How to Keep Your Marriage on Course

husband and wife on a sailboat with a sunset background
iStock/mihtiander

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When Cathy and I were engaged, the premarital counseling went smoothly. We put a lot of time and energy into planning our wedding. But once we were married, we didn't know how to keep the marriage strong. With the first fight on our honeymoon (and there was more than one), we knew we had a high-maintenance marriage. Just a few days into the honeymoon, I was waiting for Cathy before we left for dinner and "innocently" said, "You sure take a long time to get ready. I think you've been late to every meal we have had on our honeymoon." When she started crying and questioned my love for her, I realized I needed to filter my words and learn to embrace our differences. Let's just say it's taken me many years to work on those traits.

Like many newlyweds, we were busy, distracted and drifting apart even though we loved each other and wanted to have an intimate marriage. We had both come from dysfunctional families and neither of us had grown up with great role models for marriage. So we hit a few rough spots during our first year. I was a youth pastor at a great church, and on the way there we would argue in the car. I would then often speak to the students on "the joys of a Christian family" and feel somewhat hypocritical. I realized we needed to make changes in our marriage or we wouldn't attain the level of intimacy I desired.

Cathy and I live in Southern California. Imagine that each of us has a sailboat and we each set a course for nearby vacation destination Catalina Island. If my sailboat's course is off by even 1 degree, not only will I miss meeting Cathy on Catalina, but I'll also miss the entire island. Small course corrections are needed in every marriage to keep couples on the same map.

Cathy and I have now been married 44 years, and even though we still have a high-maintenance marriage, we often look back at those first few years with gratefulness that we continued to persevere. During that period of our marriage we made three mindset course corrections that made a positive difference in our relationship.

Don't drift into a happy marriage, make one

A healthy and happy marriage is about romance and fun, but it also needs strong doses of intentionality and determination to succeed. Happiness can happen even if you're struggling now. In The Case for Marriage, authors Linda Waite (a sociologist) and Maggie Gallagher offer hope to struggling couples by citing a longitudinal study Waite supervised:

How many unhappy couples turn their marriage around? The truth is shocking: 86 percent of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier. … The very worst marriages showed the most dramatic turnarounds: 77 percent of the stably married people who rated their marriage as very unhappy … said that the same marriage was either "very happy" or "quite happy."

One of the things Cathy and I intentionally decided to do early in our marriage was to have a non-negotiable weekly date night to focus on each other and have a fun time just for the two of us. At the Refreshing Your Marriage conferences I co-lead with my friend Doug Fields, we ask couples if they are willing to give 1 percent of their time each week to their spouse. Then we challenge them to give those 100 minutes to a date together.

Our friends Fadi and Kim aren't able to do a date night because they are busy caring for small children. But they manage to give more than 1 percent of their week to each other by talking with each other 15 minutes in the morning while having coffee together and 15 minutes at night after the kids have gone to bed. Though their time spent together is in smaller chunks, it adds up to big changes in their relationship. Those 15-minute connection times are the most important times of the day for their relationship. Every 15-minute chunk of time isn't life-changing, but Fadi views it as a time of nourishing their relationship. He says, "I don't remember what I ate last Monday for lunch, but it keeps my body nourished. It's the same with our connection times. Half of the benefit is just showing up."

Even after decades of marriage, Cathy and I still have to choose to be intentional about spending time together. Just last week it was Cathy's time to plan our date. She knew I was really busy with a work project, and so we stopped by our favorite Mexican restaurant and picked up food to go. We drove straight to one of our favorite spots at the Pacific Ocean. She pulled out a blanket and we sat on the beach and watched the sunset. Her intentionality to choose to do something that I love made for a great couple connection.

We have a simple quote in our home office to remind us to schedule get-togethers on the calendar: "Spontaneity works best when it's well planned." Making even simple connections takes discipline, but I can testify that consistency over time equals the results you want in your marriage. A leading pastor summarized intentionality in relationships like this: "The nature of human beings is such that we tend not to drift into better behaviors. We usually have to be asked by someone to consider taking it up a level."

So now I'm asking: What are you doing to prioritize your marriage?

Be ruthlessly honest about your own brokenness

Early in marriage many couples think, If only my spouse would change. Here is some great advice from someone (his initials are J.B.) who wanted to change his spouse from the first day of their honeymoon: Focus on your stuff, not your spouse's stuff.

The more emotionally, spiritually and physically healthy you are, the better chance you will have of improving your marriage. A better you makes a better marriage. The first step is to realize that you need to change, which is freeing because now you have some element of control over the situation.

Not long ago, a young couple approached me after a Refreshing Your Marriage conference to talk about their physical intimacy issues (or rather a lack thereof). The longer we talked, the more I suspected that something deeper was amiss.

I asked the wife, "Were you ever sexually abused when you were younger?"

She started to cry and told her husband for the first time of a childhood trauma that had taken place. She had never dealt with the deep pain of the abuse.

The next year they attended the conference at the same venue. They made a point to tell me that the wife had courageously spent much of that year dealing with the pain of childhood abuse by attending counseling sessions with a good Christian counselor. The wife told me that as she began the healing process, the physical intimacy with her husband improved 100 percent. It was only after she admitted her brokenness that marriage restoration took place.

Dr. John Gottman is one of the leading researchers in the field of marriage conflict. He recently found that couples tend to wait six years building up resentment before they seek the help they need to resolve their issues. Don't wait. Work on what you need to work on immediately.

Draw closer through spiritual intimacy

As a marriage mentor and pastor, I've noted that the least-developed area of couples' intimacy is spiritual intimacy. The word intimacy means connection. Far too many couples miss the opportunity to connect spiritually. I know that was the case for Cathy and me.

One evening during the early years of our marriage, we were at our marriage mentors' home for dinner. I asked them, "What do you do to develop spiritual intimacy as a couple?"

Their answer surprised me: "We spend 20 minutes each week focused on growing spiritually together."

I asked, "You mean 20 minutes a day?"

They said, "No, 20 minutes a week, and it's great."

"What do you do together?" I asked.

They told us that they read the Bible, read a devotional and pray together. They went on to say how meaningful that time had become over the years.

Inside I was saying, That's it? It can't be that easy.

As we were pulling the car out of their driveway, Cathy said, "You know that 20-minute spiritual focus? I want to do that."

How could I say no to 20 minutes? We ended up making a commitment to spend 20 minutes a week focusing together on our spiritual growth. That commitment has been helpful for our relationship on several different levels. It's great for spiritual connection, but many times it has caused a deeper sense of emotional and even physical intimacy.

Speaking of physical intimacy, several years ago Gary and Barb Rosberg wrote a book called The Five Sex Needs of Men and Women. I find that the book's message is still relevant today. Can you guess what it said was the fourth sex need of a woman? Spiritual intimacy. My wife, who is much more tuned this way than I am, often talks about how sexual and spiritual intimacy are closely related. It's simple but true: Spiritual intimacy draws couples closer sexually.

All couples risk relationship drift. By observing these three course corrections — becoming intentional about spending time together, admitting to brokenness and seeking spiritual intimacy — a couple can enhance their marriage and keep it from veering off course.

Jim Burns is an author and speaker. His latest book, co-authored with Doug Fields, is The First Few Years of Marriage: 8 ways to strengthen your "I do."

Based on research and experience from Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley, Focus on the Family has created valid and reliable questions that evaluate the strength of your marriage. Take our free assessment now.

© 2019 Jim Burns. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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