Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tips for a Happy Marriage #1

I've been thinking a lot about marriage for the past few weeks. My husband (with my input) is leading our Sunday school class through Tim Keller's book The Meaning of Marriage. We're not far enough into it yet to recommend the book, but we assume it'll be good like all of Keller's other books are.

There are a lot of "rules" for successful marriage. All those things the experts tell us: go on dates. Don't settle for watching a movie/TV as a date--make it interactive. Make sure you have a lot of shared interests. Pray together every day. Take divorce out of the equation as an option. Never go to bed angry. Never fight after 10:00. (Those last two often conflict, I've noticed.) The husband should compliment his wife at least once a day. The wife should greet her husband with a hug and a kiss every day after work.

All good advice. And yet I think it's possible to have a good marriage, even a great marriage, without following some of those rules. Dates? We've had young kids for almost 12 years now, and as a result we don't get to go out very often. Our dates usually consist of watching a movie on the couch, and if we're feeling very adventurous we feed the kids early and eat our dinner while we watch the movie on the couch. Compliments? Not terribly common around here. Shared interests? Not so much. My husband loves biking and making music. I love scrapbooking and jewelry-making and antiquing. Last time we went on a bike ride together I got terrible ITBS pain about 5 miles into our bike ride and was slow and miserable the rest of the way. Daily prayer? Not exactly. I wish we prayed together more, and I think that's a common refrain among the couples in our Sunday school class. Maybe our marriage would be better if we had more real dates or shared more hobbies.

But somehow our marriage works without following all those rules. We're really, really happy together most of the time. And now that I've stopped stressing about those rules, our marriage is even better. (Note that I was the only one stressing about the rules--but in the process I was making marriage less fun for both of us!)

So here's my marriage tip #1: Throw out the rulebook. Be happy about what's working well, and don't worry about it if you're not following all the rules.

Those marriage rules are designed to be helpful, but I think they can stress us out sometimes. If we're not doing something "right" we feel guilty, and if our spouse isn't doing something "right" we feel frustrated.

So throw out the rulebook and take a look at what works well for your marriage. Maybe you need more dates to rekindle the romance. Maybe that movie on the couch will serve you just fine. Maybe you would benefit from finding a shared interest, or maybe just listening to your spouse's excitement and supporting their interest is enough.

When we read books or go to conferences about marriage, we can glean great ideas to try. We have to work at this process of getting along and loving each other for the long haul, and it's smart to get all the help we can. But if those rules are causing you stress, maybe they are hurting more than they are helping. In the end, I think you have to find a way to make your marriage work for the two of you. It won't work the same way your parents' marriage worked (although you probably learned good lessons from how their marriage worked or didn't work). It won't work the same way Tim Keller's or the couple you most admire's works. Even following all the rules won't guarantee a great marriage (although it can't hurt). Your marriage just needs to work for the two of you, not for anyone else.

I'm interested in some input here: what do you think? What "rules" seem unnecessary to you?


  1. The problem with the rules is that they don't hold up when adversity strikes. What if your wife is fatigued or on bedrest and can't go out? What if your husband is mentally ill or has a disease that limits his ability to initiate compliments or dates? What if financial difficulty strikes and you can't do anything out at all? The key is to take the categories of investment and try to initiate toward the other, but at the end of the day, to be content and thankful for the spouse you have, and to ask Jesus to feed you in ways the other can't. There is room for healthy dialogue to better a hard situation, but I think contentment is key at least when it comes to expectations. Good post, Nancy.

  2. We don't play by the rules either. I have no idea what works for us. All I know is, he is the one for me and I for him. That is all.

  3. In our pre-marriage counseling we had to make a list of 10 goals for our first year of marriage. #1 Don't get pregnant - failed. #2 Read a book together - failed. #3 Make dinner together once a week - failed....(I think 8/10 failed). We probably weren't as realistic as we could be now if we made a new list, but we have made it almost 8 years and our bad list didn't cause any damage. I like your "rules" at the top - they made me laugh thinking about how I don't follow any of them. The 'don't fight after 10pm' is a great rule - that we completely ignore - and it's always a great reminder each time it happens that I should have gone to bed earlier! Ultimately, you are right that what works best for each couple is way more important that any list of rules!

  4. Great comments! Thanks, and keep 'em coming!

  5. I wish we followed those rules, but we don't, either. I think the best thing I've learned and am still learning is that I need to worry about ME following the rules regardless of what he happens to be doing that day or week. And one rule I HAVE found that REALLY helps is one you wrote at the beginning of this blogging venture of yours: (I can't say it like you did, but I think it often, usually moments after I've broken it and have to apologize and back off) you can either ASK him to do something OR give him advice on HOW to do something, but not both at the same time. I think I'm getting better at that, though Jack may say differently.

    Ultimately, the rules don't matter. They are trying to help us do what DOES matter: love your spouse as he/she wants/needs to be loved. Sometimes we get so offtrack we need some guidelines.

    Thanks for getting me to think on this, Sarah

  6. Although I have only been married a year, I think the most helpful "rule" is to learn how to encourage your spouse. That will look different for different couples and will change through the years I'm sure. But that seems essential to being a good team!