God intended marriage to be a beautiful gift of love and security. Why is it so difficult to have a joyous marriage today? What have happy couples discovered?
The stories the couples we interviewed told us were inspiring and enlightening. It seems the elements of a successful marriage they shared work even in, or maybe especially in, hard times.
We asked couples in great marriages what makes a marriage work.
Looking back on more than 50 years of marriage
Larry and Judy gave us this background:
In year four of their marriage, their second child was born with Down syndrome!
In year 15 job transfers uprooted them to three cities in four months.
In year 28 he lost his upper-management job and with it suffered defamation that marred the family’s reputation.
In year 46 she suffered a long, debilitating illness.
When we talked, in year 51 of their marriage, Larry and Judy reflected on some of the toughest times of life, but they were quick to credit their strong relationship as one of the keys that has seen them through.
All marriages have their “for better or worse” times, of course, but looking at Judy with a twinkle in his eye, Larry said, “Judy was always the completely committed team member. We knew that together, and with God’s help, we could get through anything.”
Smiling back, Judy added, “And we have always been best friends and could talk about everything. From the earliest days we shared the same values and faith.”
Commitment. Friendship. Communication. Shared values and faith. These are essential qualities that make marriages thrive in the better times and survive in the worse times.
Principles of marriage that work
“Marriage is a natural union but a divine institution, ordained of God. It was established by the Creator God at creation and derives its authority from the divine laws of God, immutable and unchangeable.”
As a minister, I have introduced many wedding ceremonies over the years with these words, hoping to firmly establish in the minds of the couple standing before me the gravity of the covenant they are making with God.
But I always hope that they will be wise to understand that, in addition to God’s law binding their marriage, they must live by His laws that bind all good relationships. When you see happy marriages, you will see these principles of marriage governing them.
How many happy marriages do you know of today? Although increasingly rare, some are around; and when we find them, it’s worth exploring to see what makes them work so well. Larry and Judy were among several happy couples we interviewed, seeking the keys that helped them be successful.
These couples have met the common challenges marriages face today—finding the time necessary for healthy relationships, dealing with financial pressures, counteracting a culture that discounts commitment and obsesses over pursuing personal pleasure, etc.
Plus, they have dealt with the cultural attacks on traditional marriage that are relentlessly undermining key factors that help relationships succeed.
These couples know, however, that marriages don’t fail—humans do! But just because too many of us have failed to live up to God’s ideal of marriage, and just because marriage is under pressure, it’s not impossible to build a marriage that is a safe haven of peace, love and inspiration.
While each couple identified different relationship elements, all of them shared the same positive basis of belief: marriage is God’s gift to us.
As wise King Solomon told his son, “A man’s greatest treasure is his wife—she is a gift from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22, Contemporary English Version).
The treasure in marriage is the loving, stable environment that provides secure, lifelong emotional bonds and nurtures children who carry on to the next generation positive contributions to society.
Here are some of the insights our couples shared that helped them find that treasure. Here are some tips for a successful marriage:
Key #1: Take time to get to know a potential spouse
When asked what advice they would give to couples considering marriage, the couples gave strong and consistent counsel: Take time to really come to know and understand the person you will marry. It takes time to recognize your own weaknesses and strengths, along with those of your potential spouse.
To David and De Lynn, compatibility is vitally important to a successful marriage. As part of their marriage counseling, they took a survey that confirmed they were quite compatible. After being married for some time, they realized how much their compatibility—in areas such as similar family cultures, both being middle children, and having similar interests and religious beliefs—was a key component of their marital and family success. As they put it: “It is important to take the time to know not only the person you would like to marry, but his or her family and its values.”
For example, we come from different cultures and grow up with varied beliefs regarding husband/wife roles and responsibilities. Most differences aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but they can cause strain and conflict, and they can be key factors in determining what kind of marriage is likely to develop. When two people recognize their differences before marriage and find mutually acceptable ways to deal with the issues, they can successfully resolve and avoid conflict.
Because of this, we strongly advise premarital counseling before couples say, “I do.” The time spent in preparation for marriage can be reassuring and help lay a foundation for a long, successful union.
Key #2: Understand that marriage takes work
The couples also spoke of the need for realistic expectations. David and Kim noted that going into marriage with the idea of finding the perfect person to fulfill all of your wants and desires is a recipe for failure. As David explained, “No one is perfect. We aren’t perfect, and we won’t find a perfect person to marry.”
To truly love someone means that we want to serve the other person and help make him or her happy. Godly love isn’t selfish. It’s outgoing toward others.David also noted, “Dating and marriage generally start out with a lot of excitement; then comes the realization that marriage takes work. When some people find that the excitement has faded and that their relationship is going to take more time and effort than they expected, they mistakenly think they need to end their marriage and find someone new. What many aren’t told while dating is that all marriages will take hard work and a commitment to constantly strengthen and rekindle the relationship.”
And to get right to the heart of the work involved, we have to fight the influence of our narcissistic age. We aren’t the center of the universe. The world and all the people in it don’t exist just to make us happy.
To truly love someone means that we want to serve the other person and help make him or her happy. Godly love isn’t selfish. It’s outgoing toward others.
As Kim noted, “Focusing solely on what we want and deserve in marriage isn’t healthy. Instead, we are better off underpromising and overdelivering when it comes to showing love to our mates.”
As children come along, the relationship between a husband and wife will likely face extra pressure. When children have needs—which they will until they are grown and self-sufficient—it’s easy for a husband and wife to spend less time on their relationship. Sadly, some partners so neglect their marriages while raising their children that when their children leave home, they no longer care about each other. Divorces are quite common at this stage of life.
To counter this trap, Judd and Quely say that they are trying to remember that their relationship is the foundation for their family’s happiness. “We learned this principle from a parenting class we took called ‘Growing Kids God’s Way,’” Judd said. “Now that we have a child, we continue to have date nights and are careful to continue giving special attention to each other.”
As for how much time to give to each other and their children, Nick and Sarah have found a balance that works for them. While they give each other space to pursue individual interests—Nick is an avid volleyball player and coach, and Sarah has her own outdoor oven business—they also believe that it is especially important to find common interests they can explore and experience together. They and their two girls have recently completed 5K runs together, even though Nick doesn’t particularly enjoy running.
He summarized their belief this way: “Husbands and wives should have the freedom to pursue their individual interests, and they should also find interests they can share.” Sarah added, “Having fun together helps our family survive and thrive.”
Solomon noted: “Life is short, and you love your wife, so enjoy being with her. This is what you are supposed to do as you struggle through life on this earth” (Ecclesiastes 9:9, CEV).
Key #3: Develop good communication skills in marriage
How a husband and wife deal with conflict is a good indicator of the strength of their marriage.How a husband and wife deal with conflict is a good indicator of the strength of their marriage. Because everyone is unique, differences of opinion will inevitably arise. Happy families are generally ones where the husband and wife have learned how to respectfully communicate their differences and find mutually acceptable solutions.
While it may be tempting to avoid a discussion that may have strong emotional overtones, couples who value their relationship will have the discussion anyway. As David and Kim put it, “Don’t go to bed angry. Talk it out.”
From the beginning of their marriage, they turned the instruction of Ephesians 4:26 (“do not let the sun go down on your wrath”) into a relationship principle—don’t let anger stayed buried and festering. Emotional self-control is a key to productive conversation.
Couples who successfully work through their problems usually abide by a few simple guidelines that make it more likely that their communication will yield the desired result. The couples made the following suggestions:
- Spend more time trying to understand your spouse’s point of view than explaining your own.
- Be broadminded, realizing that there may be more ways of viewing and resolving a problem than what you individually see.
- Be willing to yield to whatever is the best solution for your relationship and your family. Doing so sends a powerful message that you truly love the other person and care about the relationship.
- Have a sense of humor, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Some couples have found that having occasional light-hearted moments in serious conversations can help smooth out potential tensions. Sometimes a little “awfulizing”—describing something to a ridiculously awful extreme—or some other approach you both find funny can help you keep an issue in perspective.
When one partner becomes discouraged or has a bad day, a spouse who lovingly provides a different point of view and encouragement to do what is right can be a wonderful support.
Husbands and wives who communicate with true care for each other create a positive environment in which their children can learn and model the same behavior. Several mentioned that special family dinners were times for them and their children to freely discuss the issues on their minds.
Hebrews 10:24 advises us to “be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good” (Good News Translation). Good communication skills help us fulfill this instruction from God.
Building your marriage
We could easily include additional keys for happy marriages—such as setting and accomplishing family goals and remembering to take time for romance—but these three principles of marriage are a good start. Implementing these concepts can help you and your spouse develop and maintain a joyous marriage.
As you go through life, keep in mind wise King Solomon’s astute observation: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1).
Looking to God for His wisdom and guidance—making Him the builder of our marriages and families—ensures we can implement these happy marriage tips. Each person and each marriage and family is unique, but God can give us His guidance and direction that works for everyone.
To learn more about the biblical principles that bring happiness to marriages and families, see the articles in the “Marriage” section of the this website.