Every now and then, I run across a couple who has it figured out. Somehow, they seemed to have navigated the hurdles and pitfalls of marriages without issue. You probably know a few of these couples. Marriage appears to come easy. They face problems, of course, but there’s noticeable joy in their relationship. These couples genuinely enjoy being around one another. They say things like, “I love him more today than the day I married him.” And they actually mean it.
So, how does this actually work? Do they have Cupid on speed dial? Have they accessed some love potion? We all know healthy relationships don’t just occur. But the secret is they’re built with healthy habits. In the words of 19th-century psychologist William James, “All our life is but a mass of habits.” Your marriage is a product of this truth. Here are a few practices you can put into place for a healthy relationship:
Healthy couples pay attention to one another.
Have you ever noticed that every metaphor related to time indicates it’s a limited resource and it has a cost? Pay attention. I’m running out of time. You’re wasting my time. Time is money. The point is time is like currency, and how you spend it reveals something. Healthy relationships value listening actively to one another which means paying attention. When one person speaks, the other is fully engaged. The phone goes away. The TV turns off.
Paying attention implies respect for the person speaking. It shows the person you care. It builds empathy and compassion. All of these are found in the foundation of healthy relationships.
Healthy couples practice empathy.
Speaking of empathy, you won’t find a healthy relationship without it. Empathy puts the shoe on the other foot. Rather than convincing your partner you’re right, empathy sees the the side of the other. It walks a mile in the shoes of the other.
Several years ago, on the heels of a difficult season in my marriage, I sat down with a mentor, seeking advice. I’ll never forget his response. He told me to sacrifice myself for my wife like Christ sacrificed himself for the church. He referenced Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”
The words fell hard on my selfish heart that night, and I never looked at my wife the same. If you want to transform your marriage love your spouse like Christ loved the church. Divorce would not exist if mutual submission was the central element of every marriage.
Healthy couples enjoy the relationship rather than trying to change or fix it.
Your spouse has flaws. That’s no surprise, right?
But your spouse’s flaws are almost always a projection of yours. You see in your spouse what you can’t see (or refuse to accept) in yourself. That’s a horse of a different color.
And, let’s be honest, changing or fixing someone else is easier than changing or fixing the person in the mirror.
Healthy couples enjoy their spouse rather than changing or fixing them. And you can’t do both. And a host of problems arise from trying to change someone. Co-dependency. Lack of intimacy. Resentment.
Healthy couples love the person in front of them, not some future “better” version of that person.
Healthy couples leave the changing stuff to God. Instead, they change the person in the mirror. As a Christian, I believe this an important reason for marriage. Marriage will transform you, exposing your flaws with the goal of becoming more like our Savior.
Healthy couples don’t keep score.
Early in my marriage, I kept score. Every time I folded the clothes or fixed something around the house, I marked a mental tally. Then, when I wanted to golf or spend a weekend watching football, I showed her the scoreboard.
The problem? Marriage isn’t a game. Keeping score implies you’re in competition with your spouse, and the first rule of competition says there’s a winner and a loser. You will not find a scoreboard in a healthy relationship. Throw it out.
Healthy couples pray together often.
I ran across a statistic several years that said only 1% of couples who pray together regularly end up divorced. I don’t know the details behind the findings, but when I read it, something said it was right. I think that something was the Spirit. When Tiffani and I pray together regularly, our marriage is healthier. I feel closer to her. But praying together regularly is a difficult endeavor. Go ahead and try it. The difficulty of something as easy as praying together is another reason I believe the statistic is accurate. Can you say spiritual warfare? Pray with your spouse tonight. Pray out loud for one another. Do it consistently.
Healthy couples surround themselves with people who strengthen and build up their relationship.
Healthy couples protect their relationship. They have boundaries, and among those is the commitment to positive voices and people who will strengthen their marriage. Sometimes close friends and family are the most toxic voices. When this is the case, tough decisions will follow.
But healthy couples would rather have a few hard conversations than have a negative voice influence their relationship.
Healthy couples pursue emotional, physical, and sexual intimacy.
Intimacy is the goal of any relationship, especially marriage. But intimacy is hard, really hard. Just existing in the same house with someone is much easier and doesn’t require as much pain or vulnerability.
But healthy couples aren’t content with existing in the same space. They embrace the beautiful struggle that is intimacy. They take down walls, allowing their spouse to see them for who they are. This is uncomfortable. This is scary. This is risky. But it’s the path to true love. Most importantly, healthy couples believe marriage is a gateway to something greater, something deeper, something eternal.
That something is God.
An earlier version of this article was posted at frankmatthewpowell.com