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Building a Strong Marriage

by Patti Francis, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Winter 2005

Adapted from Practice by the Book

Marriage takes a lot of work. Two sinners are wed together in marital blindness, and begin to see their selfish natures emerge. Life then gets a bit tough with overwork, sleepless nights, huge loans, in-laws, and children. In a God-centered marriage, confession, forgiveness, and grace become daily activities that lead to renewed intimacy with God and each other. When God's grace is relived daily in the lives of God-centered husbands and wives, it's a powerful witness in a world where marriages are falling apart all around us. The following five principles have helped Ron and me establish and build a strong marriage over nearly thirty years.

1. Make your marriage your priority.

If you play golf, you understand that in order to improve your game, you need to give it time attention. You need to practice your drives and your putts. It's the same with marriage. When you are engaged, you spend hours together and never run out of things to talk about. By comparison, married couples often spend less time together. They don't go out on dates; don't dream together; don't share their faith; and are often over busy in a world that has an unending supply of distractions to occupy their time.

Often the people we are closest to get the leftovers because we assume they'll understand. So we see extra patients, teach medical students, attend committee meetings, serve on the elder board, go on mission trips—all good and important activities, but not more important than the one who is at home, waiting for us. We should ask God to show us what we need to let go of and what we need to grasp with all our might. He has called us to certain activities outside our homes, but to the rest we should learn to say, "No!"

Be preemptive. Decide on your calendar how much time you should schedule with your spouse each week, and commit. You don't have to make excuses to anyone about this. Just like the phone message that says, "We can't come to the phone right now," you can say, "I'm sorry, I'm not available then." There is no way around it; priority is spelled T-I-M-E.

2. Celebrate Your Differences

Another important aspect of enjoying marriage to its fullest is understanding your spouse's personality type and yours! You've heard "opposites attract," but once you're married, they can repel like bug spray! Be honest. Certain things you initially loved about your spouse really bug you now. But step back and take another look. Understand that people of different personalities see life differently.

There are many personality tests out there, but we enjoyt the one Gary Smalley has worked out in his book The Two Sides of Love. Smalley uses animals—lions, beavers, otters, and Golden Retrievers—to describe the four basic personality types.

Ron's a "beaver" and I'm a "lion." Lions are dominant types, confident and decisive, good at getting things done. They are very result oriented. Subbornness and big egos are their weaknesses. Status and power meet their needs; they fear losing control and looking bad. They struggle with trusting God and letting Him control things. Lions are good leaders and you always need one in any group setting to help get things decided and accomplished.

Beavers are analytical perfectionists who are very logical and precise. Beavers will make sure you do it right! They are the ones who are most organized. But they can have trouble overanalyzing situations and struggle with decision making. To admit they are wrong is beyond comprehension! Failure destroys them. Grace is something they need to experience and hand our more freely. If you want order out of chaos, give the problem to a beaver.

When Ron plans our vacation trips, he researches absolutely every possible option of where to stay, so as to not make a mistake in his choise. It makes for a great vacation, but the process of his being on the computer for days on end, and my having to look at each choice with him, when I want to just make a decision, can leader to conflict (next section). It helps me to remember that Ron needs to go through this process; I can then appreciate him for all the time and effort he puts into it and recognize how much that side of him adds to our family.

3. Learn to Handle Conflict Constructively

A couple's communication process often reflects the state of their marriage. In marriage enrichment weekends, working on communication is the most valuable session for most couples because it is the nitty-gritty of daily life. A physician or dentist usually has been communicating all day long and may come home disinterested in finding out about everyone else's day. A spouse at home with kids may be desperate for adult conversation. The result is conversation mismatch and conflict is triggered. Bad patterns of conflict lead to unhappiness and distancing, which in turn leads to getting your needs met elsewhere—at work, in an affair, in community involvement, in the kids. All these substitutes destroy the intimacy designed for the marriage relationship.

In Fighting for Your Marriage, Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg described four key patterns of communication that can harm a relationship and lead to divorce: escalation, invalidation, withdrawal, and negative interpretations.

These patterns of communication erode all good things in any relationship. In order to learn to communicate in more healthy patterns, you first need to identify the negative styles you each use. Try to understand how you each got there to begin with. Were they patterns that were modeled to you growing up? Were unmet needs driving you to frustration and therefore poor communication skills? Eliminate all "You..." statements and instead say "I feel this when...." This way, no one is to blame.

In order to turn poor communication into good communication one needs good listening skills, and must learn how to adequately express feelings and desires. When one of you initiates a conversation that needs some discussion, set aside the time to sit down together and really go through it. If emotions are high, postpone it until feelings are calm.

There may be a time when a couple needs help in communication beyond books or exercises and that's when a good Christian counselor and a lot of prayer are needed. Years of bad habits don't resolve overnight, but such patterns can slowly change into a much healthier way to communicate. To do it well requires self-sacrifice and forgiveness that only Christ can supply.

4. Nurture Romance and Intimacy

This little acrostic describes how to nurture romance (and intimacy) in your marriage:

  • Revise your schedule. Get our your palm pilot and schedule time with your spouse. If it's not on your schedule, it won't happen!
  • Oneness in your relationship. In Steve Arterburn's book Every Man's Marriage he challenges men to understand what their wife's "essence" is; what are her gifts, thoughts, needs? Men, ask your wives what oneness means to her and then do it. It will make the next point really exciting!
  • Making love. If your sex life is in a rut, or making love is non-existent, then it's time to talk about it. Often, diminished sexual fulfillment in marriage is a symptom of other problems in the relationship. Or, there may have been some past abuse issue that has built a wall. Sometimes we are just carried away with our hectic lifestyle and making love gets left out in the cold. It's okay to schedule sex into your calendar if other priorities have crowded it out and you are too exhausted to be spontaneous.
  • Activities. Make dates, plan things you both enjoy doing together, or take up an interest that your partner enjoys. You can spend time exercising together or reading a book together. Refuse to let arguments spoil this time.
  • Needs. What are your spouse's top two or three emotional needs? In Give and Take, Willard Harley Jr. says that they top five needs of women are affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment. The top five needs of men are sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, attractive spouse, domestic support, and admiration.
  • Conversation and Caring. Harley also describes how "love busters" destroy romantic love. These are selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, angry outbursts, dishonesty, annoying habits, and independent behavior. A beautiful romantic night leading to great sex can get sideswiped to separate bedrooms with any of these actions. In caring, learn your spouse's love language by reading Gary Chapman's book The Five Love Languages. There are five basic ways we each speak and understand emotional love. When someone we care about loves us in our love language, our emotional tank is filled and intimacy occurs. The love languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Know your spouse's one of two love languages and then show her or him love in these ways!
  • Express & Experience forgiveness. If there is no acknowledgment of sin and failure, and asking and receiving forgiveness, a marriage is guaranteed to fail. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:32, "Be kind and compassion to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." Colossians 3:13-14 says, "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." Learn to ask for forgiveness and learn to forgive

You won't be able to work on all of these areas at once, but pick one that you both want to work on, read one of the recommended books and schedule some time to go over it. It will be the best gift you can give your marriage and your spouse!

5. Recommit to Each Other and to God

God has a great design for marriage that started in the Garden of Eden. He made us in His image, each gender reflecting and complementing His glory. He designed husband and wife to be co-laborers and intimate allies and to have a ministry to our broken, sinful world. But because of our own sinfulness and selfishness, we often give up in the struggle. It's just too much work!

God has perservered with us and calls us to persever with each other. As we are obedient to that call, God takes our muddled messes and turns them into miracles, like diamonds of radiant beauty. This is a lifelong process that takes time and is often painful.

God wants us to make our faith "perfect," which in the original lanugage meant "finished" or "complete." Most of us are a long way from that. The first step in moving the incomplete toward the complete is to recognize the flaws. Marriage is the perfect opportunity to discover our flaws (which our partner often points out to us freely!).

Once our flaws are discovered, we can admit them and ask for forgiveness. As we discover the freedom this process gives us in our marriage, we discover more and more one of God's great plans for marriage, that is, to develop within us the same truth, grace, and forgiveness toward a broken and chaotic world around us. And what a powerful and winsome witness to His existence and love that can be!


Patti Francis, MD