Most couples get married and expect things to go smoothly like they see in the movies. However, with the divorce rate hovering around 50% it's obvious many couples struggle to develop successful relationships. It's staggering to compare the extreme amount of time and resources people put into training for their careers compared to the scant amount of time and resources they put into training for their marriages. You need more marriage training! The following sequential steps are your path to training for a successful, satisfying relationship. To hear more about these steps and to receive regular encouragement for your relationship listen to our marriage podcast here.
Marriage Step One: Establishing a Covenant Foundation.
The first step in having a successful relationship is establishing a covenant foundation. Couples either enter into marriage viewing it as a contract or a covenant. A contract approach to marriage says I'm committed to you as long as my needs are met and I'm in love. However, the moment either of those aren't present in your relationship then divorce becomes a viable option. The majority of couples, whether they realize it or not, enter into marriage with a contract mentality. In contrast, a covenant marriage says I'm committed to you for life despite having seasons where we may not be in love or my needs aren't being met. A covenant marriage is signing up for the long-haul where divorce isn't an option unless one of the three A's (adultery, abuse, or abandonment) is occurring without full repentance and change. Approaching your marriage as a contract vs a covenant will greatly impact how you respond to problems in your marriage, which are inevitable. If you're in a contract marriage and you go through "winter" then you'll quickly start considering divorce and probably half halfheartedly try to work things out since you already have one foot out the door. In contrast, if you're in a covenant marriage and you go through "winter" and if the three "A's" aren't occurring then you'll know divorce isn't an option and you must dig deeper and work harder to make things better. Therefore, your approach to marriage makes all the difference.
Marriage Step Two: Owning Your Brokenness
Marriage can be difficult because it involves two imperfect people living in close proximity with one another day in and day out. Often, partners get fixated on their spouse's shortcomings while not taking ownership for their own.The truth is all spouses have areas of brokenness they bring into their marriage that's usually a result from dynamics in their upbringing. Some common areas include being controlling, secretive, too independent, self-absorbed, defensive, critical, passive, prideful, etc. All spouses must become aware and take ownership for their top areas of brokenness to have a good marriage. Becoming aware and taking ownership for your brokenness allows you to be filled with a healthy dose of humility, it allows you to see your contribution to conflicts, and helps you understand what's causing your conflicts in the first place. The majority of all quarrels in marriage stem from both partner's shortcomings creating vicious cycles with one another. This is a common focus in marriage counseling.
Marriage Step Three: Learning To Share Power
Learning to respect your spouse as an equal and share power with them is paramount. Sharing power refers to both spouses having an equal voice on all decisions that impact the relationship. Often, one spouse will be more strong willed than the other and will force their way while the more passive spouse learns to give in. This is a power imbalance that's toxic for both partners and often leads to resentment because the spouse that gives in repeatedly feels voiceless. Identifying and taking ownership for your brokenness is a prerequisite because it's difficult to respect and share power with your spouse if you feel superior to them. Seeing both yourself and your spouse as uniquely designed people with a mixture of both strengths and weaknesses helps you avoid the extremes of feeling either superior or inferior to one another. Some spouses struggle more than others with sharing power because of how they were raised. For example, adults who had permissive parenting growing up may have been used to getting their way and children with authoritarian parenting growing up may have been used to not being heard. Regardless of your family of origin, it's important for both spouses to strive towards enthusiastic agreement on all decisions so both can feel heard and respected.
Marriage Step Four: Developing Emotional Attachment
With the backdrop of being committed to a covenant marriage to promote security, owning your brokenness to promote humility, and sharing power to promote equality, now you're ready to develop emotional attachment. Emotional attachment refers to the level of closeness you feel with your partner. This can be cultivated through regular time together talking about your days, about your struggles, and about your life. When a couple is first getting to know one another they often spend hours every week talking and sharing their thoughts and feelings. However, after they have been together for several years this often dries up as other things take precedence, which is devastating to the relationship. Couples need to protect their talk time together to stay updated because people are always changing. Nothing feels more isolating than feeling like your spouse doesn't know you anymore. People become best friends by spending a lot of time together, sharing fun activities together, and sharing their inner world together. It doesn't happen by accident.This step also entails learning effective conflict resolution skills and working through past resentments. It's difficult to feel emotionally close with your partner if you can't work through conflicts and if you have resentment towards them. Therefore, growing in these skills is essential to developing emotional closeness.
Marriage Step Five: Cultivating Sexual Fireworks
Sex is often one of the first things to enter a relationship when things are going well and one of the first things to leave a relationship when things aren't going well. The majority of couples have sexual problems at some point in their relationship for a variety of factors. Some common reasons include past sexual trauma, differences in libido, lack of relationship security, lack of feeling respected, not feeling like your voice matters, and feeling emotionally disconnected. Unfortunately, most couples fall into the trap of obligation sex where the lower libido spouse, usually the wife, feels like it's their duty to have sex. However, when obligation sex is the norm both partners lose because the lower libido spouse feels used while the higher libido spouse feels frustrated because their partner is just going through the motions. Therefore, it's vital for couples to learn how to cultivate sensual and sexual time that's equally enjoyable for both. Time where both partner's preferences are heard, where both emotionally oriented touch and sexually oriented touch is honored, where expectations are left at the bedroom door so both can feel free, and where both partners slow down to learn what type of touch they don't like, kind of like, and really like. In addition, abstaining from pornographic content is essential to building trust, keeping your expectations for your partner realistic, and avoiding sexual shortcuts rather than cultivating real intimacy. Our marriage retreats spend a lot of time on this step.
Marriage Step Six: Staying In Love
Once couples are establishing a covenant foundation, owning their brokenness, learning to share power, developing emotional attachment, and cultivating sexual fireworks, it's time to focus on staying in love. The first step in helping your partner stay in love with you is regularly doing the top things that fills their love bucket. We all have a love bucket that gets filled by different things. Some common examples include adoration, quality time, affection, emotional closeness, sexual intimacy, etc. Discerning what your partner's top needs are and providing them on a regular basis is required to keep their love bucket full. When someone's love bucket is full they feel in love. Also, the fuller one's love bucket the more grace they'll have towards their partner and the lower their love bucket the more agitation they'll feel towards them. The second step to keeping your partner's love bucket full is reducing and eliminating all behaviors you do that drains it. Some common examples include being critical, defensive, stone walling, contemptuous, prideful, too independent, secretive, passive, etc. These "drainers" most likely stem from your areas of brokenness we covered in step two. If you're providing all the fillers yet also doing the drainers then your partner's love bucket will never get filled because it has a big hole in the bottom. Therefore, to make them fall in love with you and stay in love with you it's essential to simultaneously be doing the top things they need to feel loved while eliminating the top things you do and say that makes them feel unloved.
And there you have it, the top six steps, if done in this order, to cultivate and sustain marital happiness!