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5 Steps to a Healthy Marriage

Chairman and co-author of eHarmony, Dr. Neil Warren, offers key components to a healthy, happy love life.

Prayer for a Happy Marriage

What makes a marriage work? I’ve spent most of my career, and a good deal of my life, learning the answer to that question.

It’s been key to my work as a counselor, a psychologist, a professor at Fuller Seminary, a speaker and an author. I’ve done surveys, read books and studies, counseled thousands of couples.

In fact, the information I’ve gathered became the groundwork for my online relationship service, eHarmony. I wanted to help singles find that right person right off the bat.

So after 40 years I’ve come to these five conclusions about great marriages. Some have a few specific qualities in common.

1. Strong couples focus on the positive.
I don’t mean they look at the world or their marriage through rose-colored glasses. But they always keep a mental list of their mate’s outstanding qualities that is at least as long as their complaints and hopefully longer.

Even if a couple is going through a rocky patch and they come to my office for counseling, that alone is reason for hope. The couple wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have hope, and didn’t think they had something good to hold on to.

I make a point of starting off my initial counseling session by asking: “What’s right about your marriage? What made you fall in love in the first place? What is it that attracted you to your partner?”

One couple sat on the couch in my office, arms crossed over their chests. I asked them my questions. Silence. Apparently they had come here to recite a litany of complaints. I asked them again. They looked all around the room, anywhere but at me.

Begrudgingly the husband said they both loved travel and they liked getting together with friends. The wife conceded that her husband had a terrific sense of humor—at times. “For example?” I asked. She recalled an April Fool’s joke he’d played.

All at once they both started laughing—and uncrossed their arms, ready to get down to business.

Sometimes couples are so consumed by what’s wrong with their relationship that they forget all the good things. They stop pursuing the experiences that generate closeness. It becomes a vicious cycle, and soon everything about the relationship can look grim and gloomy.

Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is hard. Marylyn and I were rookies in marriage when we were wed. We knew nothing about being a good spouse.

We worked so tirelessly to improve each other that we missed opportunities to create wonderful experiences together. We were two people with strong personalities and strong convictions.

It took time, patience and love, lots of love, to understand those differences made us stronger, not weaker. Can we truly respect our spouses if we agree with everything they say?

I take my cues from the Bible: “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right… Dwell on the fine, good things in others.” Start with your spouse.

2. Romance is required.
An extra dose of ardor and affection can heal a hundred hurts and keep passion alive. You say you’re out of practice? So was I.

During our courtship and early years of marriage, Marylyn and I could spend hours gazing into each other’s eyes. Then came children, mortgage payments, career hurdles. Who had time for cuddling? “Why can’t you be more romantic?” she asked.

That made me feel worse, as if she were criticizing me more than asking me to fill a need. What was I supposed to do? Compose sonnets? Perform a ballad? Dance a tango? The prospect was so daunting I did absolutely nothing.

One day I discovered a secret. I was overcome with the impulse to call my wife from the office and say I was thinking about her and how much I loved her. Don’t be silly, I thought. But I did it, and wow, did it do the trick! I’ve learned to act on those romantic impulses, even if it’s just surprising her with her favorite candy, a Mounds bar.

Chemistry can be worked on. It doesn’t have to disappear with the first gray hairs. If you come to me and say, “The spark is gone,” my response will be, “Let’s figure out how to reignite it.” And then learn to keep it lit. Marylyn and I like nothing more than a date at the movies. A box of popcorn between us and we’re just like newlyweds.

Better than that, because we know each other so well. Spontaneity is great but the point is, make time for romance like you would for anything else that’s important in your life. Don’t wait for it to make time for you.

3. Address the spiritual.
You can’t talk about a good marriage without addressing the spiritual dimension. The couple that prays together stays together, usually. Don’t wait for the emergencies. Say grace at dinner, bow your heads together at bedtime and make sure your partner knows how much they are in your prayers.

For years Marylyn and I only said basic prayers together. Then we met a woman who taught us how prayer could be a time of complete openness, even laughter. We’ll sit together with our eyes closed, holding hands, and give thanks for the blessings we can think of at that moment. Sometimes something will make us laugh. What better way to give thanks?

I also recommend that couples join a small group for spiritual support. It can be as formal as a Bible study or as informal as a Saturday night dinner. Find other couples on a similar spiritual and marital path and share your journey.

What if your spirituality isn’t something you’ve ever felt comfortable talking to each other about? Start talking now. When a couple speaks thoughtfully about spiritual issues, their souls become invisibly knitted together.

If only one of you is a praying person, pray on your own. Your partner will be helped. And your own love will grow.

4. Connected couples communicate.
In a study of 500 marriages, one researcher determined that marital success is more closely linked to communication skills than to any other factor.

First, get rid of all distractions: the TV, the internet, email. What you and your spouse need is plain old quiet time. Marylyn and I have some of our best talks on our evening walks. A quiet drive can work wonders too.

One hardworking couple I know regularly gets together for lunch. They know it’s essential. A marriage without time to communicate is a marriage headed over a cliff. How can you settle differences if you don’t honestly talk them out?

And it’s not just talking. It’s listening. As a counselor, I’ve listened to people for hours. The results are incredible. I’ve seen people move from total confusion to total clarity just because I listened to them. Something powerful happens inside most people when they are listened to.

Here’s an exercise for jump-starting communication skills. You and your spouse should pick two half-hour time slots per week to talk. No interruptions. One of you begins by talking about something that really matters to you.

It doesn’t have to be a red-button issue. Just make sure it’s important. Don’t take too long, but address your topic thoroughly. Your partner doesn’t get to say anything in response until he has repeated in his own words what you said.

Then it’s his turn to respond. Go back and forth for half an hour. Stay at it. You’ll be amazed by the results.

5. Make conflicts count.
Want a marriage with no conflict? Then marry a person who’s your clone! Ruth Bell Graham, wife of the renowned evangelist, was asked if she and Billy agreed on everything. “Goodness, no!” she said. “If we did, there would be no need for one of us.” Strong marriages involve two healthy individuals with unique God-given qualities.

Conflict is opportunity for growth. Confront it. Don’t just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. Marital vitality means much more than peace at any price. The key component in a constructive conflict is the speed with which it is resolved.

Deal with your differences early—in the “spark” phase rather than the “blaze” phase. One of marriage’s most magnificent possibilities is to merge two lives and build something far greater than either spouse could have built alone.

Trust me, I’ve been there. When Marylyn doesn’t agree with me my immediate impulse is to push my opinion with renewed vigor. I hate to be wrong and I’m going to fight.

For instance, we’re on opposite sides of the political fence and if something comes up, boy, do we disagree. But if I stop for just a moment and listen, we end up in a discussion rather than a fiery debate. We don’t have to agree—we never will on some things—we just have to understand each other.

No matter what, I know I will never stop loving and cherishing Marylyn. I keep a picture of her on my desk. It’s my way of keeping her literally at the center of my focus all day. I say a quick prayer for her. Or call or email her during the day.

I always let her know what she means to me. You can never say it too much. There’s room for only one person at the center of your consciousness, and if it is the love of your life, your marriage will soar.

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