By June Critcher
When a husband and wife tell me they’ve been married 42 years, I sit up and listen. During the fall of 1985 I met such a couple, Harvey and Madge Crain, of Greeneville, Tennessee.
Just a few weeks ago my husband and I attended a couples’ banquet with the Crains. I asked Mr. Crain, “What’s the secret to your happy marriage?”
“We made a life commitment and have worked toward making the necessary adjustments to make it stick came his concise reply.
Please read his response again and notice the key words. Even though many marriages fold up annually, the good news is that most are not only surviving, some are actually alive and healthy. What keeps these couples together?
1) They have a sense of commitment.
Total commitment! That’s what characterizes happily married couples. They are so committed to each other that they place their relationship above their own personal desires.
Even when they begin to sink in the muck of misunderstanding and anger, their sense of commitment keeps them together. They are committed to making their marriage work. Sure, they get annoyed with each other, but they know God will provide the energy and wisdom needed to work through their problems.
They are committed to each other’s best interests. They are committed to meeting each other’s needs. They are committed to love God’s way.
God’s kind of love is best described in I Corinthians 13: I will be patient with you. I will be kind to you. I will not be rude to you. I will keep no record of wrongs. I will not be easily angered with you. I will always protect you. I will persevere with you.
A Christian marriage is a commitment involving three individuals: husband, wife and Jesus Christ.
2) They enjoy open, honest communication.
They enjoy open, honest communication. Next to the couple’s commitment to Jesus Christ, the most significant ingredient to marital happiness is good communication. When husband and wife communicate effectively, they use verbal and nonverbal means to express their ideas and feelings.
Happily married couples enjoy both small talk as well as times of sharing their innermost fears and feelings. They have so fine-tuned their own feelings that they are not afraid to risk the vulnerability that often opens the lid to a Pandora’s Box.
The good listener listens without his motor running, is not thinking about what she is going to say, does not interrupt, accepts what is said without being critical or judgmental, listens patiently, maintains eye contact, and listens with concern. The good listener is listening for feelings behind the words.
Couples must take time to communicate. Many couples plan a weekly date—that special time just for the two of them. They even mark it on their calendar to be sure nothing interferes with this important appointment.
As we speak the truth in love, we must be sure our love equals the truth we are speaking. Meaningful communication includes good listening, good timing, openness, honesty and a humble spirit.
3) They accept each other (with no strings attached).
Happily married couples do not put each other on a certain performance level. Instead, they unconditionally accept each other. As believers in Jesus Christ, they base their acceptance of each other on Christ’s acceptance of them. Romans 3:21-22 is a forceful reminder that God accepts us just as we are.
Happily married partners accept differences in each other. The introvert accepts the extrovert while the outgoing partner accepts the one who is shy. The perfectionist accepts the sloppy mate (while desperately hoping for a drastic change). The take-charge sergeant accepts the calm, relaxed private. The detailed wife accepts her man of few words. They have learned that being different does not mean being wrong.
They talk about their differences, and in honest communication they learn to accept these differences. They take their weaknesses to the Holy Spirit and submit to His control so He will reproduce the character of Christ in their lives. The Holy Spirit offers a strength for every weakness if we only let Him dominate our lives (See Galatians 5:22-23).
4) They appreciate and affirm each other.
Rather than take each other for granted, happily married couples say, “Thank you,” and they say it often. They base their appreciation for each other not on feelings, but as a matter of will and attitude they say, “Thanks.”
“Thank you” is expressed in different ways—verbally, with a hug, with a small gift, in a note.
Hearts filled with gratitude always look for ways to encourage each other. One effective means of encouragement is for partners to affirm each other. To affirm is to tell our mate what we admire about him and about the things he does. “One of the things I admire about you is that you are such an understanding person.” “I admire you for keeping your appetite under control.” “I respect you for taking a stand for biblical principles on your job.”
5) They work toward intimacy.
Becoming one flesh was God’s idea. And when two people become one flesh, they know the real meaning of intimacy, oneness, and togetherness.
Couples who work toward intimacy take pleasure in their mates. They enjoy each other’s presence. They like each other so much they are best friends. Best friends have shared interests. Happily married couples enjoy both separate and shared activities. They find pain in being separated (even though these times are quite necessary to a happy marriage) and pleasure in being together.
Happily married couples find ways to share in relationships with each other; consequently their love deepens. But sharing has a high price tag—each mate must give of self, each listens lovingly to the other, each is aware of the other’s needs and then acts in love to meet those needs. This intimacy must be what God had in mind when He directed the husband and wife to become one flesh.
6) They know what communicates love to their mate.
Each mate speaks a different language of love. Happy is the couple who knows what communicates love to each other.
A mother needs help with grocery shopping, the car pool, children’s activities, house cleaning. The husband may need a backrub, help with typing, a helping hand on his basement project.
Sometimes a spouse has an emotional need: a shoulder to cry on, a word of encouragement, a treat out to dinner.
Most wives enjoy hearing their husbands verbalize their love for them. “I love you so much.” Or “Thanks for ministering to my needs last week by being such a good listener.”
Men, it seems, derive a tremendous amount of self-worth from being respected. They need to be admired for their skills, job performance, even the way they care for their bodies (by eating nutritious meals and exercising regularly). The thoughtful wife verbalizes respect in front of the children; her example teaches them to respect Dad.
Just being in each other’s presence communicates love—walking in the park, jogging down the street, relaxing on the couch after dinner (or after the children are in bed), sitting by the lake or whatever.
Women like little gifts, too. Even though the wife wants her husband more than his gifts, she also enjoys those little gifts that say, “You are so special and I love you.”
7) They fight by the rules.
All marriage partners disagree (or argue, fight, whatever you want to call it), whether they’ve been married one year or 50. No two people will always see everything alike. In fact, it’s unreasonable to expect two people, just because they are married to each other, to always want to do the same thing in the same way.
Happily married couples become skilled at fighting fairly. They deal with the conflict promptly, as soon as it raises its ugly head. They remember common courtesy while fighting. (The lower the voice, the more the other person hears.) They get to the root of the problem. (Overblown responses to small irritations are sometimes symptomatic of a more serious problem.) They stick to one problem at a time. They speak the truth in love (See Ephesians 4:15, 25). They are sure they can back up every statement or accusation with fact. They avoid making indirect statements.
They face each other as they discuss the problem. Some couples even agree to hold hands while fighting (which means the boxing gloves stay in the closet). Touching reminds the couple that they are more important than the problem.
They attack the problem, not their mate. By focusing on the problem, they can see the situation from their mate’s viewpoint and consider a healthy compromise.
They even try humor. They don’t laugh at each other; they laugh at the silliness of the situation.
Each accepts responsibility for his own attitude and actions and assumes responsibility for his contribution to the problem.
They work toward reconciliation. This is the goal—not to establish who’s right, nor to change their mate. Each one says in attitude, “You are more important to me than establishing my rightness in this situation.”
When conflict is resolved, there should never be a loser. If there is, the loser will grow resentful and determine to win the next fight.
8) They are more concerned about meeting their mate’s needs than having their own needs met.
Before each partner can meet the needs of the other, needs should be expressed. Some days the need will be physical, other days emotional. Open, honest communication is vital to having one’s needs met.
Often, a mate will complain, “You never want to just sit on the couch with me anymore. You’re always too busy to spend time with me.” (Incidentally, “always” and “never” are deadly poison and kill any signs of communication that may have been blooming.)
Rather than criticize or complain, the more effective approach would be to admit, “I need to know that you care about my physical needs. Taking care of Mother the past two weeks was such a draining experience.”
The more needs each mate meets in the other, the stronger the relationship becomes. (See Luke 6:38.)
9) They trust each other.
In interviews with more than 100 couples for her book, Married People, Francine Klagsbrun noted that they mention trust more than love. “Love was a given for them,” she observes, “but trust really says it all: It means you can open up to another person and not be hurt. In a good marriage there’s so much trust that each partner can show his weakest side and know he’ll still be loved”
Klagsbrun observed that most of the partners who spoke of trust also brought up the subject of fidelity. Almost without exception, the two went hand in hand. Absolute faithfulness is vital to a healthy relationship. Each mate must determine to be faithful in his or her thoughts, attitudes and actions.
Nothing is more damaging to a marriage than sexual promiscuity. (The wife, particularly, needs the security that comes from knowing her husband is faithful to her.) Don’t discuss your mate behind his back. Don’t correct your mate in public. Don’t criticize your mate. Don’t put your mate down.
10) They adjust to changes and use changes as a means of continued growth.
Neither trauma nor triumph makes couples sad or happy. Rather than say pressure causes one to act the way he does, it is more accurate to say pressure reveals the real person.
Happily adjusted couples face and cope with as many stress-filled situations as unhappy couples. But they know how to adapt to situations and work through them. A few common-sense principles help them survive—and even thrive on adversity:
Expect both highs and lows. Believe God is bigger than the problem and seek His solution. Maintain a good attitude. (Someone has suggested life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we react to what happens.)
Seek advice from someone who survived the same problem. Be willing to make adjustments in your budget, schedule or whatever needs adjusting. When possible tackle the problem in bite sizes. (“It’s a cinch by the inch, but hard by the yard”)
Keep reminding yourself that “marriage isn’t so much finding the right person as being the right person,” says happily married Charlie Shedd.
Article adapted from Contactmagazine, October 1987.