What Are the Keys to a Happy Marriage?
Many would have you believe that the marital union is archaic and unnecessary. Yet mankind's Creator designed marriage as the ideal relationship for men and women. What fundamental principles can you practice to build a happy marriage?
by Jerold Aust
Shannon was a beautiful young woman whose striking good looks were surpassed only by her inner beauty and character. The first time Paul saw her was shortly after work one day, when fellow coworkers met to play volleyball.
Paul had played volleyball with the group for a few weeks, but he had never seen Shannon there until that particularly balmy evening. That day Paul was enjoying a more competitive game with the men. Unexpectedly, two young women walked up and asked if they might join in the next game. The men readily agreed.
When Paul saw Shannon he knew why the men had immediately agreed. His heart raced when she smiled at him. For a moment Paul couldn't think, though he instinctively smiled back. But his mind was no longer on the game of volleyball, as his unusual play indicated. Everyone except Paul seemed to know why he was making so many uncharacteristic mistakes.
But it was no mistake when Paul asked Shannon for a date. Soon they began wanting to spend more and more time together. So far it was an exciting storybook romance. But as they began to think about life together, they each knew they wanted more than just a fleeting romance in a world of divorce and marital discontent.
Their shared belief in God led them to seek counsel from a minister about how to prepare for a lasting, happy marriage. They committed themselves to keeping God at the center of their marriage.
About a year after they met they were married. Shannon had an inner beauty that proved to be the dream of Paul's life. She was pleasant, thoughtful, supportive, encouraging and a good conversationalist who genuinely loved people.
Shannon proved to be a devoted wife and mother extraordinaire. They built a happy marriage and began to raise a loving family. And yet, as fairy-tale as this story seems, it came to pass because of one important factor: They made God the deciding factor in their marriage. Because of that, in the good times and the bad, their love and commitment continued to grow.
God and marriage
"[The biblical term] one flesh vividly expresses a view of marriage as something much deeper than either human convenience or social convention ..." (Richard France, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1985, Vol. 1, p. 280).
God is the ultimate and divine authority on marriage. After all, He instituted the marriage union between a husband and wife. As Genesis 2:22-24 tells us: "Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.' Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."
Yet marriage is more than just a physical union. Going beyond that relationship, the apostle Paul revealed marriage as a type of an even greater spiritual relationship (see "The Ultimate Goal of the Marriage Union").
God knew perfectly well that the union of a husband and wife requires a certain level of sacrifice and service for it to work well. Yet there is a divine purpose for building a happy or happier marriage. Knowing that purpose can help you rise above the petty differences so common to matrimony.
Is marriage treated too casually?
"... The LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce ..." (Malachi 2:16).
God established the marital union between a husband and wife, but just look at what humankind has done to it! In the United States today, nearly half of all marriages will end in divorce.
Modern societies have unknowingly redefined the institution of marriage through the media. In the name of entertainment and profits, media have encouraged the incremental dissolution of the marriage union with impunity. Movies encourage infidelity and amorality while television sitcoms bathe our children in the notion that marriage is irrelevant. What matters most, they are essentially taught, is instant gratification.
Isn't it about time human beings reestablished the integrity and sanctity of the marriage bond, the highest relationship that men and women can experience?
A March 2003 PBS special titled Marriage—Just a Piece of Paper? questioned whether the integrity and sanctity of marriage should be reestablished. To answer it, the program presented a series of alarming facts.
John Witte Jr., professor of law and ethics and director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University, insightfully analyzed marriage as a piece of paper, yes, but a crucially important one.
"Marriage, of course, is just a piece of paper," he explained. "... But a lottery ticket is also just a piece of paper, and when it has a winning number on it that piece of paper is worth a lot. A little document that you sign, which is a mortgage contract that has thirty years of obligations that you have to discharge before you can own your home outright, is also just a piece of paper. It's what the paper signifies.
"What that piece of paper represents ... is a bundle of rights, responsibilities, privileges, and immunities that these two parties, this couple, have vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis the community. And the children that come from your union receive as a matter of course, by reason of being your children, constitutional rights of privacy, of due process, and of equal protection. They fall on you uniquely because of who you are in a marital unit.
"... Zoning, property, taxation, social security, and a variety of other laws are in place to turn upon the marital status of the party. What you're buying into with that piece of parchment is a bundle of rights, a bundle of responsibilities, that are quite unique to the institution" (Katherine Anderson, Don Browning and Brian Boyer, editors, Marriage—Just a Piece of Paper?, 2002, p. 410).
In spite of this, how do many people look at marriage? Some couples live together before they take a chance on marriage. This has become a social norm. Some call their first marriage a "starter marriage" or an "icebreaker marriage."
Fifty years ago anyone discussing "starter marriages" or "icebreakers" would've been ostracized. Not so today. Today's couples choose cohabitation and "icebreakers" without batting an eye. Anyone who shows disapproval or questions the arrangement is viewed as out of touch or wanting to impose his or her values and standards on others.
Considering the casual disregard some place on marriage, together with the media influence on it, what can you do to build a happier marriage? Following are some pointers.
Recognize the stages of marriage
"People who are rigid in their personality and thinking—that is, highly resistant to change—were 42 percent more likely to report a high level of conflict in their relationship" (David Niven, 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, 2003, p. 179).
The first point in building a happy marriage is to recognize that every marriage evolves over time. Age, experience and family impact married life significantly over a lifetime.
Automatic and unavoidable stages of change occur within the marriage union. When a young couple first weds, they enjoy a honeymoon period. Different couples experience marital bliss differently. Inevitably the honeymoon wears off. Then reality sets in.
After the honeymoon wears off and children begin to enter the family unit, fathers and mothers begin to adjust to a new and different set of responsibilities. Some husbands disclose that they were afraid of marriage, worried about the responsibility of taking care of a wife. Later, the new father and mother realize another, even greater, responsibility of taking care of a new baby.
Time passes, and the couple's children enter elementary school, then the teen years, and finally they graduate from high school and either go to college or enter the workforce. All of these times are different marital stages and bring about an evolution of perspective.
But it doesn't stop there. The kids grow older and marry, and the cycle continues. All of the little birds have flown the nest. With an empty nest, the parents may become grandparents and enter the autumn of their lives.
Throughout the marital stages—as newlyweds, parents and then grandparents— couples mature and find that struggling over cultural and gender differences is not worth the time and effort. They settle together, serve and love one another, smell the flowers along the way and enjoy the more important things in life: each other, their families and God.
Used wisely, these marital stages teach us to appreciate one another, our children, our grandchildren and life itself. Rather than resist these changes life brings, savor the stages God gives in a marriage and take good advantage of them.
Celebrate your differences
"Constant attention to the weaknesses of any relationship will weaken it. Constant attention to the strengths of any relationship will strengthen it" (Niven, p. 3).
The second point important to a happy marriage is to learn to celebrate gender differences, not compete with them. When a man and woman come together as husband and wife, there might not appear to be great differences to deal with. At first, love is blind. Later the couple discovers that life isn't.
When a man and woman give themselves to each other, they are necessarily from two entirely different families. Often opposites will attract, which means that a couple may experience more surface differences than compatibility. Although it is good for unmarried people to seek a compatible mate, it's not possible to find someone with no differences. And that's not bad.
Consider your background and your marriage partner's. Even if you married someone who lived in the same city, chances are good that your family cultures are different in many ways. Each has various talents, food preferences, music differences and activities that family members enjoy. Acceptance and compromise help alleviate these differences. The differences should be celebrated, appreciated and used for the benefit of the couple.
If couples don't realize at first that men and women think differently, they'll soon find out. Books abound addressing those differences.
Some marriage counselors say that women are more intuitive while men are more focused on the depth of an issue. Marriages can falter if couples don't understand that the way men and women think is necessarily different. God made us this way so we can capitalize on our differences, making of two separate individuals one united couple—with much more strength.
Some couples catch on early that their various differences can blend and become great strengths. They use their differences wisely. Instead of fighting and struggling to make each other over in their own image, they take full advantage of their combined talents and abilities.
The good results in such marriages can be exponential and may play out in successful business and social opportunities. Embracing the differences between a husband and wife —indeed celebrating them rather than competing with one another—is a wise strategy.
Seek fulfillment in your spouse and you will find it. Seek utopia and you will be looking forever!
Where does friendship fit?
"For three out of five people, best friends were thought to be more supportive, more open in communication, and the source of stronger feelings of affection than [other] relationship partners" (Niven, p. 70).
The third point in building a happy or happier marriage is friendship. You love your partner, but do you like him or her?
Two of life's closest relationships are married couples and best friends. Some married people assume they can share more things with a friend than with their spouse. An outside friendship might look easier on the surface, but when does it have to deal with the struggles that inevitably arise in a marriage? If a couple can negotiate together the struggles they'll experience in marriage, then they can also grow to appreciate their spouse as best friend.
Enjoying your spouse as both friend and marriage partner will help override many marital disagreements, whether financial or social. Couples who remain in love almost inevitably must also be good friends. They will share the ups and downs that are common within the marriage relationship.
Sharing compliments and blame
"If we can learn ... to graciously accept some of the blame and generously share the credit, we will be contributing to a happier relationship" (Niven, p. 121).
Point four in building a happy marriage has to do with sacrifice—personal sacrifice that involves sharing compliments and blame, realistically and appropriately. Realistically here means to see things as they are, as objectively as possible. Appropriately here means fitting for the occasion.
At first these might seem contradictory, as sharing one (compliments) is positive and sharing the other (blame) is negative. But the idea here is that both are done in an attitude of true—not feigned or contrived—humility. Each must acknowledge having both strengths and weaknesses without feeling either superior or demeaned.
When you compliment your spouse, you are shining the spotlight on him or her. Giving honor that is deserved helps build a good relationship. It also takes courage and real humility for each marriage partner to realistically accept personal blame in an appropriate manner for his or her shortcomings and offenses. Both husband and wife should learn to show not only a supportive but also a sacrificing and healing attitude toward the other over the course of the marriage.
Personally I have found that the two most important phrases in a marriage relationship are "I'm sorry" and "Thank you." When I use these phrases easily, legitimately and realistically, things naturally go more smoothly.
You and I make our own marriage history. Try this: Share, realistically, the praise as well as the blame and watch your marriage prosper.
Remember the romance
"Satisfaction in a relationship is eight times more reliant on recent feelings and the ability to perceive improvements than it is based on the history of the relationship" (Niven, p. 86).
The fifth point is the fact that we don't outgrow the need for human companionship or the desire to enjoy a husband-wife relationship. Do you remember when you were first married? Bells rang, stars fell from heaven and hearts melted at the sight of each other. That kind of romance should be cultivated through the years. Those who cultivate romance in their marriage will surely reap a happier marriage.
Shirley weathered a strained relationship for more than 30 years. Early in her married life, she faced a tragedy. Shortly after their wedding, her husband broke his neck. For three decades she served him as a full-time nurse. They had no satisfying relationship. She was widowed at age 60. Bravely she considered dating and drafted a list of requirements: The man had to be energetic, spiritual and younger than 71. He could not smoke, had to avoid facial hair, and would drink only on social occasions.
She found Jeff, a recent widower. They discovered each other at a roller-skating rink and spoke briefly. Before going home, Shirley said to Jeff that she was glad he came to the activity and hoped he'd return.
To make a long story short, the two have just celebrated their fifth anniversary together. They walk, dance, swim, travel and roller-skate. "My darling husband prepares breakfast daily and does so many thoughtful things like bringing me flowers often," says Shirley. "Loving and being loved is the greatest gift in this life. And it can happen to you anytime" (Niven, pp. 173-174).
Age need not be a factor when it comes to romancing a husband or wife. Of course, health can restrict the romance. All the little things of life that we take for granted are exactly the kinds of things that keep romance alive—visiting, walking together, enjoying entertainment activities with one another, taking trips together, dining out. You can add your own host of other healthy activities that can either put romance back into your marriage or keep it going.
As social creatures, we need companionship —and no less so in a union between a husband and a wife. A good marriage takes sacrifice and service from both partners. These lead to the security and peace both need and desire.
Marital happiness and you
Shannon and Paul built a happy marriage. They knew that God instituted the union of husband and wife. Both understood the importance of marital stages. They celebrated their differences, turning them into relational strengths.
They not only loved one another, they liked each other too. They were friends and lovers. Compliments and blame were realistically shared, for they knew how easy it was to take all the credit and accept no blame. Paul and Shannon put effort into keeping their romance alive, understanding how easy it might be to take each other for granted.
If you already have a happy marriage, you likely are already doing some or all of these things. If you don't, you can have a happy, fulfilling marriage if you and your spouse are willing to work at it, sacrifice for it and truly serve each other.
The time to begin building a happy marriage is now. May your marriage be filled with perpetual bliss. May God bless you with a happy family and may you share marital happiness with many others!
©2002 United Church of God, an International Association