Elements of a Strong Marriage. Part 2
1. Healthy couples know how to disagree without being disagreeable. Conflict is inevitable in marriage. If there is no conflict, that says to me that someone is backing down, refusing to stand their ground on many issues. Life presents a myriad of issues for disagreement, starting with the temperature in the room. What makes conflict destructive in any relationship is when it turns from focusing on the mission of the organization (e.g. to get our kids raised and launched) to focusing on the personal (you’re a bad parent because you’re too lenient/harsh/uninvolved, etc.). I could say much more. But for a much better analysis, see one or the other of my books: Questions Couples Ask, and/or Red Zone/Blue Zone.
2. Healthy couples constantly monitor and recalibrate the expectations they have of one another. It would probably be a good idea (though no one ever thinks to do it) for couples, as they anticipate marriage, to have a long, hard discussion as to what each expects of the marriage. And this would include money, recreation, kids, relationships with families of origin, sex, who is primarily responsible for what (You do the lawn and cars, I’ll do the kitchen). This discussion would not be a onetime thing. It would be a recurring conversation as new experiences and opportunities present themselves, as people come and go in the family (kids are born, leave home, elderly parents move in, etc.). Expectations perpetually lurk in the shadows of everyone’s minds. We often don’t tend to think about them, to evaluate them, to even alter them. But when an expectation goes unmet, we tend to get very irritated.
3. Loving couples constantly tell each other what they want. Saying what you want is a bit more complicated than the way it first appears. It actually involves several steps, each of which can go wrong.
a. I need to know what I want. For many people, this is quite complicated. Often people are raised in families where they are reprimanded for saying what they want (“You’re selfish!”). Therefore some people have to work extra hard to determine what they want.
b. I need to trust you enough to tell you what I want, understanding that there is a reasonable chance that I will get a fair hearing from you as to my wants.
c. You need to hear clearly what I want.
d. You need to be willing to honor my request and give me what I want.
e. I need to receive what you give to me.
I know this might sound overly complicated. But in working in numerous couples over the years, I’ve found that these steps can break down at any given point, given the nature of the people involved and the relationship that they have created.
4. Loving couples are made up of two people who can give and receive. This actually follows on to the point above where couples tell each other what they want. But I thought I’d break it out here to underscore how important it is to give and receive within a marriage. Some individuals within a marriage do most if not all of the giving, the other spouse receiving. Other couples rarely if ever hear from one another as to what the other wants. Healthy couples have a mutuality about giving and receiving. Not that it’s 50/50. At certain seasons of life, one spouse might be more needy than the other (a pregnant wife or new mother, a husband who has a sustained illness or injury). But healthy couples have come to count on one another to be there and give when the occasion arises.
5. Basically, loving couples maintain a deep, abiding friendship (respecting each other, supporting each other’s hopes and aspirations). This point is a catch-all for healthy relationships. Loving couples over time have an abiding friendship. That doesn’t mean they do everything together. Certainly it doesn’t mean that they agree on everything (that’s impossible unless one partner is constantly backing down, refusing to own their opinions). But it does mean that the good in the relationship far outweighs the bad, that they genuinely enjoy each other’s company, that they can have extended conversations about a whole host of issues that life presents.
6. Loving couples realize that horizontal relationships affect vertical relationships. Not surprisingly, scripture using the marriage relationship as one example of the relationship we have with God (we’re the bride of Christ). And interestingly enough, we see that our relationships with one another here on earth affect our relationships with God (“How can we say we love God and hate our brother?”). Working to have happy, healthy marriages goes hand-in-hand with working on a happy, healthy relationship with God. Each relationship enhances and informs the other.