Most couples entering pre-marriage counseling eagerly anticipate happy times ahead. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be there in the first place. Many clearly want something different than their parents had, but they’re still not sure how to make that happen. Some have already ignored red flags in their courtship and others have preemptively dismissed them as unimportant. Usually these red flags point to fissures in the relationship that will likely open up into chasms after marriage unless they tackle them before the wedding. Generally, however, there reigns an undeniable optimism about the future, which fuels the drive to make the relationship a permanent part of their lives.
Assuming pre-marriage counseling has successfully identified and largely resolved the issues that might otherwise have eventually driven a wedge between the partners, it’s natural to ask, “What’s next?” What can a couple do to ensure that their marriage stays on track and leads to real personal growth? How can you keep from falling off the rails and descending into the canyon of disharmony and despair?
There are seven things a couple can do that will reliably provide an environment important for building a healthy relationship that has true longevity. We begin with the cultivation of specific relational skills.
1. Listen carefully to one another, and, then, listen some more.
James is very forceful when he talks about this matter: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas. 1:19). This implies, not passive listening, but an active listening, the kind which prompts questions of clarification, solicited feedback for accuracy of interpretation, and nonverbal signs of attention (e.g., nods, leaning forward, and eye contact). This is significant because some people tend to be “listening specialists”, hearing only negative things, such as put-downs or criticism, or hearing only what they want to hear. Active listening then becomes a corrective for preventing misinterpretations that lead to communication breakdown.
What’s more, because you can listen several times faster than the other person can talk, there is a tendency for your thoughts to sweep past the incoming message, blocking its full or true meaning. Giving your mate your full, undivided attention, therefore, is of paramount importance if you want to get the message straight.
2. Train yourself to think “multi-optionally”, rather than in either-or terms.
Many couples get stuck in their problem solving because they think there are only two options, his position or hers. Yet, there are almost always more than two, often many more than you would ever imagine.
Try a little exercise: Both take note of an event of ambiguous cause, say, a man picking up a wallet lying on the floor of the mall. Let’s say, after he has carefully examined its contents, this man walks over to Lost and Found and turns it in. How many reasons could you come up with that would equally explain his behavior? (Hint: There are undoubtedly a lot more explanations than you think!). It takes a while to become creative enough in your thinking to consistently come up with multiple alternatives. But, once you get the hang of it, conflict resolution becomes infinitely easier. It also cultivates a sense of teamwork in the process.
3. Cultivate the element of surprise in your relationship.
Try to avoid reducing your marriage to a series of overly predictable routines. Think of how you greet each other when you get home after work, or what you do to relax and have fun as a couple, other than merely watching T.V. together. Do you usually go to the same restaurants to eat, or attend the same activities?
Try to shake up your routines from time to time. Surprise one another with something special or different. Be free to experiment. Don’t be afraid to try new experiences and behaviors. It injects stimulation into the nature of your relationship. They don’t have to be dramatic or require a lot of planning; it could simply be a spur of the moment thing.
4. Focus on your partner’s strengths.
Sit down and write out all the ways your spouse shows his or her unique gifts. You might even ask others who know your spouse to jot down what they see as his or her strengths, and then add them to your list as well. Write them down on a 3×5 card and place it in your wallet or purse.
Review this list on a regular basis, and keep your eye open for those times you see one of your spouse’s strengths on display. When you spot it in action, make a point to call it out to him or her, and express your admiration for that strength. When you are admired by your spouse for your attributes, it creates a powerful bond of loving that accelerates personal growth.
5. Work on your self-esteem.
Many of the most serious fault lines in marriages involve spouses who, deep down inside, feel inadequate and worthless and, who sometimes even question their lovability. Mired in their self-hatred, they are often hypersensitive to any hint of criticism and hyper-vigilant for any perceived slight. Conflict of almost any kind is threatening, presenting to them sure evidence of being unloved. They may lash out in rage or withdraw into resentful silence, convinced that their ideas or desires are once more being dismissed as irrelevant or, worse, stupid, and, therefore, shouldn’t have them.
Your marriage may not suffer to the extent I’m describing here, but such tensions may still exist, only to a lesser extent. The point is that low self-esteem can act like a partisan wrecking ball when it comes to the communication process.
Jesus had great compassion on those who had lost all self-respect.
Witness his tender intervention with the adulteress who was not condemned but given a new opportunity to live her life differently. He encouraged her not to consider her past as the determinant of her future; instead, she was to look forward to rebooting her life with a new slate. Can you imagine what that did for a woman who otherwise would have hated herself for her past? Bearing the scarlet letter of adultery before her people, she likely would have given up and returned to a life of sin.
You are lovable precisely because you were created by a God who is love, who cannot create in his own image that which is not lovable. Otherwise, he would have violated his own character. Low self-esteem, therefore, is the result of believing a lie about yourself because your history has taught you that the truth is too foreign to accept. Nonetheless, if you begin buying into that truth, it will, most assuredly, finally set you free.
6. Tell each other on a daily basis how much you love one another.
Look for ways to express that love in small things. Find out what is deemed special or considered particularly loving by your mate. Husbands, don’t just buy flowers, thinking that’s a good thing, if your wife values acts of service more. Or, wives, don’t merely clean your husband’s car out, thinking he will be thrilled, if he puts a higher value on physical affection. Authors have popularized this idea as knowing your partner’s love language. Whatever you wish to call it, we’re talking about being tuned in to what your mate sees as significant in your love life together. The simple fact that you’re steadfastly focused on what makes the most difference for your spouse speaks volumes about how vitally important your mate is to you.
7. Finally, bathe your marriage in constant prayer—both individual prayer and couple prayer.
Marriage is ultimately a spiritual covenant. God used the marital union to describe the relation of Jesus (the bridegroom) to his people, the church (his bride). He did this, in part, because he saw marriage itself as the sacred promise of loving and being loved in return.
Sometimes, people complain that their schedules seem to crowd out the most important things. As much as they might value prayer in their lives, they find it to be hit or miss, failing to be consistent. Rather than continuing to feel guilty about it, why not take a “spiritual pause”, in which you momentarily stop in the entry hall and, with each taking thirty seconds, pray for your spouse’s day. Sixty seconds out of your day for prayer together is very doable, even with seemingly impossible schedules. At the very least, it’s a great place to start.
Spending time with other Christian couples, whether for social stimulation or for Bible study, also cultivates a unity with likeminded believers with whom you can find spiritual fellowship. This serves as yet another reminder of the importance of your faith in living out your married life.
If you fail to recognize the spiritual nature of your marriage, you not only miss an important truth, but you create an opening for the Evil One to cause havoc.
If you follow these seven suggestions for keeping your married life tuned up and running smoothly, you’ll save yourself a lot of needless heartache. It’s like regularly servicing your car: If you take good care of it, it will last a very long time. Then, someday, you will join that increasingly rare group of couples happily celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversaries!