I have often told people who are contemplating marriage that you can read books, listen to others’ anecdotes, and ask for advice, but you’ll never know exactly what it’s like until you’re married.
Everybody wants a successful marriage. Nobody sets a goal to fail.
But what are the elements of a successful marriage? And how do we get there?
Today I find myself in the unique place of having both the experience of a great marriage behind me and the adventure of a new marriage ahead of me.
Seven years ago my husband passed away after many years of liver disease. While I always believed we had a wonderful marriage, the past seven years have given me time and perspective to look at our marriage with new eyes.
As 20-year olds embarking on marriage for the first time we knew only that we loved each other and wanted to spend our lives together pursuing careers and building a family. We had no idea about the elements of a successful marriage or how to navigate the emotions, finances, and familial relationships that would present themselves.
Elements of a Successful Marriage
Now I sit here as a new bride; a bride with years of experience in marriage and yet brand new to the context of this marriage. This marriage is between two people who have each been married for 36 years but not to each other.
As 60-somethings embarking on marriage for the second time we know that we love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together. But at this stage, our careers have been set and our families are already built.
Our biggest challenges in this marriage are the combining and blending of families (children and grandchildren), jobs, hobbies, finances, and schedules. And, despite our vast experience, we are still learning to navigate the emotions and relationships that our separate lives bring with them and the elements of a successful marriage.
Tips for a Strong Marriage
As I look both back and forward, I see four elements of a successful marriage – respectful communication, selflessness, commitment, and grace and forgiveness. These elements or tips will help make any marriage stronger.
Marriage Tip 1- Respectful Communication
To respect someone is to accept someone for who they are, even when they’re different from you or you don’t agree with them. But the greater test of respect is not just the thought or feeling of respecting someone. The greater test is how that respect manifests itself.
One of the greatest ways we can show respect is in our communication. How we choose to speak to one another and about one another.
In today’s culture, it is often considered acceptable to speak to each other in demeaning and derogatory terms. Our vocabulary can become littered with offensive language, sarcasm, and condescending remarks. Not only do the words themselves stick with us but the way we feel when referred to in these terms leave unseen scars that we carry with us into other situations.
When a child is continually scolded and belittled or told they are stupid or worthless, they begin to believe those things about themselves, and their behavior changes to fit those terms.
Why do we not realize that these things, said to an adult, will also have a lasting result? And why would we choose to deliberately hurt the one person we have vowed to love and cherish?
Far too often we hear wives tell stories about their husbands which do not show their best sides. While we all love a good story, when we chose to make someone the butt of the joke or relay an embarrassing moment, we must ask ourselves how that would make the other person feel. Is it a moment that they can laugh along also? Or is it a moment they would prefer to keep private?
When we are together as married couples we may find ourselves in disagreement with our spouses or we may feel the need to correct one another. Proceed with caution.
Receiving correction can often be difficult in private and with a gentle hand. But when done in front of others it can be particularly painful or embarrassing. Perhaps ask yourself, “Is this something that cannot wait until we’re alone?” before proceeding.
We must also consider who our audience is when speaking about our spouses, whether they are present or not. If your children are present take particular care not to demean or humiliate the other parent. Not only does it affect the child’s view of your spouse but you may also find yourself diminished in your child’s eyes as they choose to come to your spouse’s defense.
Consider what scripture tells us about our words. Colossians 4:6 says our speech should always be seasoned with grace, and Ephesians 4:29 instructs us to use our speech to edify others.
I remember many years ago being challenged by our pastor to be conscious of how we deal with others we encounter. It was the Christmas season and I decided to make a special effort to smile and engage every store clerk in a friendly manner, kindly asking them about themselves.
It didn’t take long for me to transfer this habit to my husband as well, deliberately speaking words of encouragement and affection each day. And without ever discussing it, his speech began to change too. We respond to the stimuli around us and when the stimuli changes our responses change as well. This is why the first element of a successful marriage is respectful communication.
Marriage Tip 2- Selflessness
Selflessness is more concern for the needs and wishes of others than for your own. The willingness to set ourselves aside and sacrifice for the well-being of others indirectly benefits us as well.
Learning to set our pride aside for the betterment of someone else is to grow, to look beyond our own needs and desires.
This is the quality of pure love, agape love, as shown to us by God Himself. Ephesians 5:25 exhorts husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.
To seek another’s best interest even if it means sacrificing ourselves is the greatest form of love, the love that God Himself demonstrated by His sacrifice on the cross. It is a love that we are only able to demonstrate because God has first loved us (1 John 4:19).
While we will rarely be called upon to sacrifice our very lives for our spouse, we should strive to make acts of selflessness a daily norm. When a husband and wife each seek to serve the other, petty differences and small irritants are easily set aside.
The willingness to compromise rather than demanding to have your way makes the home run more smoothly.
Too often we feel as though we must “win” an issue. But remember, for one person to win another must lose. Do you really want the person you love most in this world to lose?
There will inevitably be times in a marriage when we disagree and my first marriage was no different. I can recall times when I would feel hurt if I thought my ideas had not been valued in our relationship.
Occasionally I would go back to my husband to make sure my point was made, not whether my idea was right but that I had been hurt in the discussion. Most often I would find that when I made him aware of my offense, he would feel so badly for having caused my hurt that it was worse to see his remorse than it was to wallow in my temporary hurt.
Selflessness is knowing when to let go of your own desires. It is making yourself vulnerable to another person and trusting that they will also put their desires aside for you.
The second element of a successful marriage is selflessness because when it is exercised by both people we find ourselves in a relationship steered by love, manifested by service and kindness rather than demands.
Marriage Tip 3- Commitment
Each person, when they married their spouse, agreed or pledge to do something in the future. Whether you were in a church or on a mountain top, in front of hundreds of family and friends or just a few, led by a priest, rabbi, or justice of the peace, you obliged yourself to be dedicated to a marriage relationship.
This marriage relationship now must have a place of priority in your life.
You have a responsibility, along with your spouse, to nurture and protect your marriage, and to give it a place of importance in your life. Over your lifetime there will be many other things that will compete for your time, attention, and energy.
Don’t let the little things sway you away from your commitment to your spouse. And agree to face the big things together as a team. You will be stronger together, both in your relationship with each other and as a force against whatever you face.
As part of your commitment to one another and to make your marriage relationship a priority, agree to make time together a priority as well. I know this is not a simple task. Careers, children, extended family, social engagements, and even church activities can quickly take over our schedules. And these are all good things.
This is where we must commit to choosing the best over the good. Ephesians 5 tells husbands to love their wives even as they love themselves.
Even on our busiest days most of us can find time to watch television and update our social media. Do we sometimes let those things have priority over our time with our spouse?
Ideally, we could always continue to have our weekly date night or annual weekend getaway. But whether these things happen or not we can set a goal to spend 30 minutes a day together – just us. Make this a goal.
This is not to induce guilt because we don’t accomplish it each day. None of us need another item on our to-do list that we feel guilty over at the end of the day. But if we don’t set a goal we are sure to NOT accomplish it.
When my children were small, life could easily carry us away with schedules and commitments with school, church, and extracurricular activities. Each fall, after the school year resumed and the children were settled into their new routines, my husband and I made a point to take a week away for ourselves.
We were very fortunate to have family and friends close by to help with family commitments while we were gone. Occasionally I remember coming under significant criticism for taking this time away. But for me, this was an investment in our marriage relationship.
My husband and I had been married seven years before our first child was born, and I knew there would be a day when our children would be adults with lives of their own. We wanted to be sure when that day came that our marriage was still strong, that we still shared goals for our future, and that we had not become strangers who happened to be co-parents.
My kids would often say, “When we grow up y’all are not going to know what to do with yourselves.” My response was always, “We had seven good years before y’all came along and I trust we’ll have at least that many after y’all are gone.”
In my current marriage, all of our children are now adults. At this stage of life, I know myself well enough to know that I can easily over-commit my time and energy to so many things that I still want to learn and do. But as a new bride, I am learning that I must give priority to this marriage relationship. It becomes so easy to say yes to a new class, hobby, or even dinner with friends.
While we are trying to balance those things as a couple we have committed to a nightly “curfew” for ourselves, setting a time each evening when we focus on deliberately spending time together. We use the time to listen to music, read our daily devotional together, watch a favorite program on television, or just sit on the porch and enjoy the evening.
The third element of a successful marriage is a strong commitment because whatever we do, we are committing to do it together, consciously giving priority to building and strengthening our relationship.
Marriage Tip 4- Grace and Forgiveness
We can sometimes look at our spouses and see all the things we have in common. But perhaps more often we look and see all the ways we are different – our backgrounds, traditions, temperaments, philosophies on child-rearing, even politics.
It is important to recognize that you are different people with different ideas. Rather than seeing those differences as a point of contention, learn from each other and grow together. By acting in grace we look for their best qualities; by forgiving we overlook their shortcomings.
In Christian theology, grace is the love and mercy God gives to us, simply because He wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to deserve it. Under this definition we too should exercise grace to our spouses, giving them love and mercy, not because they have done anything to deserve it but simply because we love them and want them to have it.
Forgiveness is to intentionally have a change of feelings regarding a wrong someone has committed against you. It does not make the wrong committed right. But it does release the other person from the resentment or vengeance you feel toward them because of it.
One of the most interesting things about forgiveness is that it usually benefits the wronged party as much as it benefits the forgiven one. When we forgive someone we are released from carrying the anger and resentment, a very freeing thing indeed.
Ephesians 4:32 instructs us “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” In the same example I mentioned earlier about feeling hurt when I believed my opinion was not heard, I had to learn to forgive, knowing that the hurt was unintentional.
It was a process we learned in my first marriage, the practice of learning how to speak and listen, and negotiate our way to a common ground while forgiving and accepting forgiveness along the way. Colossians 3:13 says we can and should forgive because we ourselves are forgiven.
Learning to exercise grace and forgiveness with one another releases us both from the bonds of anger and retribution and makes this the fourth element of a successful marriage.
What Makes a Marriage Successful?
The elements of a successful marriage do not stand independently of one another. Each element is connected to the other three. In exercising grace and forgiveness we are to communicate respectfully. In order to forgive we must be selfless – not holding a grudge or seeking revenge, not demanding that we are right. To act out of selflessness, communicate respectfully and forgive, we must be faithful and committed to the marriage relationship.
It is not my first inclination to give up a part of myself, to not demand my way. I do this because I am committed to my husband because I want my best and his also. Because I want a successful marriage, I choose to honor our marriage in my speech, to give and forgive, and to place our marriage relationship above so many other things that clamor for my time and attention.
Just as no two couples look alike, so no two marriages look alike either. Each is a function of the two people, their separate strengths and weaknesses, their individual and shared experiences, and the agreements they make between themselves as to how they will build their lives together.
As someone with a natural aptitude for numbers and a professional career in accounting, it seems only natural for me to be responsible for family finances. But in the majority of marriages that I am privy to, this responsibility is normally handled by the husband. In most traditional marriages, child-rearing falls predominantly to the wife; and yet, I know several instances where the husband has willingly postponed his professional career to be the primary child nurturer.
Regardless of how we define the roles and divide the responsibilities in our marriages, laying the groundwork for the elements of successful marriage–respect, commitment, sacrifice, and grace will provide us with a strong foundation on which to build a strong marriage.
Would love to hear your comments on the elements of a successful marriage and what has made your marriage strong!