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.

3 Rules of Happiness in Marriage

Happiness is a by-product of a great marriage, not the main goal. 

Happiness in Marriage

I’ve pondered before whether or not happiness is really the right goal for marriage. Lately, I’ve been rethinking the whole question of happiness. I’d like to share my thoughts and get yours.

The following three statements, which may seem at first blush to conflict with each other, are the three happiness axioms I’ve landed on:

  • 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 Defined

What does it mean to be happy? Truthfully, for some reason I’ve never much liked that word; it has always seemed a bit shallow to me. I’ve typically thought of happiness as being controlled by external circumstances and therefore fickle and fleeting. I know, I’m weird like that.

But the dictionary says that to be happy is to be “delighted, pleased, or glad” over something or someone. Happiness is “characterized by pleasure, contentment, or joy” in response to the things going on around you. These actually all sound like pretty good things.

Goal vs. By-product

So after some consideration, I’ve resolved in my mind that happiness isn’t a bad thing at all, but I still don’t believe that we should look at marriage as primarily about our personal degree of happiness.

To me, happiness is still 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 but are things that also tend produce happiness as a result.

I Am Responsible For Me

I’ve often heard folks blame their spouse for their unhappiness. I’ve heard it used as a reason for divorce. I’ve heard it used to defend some pretty cruel behavior. “I deserve to be happy” is the common mantra.

That doesn’t cut it with me.

I have learned over time that I can’t hold my wife accountable for my happiness. I have to place the burden of my happiness squarely on my own shoulders and own up to the fact that if I’m unhappy, I’m the one that has to do something about it. It’s my choice. My happiness is my responsibility.

I Take Responsibility for You

By extension, then, my wife is also responsible for her own happiness.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I should act that way. Instead, I should purposefully try to make her happy, as best as I know how. I should love her, serve her, lead her and cherish her in ways I know delight her.

Her happiness should be important to me because we are one, and I get to share in any happiness I bring to her life. How cool is that? Why wouldn’t I want to make her happy?

Our Ultimate Source of Happiness

Both my wife and I know that ultimately God is our only reliable source of happiness.

We find in Jesus all the things that make marriages truly happy and enduring: selflessness, surrender, strength, intimacy, joy, peace and holiness. All these he makes available to us and to our marriages.

So next time you are feeling unhappy with your spouse or with your marriage, realize that you have the power to choose happiness, regardless of what your spouse does or doesn’t do. Realize that love, joy, and peace can all be yours by the Holy Spirit. Then turn things around and choose to do something purposefully just to make your spouse happy. I think you’ll be amazed at the good fruit it produces.

 

Happiness in Reverse

I shared this TEDtalk with our small group a few weeks ago (thanks to The Generous Husband). It’s a compelling and humorous case for the fact that we often look to outcomes in order to gain happiness. We say things like “If I work at it then my marriage will get better. And when my marriage gets better, then I’ll be happy.” But that is actually backward.

Direct TEDTalk Link

Shawn Achor makes the case that by choosing to be happy now, we actually stand a better chance of having a better marriage. Fascinating concept. I like it.


What’s do you think of my three axioms 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