Keys to a Happy Marriage

The keys to a happy marriage are the same as the keys to an enjoyable courtship. Once you start thinking of yourself as “married,” you may stop doing the important things.

keys to a happy marriage Jack and Toshie Ito
Jack and Toshie Ito follow the four keys to a happy marriage

People who know my wife and I often ask how we achieve such a wonderful relationship.

It is obvious to them that we are very much in love.  Many people who see us are surprised that we are married since we seem to have the joy and excitement of a new relationship even though we have been married for many years.

When I tell people (honestly) that I am more in love with my wife than I have ever been and that our relationship keeps growing, many are amazed.  Since my wife and I are both relationship coaches, we are not surprised that many people have this reaction, but we are glad to share the keys to a happy marriage that we follow.  They are not mind boggling, but they are something that many people don’t think of.

There are a few important keys to a happy marriage that my wife and I continuously use to keep us in love with each other.  Staying in love is possible for any couple who is willing to be dedicated to their relationship, who are thankful for what they have, who are willing to keep away from toxic cultural messages, and who are willing to love their spouses with their heart, mind, and body.

The four keys to a happy marriage are:

One.  Guard your heart.

We must protect the way that we think about our spouses, because once we start to think negatively about them, it puts a damper on our love for them.  It also makes us behave more negatively toward them, which can start a downward spiral in our relationships.  Some specific ways to keep our love alive by guarding our hearts are:

  1. make sure that you always talk about only good things about your spouse to others
  2. pray daily, thanking God for giving you such a wonderful spouse
  3. don’t read marriage counseling type books–they create a dissatisfaction with your spouse by emphasizing what you should have over what you do have
  4. keep away from pornography, TV shows, and websites which promote unfaithfulness and dissatisfaction with your partner.
  5. make a conscious decision that your spouse takes priority over everyone else in your life.

Two.  Don’t act married.

I intentionally call my wife my “girlfriend” rather than my “wife.”  The way that men and women think about the roles of husband and wife are generally not conducive to a happy marriage.  In the process of coaching, I have asked thousands of clients if they would say things to a girlfriend or boyfriend that they say to their husbands or wives.  Over and over again, they tell me that they would not.  Ask yourself, “If I were single and in love with someone, would I say the things to them that I say to my spouse?” “Would I behave toward them the same way I behave toward my spouse?”  The fact is that if a single person would not like what you have to say or how you say it, a married person (your spouse) won’t like it, either. Some specific ways to keep our love alive by defining our spouses as our lovers are:

  1.  Date your spouse regularly.  If you were single and dated your spouse as often as you do now, would you be able to keep your relationship together?  If it wouldn’t work to date so little when you are single, it won’t work in your marriage either.
  2. Spend one on one time together every day just enjoying each other.  If you were in love with a girlfriend, or boyfriend, you would do this for sure.  If your spouse has an affair, he or she will find time to do this for sure.  This is not about not having enough time.
  3. Have a sex life that you both enjoy.  Learn how what pleases your spouse and get better at it.  Sex is a skill.  Read a book on it.  Practice.  Be the best lover that your spouse ever had or could have.
  4. Hold hands a lot.  My wife and I do two things that make us stand out as close.  We are often holding hands in church, walking to the store from our car, walking around the mall and other places.  Either that or I have my arm around her.  The other thing is to stand close together, looking in each other’s eyes when we talk.  These behaviors signal possession and closeness to others.

Three.  Be your spouse’s cheerleader.

If my wife comes to me with an idea of any kind, she can already predict what I will say.  I will tell her that I love her idea and to go for it.  I will show her absolute confidence that she can do whatever she puts her mind to.  I know that some of her ideas are not very good and will not work out, but I never tell her that.  My wife will never have to leave me so that she can feel like she has the freedom to grow or make her own decisions.  She has that already.  She behaves the same way with me.  Having a partner who believes in you no matter what is a wonderful thing.  Some specific ways to encourage our partners are:

  1.  Be ready to tell your partner how much you like his or her ideas before you even hear them.  Turn off your careful, rational thinking, and just encourage him or her.  If the idea is not so good, your spouse will soon find that out by him or herself.
  2. Don’t worry about stuff.  Every object in your life can be repaired or replaced.  If your spouse wants to knock down a wall or dig up the front yard, tell him or her to go for it.
  3. Don’t worry that you will have to participate.  When my wife goes skydiving, scuba diving, or cave exploring, I am the photographer or picnic coordinator.  I don’t do those things with her because I am chicken.  But, I am encouraging her all the way and her cheerleader.

Four.  Admit readily that you are an imperfect, fallible spouse.

As coaches, we know that a lot of problems in relationships are caused by defensiveness.  Many people have a strong need to feel that they are perfect and so whenever they are criticized for something, it really sets them off.  If my wife says something bad about me, I will be the first to admit what she is saying.  If she tells me I forgot something, I don’t debate it.  I admit my man-brain did a lousy job…again.  If she tells me I made a mistake about something, I tell her it is just one in a long line of mistakes and thank her for marrying such a fallible man.  How does this make me appear to my wife?  Secure.  Attractive.  Whether you are a man or woman, you can come off that way, too.  Some specific ways to be secure and attractive to our spouse are:

  1. Don’t advertise your mistakes, but readily admit to them if others bring them up.
  2. Don’t apologize for your faults–simply admit them.
  3. Don’t defend yourself or counter-attack your partner.
  4. Admit and accept your own faults.  We need to love others despite their faults.  God loves us despite our faults.  And, our spouses will love us despite our faults.

***There is a caveat for this fourth key.  If you have an abusive spouse–verbally, physically, or emotionally, you can still admit your faults, but you must also use good boundaries to prevent ongoing abuse.  You never want to reward abusive behavior or allow it to continue.

To many or perhaps even most people, these four keys to a happy marriage are counter-intuitive.

We have been conditioned by society to believe that it is best to lie about what we want to our partners while we struggle alone with competing desires.  We learn to try to control our partners, be jealous, and to make demands—all of which drive people further and further apart.  Dishonesty, insecurity (including jealousy), selfishness, and control are the four opposing keys to destroying relationships.  As much as possible, we need to work to remove them from ourselves.  If we do that, while also having good boundaries, it will have the effect of pulling our spouses in the same positive direction.  Most of the time that people are ineffective in improving their relationships it is because people try to directly change these characteristics in their partners.  Rather than this creating change, it just brings resistance and distance.  We must start with ourselves.  That is what all of my books and coaching programs are about.  I have seen literally thousands of relationships improve this way, while I haven’t seen any relationships change by those who strive to get their partners to change first.

My only regret about our marriage is that it won’t last forever.  Nothing does in this world.  We are mortals and all of our relationships will end one way or the other.  We need to treasure them while we have them.  I have had enough losses in my life to understand this reality.  Most of my clients have failed to see the reality of this until their spouse was in the process of leaving them.  Fortunately, most of them were able, with a lot of help, to rescue their relationship.  Are you loving your spouse your very best today?

Behind each of those four keys to a happy marriage are a number of issues and skills that couples need.  If you would like to start to learn the skills and to deal with those parts of yourself that get in the way of a closer relationship, I recommend you to start relationship coaching or to at least get a book on whatever aspect you most need.  Life is short and as Jimmy Buffett says, there is “no rewind and no replay.”

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