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.

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.”

7 Ways to Help Your Wife Feel Beautiful

A Men only Monday post

Make it your job to make your wife feel beautiful every day.

Make Her Feel Beautiful

Today I’m speaking to husbands concerning their wife’s body image struggles. This is a follow-up post to my Wives Only Wednesday post from last week, 6 Things Wives Need to Know About Their Body Image Struggles and the subsequent post 10 Ways to Overcome Body Image Issues.

Let me cut right to the heart of the issue: It is your job to make your wife feel beautiful. Every single day.

How do I make such a bold claim? Because you are to love your wife as Christ loves the church, and that’s exactly how Jesus treats us.

All that he does in us is designed to make us a mature church for his pleasure until we become a source of praise to him—glorious and radiant, beautiful and holy, without fault or flaw; a bride fully prepared for him. Ephesians 5:27 TPT

In the footnote concerning the word “beautiful” the author of The Passion Translation, Brian Simmons, writes, “5:27 The Greek word for radiance (endoxos) can also mean “gorgeous, honorable, esteemed, splendid, infused with glory!” This is what Christ’s love will do to you.” And by extension, The Bridal Paradigm implies that your love should beautify your wife in the same way.

So the biblical mandate to “beautify” your wife is clear. But how?

1) Tell Her – Daily

As I stated in my post, “Your Wife is in a Body Image Battle,” your wife is bombarded daily with messages that cause her to dislike her appearance. Movies, television, magazines and advertising all contribute to a false portrayal of beauty that makes women feel “less than.”

You may be her only ally in her battle against negative self-image, so it is your job to tell her loudly and clearly just how beautiful she is. Pay her a compliment about her physical appearance every day or more. Even if you told her an hour ago, she’s stopped believing it already. Compliment her outfit, her sense of style, her hairstyle, or speak admiringly of your favorite body part(s). Let her know how much you appreciate when she wears something just for you. Seek opportunities to praise her beauty (tactfully and appropriately) in front of others.

2) Pursue Her

Never stop pursuing your wife. Yes, she is already yours, but that doesn’t mean she no longer desires to be pursued by you. Flirt with her. Take her on regular dates. Cross the house to kiss her for no reason at all except that you wanted a kiss. Make love regularly – it actually changes her brain chemistry in positive ways.

Understand your wife’s love language(s) and be purposeful in attending to her love needs in ways that are meaningful to her. Her love needs are likely completely different than your own, so be a student of what makes your wife feel loved and regularly act in accordance with what you have learned.

Do little things every day to make her feel adored. Cherish her daily and don’t make the mistake of thinking occasional grand gestures are enough. They aren’t.

3) Adore her Inner Self

I know this post is primarily about your wife’s self-image over her physical appearance, but your wife is much more than just how she looks. Make a point to admire her inner beauty as well. Notice and express appreciation for who she is inside. Compliment her personality, her generosity, her intelligence and her spiritual insight. Remind her what a good friend/daughter/mother she is.

4) Touch Her

Even if physical touch is not one of your wife’s love languages, it’s an important ingredient in making her feel loved and adored by you. Non-sexual touch releases oxytocin, which causes her to feel more connected to you. Hug. Hold Hands. Snuggle on the couch. Put your arm around her. Give a foot or back massage.

5) Adorn Her

Encourage your wife to spend money and time on herself. Buy her a special outfit or surprise her with jewelry once in a while. Again, even if gifts aren’t her highest love language, make room in the budget for her to buy some nice things. Encourage her to splurge occasionally on some more elegant lingerie – or buy it for her yourself. If this feels out of your league, check her sizes in her closet and drawers, and ask for help finding something tasteful yet beautiful at the local lingerie store.

6) Look at Her Through the Eyes Of Love and Desire

Allow your wife to see in your eyes the love and desire you have for her. Give her a wry, appreciative smile when you catch her undressing. Lock eyes with her while you are making love. Flash her a loving smile or give her a wink across a room full of people. Approach her, staring into her eyes with a passionate look, and press your body to hers before moving in for a kiss.

7) Never Give Up

Many wives will try to refuse your compliments or argue back. As hard as that is, especially if she is ardent in her opposition, don’t allow her negative reactions to discourage you in your efforts to make her feel beautiful. It won’t be easy but stick to it. Be consistent. Let her know that she doesn’t get to decide how you feel about her. Even if she argues, she still wants and needs to hear your words of affirmation.

Every woman is different, so not all of these will be helpful for all wives. The main thing is to be aware of your responsibility to make your wife feel beautiful and to be deliberate in your efforts.

When Living as One is One-Sided

Hope and help for those struggling in a one-sided marriage.

Let God be your hope

I sometimes receive comments from discouraged and frustrated readers whose spouses are not meeting their needs. In many cases the comments come in response to some advice I’ve offered, stating something like “I tried that, but it didn’t work,” or “I tried that, but my spouse didn’t respond.”

I received two such comments on my previous post about how to shift your mindset to think as one. I suggested that thinking as one means “we” thinking instead of “me” thinking, to put a higher priority on the relationship than on being right, and to focus on giving instead of getting. Ideally, both husband and wife will take this “oneness” mindset, but it won’t always be that way.

A good example is one struggling commenter that suggested, “If you really want to help people in this area you need to offer suggestions as to how people like me can get the attention of people like my wife to respond in kind.”

In addition to the response I gave in comments to the post, I decided to take him up on his suggestion. Truthfully, though, this post is not so much about how to change a reluctant spouse as it is how to keep your hope alive.

No Easy Answers

There are no easy answers; no quick fixes. But here are some things you can do to move your marriage in the right direction when it feels like it is off track:

  • You can’t change your spouse, you can only change you. Work on being the best spouse you can be. If your efforts are oriented toward getting your spouse to do something, or stop doing something, they will see it as manipulation and an attempt to control them.
  • While loving your spouse well and meeting their needs generously often results in them coming around to offer you the same, there are no magic formulas or guarantees. Choose to love well anyway.
  • Let sacrificial and unconditional love, Jesus’ kind of love, be your motivation for meeting your spouse’s needs. If your motivation is to get something from your spouse in return, disappointment will run you over, and you won’t be able to sustain it.
  • It’s perfectly okay to hope for improvements in your marriage, but don’t make change a precondition for continuing to love your spouse well.
  • Pray. Pray a lot. Pray mostly for God to change your heart. Pray for God to give you an intimate and lasting marriage. Pray for God to teach you how to love well. Don’t pray for God to change your spouse.
  • Seek God for a revelation of how he sees your spouse and your marriage. Having heaven’s perspective will help sustain you through the worst of times.

3 Rules of Happiness

In this post, I proposed the following three axioms, which may seem at first blush to conflict with each other:

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

Happiness is not the right goal for any marriage. Having a great marriage will certainly produce happiness, but I see it more as a by-product than a goal.

No Doormats or Enablers

The other side of the coin is that loving well does not include being a doormat or an enabler of unloving or unkind behavior. If your spouse is consistently causing you pain with their words or actions and neglecting your needs, it’s important that you speak up. As lovingly as possible, make it clear that you want a strong, enduring and intimate relationship but that the path you are on isn’t going to get you there.

Don’t issue demands or ultimatums – those only backfire. Communicate your needs. Communicate your pain. Don’t accuse or blame. Don’t impute motives to your spouse. Talk about you, your needs and how you feel. This is hard, I know.

Seek outside counsel if your issues are serious or longstanding. Sometimes it takes a third party to get you unstuck from ingrained patterns of interaction. Seek help from your pastor, from friends whose marriage you admire, or from a professional counselor.

(Important note: in the case of physical or emotional abuse, seek outside help immediately.)

God is Our Hope

Ultimately, hope for a great marriage (or just for a better one) is not in your spouse, in your self, or in your circumstances.

Hope for your marriage must be found in God. Hoping in God is not just mindless optimism or denial of the reality of the situation. Rather, it is based on a belief that God is good, that he is for you, for our marriage and for your spouse.

Trusting God to heal your marriage and make it all it can be does not relieve you of the responsibility to continue to love your spouse well or to serve him or her with your whole heart. Hope and trust do not equate to resignation or passively waiting for things to get better. No, our faith in God’s ability to move in our marriage means we partner with the Holy Spirit, day-by-day, step-by-step.

We are all called to emulate Jesus and his relentless pursuit of us, his bride. Especially when you feel your hope fading, press into Jesus and spend more time than usual in prayer and worship. Your connection to him in times of struggle can sustain you and encourage you like little else can.

The fact that God is our ultimate hope is not simply an empty platitude. It is a foundational truth.

Patience for the Long Haul

If you and your spouse have spent a long time on The Path of Separation, it’s going to take time and consistent effort to get back on The Path of Intimacy. But it is also true that until one of you turns toward the other, you are going to continue to drift further apart.

I encourage you to be the one to turn first, to reach out and to make every effort to draw closer. It’s important that your spouse see your heart and understands your desire is for renewed intimacy, not control. If you don’t get an immediate response, hang in there, keep believing for the best and loving well.

I’ve heard more instances that I can count of troubled marriages being restored and made stronger than ever due to one spouse selflessly loving the other, though in some cases it took years. Find and read testimonies of restored marriages – it will encourage your heart.

I hope and pray this post has offered some help and hope for those struggling in a one-sided marriage. I truly believe no marriage is beyond God’s power to restore. Yours included.

Facing Stress – Together

In times of stress, maintaining your connection is always the best choice.

keep your connection

After abandoning the post I repeatedly tried to write last week, I put out a call for topics on my FaceBook Page. What came back was a request for something close to the very topic I had abandoned – how to stay connected and trust God together as a couple in the midst of stress. I guess God intends for me to write about this whether I want to or not. So here goes my attempt at a rewrite with the advantage of an additional week of thought (and stress).

How Not to Do It

The other night I was completely stressed out over some serious issues with our finances. (It’s a complex situation that is tied up with a challenging job situation and my prospects for the earliest possible retirement.) Sadly, as is all too typical for me, my stress reaction spilled over into what my wife charitably calls being “prickly.” Honestly, it was anger, and I was snappy and not pleasant to be around. Nothing about my attitude invited intimacy with Jenni.

While Jenni was doing her best to reach out to me, I withdrew into my shell, which was her last straw. Whereas the unplanned cost of an expensive surgery for our dog hit me mostly in the wallet, it hit her in the heart, sick with worry for our elderly family pet. She needed compassion, and my anger and withdrawal were the exact opposite of what she needed from me.

I felt ashamed of my lack of faith, guilty that I let my emotions get the best of me, and I regretted how I had fumed about it all. Guilt and shame did what they always do; they caused me to withdraw and hide. (Look no further than Adam and Eve for how this works). We did what we almost never do, and went to sleep without even a goodnight kiss. It turns out Jenni didn’t mind, as she was fuming too at that point, although it turns out she was up in the night feeling sad and alone and wishing she had made more of an effort to maintain our connection.

The next morning I was still feeling pretty low. But as I began to think about it, I realized that in order to re-establish our connection and get us back on The Path of Intimacy, I needed to let go of the shame, fix my mess, and reach out to Jenni. She was also feeling regret, and we were happily able to make up (wink).

Shame separates. Grace invites.

There was a time in our marriage when I might have wallowed in this shame/misery for several days. After 35 years of marriage, I realize much quicker now that intimacy is always a better choice than separation and that it is always available to me if I will just turn toward Jenni and open myself up to her.

In this case, it meant a sincere apology, not only for my behavior but for shutting her out. I explained that I was trying to protect her from any further collateral damage my bad attitude might have caused her. Nevertheless, it was still a bad choice. Jenni admitted that she too had chosen to isolate herself. My lack of concern for her feelings had hurt her badly. But she also realized that her choice to separate actually ended up hurting her more.

Better Together

Whenever we face stress, we also face a choice. We can choose to separate ourselves from our spouse and face the problem(s) alone. Or we can choose to maintain our connection and face the problem(s) together as a team.

The first choice, separation, only exacerbates the situation by throwing in relationship stress on top of the other negative circumstances. It leaves us feeling isolated, defeated and depleted. Starting down The Path of Separation doesn’t always come as a conscious choice – sometimes it is just matter of letting our emotional reactions get the best of us. Sometimes, however, it is a deliberate choice, especially if we feel hurt or offended by our spouse.

The Path of Intimacy, on the other hand, is always chosen deliberately.

Choosing to maintain your connection isn’t easy or natural when stressful or hurtful circumstances hit you in the face. Here are some tips on how to keep your connection and support each other to keep your relationship off the Path of Separation.

  • Make every effort to choose a thoughtful response instead of an emotional reaction. Feelings can’t be helped, but how you manage them is your choice.
  • Whenever possible, use physical touch (non-sexual touch) as a reminder that the two of you are for each other. Physical touch, such as hugging and holding hands, produces oxytocin, which alters your brain chemistry in a way the promotes bonding (connection), generosity and trust.
  • Visualize and verbalize the truth that it is the two of you against the problem, not the two of you against each other. Say out loud, “I am for you” and/or “I am for us.
  • Apologize quickly if you let your emotions get the best of you. Forgive quickly if you are on the receiving end of the emotional outburst.
  • Believe the best about your spouse, even when they are at their worst. Remember that grace is an invitation to intimacy.
  • Find and speak the truth into your circumstances. Stressful circumstances can bait us into believing lies about ourselves, our spouse, God and our future prospects. Cling to biblical truths, especially concerning the unchanging nature of God and his promises. But don’t use truth to preach or accuse; use truth to encourage and bless.

How Not to Do It – Again

Good stuff, huh? Good but not easy. I know – as you will see.

Yesterday we were hit with another significant unplanned financial outlay – a costly car repair. Wham. I struggled all day to not let those angry, stressed out emotions back in. I did better than I did last week, but still, I would grade myself a D- at keeping our connection. Discouragement was leaking out everywhere. Today we managed again to make a quick U-turn off the Path of Separation.

As in my case, you aren’t going to be perfect at maintaining intimacy with each other, especially in the face of challenging circumstances. The main thing to remember is that the Path of Intimacy is always available to you. Remember that connection is always a better option than struggling separately. Be aware of how what you are thinking, saying and doing is impacting your marriage and your spouse, and strive to make choices that keep you intimately connected to each other.

You’ll be glad you did.