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

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.

For the Joy of Intimacy

What if selflessness has the power to make your marriage stronger than ever before?

The joy of intimacy
Romans 12:2 says of Jesus:

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

What was the joy that enabled Jesus to leave heaven, to step into our human existence and to sacrifice his very life for us before returning to the right hand of the Father? It was the joy of dwelling in intimacy with you and me – now and forever. Jesus wanted us so much, that he laid down his life to have us.

Where’s The Joy?

It’s human nature to look at selflessness and sacrifice in marriage in light of what it will cost us or what we must give in time and effort. But we often forget about what we will reap on the other side. In most cases (because there are no guarantees or magic formulas) the end result of sacrificial love is the joy and ecstasy of deeper intimacy in your marriage.

Do you have a hard time finding delight in giving your spouse your all, emotionally, spiritually or sexually? We all have a tendency to withhold a measure of our love until we feel our spouse is doing their “fair share.” We want to self-protect. We want to put our desires first.

But that wasn’t how Jesus approached us. He gave himself fully, even unto death, with no assurance that we would return his affection. To Jesus, the chance at intimacy with us was worth the risk.

The joyful anticipation of intimacy can move us from seeing sacrifice as a chore or obligation and into the realm of joyfully and generously giving our love and our selves.

I Bet You Know What It Is

If I asked you to identify something you know your spouse wants but that you only dole out in small measures, if at all, I bet you could name at least one thing right away – maybe several of them.

I understand there are reasons for withholding. I’ve held those reasons myself at times. Maybe it’s because it costs you more than you are willing to give. Maybe it’s something that doesn’t come naturally for you. Maybe it’s because you don’t feel you are getting from your spouse in equal measure.

I get all that.

But What If…

Consider the possibilities.

What if your acts of selflessness, however small and incremental, were rewarded with a greater sense of connection and intimacy with your husband or wife? What if they responded, in time, by moving closer to you in some small measure, in an area of your own need for connection?

What if a pattern of selfless giving took hold in your marriage and propelled you toward greater passion, depth of intimacy and a stronger bond of trust and transparency? What if your willingness to lay down your preferences actually resulted in your spouse wanting to serve you in return?

What if selflessness has the power to make your marriage stronger than ever before?

Our Story

Jenni encouraged me to share how the truth of this has unfolded in our own marriage.

As I began to understand the Bridal Paradigm and understand what it means to love Jenni in the same sacrificial way Jesus loves me, I began to be less selfish and more loving in ways that were important to Jenni. In turn, over time, she responded by opening herself up more to me, becoming less self-protective and loving me more generously in ways that mattered to me.

Let me make an important point. It wasn’t that I gave to her in order to get something in return or to get her to do something for me. That would not have been love but manipulation. Of course I hoped that she would respond in kind, but my motivation was not to get something, rather to deepen our level of intimacy. And it did.

For The Joy Set Before You

What enables us to give and love sacrificially is to look beyond the sacrifice into the intimacy offered on the other side. That’s what compelled Jesus to do what he did for us, even without the assurance that we would respond to his grand overture of love.

Set your heart on the joy of a marriage full of deep and abiding intimacy in every dimension, and see if that moves you to live more a more selfless marriage. I bet it will.