittmer, who were raised in Fruitland, Missouri, and Kelso, Missouri, respectively, met at a five-day leadership conference in Cape Girardeau when Natalie was a sophomore in high school and Chris was a high school senior. It was 1995, and Chris called the hotel room Natalie was staying in. The two ended up talking on the phone for four hours. The next night, he called again. Again, they talked for four hours. On the third night, Chris called a third time; this time, the two talked all through the night and didn’t hang up until everyone else was getting up the next morning.
“We talked on the phone like dumb teenagers, just like about nothing and everything,” Natalie recalls. “After that, we were a couple, and we just never broke up or had a fight or anything. We just kind of started becoming part of each other’s lives and families.”
Chris and Natalie dated for four years and got married after Natalie’s freshman year of college. During their first eight years of their marriage, they lived in many different homes. First, they lived in St. Louis where Natalie attended college. After six months, because Natalie was pregnant with their first daughter and wanted to be closer to family while Chris traveled for his job in computer science, the couple moved to an apartment in Cape Girardeau. After this, they moved to a couple of different houses, including a 100-year-old house in Jackson, Missouri, which they planned to renovate.
“‘It will be fun!’ we said. Our parents told us, ‘No, don’t do that.’ We thought they were so unromantic and that they had no sense of adventure,” Natalie recalls, laughing.
In the end, Chris and Natalie decided their parents were right, after all.
Although the Dittmers didn’t want to leave Southeast Missouri, they next moved to the New York City area for a year, for Chris to attend graduate school. They moved back to Southeast Missouri in 2006 and have been married for 19 years. They have eight children who range in age from 2 to 18 years old. They are happy to be back here.
“When you are married and having a family and you live away, it’s like you’re trying to put down roots and meet friends and navigate and get comfortable, and that was hard for both of us,” Natalie says. “Moving back here, everywhere we go, we see people we know and we’ve just been able to be ourselves, being back. There’s a lot of support. People see you and know you from before, and they’re more warm.”
The Dittmers enjoy being known by people in the community, and appreciate the support the community offers to them.
“Being anonymous in a far-away place, you just feel like, ‘No one here cares what we’re struggling to do,’” Natalie says. “But when we eat out in Cape, every time somebody will come up and tell us, ‘Your kids are so well-behaved. You have such a beautiful family.’ Maybe it’s just Midwestern values, but we just feel patted on the back every time we go to town for what we’re trying to do.”
What is the family trying to do?
“We’re trying to have a really happy homelife and raise a big family that stays close together as they grow up,” Natalie says. “We’re trying to pass down our values to our kids, without seeming heavy-handed. We’re trying to show them how great it is and how it leads to our ultimate happiness.
“There’s a lot that we’re not trying to do that helps us define who we are,” Natalie continues. She is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools their grade-school age children. “Chris is not pursuing his career really as an object in itself. He’s trying to make decisions about his career that lead to the flourishing of our family. And my objective is the same. What should I do so our entire family can do well? Our kids are not on travel sports teams. It’s not about what outside of our family should we do to help them succeed. We just teach them that we expect them to try hard with what’s going on with what they have going on and pursue what they’re really passionate about or what they feel like is good for them, but we’re not like, ‘Sign them up for all the stuff so they can be successful.’”
“The other thing we are trying to do is follow God,” Natalie says. “There’s a lot of feeling kind of countercultural in that, but again, we don’t want to be negative or heavy-handed in that. Instead of saying, ‘Don’t read that, don’t watch that, don’t listen to that,’ we just try to have a good collection of awesome songs, music, books that’s part of what goes on in this house so our kids are always like, ‘What’s wrong with having no R-rated movies? All of the movies we have are awesome.’ We try to throughout the year as the seasons change, always have family prayer that goes with the season of the year. Long periods at nighttime we all have to get together, and we’re going to pray before bed.”
“I think [what matters is] creating a culture where being a good brother or sister or son or daughter or parent is more important than for me doing the career thing, for them, getting straight A’s in school,” Chris adds.
Chris and Natalie facilitate marriage preparation courses for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. During these classes, Chris and Natalie share their own stories with engaged couples, discussing how to cultivate strong marriages and families. Here, they let flourish readers in on their conversation about building a strong marriage and family. This conversation has been edited for length and flow.
1. Choose wisely and then work to make your team the “right” one
Natalie [about the couples in their marriage preparation classes]: A lot of what we’re telling them, we wish they would’ve known since they were in eighth grade. I would say being really picky about who to date and dating intentionally, thinking about the ideals and perspective on life of the person that you’re interested in dating so you see eye-to-eye on those things, and so you want to pursue the same ideals and the same core values. So watch how the person that you’re dating acts towards their parents and waitresses and how they respond to problems.
Chris [laughing]: One of my points is exactly the opposite, almost. I actually don’t think marriage is about picking the right person, because I don’t think there’s one person and if you pick the right one, you’re all set, if you picked any of the other billions of people you could’ve chosen, [you’re going to fail]. I was at a conference once, and I got to hear Peyton Manning talk, and he was talking about when multiple teams were pursuing him to try to get him to play for them. He said in the end it took a lot of the pressure off because he realized it didn’t matter which team he chose; he was going to make whatever team he chose the “right” team. Whatever they needed, and whatever it took to make that team successful was what he was going to do.
Natalie: Part of that is just growing up. You need to surround yourself with people who help you become the person that God wants you to be, and you need to be looking out for who God might have for you in this pool of peers who you’re able to meet. Someone who you think, “Wow, I admire the way that they’re living their life.” You deserve — and your future family deserves — for you to wait for someone you admire. But they’re not going to be perfect.
2. Marriage is about mutual self-sacrifice
Natalie: Marriage involves constant sacrifice and building up of the other person and filling up the other person. If it’s not mutual sacrifice and mutual encouragement, that’s messed up. It just can’t become what it ought to be unless both people are self-deferential and prefer to think about what the other person would want or need.
Chris: You have to change yourself.
Natalie: If two people are both trying to become holier, trying to become more virtuous individuals, if they’re following their own values as closely as they can, then the relationship is better because the partners are better. The commandment says, “Love thy neighbor.” Guess what? Now you have a constant neighbor to practice that on.
Chris: Yeah, I think I get to heaven and if God looks at my life and what I’ve done and says, “Oh, you gave all this money to charity and did all these things, but you ignored your wife,” then it’s all for nothing.
Natalie: And that’s in big things like a joint bank account. His money is my money, so he makes the income and he doesn’t give me a hard time or criticize me about the way that I spend it, or act like it’s his. He’s totally generous about what he earns and puts in our bank account — it’s the family funds. All the way to little things: make coffee for two, and then put in it what your spouse wants, and then go find them, and hand it to them. That’s just charity.
3. The difficult path is the most rewarding
Chris: Somebody’s always going to say, “Here’s an easy path for you to get that,” but the reality is that kind of intimacy, you’re not going to have it unless you’re doing the self-sacrificial thing to try to build each other up.
Natalie: We always define love as “Working for the good of the other.” And it starts when the mom takes care of the tiny baby. Everything she does is not for herself, but for that little child’s needs. It’s a good thing they’re cute, or they would all die. Cleaning up after another person’s mess is love, and buying groceries and coming home and putting them away is love, and especially caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked — all those things are love, and all those things are part of marriage. It doesn’t always come with the feeling of affection or passion. That goes up and down, and you have to keep doing the work.
Chris: Yeah, if you’re counting on just the emotion of that to sustain it, there’s going to be too many days where that doesn’t sustain it.
Natalie: To work for the good of the other is sometimes to work real hard to keep your mouth shut so you don’t start an unnecessary fight because you’re in a bad mood or they were annoying or obnoxious. So it’s hard work just to maintain harmony in the family when you feel like whining or bullying. That’s love.
Chris: So that’s foundational for us. It’s the action of it. Back to the beginning of what we talked about — find somebody who defines love the same way.
4. Lower your expectations
Natalie: We also say, “Lower your expectations.” Because I think that a lot of people have unrealistic expectations about relationships and family life, and then they get really mad and disappointed when they have unmet expectations. Like, expectations about how gorgeous their house will be or how much time they’ll get to spend on vacation or how egalitarian the family chores will be, and they get too frustrated. So I always just say, “Lower your expectations.”
5. Be intentional about what you bring into your home
Natalie: A lot of times we pause a pop song and say, “That’s not love. If anybody ever talks like that to you in a relationship, run.” Because there’s a lot of unhealthy relationship advice in pop songs … I want my girls to know that playing the victim is not cute, and you have to pour yourself out for the needs of the other person, and find someone who will do that for you. Or learn together.
Chris: If each person in the relationship is seeking personal holiness and that sort of self-sacrificial attitude and they’ve got God at the center of it, I just don’t think those marriages ever fail.
Natalie: It doesn’t work very well if only one of us is pursuing virtue or is learning about the faith. We have to both be working on it simultaneously or together; together is the best way. You can’t always pray together or read the Bible together, so we share stuff that we’ve found, like we send each other articles. Or if one of us hears about a good movie that really shows perseverance and the triumph of doing the hard thing in life or in a relationship, we’ll watch that movie together just to stay inspired. I think a lot of spouses probably are imbalanced in that area, where one of them is really trying to pursue virtue and live a life of faith and the other one’s like, “Good for you, honey. That’s great.” But both spouses need to be working on it.
Chris: So much of it is what you’re ingesting from the culture, too, and what you’re choosing to. Because there are good examples out there, but if you just sort of let the flood of what’s on social media and Reddit and what’s on the TV just sort of flood into your life and the life of your family, it just sort of starts to devolve. Be intentional about what you bring into your house.