Secrets are really just tools that allow for new habits of behavior to take root. Basic tools can help any marriage thrive and endure. The following secrets may not seem like secrets to some and may come easier for some couples. It is when these secrets are functioning poorly, that they receive the most attention. I want to share some of the tools from my tool kit that have sustained our marriage, allowed it to continue growing and I believe, endure. Join me as I unpack my (our) 5 secrets of a lasting marriage.
Before we got married, we decided to do Premarital Counselling. I would have to say that this was the best decision that we made prior to getting married. The more expectations and preconceptions you share and work through prior to marriage, the more prepared you are for the years ahead. Our Premarital Counselling involved personality profiles, family of origin dynamics, roles and responsibilities and creating a vision for marriage. If you have never delved into these areas for yourself and your marriage, I recommend doing so regardless of the current state of your marriage or how many years you have been married.
This post is very special to me as my husband and I just celebrated twenty years of marriage. We have enjoyed a wonderful, fulfilling relationship throughout these years. We have by no means figured it all out but I think that we are living out the 5 secrets of a lasting marriage with each of our own set of flaws. Despite these flaws, we have chosen and keep choosing daily to work together as a team. It has helped that we both came from hard working, farming backgrounds and grew up with similar values regarding money, sex, children and work. I believe that this, coupled with a faith and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, allowed us to see that God was ultimately the author of marriage and the One who caused our paths to cross and join.
Secret #1 – Self Awareness
Awareness of self and others is one of the tools that help us build stronger, healthier selves and relationships. When we make mistakes, we have to take ownership and apologize but in order to make repair, we need to have the awareness that we are in the wrong to begin with. Building this muscle comes from asking for and accepting feedback which creates a healthy sense of self. In addition to having this accountability, educating oneself is critical.
We all grow up in imperfect families that will fail us in some area. To gain the tools to be in a healthy relationship we need to read, take courses, and listen to “experts” in chosen fields of human growth and behavior. I count it a privilege and honor to be trained and practice as a certified counsellor. As a result of working with dozens of couples I have had an amazing examples of theory and practice of what works well for marriages. My clients have been the best teachers for marriage success.
Being married can be likened to having a continual mirror held in front of us; revealing elements of ourselves that we try to hide, stuff or manipulate. Our tendencies and habits are exposed.
To learn more about what is ours to take ownership of in our marriage, it is crucial to know and practice health boundaries. A great resource for this is Boundaries in Marriage by Henry Cloud, John Pearson and John Townsend.
Secret #2 – Friendship & Dating
The origins of our relationship were friendship. I am truly grateful that this is where we started. This beginning allowed me to be myself without the fear of romantic rejection. Friendship is the best foundation to start from, to build on and to fall back on. This is the foundation that remains when the honeymoon feelings fade and the reality of every day difficulties set in. The teamwork dynamic that sets in after children come along works best if there is a mutual appreciation and positive regard for the other person.
Friendship goes hand in hand with dating your spouse. Just as friends spend time together to learn and grow, so do marriage partners. Even though a couple is married, taking time to “date” your spouse is crucial. This should be a regular time that you take where you do not talk about work or your children. Dr John Gottman does an amazing job (and 40 years of research based evidence) of giving practical tools for getting to know more about your spouse in the best seller, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. This book is a must have resource for all couples!
Secret #3 – Communication & Conflict
Communication employs many different aspects of listening, speaking, and responding. These three characteristics are known as active listening. Listening is not merely hearing what the other person says but rather tuning in. Tuning in with our body posture, our eyesight and our affirming gestures (head nods). The speaking part of active listening is sometimes repeating what we have heard in order to get the message correctly. It is important to remember to take turns listening and speaking. Asking questions is also crucial to make sure that we are hearing our spouse correctly.
A very simple formula to communicate our feelings and needs is as follows; “I feel _______ (insert feeling word eg. sad), when you ______ (insert the other persons behavior eg. walk away during a fight). I would like you to ______” (insert preferred behavior eg. tell me you need a time out). Asking for what we need should be as specific and measurable as possible. One of the biggest pitfalls in a marriage is assuming that the other person knows what we need as well as how to respond to that need.
Once again our family of origin signals where our tendencies for conflict styles come from. If we use our awareness tool and healthy feedback from others we can discover our conflict style. Ask yourself what role you took in your family growing up. Were you a peacemaker, an avoidant/deflector, defensive attacker, passive aggressive or aggressive? The goal is to take your tendency and use the other tools (self-awareness and communication) to formulate more a more assertive approach (see above as in the “I feel” formula).
Secret #4 – Discovering you Love Language
We all receive love in different ways according to our personalities and family of origin experiences. This is another area where educating oneself is crucial. If you know your spouse receives love, then you will avoid disappointment and resentment.
In The Five Love Languages and on the website, 5 Love Languages, author Gary Smalley offers a free quiz to find out your love language. The five love languages according to Gary Smalley are; acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation and physical touch. It is rare for a couple to have the same primary love language. Therefore, this makes communication of our needs all the more important!
Secret #5 – Self Sacrifice
Honestly, the true secret to making all of the above work is to think of the other person first; serving first before expecting our own needs to be met. I know that is not a highly regarded notion. Love in its richest form is self-sacrificing.
We were created out of love by the God of the universe; designed for a purpose. Out of this rich love he sent his Son Jesus to be our perfect example and sacrificed his comforts, earthly pleasures and ultimately his body for all our wrong doing so that we could have freedom now and forever. John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for his friends.” If we accept this gift we get to be a part of that amazing story of hope and redemption.
God asks us to put our spouse first and in turn, He will provide for our needs. Putting our spouse first is not treating ourselves with disrespect, shame or contempt. It is choosing to turn toward (physically and emotionally) when we want to turn away, asking questions when we want to fight back, saying sorry for our behavior instead of being defensive. We are choosing to see the other person as God created them along with a bucket full of grace for the areas where they fall short. It is not a magical formula but a lifetime of choosing that God has a greater and bigger plan. This applies to all our relationships not just our marriage. “We love because he first loved us” 1 John 4:19
It is my hope that you see that a healthy, thriving marriage exists and is possible even if that is not the case for your right now. Seeking outside help from a counsellor is choosing to bring importance to self awareness, communication and conflict resolution. It is healthy to ask for help! This post is by no means a fully comprehensive guide to marriage success but rather a skimming the surface of what has been crucial and successful in our marriage.
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Blessings from my house to yours,
P.S. A huge shout out to Breanne Marie for capturing our love for our 20th anniversary!