If you’ve clicked through to this article, my guess is that you’re either desperate to save your marriage, or trying to find ways to help another couple save theirs. In either case, I pray that the following tips shared here will be a practical help to you, and that God would use this offering, combined with His grace and power, to make a difference for good.
Before we begin, allow me to lay some groundwork. I have been married for 23 years and have worked as a couple’s therapist for the past 19. While I have gained a lot of insight into the psychological dilemmas that couples face through secular study, my worldview about marriage as an institution is shaped through my faith as a Christian.
This article is intended to share helpful tips based on my personal and professional experience that allow couples to have a growing, nourishing marriage that will last for life. As a Christian Counselor, I pick approaches to couple’s therapy that reflect Biblical principles. The tips below reflect a blending of the two that I have seen make all the difference in a couple staying happy long-term in their marriage versus ending up shipwrecked on the shores of divorce and misery.
Practical Tips to Save Your Marriage
Tip #1: Make sure love is more than a feeling
Love is typically experienced at the feeling level early in a relationship. The Greeks called this Eros love. In a new relationship, physical attraction combined with outward personality qualities provide the fantasy for romantic love. I say fantasy because early in a relationship, it is impossible to know someone deeply.
In his book, Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix theorizes that we are attracted to someone who has the outward qualities that represent someone who will meet all our unmet love needs. Further, he adds that we also pick someone who has some of the negative qualities of formative love objects (parents) in the hope that we can master getting love from a familiar feeling person who is limited in giving the love we require.
Hendrix theorizes that the attraction to negative qualities is largely unconscious and is more of a drive toward returning toward an experience of wholeness that we may have experienced in our mother’s womb. Whatever the reason, romantic love tends to fade as we realize that not only is our spouse not going to meet all of our needs, but they will also at times be a source of frustration to our needs.
Agape love is a selfless love that gives whether the love given is returned or not. This type of love is commonly associated with God. In Matthew 16:18, we can see an example of it demonstrated between Jesus and Peter. Jesus gives him the name “Rock” before he ever became someone worthy of that name. His deserved name should have been “Shaky” instead of the “Rock,” but Jesus had confidence in the man he could be once he experienced the full extent of God’s love through His sacrifice.
I have found this a great model to apply to marriage. Sacrificial love with a vision of what the person could be if they felt loved in the deepest parts of the heart. The tendency to criticize and demand that our spouse change more to our liking tends to produce short term results at best. This involves making a conscious effort to consider our spouse’s personal weakness and making personal investments of time, energy, and sacrifice to help them experience the confidence that comes from feeling loved in their weakest parts.
We don’t do this because they deserve it per se, but because we are conscious of how God does this for us. In my experience, the returns on this kind of marital investment are too numerous to count. It just requires a belief in the power of sacrificial love.
Tip #2: Deal with your desires
Famous couple’s therapist, John Gottman, describes how marriages fail through a description of what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The common theme between all of these marriage killers is that they focus on keeping the marital problem on the outside of the person experiencing the marital difficulty.
In James 4:1-4, the writer takes a much more inward focus to solving relational conflicts. James emphatically states that the root of all conflict is a frustrated relational desire that the person in not rooting in their relationship with God and seeking God’s way of fulfilling that desire.
The practicality of this verse is amazing! From a therapist’s perspective, half of a couple’s fighting is often the person just naming what they really want. This verse teaches us to put into words and name our desires, and entrust them to God first.
This process alone helps us take ownership of things occurring on our own boundaries without making another person solely responsible for it. Having faith about God meeting our desires is naturally a much more stable place to negotiate with our spouse (Psalm 37:4). Further, when we name a desire, we can then consider how God may view fulfillment versus what we would come up with on our own.
For example, when my wife talks to me in an elevated tone, I feel disrespected. In that situation, the first issue according to the James 4 passage then becomes, “Can I trust God to fulfill my desire to ‘feel respected’?” I may offer that up in prayer or read verses that display the profound respect God shows men in spite of our failings.
The next issue is how do I “ask God with right motives.”? My motives for respect may cause me to want a ticker tape parade through my town every time I’m insecure. God may view it differently. In Matthew 20:26, Jesus taught “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Wow, this is totally opposite to how I would go about solving this dilemma. My wife has commented many times how having the heart of a servant in the middle of a conflict softened her heart and made her want to be humble.
To align our desires, we must search the Scriptures for instruction that reflects God’s way of fulfilling a desire. Owning and aligning our desires God’s way works!
Tip #3: Put your marriage first, second only to God
Marriage is a sacrament that God expects us to put our faith in as something that is designed to help and fulfill us in this life. I heard Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in a recent podcast sermon, “Pack Your Bags: Now And Then” explain why multiple sexual partners before marriage does not work.
Learning to honor and commit to a person unselfishly sets the foundation for a good marriage. A common thought in today’s world is that you have to live with someone and have sex with them first to see if they are compatible for marriage. Intimacy is meant to be harnessed in an exclusive marriage relationship, not attained with self-interests as the priority.
Proverbs 5:15 says, “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.” Like many proverbs, God provides a metaphor that displays a physical reflection of a spiritual reality. In this passage, the running water symbolizes our desire for intimacy as it flows from us looking for a place to contain it. It talks about the importance in exclusivity in our investment.
Life is busy with work, kids, money concerns. It is easy to make our marriage relationship an equal or even lessor priority in terms of time and energy. Many couples with unsolved conflicts over how they meet each other’s needs have one spouse overly invested in the kids and the other in a career. Twenty years later, when the kids leave, they struggle, realizing they have not built intimacy through the neglect of their marriage. Even without these dynamics, a marriage will deteriorate all on its own if it is not made a priority. It must be sown, cultivated, and watered to reap a harvest of intimacy.
How, practically, can we make our marriage a priority? Here a few practices I have found helpful over the years, but this list could go on:
- Pray together regularly
- Share what you’re learning in your spiritual walk with each other
- Encourage more than you criticize
- Look for opportunities to build confidence into your spouse’s insecurities
- Talk every day, having regular dates nights
- Read books on enhancing your marriage
- Find a recreational activity that you like to do together
- Don’t cheat (or have emotional affairs) on your spouse
Finally, if you are stuck in your growth together with nothing working, make getting professional help a priority.
Tip#4: Be the change you want to see in your marriage
Patterns get established within couples as behavior reciprocates off each other’s relational demands. Repetition of the pattern is designed to maintain balance within the relationship, but may lead to dysfunction. For example, a husband who is self-absorbed may leave his wife without any room in the relationship to share her thoughts and feelings in a meaningful way.
As long as she is dutiful in their sex life and doesn’t require him to enter her emotional world too deeply, balance is maintained in the relationship. The problem over time is that the wife can’t function happily with a spouse she doesn’t feel emotionally connected to and relationship dysfunction arises. Examples of dysfunction could be: excessive eating, over-involvement with kids, an affair, depression, angry conflicts, or asking for a divorce. Then the issue becomes, “How do I change a dysfunctional pattern that has built up in my marriage?”
The first step in changing a pattern is knowing what part you play in it. Because family patterns tend to work on a feedback loop, initial efforts to change will encounter resistance. The good news is that if one of the spouses can persist in their efforts to change their part of the pattern, the other spouse will naturally be pointed toward change as a new balance point is set in the marriage.
Using the example above, the wife may start being honest about what she needs for a fulfilling romantic relationship. She may offer a boundary like, “I am more romantically available for you when time and energy is invested in our communication and time together.” The husband may protest, “You always want to talk in such detail. It will never be enough.” Then the wife’s reply: “I understand this is hard for you, but I expect efforts to improve if you would like me to be as interested in romance as you are.”
If the wife can maintain an open but firm stance, the husband will have to choose: increase my emotional availability to get balance in our romantic life or stay the same, suffering the consequences. 1 Corinthians 7:3 is a passage often hung over wives’ heads by men, where Paul admonishes married couples not to deprive each other sexually. What is frequently overlooked in this passage is the expectation for a mutual commitment to growth and spiritual commitment. The passage doesn’t teach inflicting insensitive demands on each other.
How Christian Counseling Can Help Save Your Marriage
Providing simples tips to save your marriage is not meant to imply that fixing marriage problems is an easy endeavor. A good therapist friend of mine told me once, “It is not good to make simple things complicated and complicated things simple.”
The above tips reflect simple principles that can be quite involved and complicated in applying to your individual situation. People have complicated life histories and dynamics that they bring to their marriages. Often couples are dealing with dysfunctional patterns that have built up over decades.
Proverbs 15:22 reads, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Having a third party diffuse tensions and provide insights into dysfunctional patterns can be very helpful in a troubled marriage. If you would like help applying Biblical principles like those above to your marriage situation, please contact us at Seattle Christian Counseling so that one of our trained therapists can work with you to help you save your marriage.
Gottman, John. 1994. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.
Hendrix, Harville. 2001. Getting the Love You Want.
“Love,” courtesy of Mayur Gala, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Humble Yourself,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Life,” courtesy of Mauro Mora, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Change,” courtesy of Sean Stratton, unsplash.com, Public Domain License