Keep Your Marriage Strong by Asking Different Questions

Shift your perspective by training yourself to ask different questions than you might naturally ask. 

Think differently

In my last post, I promised to continue this week with some specific suggestions to keep your marriage strong from the long haul. Today’s suggestion is that you learn to ask different questions.

One of the forces weakening marriages and causing an uptick in “gray divorce” in the past decade is that the wrong belief that the purpose of marriage is essentially our own personal happiness. If this is true, then our marriages can be sustained only as long as our fickle and fleeting feelings are maintained, or as long as our mate does the thing that we insist they do to meet our needs.

Instead, I say, let’s look at marriage as a covenant based on selfless love – something higher than ourselves and our own happiness.

An Unhealthy Focus On Self

It seems this “me-centered” marriage paradigm has grown immeasurably since the baby boomer “me generation” began passing through mid-life. This unhealthy pre-occupation with self-promotion, self-protection, and self-centeredness has spread throughout subsequent generations.

I used to write for Your Tango’s now-defunct Traditional Marriage section. I wrote a post there entitled, “Why After 30 Years of Marriage the Best is Yet to Come.” In that article I said this:

If you have a habit of holding your spouse responsible for your happiness, you definitely need to learn to take that responsibility upon yourself. However, remember that if you view your marriage as being mostly about your rights and what you get out of the bargain, in the long run, you are going to end up bitter and disappointed.

On the other hand, if you see your marriage primarily as an opportunity to selflessly love and generously serve your wife or husband to the best of your ability, you will the reap the long-lasting benefit of a strong and close relationship.

Don’t buy the lie that a 50/50 marriage is ideal. Instead, go for 100/100, where each of you holds nothing back and gives all you have to the other.

My wife and I strive to live a paradigm of selfless love. We aren’t nearly perfect at it, but I believe this is one of the many reasons we keep believing that our best years are always in front of us. We refuse to believe the lie of inevitable marriage decline.

Asking Differently

Selfless love is the cornerstone of a strong marriage – one that will stand the test of time. It’s not necessarily easy or natural to love without conditions especially when our spouse isn’t doing the same.

One approach to changing your thinking is to retrain yourself to ask different questions.

    • When you are tempted to ask, “What’s in it for me?” ask instead, “How can I bless my spouse?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “What are my rights?” ask instead, “What is the right thing for our marriage and for my spouse?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “What will advance my cause?” ask instead, “What will enhance my marriage?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “What will I get out of this?” ask instead, “How can I be generous in this situation?”
    • When you are tempted to ask, “How can I win this argument?” ask instead, “How can we keep connected during this discussion?”

Learning to live as one flesh means we have to let go of the battle for self and learn to press into the reality that because we are one, we win when our spouse wins. Blessing him or her actually blesses us too! Taking such a one-flesh view of your marriage will totally change to way you see your spouse and your relationship.

Take the Risk

This thing of selfless love is risky business. There is no guarantee that your spouse will respond in kind. While selfless love is a compelling force for intimacy and passion, not everyone will respond to it. Remember, people are free to make their own choices; you can only control you.

Yet this is the kind of love we were shown by Jesus and the kind of love we are compelled to show to our spouses. He took the risk. He gave everything for us, for the sake of intimacy with us, knowing that many would reject his sacrifice and continue to live for themselves. He did it anyway.

So I urge you to step back and consider the reckless, selfless, sacrificial love of Christ. Rather than buying into the lies exemplified and extolled by the “me generation,” take the risk to love like Jesus does. It’s worth the risk.

Keep Your Marriage Strong for the Long Haul

Keeping your marriage strong means shifting your focus from yourself and your own happiness to your spouse and marriage and to keeping intimacy alive.

Strong for the long haul

“Gray divorce” has surged in recent years as older couples are increasingly ending their marriages at an alarming rate. News outlets from The Wall Street Journal to NPR have featured stories on this heartbreaking phenomenon.

These stories reference a 2012 study called The Gray Divorce Revolution, co-authored by sociologists Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University and I-Fen Lin. In 1990, one in ten divorces occurred in couples ages 50 and older.  In 2009, that number doubled to two in ten.  For those previously married, it has skyrocketed to one in four, a 250% increase. (In 1980 45% of singles were divorced. In 2009, that percentage increased to 58%. The marriage failure rate is historically much higher for multiple marriages.)

While general societal acceptance of divorce and the increased earning power of women are both sited as key factors influencing the rise in gray divorce, I only see these as enabling factors. The root cause lies elsewhere. In fact, the root cause of gray divorce later in life is also a key cause of reduced marriage rates among younger generations.

The Problem of Self

The baby boomer generation, to which I belong, is also called the “Me Generation” That’s a fitting but sad moniker and also a key to understanding the gray divorce epidemic. But the problem of self-centeredness isn’t isolated to my generation. No, it’s rampant throughout society.

Dr. Brown describes the attitudinal shift concerning marriage that occurred with baby boomers – an attitude which has only strengthened in the generations since. There is now “a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy, rather than on how well each individual fulfilled their marital roles.” She goes on to say that the problem “springs at least in part from boomers’ status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment.” In other words, with the “me generation,” marriage became all about me and my happiness, rather than living as one under the covenant of marriage and loving and serving one another – and it’s pervasive today.

Here is a great quote that gets at the very heart of the problem.

Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University Ethics professor

A New Happiness Paradigm

I shared in this post my three rules of happiness in marriage:

    • The primary purpose of your marriage isn’t to make you happy
    • You need to take responsibility for your own happiness
    • Love and serve your spouse as if their happiness depended on you

Happiness best viewed as a by-product rather than a goal. A relationship that has personal happiness as its main goal is going to miss some deeper things that underlie a long-lasting marriage. Selflessness, surrender, intimacy, joy, peace, and holiness all come to mind as worthy goals. These also tend to produce happiness as a result.

In addition to my three happiness insights, I suggest that if you choose to be happy now by choosing to focus on the good dimensions of your marriage and spouse, you actually stand a better chance of achieving the happiness you so desire.

More Than Roommates

As Dr. Hauerwas points out above, “Learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married” is a really good idea.

The problem is that many couples who choose to focus their efforts toward each other in early marriage, eventually, through inattention, devolve back into strangers many years later. If they don’t grow so far apart as to become strangers, many wind up as little more than roommates.

Intimacy is the antidote for the roommate syndrome that wrecks so many marriages. Intimacy reaches its zenith when we are fully known (weaknesses, warts and all) and completely, unconditionally loved. Intimacy is the main goal of every marriage (in all forms: emotional, spiritual, sexual, financial, etc.) God built us with an innate desire for intimacy; intimacy with Him and intimacy with our spouse. I also believe God designed us with a huge capacity for intimacy and that we can continue to grow closer together regardless of how long we’ve been married.

There is always more intimacy available in your marriage than what you are experiencing right now. To keep your marriage on The Path of Intimacy, vigilantly guard your connection to each other. Focus your efforts on allowing yourselves to be deeply known and on loving each other well in little ways every day.

Don’t buy the lie of inevitable marital decline. It doesn’t have to be that way. My wife and I have been married 35 years, and we are closer and more in love now than we have ever been. And we believe that the best is yet to come!

Next week I’ll share a few other ideas on how to keep your marriage strong for the long haul. (Sign up here to get my posts in your inbox so you’ll be sure not to miss these important posts!).

 

PS  Please understand that I do not mean to imply that everyone who gets divorced does so because they are selfish.

4 Comfortable Habits That Keep Your Marriage Stuck at Good

Move beyond these familiar habits to shift your marriage from good to great.

Good to Great

Do you sometimes feel like your marriage is stuck in neutral? It can happen to any couple, regardless of how long they’ve been married. We get comfortable in our routines. We slip into familiar patterns that maybe aren’t all the healthy or helpful. We lose sight of our purpose. We become roommates.

Humans are creatures of habit. In fact, our brains are wired to seek ways to go on autopilot in order to reduce our cognitive load. Autopilot is just easier on our brains. The problem is, autopilot mode is also hard on your marriage.

From Good to Great

Maybe you would say you have a pretty good marriage. But you know it could be better. You are stuck at good, but you have a feeling that great is out there somewhere. You just aren’t sure how to get there.

You’ve no doubt heard it said that good is the enemy of great. I might say it a little differently. I would say that the thrill of great gets held captive by the comfort of good.

If you want to have a great marriage, you may have to take a few risks and let go of good. By that I mean you may have to let go of some habits that have become very comfortable and familiar, but that have you trapped at good.

The thing with comfort zones is that they are so darn comfortable. We can even fool ourselves into thinking something is comfortable just because it’s familiar, even though it may even not be all that enjoyable or satisfying.

Here are four typical comfort zones where I challenge you to move beyond good and to go for great.

Good #1: We have date nights

The movie Date Night perfectly portrays what happens when date night becomes a stale habit. The Fosters go to the same restaurant on the same night, eating the same food every week, where they finish each others’ sentences and fall into bed without really even touching each other. All the while they are longing for something more.

Dates nights are important, but if it feels like they have become blah, it’s time to shake things up a bit. Let go of your normal date night routines. Take turns with planning your dates. Try this four-date sequence next month.  Date #1 he plans something “for her,” meaning he tries to consider her desires and interests. Date #2 she plans “for him,” and does likewise. Date #3 he plans according to what he would like. Date #4 she plans something that she likes doing.

Take turns planning surprises. Dress for each other. Include a little date night nookie. Commit to doing something new and untried at least once a month.

Great #1: Make date night an adventure!

 

Good #2: We know each other well

Knowing each other well is a double-edged sword. While it does allow for a certain amount of ease and comfort in daily interactions, it can also cause us to make assumptions and leap to conclusions. It can make us complacent so that we stop pursuing each other. We can miss it when our spouse grows and changes. We can also start to think it terms of “you never…” or “you always…” instead of seeing things for how they really are (which is probably not actually never or always).

The truth is that there is more intimacy available to you than what you are enjoying right now, regardless of where you are on the spectrum. Don’t assume you know all there is to know about your spouse and don’t assume your spouse knows all about you. Practice engaging on a deeper level in every dimension of your marriage: emotional, sexual, spiritual, intellectual, financial, recreational…

My “Intimate Connections for Couples” workbook is a great way to deepen intimacy with fun, easy fill-in-the-blank conversation starters. It’s available right now on Amazon for a 25% discount, so order yours before they are gone!

Great #2: Never stop being a student of your spouse. Never stop seeking deeper intimacy.

 

Good #3: We have sex pretty regularly

Sexual intimacy is a common area where couples get stuck. Because of the intense vulnerability that comes with sex, it’s easy to seek the safety and comfort of the familiar. I mean, even okay sex is pretty darn good, right, so why rock the boat? Why take risks? Why move out of our comfort zone?

Sexual intimacy is the ultimate expression of the oneness of marriage. The vulnerability that accompanies sexual exploration also allows for the deepest possible kind of connection, because genuine intimacy requires vulnerability. Finding new sexual expressions and new ways to enjoy each other physically allows this area of intimacy to continue to grow and strengthen your marriage in a unique and beautiful way. Take delight in generously delighting one another in bed, and often.

Great #3: Make sex a high priority and add something new to the routine once in a while.

 

Good #4: Our marriage is fair. Everything is 50/50

Fairness is the wrong measuring stick for a great marriage. When making everything even becomes the goal, it sets up score-keeping and an atmosphere where we withhold until we get our fair share.

God calls us to more. He calls us to sacrificial, unconditional and extravagant love. It’s how he loves us, and how we are to love one another, especially in marriage. As Jesus, our bridegroom, laid down his life for his bride, so too are husbands called to lovingly lay down their lives and use their authority to lavishly love, protect and beautify their wives. As the church gives her all to Jesus in unconditional and loving surrender, so too are wives to give themselves wholly to their husbands.

There is nothing in the relationship between Christ and the church that is 50/50, and therefore there should be nothing in marriage that is either. Think of areas where you have tended to hold back from your spouse and find ways to overcome your reticence. Think of ways in which you have not loved as fully or generously as you could because of not having your own needs met, and try giving that love anyway.

Great #4: Go for 100/100 in your marriage – go all out at being all in!

 

What other habits can you think of that couples might need to let go of in order find the greatness that lies beyond? Leave your thoughts in a comment.

 

This post originally appeared on my Journey to Surrender blog in February 2016

The One Reason to Make Love More Often

There is one benefit to lovemaking that stands out above them all.

Making Love MoreThere are many great reasons to increase the amount of sexual activity in your marriage. Research has shown it boosts your immune system, improves brain function, burns calories, lowers stress and improves sleep.

As great as all these benefits are, there is one that stands out in my mind above them all:

Making Love More Makes More Love

There is no universal standard to dictate how much sex a couple should have. My own recent study shows that having sex more than once a week increases the chances for a highly satisfying sex life by a factor of 12 compared to those having sex less than once a week. That’s not a 12% difference, that is 12 TIMES.

However, regardless of how often you make love, making love more often pays huge dividends in one very key area of your marriage: love.

5 Ways Lovemaking Grows Love

Here are 5 ways in which sexual intimacy grows the love in your marriage.

1) It bonds you together – During lovemaking and especially during orgasm, the hormone oxytocin is released. It’s a powerful bonding brain chemical that gives us a feeling of attachment. Another hormone released after lovemaking, vasopressin, has similar bonding effects. “Essentially, vasopressin released after intercourse is significant in that it creates a desire in the male to stay with his mate, inspires a protective sense (in humans, perhaps this is what creates almost a jealous tendency) about his mate, and drives him to protect his territory and his offspring.” (See more in this study)

2) It deepens your emotional connection – in addition to these bonding effects, making love builds intimacy in your relationship because by it’s very nature sex invites vulnerability. You can’t have intimacy without being known, and you can’t be known unless you are willing to be vulnerable. The bedroom (or wherever) tends to be a place of deep vulnerability. For most men, sexual satisfaction actually opens a wide pathway to seeking (yes seeking) an emotional connection with their wives, and for many women, making love tends to cause them to want more sex. This creates a positive cycle of intimacy.

3) It changes the atmosphere in your marriage the positive cycle of intimacy created by regular lovemaking causes a prevailing sense of sexual satisfaction and a deep sense of general well-being. A man who feels that his wife desires him will feel very loved, and when he also know that she is satisfied by him it boosts his self-confidence. These give him the feeling that he can take on the world. Wives will similarly enjoy the well-being created by the increased intimacy and emotional connection. It’s a win-win.

4) It says “I love you” to the higher drive spouse – When a lower-drive spouse pursues sexual intimacy with his or her higher drive mate, it sends a very clear message, “Your needs are a priority to me and I want to satisfy you.” In short, expressing love in the form of sexual intimacy says “I love you” loud and clear.

5) It’s the ultimate expression of oneness – God designed sex purposefully to be the pleasurable pinnacle of marital intimacy. It’s a beautiful love expression that is reserved by God solely for husband and wife. Sexual intimacy is where God’s plan that “the two become one flesh” takes on a literal meaning.

Do you want more love in your marriage? Try raising the priority of and setting aside time and energy for making love. It will make love grow. 

Originally published on my Journey to Surrender blog in May 2016

 

How to Be Wrong When You Are Right

What if the goal in every conflict was to maintain connection instead of to prove that you are right?

Conflict Connection

Every couple has disagreements and conflicts. It’s inevitable. In most cases, our goal is to prove we are in the right. Today, I’m proposing a different, more radical goal: to maintain your connection.

Proving you are right has its merits. It demonstrates your knowledge of the subject matter. It shows your ability to think on your feet and to argue your point. It allows your partner to see the obvious brilliance of the right (your) answer and change their mind.

Of course being right or wrong in a disagreement matters, it’s just that it should matter less than protecting your relationship, and in particular, guarding intimacy in ways that maintain your connection.

As you will see below, there are things we all do during conflict or disagreement that break our connection.

The Wrong Way to Be Right

Shutting down conversation – When we feel strongly about something, it’s easy to speak in a way that does not allow room for our partner to speak. When we shut our spouse out of the conversation, it’s no longer dialogue, it’s making a speech. If your spouse senses that you aren’t willing to hear what they have to say, they will tend to withdraw from the conversation. That’s the beginning of disconnection.

Not listening – A more likely scenario is that we listen to what they have to say, but we don’t really hear. We don’t really want to gain understanding. Instead, we pretend to listen, but in truth, we are preparing our rebuttal in our minds the whole time our partner is speaking. Such tactics still result in disconnection, because your spouse will see that you have not understood or even given consideration to their point of view. It makes them feel devalued.

Berating or belittling – When we use shame or condemnation to hammer our point home, we destroy intimacy. Shame and Intimacy cannot coexist, because, by definition, intimacy happens when we are fully seen and yet completely loved as we are. Naked without shame. Shaming your spouse will inhibit them getting “naked” with their opinions in the future.

Ganging up – In some cases, we drag others who share our opinion into the conversation to prove that we are in the right. It doesn’t actually prove that you are right because resolving disagreements isn’t about taking a vote. It’s about getting on the same page, finding common ground and gaining understanding.

Not letting it go – Even if your partner comes around to your point of view, and the conflict is resolved to both of your satisfaction, you can cause damage later by repeatedly bringing up the fact that you were right and they were wrong. Not letting go of an argument after it has been peaceably resolved keeps the conflict alive and makes your spouse feel unsafe.

Making everything a big deal – Sometimes we make conflicts over issues that really don’t matter. For example, your spouse misremembers a detail of a story they are telling, or pronounces a word incorrectly or gets a date or time wrong. Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter. Let it go.

Speaking harshly – The tone and body language you use during conflict can often speak as loudly as the words you say. It’s easy to push your spouse away just by speaking harshly or giving a smirk or crossing your arms defiantly.

The Right Way to Be Right

So what if keeping your connection and maintaining intimacy was a greater goal than being right or proving your point? Such an outlook would more than likely result in disagreements that look like the following.

Showing honor – Maintaining an attitude of honor and respect is the best way to keep your connection during disagreements. That means valuing the other person and their perspective, even if you are convinced that you are right. Honor makes space for the other and their point of view, even if you hold a strongly opposing view. Honor dictates that we respond with respect rather than react with emotion.

Listening to gain understanding – listening to understand is a learned skill. It requires remaining focused on our partner and trying to discern their heart. It means not preparing your argument in your mind while the other person is speaking. It’s harder than it sounds. Repeating back what you think you heard is a very useful tactic.

Speaking with kindness – Keep a calm, non-defensive tone and demeanor. Even if you are convinced that you are right and your spouse is wrong, don’t accuse him or her or attribute motives to their opinions. Body language is also important. If you can actually touch while in a disagreement, that’s the best way to make a statement that you are on the same side.

Not sweating the small stuff – use discernment as to whether the argument is actually worth having. Will proving yourself right help your relationship or your spouse?

Agreeing to disagree – Not every argument will end in agreement. Be okay with respectfully holding different perspectives on an issue.

 

I encourage you to try this out.  The next time you and your spouse are having a disagreement about something, remember to shift your thinking from “winning” to “staying connected.”