These are not the foundational principles of marriage.
These tips are one-sentence nuggets of practical advice. They are easy to understand, sometimes difficult to implement, but absolutely transformative.
1. No sarcasm.
Sarcasm is a nasty attitude dressed up in decent words. After we take the first step of sarcasm, it is only another step to fully exposed nasty attitudes, revealed now through ugly words. But if we are vigilant in never taking the first step of sarcasm, we will prevent a multitude of hurt feelings and painful regrets.
Both my husband and I entered marriage with the sharply honed tongues of firstborns, quick on the verbal draw. Thankfully, we adopted the “no sarcasm” rule as newlyweds. Since then, every one of our 27 years of marriage has been blessed by the effective muzzle that this policy has kept on our tongues.
Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless – that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9, MSG)
2. Use your best manners.
Are you more polite with your boss, with your pastor, or even with strangers than you are with your spouse?
Raise the level of courtesy in your marriage, and you will raise the level of friendship and enjoyment.
People sometimes get the twisted notion that love means spewing your unfiltered thoughts and unguarded words. Marriage is not a relationship license for sloppiness. Marriage is a relationship responsibility for attentiveness. You can “let down your hair” without “letting it all hang out.”
Relax? Yes. Be genuine? Of course. Be rude? Never!
At the core of good manners is respect. When you saturate your marriage with respectful behavior, you suffocate many irritations and hurts.
If you will use your “fine china” manners with your spouse, you will then enjoy the gourmet delights of honor and esteem.
Love is not “rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, ESV).
3. Become fluent in the love language of your spouse.
Your spouse has one particular “language” in which he or she best communicates love. The five languages are acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, and physical touch.
If your husband’s language is acts of service, you can give him a hundred handwritten cards with profound declarations of love, but he will not feel loved until you help him in the yard or run an errand for him. If your wife’s language is quality time, you can wash her car and take out the trash every week, but she will not feel loved until you sit across from her, linger over a cup of coffee, and look into her eyes.
Chances are good that your spouse’s primary language is not your language. It is important not only to speak your spouse’s love language, but also to listen in that language. Translate for yourself so that you can receive your spouse’s expressions of love to you.
It takes just one of you becoming bilingual to communicate love effectively–but it does take one.
Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages is one of the most helpful books on marriage that you can read. If you aren’t familiar with the love languages, learning about them will benefit your marriage dramatically.
4. Do not assume your spouse’s motivation.
We may think that we know exactly why someone did what he or she did, but God warns us not to go there! Only God knows the heart.
When you think he left the toilet seat up (again!) just to annoy you, or when you think she is late (again!) just to spite you, reject that condemning thought, and choose to believe the best. If you need to deal with a behavior, then do that, but don’t drag motivation into it. Your interactions will be more pleasant and more productive.
Assuming wrong motives quickly becomes a bad and dangerous habit, costing you the energy and misery of inner stewing. However, if you will develop the habit of assuming your spouse’s best intentions, you will be incredibly blessed: you will think more clearly, and you will enjoy your spouse more.
Give it a try for thirty days. You won’t go back.
5. Fast and pray on a regular basis for your marriage.
Many years ago, I heard Shirley Dobson say that she prayed and fasted for her marriage. Her comments resonated with me because I thought that if our spiritual enemy would like to destroy any one marriage, it might be the marriage of Dr. James and Shirley Dobson, well-known for their efforts to support Biblical marriage. I suspected that Shirley’s behind-the-scenes prayer and fasting was a critical strength in the Dobson marriage, so I determined to bring that same practice into my own marriage. (The Dobsons have been married now for almost 55 years, and I am not aware of even a hint of scandal in their marriage.)
The idea is not to twist God’s arm or to try to impress Him. The goal is to line up your heart with God’s heart. Through that unity, immense power is unleashed.
Fasting sharpens our focus on prayer. Not everyone is able to fast from food, but all of us can eliminate something from our diet or from our routines, inviting God to grab our spiritual attention in a more intense way.
How do you fast? Here is the focus that helps me: I say to myself and to God that I need Him more than I need food. Over and over, I say that my marriage needs God more than I need food.
As I acknowledge my great need and desire for God, I create a spiritual openness which God then fills with Himself—like a hunger being filled with food. Awesomely, He responds with His guidance, His power, and His presence.
6. Avoid correcting your spouse.
Do not correct your spouse in public, unless it is truly important. Does it really matter to others whether your vacation was last September or last October? People will probably not remember the specifics of your spouse’s story, but they will remember the fact that you continually corrected or even embarrassed your spouse.
Even in private, be slow to correct unless you know that your spouse would appreciate it. Many times, the details are not important, but your relationship always is.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be … slow to speak …” (James 1:19, NIV).
7. Pray together as a couple.
If you knew that there was one thing that lowers the divorce rate to 1 in 5, would you be interested? How about 1 in 10? What about 1 in 100? Would you believe 1 in 1,000?
Dr. Greg Smalley references a 1997 Gallup poll showing that the divorce rate for couples who pray together plummets to less than 1 in 1,000. Wow! I don’t know about you, but praying with my husband sounds like a practice that I want to build into my marriage! (1)
It can be intimidating to pray with your spouse. If that is your situation, start with small steps. For example, simply hold hands with your partner, and pray silently for a minute. Your prayers together can grow gradually from there. Stick with it, and you will be amazed at the rich benefits you will gain as you pray with your spouse each day.
8. Speak the “gender language” of your spouse.
In Ephesians 5:33, God has these instructions for us: Each husband “must love his wife as he loves himself, and [each] wife must respect her husband” (NIV).
If you are a man, go overboard in being affectionate with your wife. Keep this posted in your brain: “Give love–unconditional love.”
And if you are a woman, go all-out in expressing respect to your husband. Keep this posted in your brain, “Give respect–unconditional respect.”
A fantastic book on this topic is Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs.
9. Know the password to your spouse’s heart.
The secret code to a woman’s heart is “security.” If a man can continually express to his wife that she is unshakeable as “number one” in his heart, he will be meeting one of her most critical needs.
The secret code to a man’s heart is “success.” If a woman can continually express to her husband that she sees greatness in him, she will be meeting one of his most critical needs.
These principles are developed by Bill and Pam Farrel in their book The Marriage Code: Discovering Your Own Secret Language of Love.
10. Make and accept bids.
Dr. John Gottman is known around the world for his forty years of extensive research on marriage and relationships. Twenty-five years ago, he began watching and recording the daily interactions and conversations of hundreds of couples.
He expected to see successful couples involved in countless small examples of self-disclosure and personal sharing.” What he discovered, though, was not what he expected.[ii]
Successful couples spent most of their time talking about ordinary things that seemed to make no difference to anyone, such as ‘breakfast cereals, mortgage rates or the baseball game.’ They rarely talked about their deep, inner feelings.”[iii]
Here is what was important: successful couples made “bids” and responded to them.
“Bids” are any type of invitation to connect, such as a comment or a touch or even just a look. After one person makes a bid, the spouse then accepts the bid by some type of positive response. Again, it can be a simple comment, gesture, or even facial expression.
Successful couples make countless bids back and forth; each accepting the other’s bid. Their bids often look remarkably inconsequential. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the bid is made and accepted.”[iv]
For example, perhaps your spouse remarks one morning that there is a beautiful red bird sitting on the back fence. If you take the time to look at the bird yourself, you are accepting the bid, and building your marriage. However, if you ignore the comment about the bird, or respond harshly, you are refusing the bid and damaging the marriage.
Day after day, as a couple creates many of these bids, offering and accepting, they are knitting together a very strong relationship. Each interaction may be small, but they are powerful when woven together. Likewise, a series of refused bids, however small, becomes a very destructive force in the marriage.
Responding to bids is so significant in a relationship that Dr. Gottman learned that he could predict with high accuracy the success or failure of a relationship by this factor alone.
Just as a bird builds its nest, bit by bit, so you can build your marriage, bid by bid.