God tells us that He "hates divorce" (Malachi 2:16), and He gives us specific instructions that can produce peace and happiness. Regardless of whether one has followed God's instructions when it comes to dating, these principles will help any marriage.
Although the best course of action is to always follow all of God's instructions, God also allows and encourages everyone to turn from past sins and to begin obeying Him (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19). So even if you have made mistakes in dating or in your marriage, you can change if you commit your life to God and ask for His help in reforming your life. (If you'd like to know more about the purpose of human life and how to commit your life to God, request our free booklets What Is Your Destiny? and The Road to Eternal Life.)
Although solid, secure relationships are built more quickly when both husband and wife accept and practice God's laws, God expects each of us to respond to Him regardless of the circumstances of our marriage (James 4:17). Even when only one spouse commits his or her life to God and His standards, God can bless both partners (1 Corinthians 7:13-14). A positive, loving example of obedience to God by a husband or wife may influence the other to want to please God (1 Peter 3:1-4). One person can make a difference.
Now let's consider some biblical principles that make marriages more enjoyable—and, therefore, longer lasting.
A lifelong commitment
Early in the book of Genesis, God tells us that it is appropriate for a man to "leave his father and his mother" and "cleave unto his wife" (Genesis 2:24, King James Version). The Hebrew word translated "cleave" is dabaq, meaning "to cling, cleave, keep close."
"Used in modern Hebrew in the sense of 'to stick to, adhere to,' dabaq yields the noun form for 'glue' and also the more abstract ideas of 'loyalty, devotion'" (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "To Cleave, Cling").
When a husband and wife obey the biblical command to cleave to each other, they will literally join together. Having sexual relations, becoming "one flesh," is part of the commitment to each other in marriage. Commitment also includes fidelity, trust and the character to act properly when under pressure or temptation. Yet too often people engage in sex without commitment—a contradiction of this foundational principle for successful marriages.
When two people exchange wedding vows, they make a lifelong commitment. Biblically speaking, this is a covenant (Malachi 2:14)—a solemn promise to God and one's spouse to be faithful.
This commitment should not be taken lightly or maintained only when we feel like it. We need to understand that our feelings can mislead us. God does not advocate only occasional bursts of loyalty and obedience to Him whenever it is convenient for us. Similarly, people who desire good marriages do not look for people who will stay committed to them only most of the time.
Remaining faithful to one's commitment is a character issue. Good relationships stand on long-term, trustworthy commitments—even under trying circumstances. When two people commit to follow God and His instructions within their marriage, they take the first steps toward a happy, lasting relationship.
What is love?
To love and be loved is one of the most exhilarating experiences any of us can enjoy. Writers and poets, ancient and modern, speak of the power and emotion of romantic love. Yet the Bible reveals that love, in its broadest sense, is a choice. Love is something we choose to do.
God tells husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25-28; Colossians 3:19)—and not just if they feel like it. Lacking a foundational understanding, many couples have tragically assumed they have no control over their feelings. Concluding that love just magically appears or disappears, too many have suffered and even dissolved relationships over difficulties that could have been resolved.
In a beautiful explanation of the love God expects of us, the apostle Paul describes the nature and qualities of genuine love: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV).
Love is much more than a vague emotion or physical attraction, something we "fall" into or out of. Falling is an accident, something we have little control over. Genuine love as described in the Bible is very different.
Practicing real love requires conscious choice and determination. Genuine love resolves to show kindness and patience in the face of suffering. It does not return evil for evil (Romans 12:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:15). People who exemplify this kind of love follow the example of God Himself, who "is kind to the unthankful and evil" (Luke 6:35).
Leadership based on love
Full, complete love is the love God expects husbands to show their wives. It is the foundation of godly leadership. Without it husbands cannot properly fulfill the leadership God expects from them within marriage (Ephesians 5:23). When a husband demonstrates godly love, his whole family benefits. His wife and children feel secure. When they know they are honored and loved, it is much easier for them to respect him as the leader of the family.
A husband must understand that even though God has given him responsibility within the family, his position of leadership is to be used only for the good of the family. It should never be used for selfish reasons. This kind of leadership flows from the understanding that first and foremost the husband, too, is under authority—God's authority (1 Corinthians 11:3).
Because husbands historically have not lived up to God's expectations for them, some have concluded that a husband's leadership position within the family is oppressive and outdated. The real problem, however, is with husbands who neglect or reject the character traits of godliness—not with God's model for families. If we accept God's instructions, we must accept all of His teaching on marriage.
God places on a husband's shoulders immense responsibility for leading his wife and children in gentleness and love. God gives him no mandate to use his position harshly or selfishly, nor the right to neglect his family's well-being. Humility, the opposite of pride and arrogance, is essential in godly leadership.
In his poignant letter to Titus, Paul explained that God's structure for families is a fundamental biblical teaching: "But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior . . . that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed" (Titus 2:1-5).
God set husbands in a leadership role in the family, but He expects men and women alike to practice biblical love and respect (Ephesians 5:21).
Respect: Key to a successful marriage
Besides detailing for husbands how they should love their wives (Ephesians 5:25-33), Paul gives specific instructions to wives: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything" (Ephesians 5:22-24).
This passage teaches us that a wife's willing acknowledgment of her husband's leadership role is a vital ingredient in godly marriages. This doesn't mean the husband must make every decision.
Many couples successfully divide household responsibilities, working together according to their respective strengths and interests. In a loving marriage, both partners should discuss major decisions and priorities. Then, according to the biblical model, if the husband chooses to make the final judgment, all family members should honor it unless it forces them to disobey God (see Acts 5:29).
Of course, there are often times when a husband should wisely defer to the preferences of his wife and children. Just because he has the right to make family decisions does not mean it is always best that he does. Many decisions are a matter of preference, and preference is an individual matter. A loving husband and father should be sensitive to the desires and preferences of every family member as long as they don't violate godly standards.
No husband can successfully be the head of his household unless his wife cooperatively respects the leadership position God has given him. Without her conscious decision to obey God's instruction, she will usurp his leadership role in the family and invite strife. Paul urges wives to respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:33). Attitude—of husbands and wives—is the key to making the biblical model of marriage a joyful, fulfilling experience.
Like love, respect also implies making a choice. We can choose to respect people for their positive qualities or despise them for the traits we dislike. The best time for critical evaluation is before marriage. Afterwards husbands and wives need to focus on mutual respect. Deal kindly with imperfections and abundantly praise good qualities. Benjamin Franklin wisely and humorously put it this way: "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterwards."
Conflict and communication
Researchers have found that the way two people communicate mirrors the state of their relationship. Positive, encouraging communication indicates a good relationship, and excessive criticism indicates a poor relationship. Depending on the circumstances, the two little words "I'm sorry" can be as effective as "I love you"—and perhaps more so.
Some marriage counselors claim couples should learn to fight fairly and not worry about the number of arguments. "Get it off your chest and get it all out in the open," they advise.
Although candor can be healthy, fighting and arguing over every disagreement has proven to not be so wise. A study of 691 couples indicated that the more partners argue, regardless of their style of quarreling, the more likely they will eventually divorce (Richard Morin, "What's Fair in Love and Fights?" Washington Post Weekly, June 7, 1993, p. 37). Conflicts lower respect and can build resentment. An argument can turn into the catalyst for a divorce.
How much conflict can a relationship stand? One researcher's method of measurement, which claims 90 percent accuracy in predicting which marriages will last and which will fail, is based on the percentage of positive comments versus negative comments between spouses.
Among newlyweds, researchers found that spouses who ended up staying together made five or fewer critical comments out of each 100 comments about each other. Newlyweds who later divorced had made 10 or more critical comments out of each 100 (Joanni Schrof, "A Lens on Matrimony," U.S. News and World Report, Feb. 21, 1994, pp. 66-69).
Since all men and women, even in happily married couples, sometimes have differences of opinion, learning how to peacefully resolve differences is an important part of maintaining respect. Here are a few principles couples should follow:
Speak up. Take turns expressing your beliefs and concerns in a kind way, without raising your voices (Proverbs 15:1). Refusing to talk about difficulties does not resolve problems. Learn to express your opinions in a nonjudgmental way. Your spouse is not always a very good mind reader. Let him or her know what you think, feel and like. Use "I" statements —such as "I feel like you don't appreciate me when you do that"—rather than accusative "You always . . ." or "You never . . ." statements.
Listen carefully. When your spouse is speaking, concentrate on what he or she is saying. Many husbands and wives don't listen respectfully to each other, butting into the conversation before the other is finished or planning their response without really paying attention to what is being said.
To help our spouses realize that we have truly heard them, some counselors recommend that we verbally acknowledge what he or she said before we move on to another thought. This assures your partner that he or she was heard, fostering trust and respect.
Respect differences in your husband or wife. Since God created human beings with a broad range of personalities, we need to appreciate those different perspectives. Even the steps we take to fulfill God's instructions can vary from person to person. We see this principle in Peter's instruction to husbands to dwell with their wives "with understanding" (1 Peter 3:7).
Seek a win-win solution. Whenever possible, look for solutions to problems that are acceptable to both parties (Philippians 2:4). If possible, have two winners rather than a winner and loser. We must at times be willing to yield as long as a choice or action isn't in conflict with God's instruction (Matthew 5:9; 1 Corinthians 6:7).
Paul beautifully explained this principle: "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:4-5).
Forgive. Everyone makes mistakes. Forgive so that God and your spouse will be inclined to forgive you (Matthew 6:15; Luke 6:37). Put your best foot forward. Action often follows thought. Approach your marriage partner in a spirit of love and forgiveness and ask God to restore you to a right attitude (see Psalm 51:10). Instead of letting your negative emotions rule you, determine to treat your husband or wife with respect. Often your emotions will change to match your actions.
Seek help. If you have applied everything you know to do and are still struggling, look for competent professional help. Both you and your spouse may be making mistakes. Healthy, mature people are not afraid to seek help when they need it (Proverbs 4:7; Proverbs 11:14).
The importance of romance
Before two people get married, they generally spend much time together. They may go to great lengths to plan special occasions. As they court one another, the two sense the romance that is enveloping them. Romance is an intoxicating feeling that is so delightful but difficult to explain.
Proverbs 30:18-19 says of romance: "There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden" (NIV).
The flush of romance is so powerful that it often acts as a force driving couples to marriage. Once a couple is married, however, it seems that romance fades. Husbands and wives spend less and less time thinking about what they can do to please each other.
It is common for a husband or wife to become selfish-thinking only about his or her needs and how the other isn't meeting expectations. When a "what's-in-it-for-me?" attitude becomes predominant, relationships flounder. Husbands find themselves wondering why women are so hard to understand, and wives want to know why their husbands don't pay more attention to them. Such marriages are in need of renewed romance.
In Proverbs 5:18-19 we find this directive: "Let your fountain [marital relationship] be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love" (New Revised Standard Version). To be intoxicated or "enraptured" (New King James Version) by a marriage partner's love is something God wants us to enjoy throughout our marriages.
When romance begins to fade, some couples find it hard to retain the close feelings they previously had for each other. But rekindling romance is not that difficult when we understand what to do and commit ourselves to the task. In fact, men and women respond easily to romantic overtures from their spouses when a knowledgeable mate goes about trying to restore romance to a relationship. So what are the keys to keeping romance alive in a marriage?
One of the first keys is to give ourselves to our mate. In a world in which it is so easy to be selfish, consumed with our personal expectations, we must do the opposite.
We must first give in order to receive. When we apply the principles of love and respect as found in Ephesians 5:33, our husband or wife will be strongly influenced to love and respect us in return. Illustrating this principle to husbands, Paul wrote: "So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself" (Ephesians 5:28).
When a husband treats his wife and family in a loving and kind way, putting their needs and wishes ahead of his own, a wife is strongly influenced to respond with affection and physical intimacy.
Similarly, when a wife respects her husband, freely extends love and intimacy, and praises him for the good things he does, he practically becomes putty in her hands. He becomes much more receptive to what this beautiful creature, his wife who makes him so very happy, has to say. Selfishness, on the other hand, does just the opposite. It strains the marital relationship.
Husbands and wives who preserve romance by giving themselves to each other find that their mates aren't difficult to influence at all. To them, marriage is the wonderful, delightful, energizing relationship God intended.
The value of teamwork
God intends couples to work, live and grow in harmony. Instead of waging a war of the sexes, which modern philosophies often fuel, God teaches husbands and wives to work together as a team. "Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).
Working together, husbands and wives can accomplish much more than they can working independently. Aquila and Priscilla, a first-century Christian couple, set a wonderful example as a husband-and-wife team dedicated to God and serving His people. Together they worked as tentmakers with the apostle Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2-3), traveled with him to Syria (Acts 18:18), helped the gifted speaker and teacher Apollos understand "the way of God more accurately" when he was new to Christianity (verses 24-26) and provided a meeting place for a local congregation of the Church in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19).
Priscilla and Aquila were loved and respected. Notice Paul's commendation of them: "Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles" (Romans 16:3-4). This couple undoubtedly saw a bigger purpose for their lives than arguing over inconsequential matters. They were living examples of "heirs together of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7).
When husbands and wives lovingly submit to the roles God has established in marriage, they learn how to submit to God. Intimate, loving relationships between husbands and wives teach us much about the relationship of Christ to the Church (Ephesians 5:32). Applying God's principles for marriage not only produces happy relationships in this life, but doing so helps us understand God's spiritual plan for humanity.