This past weekend my wife and I went camping with two other couples. One couple also had their two youngsters with them. Each couple has been married about a decade. The couple with kids had their 10-year anniversary over the weekend. As we sat around the campfire, we talked about what makes a happy marriage. The conversation continued to roll around in my head, and here are my current thoughts:
1. Don’t expect your spouse to meet all your needs. You have many needs–emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, financial, recreational, etc. No partner is capable of meeting all of these needs. You need community—friends, family, church members, coworkers and more. Your spouse is your special partner but not your only support and companion. Don’t be disappointed when they can’t meet every need; instead, be thankful for the needs they do meet. Esther Perel speaks to this broad theme momentarily in her powerful TED Talk, “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship” (we’ll soon return to the topic of sex). Also, Donald Miller addresses this a bit in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (chapters 28-29). Commenting on two people who had found marital happiness, Miller observes, “Neither needed the other to make everything okay. They were simply content to have good company through life’s conflicts” (p. 205). Your spouse won’t make everything okay; they won’t meet every need.
2. If you have important needs that aren’t being met, let your partner know.They may have no idea what your current key needs are or that they aren’t being met. Don’t nag them about every need not being met, but let them know the important ones. Find other people and outlets for meeting your less critical needs. (And do let your partner know how they are meeting your important needs. We like to be affirmed too. I address and expand this flip-side in #6.)
3. Meet your partners most important needs as far as you’re able. This means you have to first know what their needs are. Books like Five Love Languages (Chapman) and His Needs, Her Needs (Harley) can help in this regard. These books don’t have all the answers, but they can facilitate important communication and exploration.
Chapman’s book was especially helpful for my wife and I because it helped me see that the ways I was trying to show my love and commitment meant little to my wife. That meant I was expending energy on tasks that were draining me while not meaning much to my spouse. I was working three jobs and still helping with laundry and dishes. But my wife wanted time and attention rather than help around the house. I was glad to cut back on chores to simply spend more time with her. We were both a lot happier. Still, I fell into this same trap some years later. I have to remember the old lessons! Now I work around the house for myself, not as a way to say anything to my wife. Washing the dishes simply means I have clean plates and spoons, not “I love you, my bride.”
Jesus’ teaching commonly known as the “Golden Rule” is relevant in this conversation. Jesus taught that we should treat others as we’d like to be treated (Matt. 7:12). While living in South Korea, I learned that this has a deeper meaning than it’s simplest reading. It became clear that my desires for how to be treated were very different from how my Korean colleagues wanted to be treated. We both wanted respect (the commonality), but we expected that respect to be shown in different ways. I expected direct communication about conflict (if you have a problem with me, talk to me about it instead of telling others); however, my Korean coworkers favored indirect communication (please safe face by dealing with this through third parties rather than confronting me directly). Yes, I want to be treated with respect, so I should treat others with respect. But in order to do this, I need to learn what respect means or looks like to the other person.
This same phenomenon is true within a single culture as well because individuals have very different needs, interests, personalities and expectations. This is not only an intercultural issue. In her book Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist talks about this very thing when a good friend’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Shauna tried to care for her friend as Shauna herself would have wanted, but her friend needed something very different. This was all played out in the context of a baby shower. We are individuals. We are different. We need to take Jesus’ teaching and make it fit the particularities of the important people around us. For example, I may be an introvert who likes birthday parties with a few close friends. But if I’m throwing a party for an extroverted friend, I know for them “the more, the merrier.” For people I know well, I don’t treat them as I would want to be treated, but as I would want to be treated if I were them or were in their shoes. I want to be loved, respected, affirmed and even confronted. How do I express these same notions of love, respect, affirmation and confrontation to others in individualized ways that are meaningful to them?
In this “needs” context, I also want to talk about sex. Fact of life: no one gets great sex every time they want it. Forgetting this fantasy, let’s deal with reality. Because this is one need that should not be met by others or with pornography, it is an important trust. Therefore, partners should try to “please” their spouse as they’re able, but both partners have to know it’s not going to work out every time as they would like. I think virtually every couple deals with this either because of illness, military duty, business travels, family responsibilities or simply day-to-day stresses and commitments that make romance and intimacy difficult. I believe both partners need to do all they can to keep the flame alive given their current circumstances, while being patient with their spouse’s limitations. And as with everything, communication is critical. As Chris Blake says, “Communication is the key to life.” Let the partner know the level of desire or frustration, and see if there are ways to work together to change the circumstances that inhibit the lovin’.
Those are my top three relational advisements. From my experience (which shouldn’t be over-generalized to every other relationship, to be sure), these are the things that have made the biggest difference for my wife and I. Here are a few others that are related to the three above:
4. Continue learning how to communicate well–both listening and sharing. This is a skill. Few of us are as good at this as we think. Books by DeborahTannen and others may be helpful in this area. Both Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard (David Augsburger) and Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler) are worthwhile.
5. Continue learning how to deal with conflict. This is also a skill set that can be learned. Dealing with any anger or resentment fits in here, as do learning to “fight fair” and forgiveness. These books are worth reading: The Peacemaker (Sande) and Making Peace with Conflict (Shrock-Shenk & Ressler). There is much online that can be read as well (example). All of this will take much humility, self-reflection and likely a few honest conversations with close friends.
6. Affirm each other warmly; show appreciation. From my sole undergrad class on Marriage & Family, I remember that Dr. John Gottman is the guru in this area (Gottman Institute Blog). See this blog post. I must confess I still haven’t read his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Yes, I’m blogging about something without reading the requisite foundational literature. But I know he stresses affirming and appreciative verbal and non-verbal communication. Do it! 🙂
7. Have fun together. This goes back to points 1-3. What is fun and rejuvenating for you, for your partner? Figure out how to get more of it in your life. Life is hard, so make space for joy. Maybe this means a bit of alone time (one of my wife’s needs) balanced with time doing something mutually enjoyable.
You’ll notice that except for the Golden Rule, I haven’t said anything about religion or spirituality. I believe that each of these seven points requires much prayer and meditation. I believe God cares deeply about each of these points. I believe they are all spiritual. God is not one of the seven steps; God is pervasive throughout.
What am I missing? What would you add or clarify?