Most people make marriage harder than it has to be by focusing on things that are not so important. Put your focus on these four things to make your marriage much better.
Do you feel bad when you see other couples who are happy?
When others have what we want, it can make us feel jealous and sad. It also increases the dissatisfaction we have with our own situation. There are two general responses to this situation.
The sour grapes response: Find something wrong with the people who look like they are doing better, so we can be more comfortable staying the way we are. People who are like this often find bad things to say about others.
The other way to respond is the admiration response. We admire people when we would like to be like them. People who admire others will often try to find out how the other person has what they have so that they can work on getting it.
The more good qualities you can find in others, the more you will tend to have those good qualities. To quote my favorite self development coach, Brian Tracy, “You become what you think about most of the time.”
People often confuse the results of happiness and success with the causes of happiness and success
We can’t just look at a happy couple or a happy family and determine what makes them happy. If we do, we will tend to notice things that are products of their happiness and success rather than the cause of it. For example, a nice car or house is a result of success. They don’t cause success. Happy children are not the cause of good parenting, they are the result of it.
People who buy things to make themselves happy have confused the cause of success with the result of success. Likewise, getting married or having children are not the causes of happiness. They are the results of having enjoyable relationships and being happy already.
I want to take you to four of the causes behind a happy marriage. They are not things that you will just be able to observe in others. They are not likely to match what you have learned elsewhere. As always, I encourage you to try them out and see how they compare to what you have learned elsewhere.
If you do what the majority of people do, you will be just as unhappy and unsuccessful as the majority of people are. Focus on doing what it right and what works, regardless of how crazy the majority think you are and you will have the success they wish they had. Learn from those who do rather than those who wish they could.
The four keys to a happy marriage are:
1. Guard your heart.
We must protect the way that we think about our spouses, because once we start to think negatively about them, it decreases our love for them and our satisfaction with our relationship. It also makes us behave more negatively toward them, which results in them being more negative toward us. It can start a downward spiral in our relationships.
Some specific ways to keep our love alive by guarding our hearts are:
- Make sure that you always say only good things about your spouse to others. This is part of being loyal and faithful.
- Pray daily, thanking God for some specific things your spouse does for you. One of the biggest of which is giving up years of his or her life that could have been given to someone else.
- Don’t read marriage counseling type books. They typically focus on relationship exercises that create more distance in relationships. Books written for singles on how to attract and connect with the opposite gender are a lot more useful for marriage enhancement.
- Think of your spouse as a human being with all the flaws and struggles that go with that. Expect that your spouse is going to mess up and do things that you don’t like many times throughout your marriage (just like you will also do).
- Do not say things to your spouse that you would not want your spouse to say to you. For example, don’t keep bringing up something your spouse did in the past which you didn’t like.
- Keep away from pornography, TV shows, social media, websites, and people who encourage unfaithfulness and dissatisfaction with your partner.
- Make a conscious decision that your spouse takes priority over everyone else in your life, your parents and children included. Prioritizing your spouse is one of the best things you can do for your kids.
- Keep in mind that eventually you will lose your spouse. By realizing that our time with others is limited, because our lives are limited, we value them much more.
The saddest thing for Christians is not dying, because we will go to Heaven. The saddest thing is saying goodbye to loved ones who go there ahead of us.
2. Preserve the core relationship
Marriage adds commitment and responsibility. It does not take away any of the emotional requirements of the premarital relationship.
Typically, the best part of a married couple’s life happens before they were married. Generally that is when they were behaving the best toward each other and also focusing on enjoying their relationship. Unless you marry for purely practical reasons, you probably wanted to keep the same kind of closeness after marriage that you had before marriage.
To achieve the same close relationship after marriage as before, we need to do the same things after marriage as before. We need to be on our best behavior, and spend regular time together just for the sake of enjoying each other. For sure the responsibilities of marriage make that more difficult, but not less necessary.
People who don’t have the time to maintain a marriage should not marry. The same goes for having a dog or a child. Once married we need to avoid decisions that would prevent us from being able to maintain our marriage. For example, working different shifts can prevent the daily one on one time required to maintain a marriage. Being unwilling to leave children in someone else’s care can prevent the weekly dating necessary to maintain a healthy marriage.
Buying an expensive home or other luxuries have prevented many couples from being able to have the funds necessary to date each other or pay for a sitter or part time nanny. Dating and daily quality time together are necessities that need to be taken care of before any luxuries.
It is possible to have a marriage without quality time together, dating, or an enjoyable sexual relationship. However, it is very difficult to keep such a marriage faithful, a source of joy, or to make it last a long time.
What makes for a good single relationship makes for a good marriage relationship. If the amount of time you spend with your spouse and the way you treat your spouse would not work in a single relationship, it won’t work in your marriage either. Your marriage will end just like your single relationship would.
Marriage is often used as an excuse to say whatever we want, no matter how negative, to prioritize everything except our partner, to criticize or complain, to not look our best, to not be romantic, to reject and blame, and to disregard and dismiss. This kind of marriage mindset is destructive. Marriage is work and that means doing the same things that would keep a single relationship alive.
Ten specific ways to have more of a single mindset:
- Think of your spouse as a girlfriend or boyfriend rather than as wife or husband. The way people think about girlfriends and boyfriends is more conducive to loving, thoughtful, and enjoyable interaction.
- Date your spouse at least weekly.
- Spend quality one on one time with your spouse every day.
- Prioritize your spouse over whatever you are doing and put it aside when your spouse approaches you. Turn off the TV, phone, computer, or put down the book.
- Give your spouse friendly eyes, voice, and facial expression, whenever you encounter him or her–even if you don’t feel like it. Marriage is work, just like friendships. Work is things we do, even when we don’t feel like it, because of the good results it produces.
- Do not use your spouse as a parent or therapist. Although you can get occasional help, don’t make it your spouse’s job to take care of you and listen to your problems.
- Do not treat your spouse like a client, patient, or child. Your job is to love your spouse. It is not to make him or her happy, successful, or problem free. Empathizing and agreeing are far more important to relationships than fixing and advising.
- Have a sex life that you both enjoy. Learn 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.
- Hold hands a lot, sit close together, stand close together and look into each others eyes. Difficulty doing this is an indication that other things are slipping.
- Do extra little things to show your love to your spouse. Making this effort will help stimulate your feelings of love for your spouse. If you only do what you have to, your feelings won’t grow.
Being open with all of your thoughts and feelings and doing whatever you please do not go together with having a happy marriage or having a long one. You are only going to get the rewards if you do the work.
3. 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.
If your spouse has very damaging or dangerous ideas, you will have to use a boundary rather than saying go for it or let’s do it, but you can still validate your spouse.
Let me give you an example of this:
Spouse: I have an idea. Let’s sell our home and buy an RV to travel around the country.
You: That sounds like lots of fun. But, we need to find another way to have some adventure because we will still need a home to come back to.
Validating someone even when we need to use a boundary is a good way to help keep our relationship strong.
It is our job to love our spouses rather than to train them, judge them, or make sure they do everything right. Sure, you might have a useless juicer sitting on your countertop for a year, but the gain to your relationship will be worth your loss of counter space.
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 with a positive attitude, who believes in you no matter what, is a wonderful thing.
Some specific ways to encourage our spouses are:
- 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 be encouraging. If the idea is not so good, your spouse will soon find that out by him or herself.
- 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.
- 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 am her cheerleader.
4. Admit readily that you are an imperfect, fallible spouse.
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 is right.
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.
People who can’t admit to their mistakes are insecure and unattractive. Never agree with abuse, but learn to find the truth in criticism and you will get less of it.
Some specific ways to be secure in our humanity:
- Don’t advertise your mistakes, but readily admit to them if others bring them up.
- Don’t apologize for your faults–simply admit them when they are pointed out.
- Don’t promise to do better. You will be no less fallible tomorrow than you were yesterday.
- Don’t defend yourself or counter-attack your partner.
- Admit and accept that you have faults just like everyone else. This is the best way to deal with self esteem problems.
- We need to love others despite their faults. God loves us despite our faults and expects us to do the same.
- Allow your spouse to be upset when you mess up. Most people are. Your spouse is human, too.
The surprising thing isn’t that our spouses notice our faults. It’s that they don’t notice them sooner.
If you have a critical spouse, agreeing without being reactive is a great way to take away all the reward of the critical behavior by your spouse. Reactivity rewards critical people.
One more thing: get rid of the bad programming
We have been conditioned to believe in marriage damaging behaviors:
- We’ve learned that talking about problems fixes problems (it actually damages connection).
- We’ve learned we should tell our spouses whatever we don’t like about them (although this actually damages connection and creates conflict).
- We’ve been told to be open and honest (when we actually need to filter what we say so we can be loving and honest instead).
- We’ve been told to love unconditionally (when we actually need to use boundaries to end unacceptable behavior).
- We’ve been told it is healthy to argue (when in actuality arguing always causes damage).
- We’ve learned to stand up to blame (when we need to actually admit to our mistakes and take responsibility for them).
- many others (and still more false teaching to come).
Satan mixes lies with truth and says things repeatedly until they start to sound natural. He wants us to use our feelings rather than the Bible or experience. However, only the Bible and experience can teach us what is true, healthy, and good.
Don’t trust your own thinking for any area in which you do poorly.
Don’t take my word for it!
Never take my word for marriage advice, nor anyone else’s. Instead, get ideas that you test against the Bible and experience. Then keep the things that are good and throw out the ones that are not–no matter what other people say and no matter how much you feel like doing something that doesn’t work.
People who rely on the idea if it feels good, do it have to be taken care of by others who actually do what is good.
Good relationships are only created by good skills
Behind each of these four keys to a happy marriage are a number of relationship skills. Skills are not acquired by reading or listening. They are only acquired by practice. Choose something to practice and then practice. Get more help if you get stuck.
I have helped more than 10,000 people to get unstuck. There is only one person in life who can make you get stuck and that’s the person you see when you look in the mirror. If you would like, I would be happy to help you to have the skills to get your relationship moving forward again.