I was married at age 23 and have been married to the same woman for nearly 43 years. It is the first and only marriage for both of us. I also spent the last 40 years as a Lutheran pastor, during which time I talked with a number of people about their marriages and read many things about marriage. The purpose of this Instructable is to share some of the best from what I have learned in the hope it will help some people see their marriages made better. I will make only limited reference to Christian or biblical material, and then in an informational way, not in any kind of moralizing way. No one will feel he or she has someone preaching at them.
One of my books said divorce is one solution to marriage problems, but not always the best one. Divorces are expensive in money and to the self-esteem of those involved.
I once saw an advertisement that said trees are a renewable resource. Marriages are also renewable, at least much of the time. Small gestures of kindness can often make a big difference. One study found sample couples who contemplated divorce, but did not end their marriages, discovered that after five years those marriages were better than ever. (Mention of that study comes in a link to an article later in this Instructable.)
The photo is of my parents on their 40th anniversary. By their 50th my father was suffering with Alzheimer's. My mother died in the year of their 60th anniversary. My father had died two years earlier.
Step 1: The scarlet letter
Not many marriages survive infidelity, although some may. If you are married make a pact with yourself that you will not allow yourself to be in any situation that could lead to emotional or sexual involvement with someone other than your spouse. We all need to set boundaries for ourselves in multiple areas of life and hold to them. Marriage is only one area where we set boundaries for ourselves.
I once read a news story that said marriage makes men better men, and that makes them more attractive to other women. Attention from women is flattering. Make it a point to respond to flirtations in any form carefully and politely; but, in a matter-of-fact, unaffected manner. These may be a woman's fingertip tap on a man's forearm, a coquettish smile or wink, compliments dripping with honey, small gifts when it is not your birthday, comments hinting at double entendre, a woman draping parts of her body seductively in your personal space, or finding excuses to be in your presence. A man and a woman once worked in the same office and recognized they were strongly attracted to each other, although married to other people. They made an agreement with each other that they would never be together in a room unless others were also in the room.
Yes, there are women who cheat on their husbands, and when they do, they inflict tremendous damage to the husband's self-esteem. But, allow me to treat this as if it is more of a problem with men than with women. Men imagine they are too clever for anyone, especially for a wife, to suspect anything. They deceive themselves. A man once took his wife to the office Christmas party. He introduced her to just about everyone in the room. During the evening the wife noticed she had not been introduced to one particular redhead. It was then that her intuition kicked in and she knew her husband was having an affair with the redhead. As one book said it, women usually know because of a thousand little things, not because of any one big thing.
Infidelity by a husband is a huge betrayal of a wife's trust far greater most men can imagine. And, as another book said, every affair eventually comes to an end. When it does, the crashing is really, really awful. An affair just is not worth all of the costs. Over the last 40 years I have heard several people confess their sexual affairs to me. Never once have I heard anyone say, "I am really glad I did that." Rather, they are steeped in remorse.
See the next step for a discussion of Internet pornography and its effect on marriages.
The title of this step and the graphic are a remembrance of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hester Prynne, one of the principal characters was forced to wear a red letter "A" sewn to her clothing because she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock. The scandal of the story was that the father of her unborn baby was the village pastor.
Step 2: Wait until you grow up
As one author said, "Don't let a boy pick a wife for a man." The meaning is that men do not mature emotionally as early as women do. Someone may be the same age his grandfather was when the grandfather married; but may not, yet, have handled the kind of life responsibilities that produce maturity and a readiness for marriage. Marriage is about being prepared for mortgages, taking care of sick kids, and household repairs, etc. It is not about an easy way to have lots of sex, having someone to keep house for you, or having extra income so you can buy big boy toys. Young people who spend a lot of their time playing video games or as professional students do not gain the kind of life experiences that prepare for marriage. It is not uncommon to hear the words "arrested development" applied to both of those situations.
There are a number of articles and some questionnaires on the Internet that will help you decide if you are mature enough yet for marriage. Here is a brief one from Dr. Phil. At this link you can experience help with preparations for marriage. I do not have a familiarity with this group, but offer it as an example of what is available. I expect there is a fee for services.
As for how you feel about the person you are considering marrying, do not totally discount an uneasy sixth-sense that something is not quite right. Ask yourself, "Would I be proud to marry this person just as he or she is, warts and all?" Also, do not expect you are going to change someone through marrying that person.
Do not marry to escape a bad situation with your parents. Do not marry knowing you are involved in a drug or alcohol addiction. The same can be said for an Internet pornography addiction. Although women are becoming increasingly involved in Internet pornography addictions, too, a man who chooses a nameless image on a computer over his wife humiliates his wife and the marriage disintegrates very quickly. Women feel the same sense of betrayal when a husband is involved in Internet pornography as they feel when a husband has an affair with another woman.
In short, a healthy marriage requires two healthy people entering into it. Get healthy before you get married.
The photo is of my wife and me about the time of our 40th anniversary. It really has no direct connection to this step, but I made every effort to use my own images.
Step 3: You messages and I messages
Everyone has arguments in marriage. The fact lovers argue means they are normal. How a couple handles those arguments is what is important. Blaming your spouse is corrosive to the relationship, yet, that is the constant temptation. When blamed we sense a giant hand is waving an invisible pointed finger at us. That is a "You" message, as in, "You are a bad person!" or "You never do anything right!" or "What good are you, anyway?" We all have unpleasant memories of times earlier in life when that is the exact thing that happened to us. We do not respond favorably to such treatment. A much better approach is to talk about how your spouse's actions made you feel.
Here is the theory behind this. We hate it when we know something we did brought pain to another. We die inside. So, the message to a spouse is, "I do not mind that you did (fill in the blank). You are free to do that. But, I want you to know how it makes me feel." Then explain with feeling words like, hurt, sad, cheated, disappointed, frustrated, afraid. (Angry is not really a good feeling word because anger is always the second thing that happens. It is a reaction to frustration, injustice, or a threat.) Be careful not to slide into a finger-pointing "You" message. Mean it when you say, "It is OK with me if you want to do this. I simply want you to know how it makes me feel." Then state how you feel without an accusing tone.
Someone also said the difference between a good and a great marriage is four or five (negative or critical) things not said each day.
Step 4: The First Four Minutes
A man named Leonard Zunin wrote a book called Contact: The First Four Minutes. The main idea is that when couples are together after waking at the beginning of the day or after coming home from work at the end of the day, what happens during the first four minutes sets the tone for the rest of the day or the evening.
A young mother may be up to her earlobes in frustration after a hard day with the kids during which the sink overflowed and ruined someting. She cannot wait to vent to an adult, which will be her husband. Meanwhile, he has had a hard day and simply wants to unwind from the day's pressures. They need to make their first four minutes together a caring time. If they dump the day's garbage on each other during that first four minutes, the rest of the evening will be filled with withdrawal and cold silence at best, or heated arguing at the worst.
A friend told me his wife often dumped on him the moment he came home. It was setting a bad and unhappy tone in their marriage. I told him about Zunin's book and gave him my copy. When I saw him again a couple of months later he told me that book had made a very beneficial improvement in their marriage.
The green wedge super-imposed over the watch face represents four minutes. That is only 240 seconds.
Step 5: 1,000 hours of talking
A local pastor does a lot of marriage counseling work. He writes marriage help columns in our local newspaper. He has a very interesting theory on why most divorces happen. It is his contention that most divorcing couples never really bonded as persons before they married. Here is his solution.
Couples should spend 1,000 hours in conversation before they have physical contact of any kind. If a couple talks on the phone (or in person) four or five hours a night as some do, about eight months will be needed for 1,000 hour of conversation to happen. In that 1,000 hours one of two things will happen. First, the couple may come to realize they are not right for each other and they will break up without marrying. Or, the feelings each has for the other will develop into a solid and lasting basis for a good marriage. He quotes a widow who agreed with her male friend that they would have no contact until they had completed 1,000 hours of conversation. She said they could hardly wait to hold hands and the first time they did it was absolutely wonderful. They since married and everything went very smoothly in their five years of marriage until he died of a heart attack. Here is a link to an article by this woman.
From what I have seen over many years, I would say sex is an intoxicant. It covers over many warning signs that should be heeded. No one makes his or her best decisions when under the influence of an intoxicant. There is a little bromide that says, "Most men pick out wives under lighting conditions so poor that they would never consider buying a suit in the same situation."
Step 6: The dreaded "S" word (and it is not 'sex')
The Bible and St. Paul get a bad name because people misread what Paul says. Some of the Bible's strongest advocates are among those who misread it. This leads to its disparagement by others.
The "S" word is "submit." The passage is Ephesians 5:21-33 (See the full text below.) The first thing most overlook is v. 21 where we are all told to submit to one another. To repeat: it is not just wives who are to have a submissive attitude. All are to be submissive toward one another.
During the last 40 years when I met with young couples preparing for marriage I discussed Ephesians 5 with them. The first thing I told them (after reading the whole passage to them) was that the husband is to treat the wife so well that she thinks she must be married to Jesus. I tell them the husband has the more difficult task in marriage. I jokingly tell the young woman that one day she may want to tap her fingers and look upward while saying, "I have been looking for Jesus. I saw Him a while ago, but it has been a while since He has been around. I wonder where He could be."
Then we talk about the woman's part in marriage. Yes, this passage from Ephesians 5 talks about the wife submitting to her husband. That does not mean she must yield to every idea the husband has. Verse 33 provides its own commentary on what the word "submission" means here, and it is not at all what we usually think. In verse 33 Paul says exactly what he has said about the wife submitting to the husband several times before; but, the text, itself, switches the verb from "submit" to "respect." The wife is to show a respectful attitude toward her husband. If the husband loves his wife selflessly and puts her needs ahead of his own, the wife will have no difficulty acting very respectfully toward the husband.
I have a theory about what is at work here. A sense of security is very important to women, more than men realize. Someone said inside every man there is a little boy who wants to come out and play. When a man plays rather than taking responsibility, it threatens the security of the woman in his life. So, Ephesians 5 tells the men to put the needs of the woman first by loving her selflessly as Christ loved the church, giving Himself into death for her.
While security is important to women, respect is important to men in some of the same ways. It may not be flattering, but the same person who said there is a little boy inside every man also said there is a shrew inside every woman and that shrew is waiting to come out. While men easily revert to acting like little boys, women have a tendency to dominate and control. Men tend to see that as annoying and disrespectful. If a woman wants to get on the bad side of the man in her life, all she needs to do is show him disrespect, especially in front of his male friends. So, the woman is told to show a respectful attitude toward her husband. Rather than St. Paul being out of touch, he knew the human psyche very well.
Ephesians 5:21-33 ...submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (22) Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (23) For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (24) Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (25) Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, (26) that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, (27) so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (28) In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (29) For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, (30) because we are members of his body. (31) "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." (32) This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (33) However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Step 7: 3 kinds of love
The passage from Ephesians 5 speaks about love between the husband and the wife. The New Testament was first written in Koine' Greek. It has three different words for love and they are quite different in their meaning. Someone summarized them as: 1) love that only gives, 2) love that gives and takes, and 3) love that only takes. (For those familiar with more of the theological language, those three types of love are: agape, philadelphia, and eris.) The love for which we are to strive in marriage is the love that only gives. It loves because the lover made a conscious decision to love the one loved irrespective of whether the one loved is deserving or not, irrespective of whether the lover's love is appreciated and returned, or not. That notion of love involves an unending commitment to the one loved. Love in marriage is not about my rights or what I am getting out of the relationship, but, it is about me committing myself to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of another. If someone enters a marriage thinking about his or her own rights, or what he or she is getting out of the relationship compared to what is invested in that relationship, it will soon fail.
There is a lot of talk about finding your soul mate. It is nice when another understands us deeply. The reality is the soul mate idea sets a high and unrealistic expectation. I once read, whether entirely true or not, that Russian women marry with the hope their husbands do not beat them too much. While no women should be beaten, this does highlight how different expectations can be. If expectations are too high, reality will bring disappointment. A girl asked her grandmother when she knew Grandpa loved her. The grandmother said they had been married a while and she was helping a neighbor. Grandpa waited up by the window watching for her to return. That was when she knew he loved her. It is also a different kind of love and a different set of expectations from those many people have today when they marry.
The photo is of my wife's parents. Both no longer living. It would have been taken at their 30th anniversary. They married late in World War II.
Step 8: Something to do each day
In the introduction I mentioned that small gestures can often make a big difference. Someone suggested this at a couples' retreat. Each evening before going to bed, write a letter to each other and place it on your spouse's pillow. Write a sentence or two in response to each of these three things:
Today I most appreciated ... about you.
Today I needed ... from you.
One thing I want you to know is ...
Make what you write about the other person and your relationship, not about daily tasks. Each person is to read the other's letter before turning out the lights.
Step 9: Why is he (or she) so different from me?
Katherine Hepburn said she did not think men and women were very well suited for each other. She thought maybe they should live next door to one another and just visit back and forth once in a while.
John Gray is a popular author in recent years whose first book was Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. When men talk, they want to communicate facts. They want everything to flow in a logical way with headlines. When women talk, they want to process their emotions. The order in which things are stated does not matter. When men expect women to communicate like men, or vice versa, both quickly become frustrated. Men believe when women talk they are expecting the men to fix what is wrong and they become very frustrated. But, women simply need to express what is on their minds without an expectation that anyone will fix it. If men can understand this, they can let the women talk without feeling any pressure to fix anything.
Men process their problems by mentally going to a solitary place. After a few days they come back. When a man has gone into his solitary place, it does not mean he has rejected the woman. It only means he needs time to process his difficult things. Women should not feel hurt because a man has suddenly gone someplace solitary and not taken her with him. My wife found this information about men going to a solitary place very helpful and it greatly reduced resentments she felt toward me when I suddenly became unavailable. Now she knows to give me time and I will be back when I am finished working through my difficult things.
There is another thing to consider about differences between marriage partners. Suppose you do not manage money very well. You meet someone who is good at controlling money, and you are drawn to him or her because you admire what you see in them, but is missing in you. Each trait is like the face of a coin. The opposite side of that coin is aspects of that good quality that may come to irritate you. For example, your spouse's careful control of money so admired by you sometimes manifests itself in what appears to you as stinginess. Be prepared for traits that attract you to have obverse sides that sometimes also annoy you.
The photo is of two coffee mugs that reflect differences between what men and women want in a relationship, but taken to a humorous extreme.
Step 10: Phases of a marriage
There are four phases in marriage. First, the couple are enthralled with each other. After a while, each begins to notice the other has faults. Next they work at changing each other, but this really does not work. Finally, they adjust to each other and accept each other's characteristics, good and bad. I like to call this the old shoe phase. All of us have a pair of shoes that have many worn spots and may not be good for dress occasions, but they fit us and they feel good when we wear them. A good friend with whom I once worked closely said her marriage did not become really good until she and her husband had been married seventeen years.
To me this photo (from Bing Images) shows a couple comfortable with each other and with each other's flaws. She does not even mind that he uses her for ballast to balance the tractor in spite of the missing wheel.
There is a saying that explains some of the tensions in marriage, at least until the "comfortable" stage is achieved. It says, "Men marry women hoping they will never change, but they always do. Women marry men hoping they will change, but they never do."
Step 11: What to do when you feel you have fallen out of love
Ruth Graham, wife of Dr. Billy Graham, was once asked if she had ever considered divorcing Dr. Graham. She said, "Divorce, no. Murder, yes." Sooner or later, you will awaken one day and wonder if you are still in love with your spouse. You may even feel you have fallen out of love. As a Christian, I believe the type of love described in Ephesians 5 (love that only gives) is something which God can produce in me if I ask for it in prayer. I have found it very helpful to do just that quite a number of times. (For those of you reading this who are Christians, see Galatians 5:19-24 to see more about what I mean.) For Christians and for everyone else, remind yourself that love in marriage is a commitment. Feelings come and go. They change. They are not reliable indicators of anything more than how we feel at the moment. But, the commitment we make is not dependent on our shifting feelings.
Above all, do not go to someone of the opposite sex to confide your marriage difficulties. That is a recipe for an affair. Unless you are talking to an impartial counselor, it is better not to share your marriage problems with others. Even if you are talking to someone of the same sex, you can begin to talk yourself into believing your marriage is hopeless when you actually have a relatively minor problem that will pass in a short time. Someone called this "awfulizing" (making everything sound just awful). It is also possible that you are talking with someone who is bitter because of a bad personal experience and will give you bad advice.
The photo is of me and of my wife not quite a year before we were married. At this point in our lives, neither of us would have believed we would ever feel less than totally enthralled with each other. But, it happens to everyone sometime.
Step 12: Study your spouse
Women are better at knowing the man they marry than men are at knowing the woman they marry. Make it your aim to study one another. The Five Languages of Love by Gary D. Chapman suggests that conversation makes one person feel loved, while kindly gestures make another feel loved (just as an example). This book can be a useful resource for learning to speak the love language most meaningful to your spouse.
Watch your spouse and listen. Make notes on things your spouse likes. Record gift ideas. This will help you a great deal over the years. Also, spouses should give each other some clear hints about personal likes and dislikes. Do not think your spouse will somehow become a mind reader if he or she simply cares enough about you. The hints you think you are giving in a very clear way may not have the same meaning at all to your spouse. In a similar way, there once was woman who pinned the corner of her apron up to let her husband know when she was angry and it was not a good time to approach her unaware. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
If you are married, there is no excuse for missing your spouse's birthday, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day (or Father's Day), or your wedding anniversary. Learn how to use a calendar or a scheduler and to set prompts a week or two in advance of key dates.
The average person waits just 17 seconds before interrupting a conversation partner. The average person is also thinking about what he or she will say next during periods when he or she is silent. Yet, everyone thinks he or she is a better than average listener. Learn about what it means to be a good listener. Ask some honest friends how good a listener you really are. Attend some listening workshops.
The photo shows two of my great-grandparents. They are the parents of my father's father.
Step 13: When things go wrong or need a tune-up
Once friends asked if I do marriage counseling. Their close friends had just separated. The man suddenly moved out and got an apartment. The woman was devastated. I was able to talk with them and they consented to take a Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis.* That involves 180 questions and produces a graph of nine personality traits. It detected conflicting attitudes within the couple about something fairly easy to fix once the couple began talking about it, and the marriage was saved. The woman was so grateful that she talked with my wife about my favorite photos and had a nice framed enlargement of the photo above (a photo I took) made for me as gift. It has hung in our home ever since as a remembrance of this couple. (The original was a 35mm color transparency in which the background was not black, but a nice blue. This copy was made on a digitizer.)
When difficulties come, find a counselor or a pastor who can help you sort them out. Regularly take advantage of enrichment seminars and retreats, like Marriage Encounter. Every few years find and read a good book on making a marriage work. Some resources will fit your needs better than others.
*The Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis is something I give to couples before marriage, too. If the man and the woman wish to do so, they can use its results for learning about themselves so they can begin modifying corrosive behaviors, like sarcasm. It will also highlight areas where they will be likely to have many of their arguments.
Step 14: Conclusion
An elderly lady was asked which year of marriage is the most difficult. Is it the first? The seventh? The fifteenth? She answered she had always found the most difficult year of marriage to be the one she was currently experiencing. Marriage is not easy. Each one will have its stresses and difficulties. Everyone says you work at it everyday.
Still, data shows again and again that married people are healthier, happier, and better off than unmarried people. Even an unhappy marriage is healthier for people than single life, according to the data. And, married people do derive a certain sense of fulfillment from being married, despite the stresses and difficulties. Here is a link to one such article.
Marriages continually ebb and flow between times when things are good to times when things are more difficult, and back again. Be patient and work at it together. In the end, you will be able to look back over 50 or more years and say, "We did it!"
There are many things that could have been included in this document, like the need to forgive one another, or the need to live within one's income and budget, the need to find time for oneself and also time for each other in spite of your children, and relations with in-laws. But, this would become a small book. Those are another topic for another time.
All of the things presented here are relatively simple and they do help to build better, more satisfying marriages, as well as rescue marriages that are in peril. But, they are like an overweight doctor. He certainly knows the physiology of metabolism and weight control, yet for some reason, he is not doing it.
Someone told me this, alleged to be a French proverb. There is a lot of truth in it. "You may choose whom you please. Then you must please whom you chose." That is a good motto for anyone's marriage.
The photo shows my parents before they were married. They were married on a cold, snowy day in February. Since the trees in the background are budding out, this is probably the preceding spring.