John and Laura were two of the happiest people on earth the day they were married. It was the perfect outdoor wedding—the sun was shining brightly; puffy white clouds floated lazily overhead. Birds were singing their lilting songs, and the lush green grass under the couple's feet seemed like an exquisite carpet laid out for royalty.
The wedding went off without a hitch, and everyone present felt good to be a part of this wonderful event. John and Laura went off on their honeymoon, flush with excitement about spending the rest of their lives together.
Rarely were there any cross words between them, and it seemed it would be this way the rest of their lives. Within two years, they had their first child, over whom they doted. Two more children were added to their happy family over the next few years and life continued to get better and better.
One day, the children grew up, finished high school and left for college. John and Laura experienced, for the first time, the hollow feeling of the empty nest.
That's when things changed. Now Laura began to see John's shortcomings in a way she hadn't before. She let John know about her thoughts, which didn't sit well with him. John began to see Laura as a complainer; his wife suddenly seemed to be ungrateful for all the hard work he had done to earn a good living for the family.
This was more than a midlife crisis. Their thoughts and words were sometimes harsh and critical of each other, and this began to erode the close relationship they had developed over the years. Would their marriage last? Could their marriage be improved to make it last, as the wedding ceremony's words said, “'til death do us part”?
The state of marriage today
We can find literally shelves of books and magazine articles that focus on the wonderful institution of marriage. Many are dedicated to the proposition that marriage is very important and if our marriage is faltering, we can take steps to steady and improve it.
David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and codirector of the National Marriage Project, explains in the forward to a helpful book on marriage, how the marriage relationship has suffered in the past few years:
“In the early 1950s, the chance that a wedding would ultimately lead to divorce was less than 20 percent. Now it is around 50 percent! Despite these figures, there is a new feeling of optimism about marriage today, and a growing realization that healthy marriages are of the utmost importance—for individual happiness, for children, and for the general well-being of our society” ( Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage, 2002, pp. v-vi).
What a world we live in today! Technology and transportation have catapulted us into a new and busier lifestyle that has cost us dearly on the home front. We've reinvented ourselves, accepting the idea that the busier we are, the better off and happier we must be.
But what price are we paying when it comes to peace, harmony and happiness in marriage?
“The most convincing explanations for why the divorce rate has climbed so fast revolve around this fact that the concept of marriage itself has changed. A hundred years ago marriage was organized in terms of family connections, economic dependence and survival, and largely unbreakable religious and legal covenants. Today, marriage is focused far more on the pursuit of intimacy and companionship.
“Whereas once we looked for a mate who could be a reliable coworker in the struggle through life, today we look for a best friend, a soulmate, who will make us feel emotionally fulfilled. Divorce used to take place only when a spouse became effectively incapacitated in some way; today, divorce takes place when we find ourselves 'falling out of love.' Certainly, though, people's emotions are not the most stable or reliable aspects of human nature and, as a result, modern marriage has become more fragile” (ibid., p. vi-vii).
Dr. Popenoe touched on a key factor in the marriage relationship when he observed that “people's emotions are not the most stable or reliable aspects of human nature.” Emotion is a wonderful part of human life.
It helps motivate people to get things done and to act on something rather than remain indifferent.
But an inappropriate emotional response to a particular situation can hurt not only the other person but also the person who has responded inappropriately. For example, a husband may think that he's helping his wife by commenting on her dress or hair, either when she asks for his thoughts or especially when she hasn't. The wife may then react emotionally in a way that surprises her husband, when all he intended was to be helpful.
In somewhat similar circumstances a wife might think she's helping her husband by reminding him of something he should be doing. The husband may then also react in a way that seems hurtful to his wife, when all she wanted was to be helpful.
No wonder, as Dr. Popenoe observed, “people's emotions are not the most stable or reliable aspects of human nature”!
Examples of marital improvement
Jack and Karen thought that after 20 years of marriage they knew one another. Sometimes when they were discussing something, Karen would finish the sentence Jack had started. Occasionally Jack also tacked on the end of a thought that Karen had started.
If things were on an even keel with them at the time, each would simply acknowledge that is what he or she thought. If, on the other hand, Karen or Jack felt misunderstood and challenged, each one's reaction wasn't so pleasant or harmonious.
Such incidents could snowball. Each negative reaction would be met with an opposite reaction of greater force. Finally, though, they agreed to “fight fair” and stop picking at one another to get the upper hand for the moment. Instead, if one or the other reacted emotionally in a wrong way, they would take a break from each other and separate momentarily to regroup their thoughts.
This took sacrifice by both parties, but it began to enrich their marriage, and they found that their love for one another was still just beneath the surface.
Gary and Deana spent their first 15 years of marriage communicating with one another like two lovebirds. They discussed anything and everything, never failing to enjoy a good conversation with each other.
But incrementally they began to discuss things less and less. Eventually a pall of silence began to settle over their otherwise happy home. Gone were the natural responses, the laughter and the good feelings of close companionship.
Deana seemed to notice the difference earlier, or at least she mentioned it first. Gary knew something was changing in their relationship, but he attributed it to knowing one another for so long.
Finally, when they decided to sit down and talk about it, they discovered that the television and their jobs were substituting for their formerly close relationship.
So they worked out a plan. They decided to start dating again, going out for a nice dinner together to help restore their communication. The television was shut off except at times when they could enjoy it together. And if there was something that one wanted to watch and the other didn't, they would talk about that too.
They also decided to “like their jobs, and love each other.” Before long they had stirred up their relationship to how it once had been, and they were chattering back and forth, comfortably and with renewed satisfaction.
Don and Ellen felt they had a good relationship, which they had enjoyed for 12 years. But there was one thing in their marriage that they couldn't quite agree on: money. Ellen, like many wives, valued financial security. Don thought that as long as he was young and healthy, money was made to be spent. “After all,” he remarked, “you can't take it with you.”
Money, or the occasional lack of it, began to gnaw at their relationship. They decided to do something about it and began reading some self-help material on curing their financial differences. Soon they realized that values were more important than money and “stuff.”
Their plan came down to three things.
First, they would consider family values above all else, such as eating more and better meals at home (and spending less on eating out), and think more about what was best for the family.
Second, they would cut up the credit cards, except for one that they would use only in an emergency. They then set about saving for things they really needed, and not just wanted. This helped them to appreciate what they purchased.
Third, they agreed not to revolve their lives around “stuff” just to keep up with the Joneses. Before long, their relationship blossomed even more, and they began to realize how important this was as an example to their children.
How-to tips that can strengthen a marriage
Maybe these situations sound familiar to you, or maybe not. But it's a rare marriage that doesn't have some rough spots that could use a little work. Here are some practical tips that can help you revitalize your marriage and strengthen the bonds of love.
• Ask yourself what drew you to your mate. Think back to the time you first met your husband or wife and you just knew that he or she was the right one for you. So you pulled out all stops and decided to do your best to make this relationship a lasting one. The things you saw in each other were the things you wanted in your future mate.
Time has passed since those days, and with a much busier life now it's easy to get caught up in work, hobbies, recreation and other activities. Considering what drew you to your mate in the first place helps you think about those qualities and be thankful for them. That's a good place to begin rejuvenating your relationship.
• Restore the love you had when there were only two of you. After you have revisited the exciting time in which you were drawn to your mate, set yourself to restore the love you had when you dated one another, talked about things you both enjoyed and even discussed what each of you expected in your marriage.
Now's the time to go out with your husband or wife on a date and say all those wonderful words you said before you were married! Now is the time to restore that love you once enjoyed with candlelight dinners, music, time together and delightful conversations.
• Recall the beginning of your family and the joys of that time. Advance the time frame a little and recall those tremendously exciting times when you had your first baby boy or girl. The birth of your firstborn was so dramatic, so filled with emotion, something you had never experienced before.
When other children came along, each one added in a special way to your family. Recall and discuss the beginning of your family and the incredible joys that came with that wonderful time.
• Review the growth of your family members and where they are today. As time moved on, your children grew up and each one was different. Their personalities were different and their gifts and desires differed far more than you could have imagined.
You worked through those wonderful times and allowed each child to realize his or her potential. So talk about them, discuss them and share your thankfulness for their good qualities today.
• Communication is a two-way street. There's a truism about communication between two people: It goes both ways. If a husband thinks that communication in a marriage means that he talks and she listens, you can expect difficulties. If a wife thinks that communication means for her husband to learn from her intuition, she may be forfeiting his logic (or vice versa).
Both husband and wife should realize the great potential of good communication—that there are great blessings in both speaking and listening.
• “Fight fair” by addressing issues rather than personalities. No marriage will benefit from fighting, especially when the fighting focuses on each other's personality and character. Carping, nagging, belittling and bullying do not belong in a good marriage. The term “fight fair” refers to addressing issues, not personalities. If a husband and wife disagree on an issue, they should be sure to focus on the issue and not each one's perception of the other's personality or character.
Besides, one or both might not perceive the other person accurately. How many times have you felt that your mate did not perceive you correctly? Think about that the next time you disagree on an issue of importance. Each mate should give a wide berth to attacks on personality and character. When you disagree, pause and take the time to discuss the issue you are disagreeing about.
• Be sure you make up. What does it really take? Some people have kidded that they love to fight because it's so much fun to make up. Those who actually practice this are playing “marriage roulette,” though, because the more one demeans his or her partner's character, the more emotional scars remain.
Words are powerful. Damaging words hurt terribly. If you don't believe it, consider this: Why is it that you always seem to remember the damaging, thoughtless character assassinations others have inflicted on you in past years?
Never demean one another's character or belittle the other's personality. Instead, try a peaceful approach and encouragement. Always look for the good in him or her. Compliment your mate's personality and character, for you are now one and no longer two (Genesis 2:24 Genesis 2:24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall join to his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
American King James Version×), and no one ever hated his own flesh (Ephesians 5:29 Ephesians 5:29For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church:
American King James Version×).
Some keys to making up are covered in the sidebar “Four Words That Can Transform a Troubled Marriage”.
• Practice sacrifice and service. Frankly, the debilitating state of marriage today is often fueled by one or both partners' selfishness and desire for instant gratification. After all, television programs, movies, music and immoral or amoral publications are pervasive, and they do have terrible effects on society—including the institution of marriage.
Truly happy and satisfying marriages are based on giving, not on getting. When both mates sacrifice for each other and begin to serve one another, their marriage improves overnight. This one act alone can turn a marriage around almost instantly. Don't get caught up in the trap of this world's hedonistic and amoral notions. It doesn't make any difference if most people live this way. If millions of people do a stupid thing, it's still stupid.
• Look on your mate's strengths and let him or her know you appreciate them. What are your wife's strengths? Is she good with domestic things like cooking you a great meal? Is she good at helping you around the house, or shopping, or finances, or giving you insight as to your job or other commitments? Is she hospitable and helpful to others?
Whatever her strengths, let her know you appreciate them. And you can be sure she has strengths that help make your marriage stronger.
What are your husband's strengths? Is he a good provider, a good father and one who helps you around the house? Whatever his strengths—and he has some!—let him know that you appreciate them. Don't be abstract in telling your mate you appreciate his or her strengths; be specific and do this often— very often.
• Have a relationship goal bigger than you. Your Bible speaks about the marriage relationship in a number of places. One of the most prominent passages on how to have a happy marriage is found in Ephesians 5:22-33 Ephesians 5:22-33 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.
24 Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,
27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself.
29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church:
30 For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
American King James Version×. Here the apostle Paul gives both husbands and wives spiritual directives on how they should care for and respect each other. At the end of this chapter, Paul shows how the marriage of a man and woman is a type of the ultimate marriage between Christ and His Church, His true followers.
Many married couples might not be aware of the marriage relationship goal, its ultimate type and purpose. The fact is that marriage between a husband and wife is a type of Jesus Christ marrying the Church at His return to earth (Revelation 19:7-9 Revelation 19:7-9 7 Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife has made herself ready.
8 And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
9 And he said to me, Write, Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he said to me, These are the true sayings of God.
American King James Version×). Armed with this knowledge, the husband and wife are better motivated to follow the apostle Paul's marital instruction in Ephesians 5.
• Find a need in your marriage and fill it. How often do we come to expect certain things that either the husband or wife do within the marriage, day after day? Surprise one another by looking for some need in your marriage. Don't worry that you won't find something that your wife or husband needs. There are many needs, too often left unfulfilled. Then fill that need without expecting anything in return. You'll be amazed how this will revitalize the love and respect your mate has for you.
• Be your husband's or wife's defender. Wives or husbands, have you ever been in a group where some person says something insensitive about your mate? If that happens, what do you do?
It is very important to protect your mate in the company of others, and even more so in his or her absence. This will get around, and you will also set a good example for other couples.
• Remember to do the little things. It's easy to do big things for others, like buy an expensive gift for your wife or husband, take him or her out for an expensive dinner or splurge on an expensive entertainment outing. But what about the little things in life, like listening to your mate to find out the little things he or she would like you to do?
Your wife may want you to clean off your shoes before coming into the house. Your husband may want you to not remind him over and over of things that he does already. Think about the little things that can be improved in your marriage and try your best to do them.
Make a list so you don't forget them. Sit down at the kitchen table and ask each other some of the little things the other would like you to do. Discuss them calmly and peacefully, remembering that you are both dedicating yourselves to the happiness of your mate. The little things truly do mean a lot.
A marriage made in heaven?
One thing every married couple should understand: A marriage is not naturally “made in heaven,” with everything going perfectly.
In fact, it's impossible to enjoy a perfect marriage here on earth if one doesn't understand human nature and what kind of help is needed to “perfect” a marriage. Since God instituted marriage, and He is the help that all married couples need to have a happy marriage, it follows that only God's instruction can help “perfect” a marriage.
Human nature is the greatest natural deterrent to what could otherwise be a happy marriage. All husbands and wives have human nature. Human nature is just that: It is the nature of human beings, acquired from Satan, the unseen ruler of this world, and other human beings under his influence. Human nature is not of God.
And human nature never goes away in this life. Of itself it is selfish and often becomes even more so as it absorbs and acquires the selfishness of the world around it.
When human beings are born, they are born with a “clean slate.” But as we age, we increasingly take on the characteristics of the Satan-led world around us, a world that's primarily built on selfishness and self-interest. This inevitably leads to conflict as people's self-interests collide—particularly when people are in such a close relationship and partnership as marriage.
It's important to know about human nature and its ability to erode what otherwise could and should be a happy marriage. The Bible tells us that we can overcome our human nature by doing good or godly things toward others (Romans 12:21 Romans 12:21Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
American King James Version×). This is what Jesus Christ was and is all about. Happiness comes from giving. A seldom-understood truth is that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35 Acts 20:35I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.
American King James Version×)—and nowhere is this more crucial than in marriage.
Finally, all married couples (and those contemplating marriage), should know and understand that the emotional high of love that a man and woman feel for each other during the wedding ceremony will moderate as time passes. With a little understanding about how a marriage can work better, the “I dos” that both parties agreed to originally can overcome the “I don'ts” that will surely and inadvertently surface later in the marriage.
Your marriage can be strengthened, improved and revitalized. Choose now to serve one another across the board, and you can have a happier marriage than you ever imagined. May God bless you with a very long and happy marriage! GN