As believers, our goal should be oneness in all relationships. Join me for an explanation.
Sometimes we make it harder than it has to be.
One of the best and easiest strategies to helping couples grow their marriage is to practice and apply these three terms to your marriage:
Learn how different each of you is from each other. God designed a man and a woman with different desires, needs and interests. Each spouse communicates differently, prefers life organized at a different pace, and handles disappointments and excitements differently. Spend quantity time identifying those differences. That’ll take you a lifetime together.
Each spouse has unique expectations of what he or she expects from the marriage and the other spouse. These are the things required, in one spouse’s opinion, to make marriage work well. Spend quantity time identifying these expectations. Ask questions. Dream. Explore. By the way, these change over time, so prepare to do this often and continually.
Communication is the key to a healthy marriage. And, males and females — and every person — communicates differently. You’ll spend the rest of your time together learning how each other communicates, but the more you practice the better you will get. And, the better you get — the better the marriage.
Most problems in a marriage begin as minor problems. The key to keeping the marriage strong and working through the problems is to address the problems while they are still small. If your marriage is experiencing minor problems, which you feel in your heart could become major if not addressed, then this post is for you. Even if your marriage is thriving now, but simply want to strengthen it, implementing these three terms may help.
Could using these three words help make your marriage stronger?
I’ve written previously about the first seven years of marriage. We don’t know why necessarily — I have some theories — but the years between 6 and 8 of marriage are often the most difficult. It seems so many marriages fail in the 7th year.
It makes sense then that protecting the marriage during those years is critical. And, it doesn’t take 7 years. I have lost count of the couples who are struggling — and ready to call it quits — just a few years into the marriage.
The way a marriage starts helps to protect the long-term health of the marriage. I believe the attention we place on new marriages in our churches is critically important.
Based on my experience, I have some specific advice for new marriages. Our first 7 years of marriage are long past, but if we had it to do over, there are some things I’d make sure we did as a couple to get a good, solid start.
Recruit a mentoring couple. We would find a couple further along in years of experience and who seem to have a marriage like we wanted and ask to spend time with them. We tend to become like the people we hang around most. All couples could use mentors who can talk them through the rough patches that all marriages face.
Invest financially in the marriage. Keep dating. It could be a sack lunch at the park or a 5-Star steak dinner or a weekend in Paris depending on your income level, but we would just do fun stuff. Stay active. Boredom is one of the leading causes of marriage failure.
Protect your budget. The last one is important, but so is this one. You’ll need to balance the two. Debt causes huge problems in a marriage. And, it’s easier to avoid as you build than after you’ve accumulated it. You don’t have to have everything now. (Let me say that again.) You don’t have to have everything now. It’s not the key to a happy marriage. But, eliminating the major distractions is a key to a strong marriage. And, money problems are a leading cause of marriage trouble. We would get an agreed upon budget (and that’s key), and discipline ourself to live it.
Set a schedule. Life has a way of sucking time from us. It becomes very difficult for busy couples, especially once children come along, to find time to be together. And, yet it’s critical. Don’t neglect your time together. We would set a routine of intentional weekly time for just the two of us.
Limit outside interruptions. In-laws. Friends. Work. They can all get in the way. Sure, they love you. They want their time with you. But, let’s be honest — some of them also want to control your life. Don’t believe that other people will work to protect your marriage as much as you will. They won’t. The two of you are creating one unit. If we were starting over we would guard our marriage from any undue pressure.
Be active in church. Sounds selfish. I admit that. But, it’s also being strategic. You need community and especially a healthy community that can be there for you when things go wrong. And, things will go wrong. You’ll need a community of faith around you. And, you won’t know how much you need them until you need them. We would — and we did — commit to a strong church community.
Talk. Lots. Many times couples become so comfortable with one another that they fail to communicate at deeper levels. This becomes very common in the first years of a marriage. Routines and familiarity set in and the couple assumes they already know all there is to know about each other. I have talked to so many couples who just don’t communicate anymore. Or one spouse thinks they do and the other spouse thinks they don’t. They don’t share the details of each other’s day and life — their deeper, unspoken thoughts. The better you learn to communicate — the stronger the marriage will be. The best way to improve communication is with practice. We would practice this one a lot.
Of course, I’m pretty sure it’s not too late on any of these — even if you’re past the first seven years.
Those are just a few suggestions. Do you have more?
There are 2 critical assumptions in a marriage relationship.
I mean critical.
And, dangerous assumptions to make.
Making these two assumptions and not understanding the gravity of them can cause major problems in the relationship.
In my experience, the assumptions happen naturally — and often cause conflict — but when they are misunderstood, the conflict magnifies exponentially.
Assuming that what you value your spouse values.
The fact is you will likely have different values.
Let me give you a very practical example from my own marriage. I think our house is always relatively “clean”. Things are in place. I’m not tripping over stuff as I walk through the house. I’d be fine if people “dropped in” unannounced.
Cheryl isn’t okay with that. She sees things I don’t see. She values a “clean” house much more than I do. She sees the dust on the furniture. She knows if it’s been 3 days or 7 since the bathrooms were last “cleaned”. It bothers her if the shoes at the front door are not in their proper place. Her value system is different on those issues than mine.
And, there could be plenty of examples of things I would value that she may not. One for me, as an example, is getting out the door when it’s time to leave. “Come on, let’s go.” But, at that moment, her values of having everything in it’s place conflict with my value to get on the road in a timely manner.
This type conflict in values happens continually in every marriage.
And, equally critical — and dangerous:
Assuming that your spouse’s values don’t matter to you.
They do. They matter greatly. Even if they conflict with your values.
They matter to me because they matter to my spouse.
When I fail to validate a person’s values — any person’s, but especially my spouse — even if they aren’t my values, I speak volumes to them that I don’t care. That may not be true, but that’s the perception received.
Part of having a successful marriage is learning the values of the other person, validating them, and working to balance each other in them.
Cheryl can’t expect me to have the same values as her. Actually, over time, our values do tend to align more. We will always be different, because we are different — designed by God to be different.
Cheryl should expect me to value her values. And, likewise for her to value mine. It’s part of what makes a marriage work.
I shop with my wife.
There. I said it. I’m sorry guys. Do I lose my man card?
I get criticized often by other men that say I put pressure on them to live up to that standard with their own wives. And, I’m sorry if that’s the case. I realize many men read this blog.
I explain that a shopping mall is not necessarily my preferred place to be on a Saturday, but I love my wife and I love spending time with her. She sometimes likes to shop, so many Saturdays I find myself somewhere shopping with her.
I also know my blog readership is about 40% women, so today I want to address you in this issue. My goal, as always, is to improve and strengthen marriages. Spending time together always helps this occur. At least that’s the theory.
Give him a mission. Men love a purpose. We are hunters by nature. Tell us exactly what you are looking for, that you haven’t been able to find it anywhere and that you need his help finding it. Then get out of his way and let him hunt!
Understand his limit. This is not the day to hit every store. Especially if you’re husband is new to shopping, don’t make him become a marathoner in the first race. Ease him into the idea. And, when he’s hungry, feed him well. Even let him pick the place.
Let him carry packages to the car. He’s going to be looking for something to do. He may want to make several trips to the car. He’ll show you how strong he is. Let him serve you.
Include a stop for him. If he wants to look at tools for a while, don’t complain if he already looked at dresses. And, if he wants to sit in the middle of the mall and people watch — don’t complain.
Don’t push stores he doesn’t like. Save those for the girls trips. (Personally, I don’t care for the candle shops or soaps and lotion stores. To me if you have smell one, you have smelled them all.)
Give him credit for going and don’t expect it to be his favorite way to spend a day. Recognize he is doing it out of love for you, not for the activity of it. Don’t tell all his friends he “loves to shop with you”. And, don’t expect him to want to go every time you do.
Give him time to enjoy the things he enjoys doing at other times. And, if he wants you to, do them with him without complaining.
Girls: Does your husband shop with you? What are your tips for us?
Guys: Do you shop with your wives? What keeps you going?
The Christmas season can be hard on relationships. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with a couple after the holidays because of problems that developed — or were exaggerated — between Thanksgiving and New Years.
How can you protect your marriage this Christmas? That’s a good goal, right?
Plan a budget together. Stick to it. There will often be one spender and one saver in a relationship. Or two spenders. The principle is this: Don’t spend in December what you’re going to regret in January. Be wise on the front end.
Protect your family first. Even if that means saying no to some extended family events or time with friends, put your immediate family needs ahead of other obligations. Have time together as a family. (For years we did this wrong — and we regretted it later. It wasn’t until our boys were in high school and they could voice that they wanted more time with just us.) As a couple, agree on where you’ll spend your time before you spend your time anywhere this holiday season. You may have to support each other with the spouse’s families. (Wives speak to their families. Husbands speak to their families.)
Build traditions that build family. We often get distracted by things that matter less. Find a way to celebrate the reason for the season together. It could be reading the Christmas story or serving at a homeless shelter or annually letting Linus from Charlie Brown’s Christmas remind you of the true meaning of Christmas as you watch it together. The baby, who is a Savior, has been born — He is Christ the Lord. Lead your family to celebrate Christmas — the real Christmas — and you’ll enjoy it even more.
When tension is outside don’t let it reign inside. The Christmas season can be so busy. It’s hard to be everywhere we are expected to be. It seems emotions run abnormally high this time of year. People who don’t see each other often are in close quarters with one another. It can lead to tense relations. There’s often tension in the stores and on the streets. Decide now that nothing will distract you from the closeness you have as a couple. Make this a celebration season that grows your heart stronger as a couple.
Just a few suggestions. Any you have?
Communicating love to a spouse should be considered a never-ending, life-long commitment. If I’m honest, however, my wife is usually better at this than me.
Partly because of her personality and partly because she has a stronger relational aptitude than me and partly because she is awesome — but, for whatever reason — demonstrating love seems to come easier for Cheryl than for me at times.
I’m not talking about the quality of the love. I think I love Cheryl deeply. It’s that I’m not as good at “showing” my love.
I’m a work in progress. (I hope its okay to be honest that way.)
Plus, I’m to lead others. By example. I’m a pastor and teacher. People are trying to follow me. And, I believe, that should be in my marriage also.
So, how can I — how should I — communicate love to my wife?
And, just to be fair, I don’t think I’m alone in that question.
I am actually asked this type question frequently by other men who — like me — sometimes wonder how to communicate love to their spouse.
That’s what this post is about — communicating love in a marriage.
For men who want to do likewise with their wives…
Continually learn her. The wife knows when we’ve stopped. All of us are changing. Our needs, wants and dreams are continually adapting to our experiences, circumstances and the world around us. We demonstrate love by desiring to know even more the one we love. Great couples ask questions of each other. Routinely. Intentionally. They explore each other’s hearts and minds on deeper levels; uncovering the unspoken desires of the heart. They spend quantity time together; even learning to love each other’s activities.
Constantly pursue her. All women want a certain amount of romance in the relationship. Many men would never consider themselves romantic, but the good news here is they get great credit for genuinely trying. Strong couples keep dating on a regular basis. They pursue one another; giving no other human relationship preeminence over this one. They avoid sameness and boredom – which is one of the leading causes of marriage failure. They explore together. Try new things. Refuse sameness in the relationship. When men intentionally lead this effort, we demonstrate our concern for the relationship and our intent to keep the spark alive.
Consistently out-serve her. This one will be hard for most men, but this is a great way to use our competitive nature. Which is strong for most of us. When the goal is to out-serve our wives, we at least make progress towards doing so and it generates a desire to be a servant leader in our homes. Equally important in serving our wives is to serve them in an area that has the greatest value – not necessarily only the things the man likes or wants to do. It is hard not to love someone who strives to understand you enough to serve you at this higher level of commitment.
None of those are “easy” — if they are done well — and none of us ever master any of them. Some of us are better than others — like Cheryl. Some of us — like me — keep trying.
Is your marriage struggling? Sometimes, in my experience, there may be a problem with expectations.
Expectations are critical for the success of any good relationship — especially in a marriage.
Unspoken expectations. When the couple never lays out their expectations in the marriage one spouse or the other will be disappointed at some point. A lot of couples assume they are on the same page until a problem arises where they find out otherwise.
Unclear expectations. When the couple thinks they’ve communicated expectations, but they didn’t use language the other one could understand. Everyone communicates differently. Expectations must be clear. And, many times they have to be tested before we understand them.
Unmet expectations. When the couple had clear expectations — everyone understood them — they’ve even been tested — but, one spouse isn’t holding up their end of the deal. Happens all the time.
Unrealistic expectations. When the couple has expectations that are impossible for the other spouse to meet. Our spouse is not our savior. Not perfect. Can’t read minds. Will make mistakes. Etc.
How are you doing with setting and keeping expectations in your marriage?
By the way, these 4 are true in other relationships also.
I have an advanced degree in counseling and hundreds of hours experience working with couples. I’ve taught marriage retreats for years. I wouldn’t say I’m an “expert” in marriage — because I’m married — and my wife reads my blog. That would be a stretch. Actually, I know more to do than I have the practice of doing. (Isn’t that true for most of us?)
But, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve observed things that work and things that don’t.
I think there are some necessary ingredients for a healthy marriage. That’s the point of this post.
Want a healthier marriage?
Thou shalt serve one another. A good marriage practices mutual submission. Ephesians 5:21 commands us to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. Marriage is not a 50/50 deal. It’s a 100/100 deal — each willing to surrender all to the other person.
How are you at serving your spouse? Would they say you strive to serve them more everyday? Are you more the giver or the taker in the relationship? Be honest.
Thou shalt love unconditionally. Unconditionally means without conditions. (See how deep this blog can be.) I’ll love you if … is not the command. It’s I’ll love you even if not. God commands us to love our enemies. How much more should this commitment be strong within a` marriage?
Are you loving your spouse even with the flaws that you can see better than anyone else? Here’s a quick test: Does the way you communicate with your spouse indicate you have the highest regard for them — always?
Thou shalt respect one another. The Golden Rule covers this one. Everyone wants to be respected — so in any good marriage respect is granted to and by both parties. And, by the way, I believe respect too is to be unconditional.
In my experience, this one is sometimes easier for one spouse to give than the other, especially the one who works hardest in the marriage. Respect is mostly given because of actions. But respect is important for both spouses. Most people grant respect only when all conditions are met to be respected. That makes sense, but it doesn’t provide motivation to improve when the other party needs it most. All of us need someone who believes in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves. That’s the grace of respect. When most of us feel respected we will work harder to keep that respect.
Thou shalt put no other earthly relationships before this one. “Let not man put asunder” is not just a good King James Version wedding line. It’s God’s desire for a marriage. Great couples strive to allow no one — even children — even in-laws — to get in the way of building a healthy marriage.
Wow! Isn’t this a hard one? Yet, I can’t tell you how many marriages I have seen ruined because the children came first or the in-laws interfered. I’ve seen marriages ruined by friends — sometimes co-workers — who had little regard for the integrity of the marriage, and so they built a wedge between the couple. As hard as it is sometimes, great couples work to protect the marriage from every outside interruption.
Thou shalt commit beyond feelings. The Bible talks a great deal about the renewal of our mind. (Romans 12:2 for example.) The mind is more reliable than emotions. You may not always feel as in love as you did the day you married. There will be tough seasons in any marriage. Strong marriages last because they have a commitment beyond their emotional response to each other. And, when that’s true for both parties feelings almost always reciprocate and grow over time.
As true and necessary as this is, great marriages continue to pursue each other — they date one another — fostering the romantic feelings that everyone craves in a relationship. Sobering question: When’s the last time you pursued your spouse?
Thou shalt consider the other person’s interest ahead of thine own. Again, we are commanded to to do this in all relationships. How much more should we in marriage?
Over the years, as couples get comfortable with one another, I’ve observed couples who become very selfish with their individual time. Sometimes, for example, one spouse pursues a hobby that excludes the other one, and more and more time is committed to that hobby. The other spouse begins to feel neglected. It may be allocation of time, in actions or the words used to communicate, but sometimes a spouse can make the other spouse feel they are no longer valuable to them. Are you considering how you are being perceived by your spouse?
Thou shalt complete one another. The Biblical command is one flesh. (Ephesians 5) I’m not sure that’s anymore possible than the command that our individual flesh be molded into the image of Christ. It’s a command we obey in process. We are saints still under construction. We still sin. And, that process isn’t completed here on earth in my opinion. So it is in a marriage. We never completely “get there”, but we set such a high standard for our marriage that we continue to press towards the goal.
There is no better place where “iron sharpens iron” than in a marriage. Cheryl makes me a better person. And, if I can be so bold — I think I do the same for her. There are qualities in her I need and qualities in me she needs to become one flesh. But, that’s a process. That takes time, humility and intentionality. I must allow her to make me better — and likewise for her. But, when we do, we are both the benefactors. One question I always ask couples: Are you becoming closer as a couple — or are you drifting further apart? That’s a great question to ask frequently throughout the marriage.
These are obviously not the “10 Commandments”. They aren’t even necessarily God’s commandments — although I do believe they are based on the commands of God. The point is to take Biblical principles and apply them to our marriage.
And, what marriage wouldn’t benefit from that?
Would you pause and consider — Are you breaking any of these commands?
Marriage is hard work. Great marriages are even harder.
I don’t know if I’d claim to have a great marriage. My wife reads my blog — some days. (She’s the one that finds most of my typos.) And, my wife is the relational queen — the best I’ve ever seen — so her expectations for relationships are high.
For years working with couples I would ask them how strong their marriage was on a scale of 1 to 10. I just wanted to see where they felt they were and how far apart they were from each other. Almost without exception, the wife had a lower number than the husband. I think that’s because the women are usually the more relationally aware than us men. And, frankly, because of that, often having higher expectations for all a marriage could be.
So, while I actually think we have a great marriage — I’m going with good for the purpose of this post.
But, I’m pretty sure she’d say we have a good marriage. (Please say that sweetheart.) And, I’m certain she’d agree we work at being great together — most of the time. (There have been weeks, especially earlier in our marriage, when we seemed to work against each other — but those days are rare now. Thankfully)
Certainly both of us have seen things that don’t work — for our marriage and with the hundreds of other marriages we’ve encountered in ministry. And, we’ve also witnessed some great marriages. We’ve made a goal to surround ourselves with people who have marriages that can strengthen our own. One of our best pieces of premarital advice we give is to encourage people to find mentoring couples. It’s worked for us too.
So, what are some things that make great marriages soar? What keeps them going? What have we observed? What have we experienced?
Here are a few thoughts.
Let differences work for them. All couples are made with two different people. No two people in the world are just alike. And, after working with hundreds of couples, I’m convinced opposites often do attract. But, great couples learn to build upon those differences. They build upon each other’s strengths and let each other minimize their weaknesses. “Two are better than one” — the author of Ecclesiastes says — and great couples live this truth.
Extend grace for the minor annoyances. Can we just be honest? People do stuff that gets on our nerves at times. That’s true of all of us — even with the people — maybe even especially with the people we love the most. Great couples have learned not to let those little things distract from the major things — like love and commitment.
Serve each other. There are no 50-50 splits of responsibility in a great marriage. Great couples learn to sacrificially serve one another. In the best relationships, it would be difficult to judge who serves one another more. There may be be times one gives 100%, because the other can’t give anything. And there are other times the other spouse gives 100%. And neither complains when it’s their turn to give all.
Prioritize their time. Great couples spend time together. Life is busy for all of us. These couples schedule time together. They find things to do that each of them enjoy. And, they say no to other things that would keep them from having adequate time together.
Keep no secrets. There are no hidden issues among great couples. They are vulnerable with each other. Both partners open themselves up to the other person completely.
Publicly support each other. Great couples are supportive of each other in public. They don’t tear each other down in public. They handle private issues in private.
Keep no record of wrongs. Great couples learn to forgive. There aren’t any lingering issues that haven’t been resolved.
I feel the need to emphasize that I’m writing these with the understanding that it takes two people — both committed to making the marriage great — for any of these to work. There are some people who would give anything to make a great marriage, but they are the only part of the couple trying. I get that. A one-sided commitment won’t work when attempting to bond two people into one great couple.
But, when two people are willing to work hard — a great marriage is within reach. For all of us.
We are working towards the great marriage. Who is with us?