Thirty years this month. That’s how long my husband and I have been married. And so, in honor of those 30 blissful years of marriage, I’m sharing 30 secrets to marital success.
Of course, the most obvious pointer precedes the vows: Choose your spouse wisely. Pledging my life and love to Doug was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Except for those rare instances when he’s driving me crazy (or I him), we’ve been supremely happy together.
People sometimes assume our happiness is what keeps us together. But actually the opposite is true: Staying together is what keeps us happy. For us, there is no Plan B. We’re going to make this marriage work or die trying.
Studies show that couples with that sort of determination and commitment tend to fare better than couples who are ready to bail if things don’t work out.
In a culture steeped in romantic comedies and Disney fairytales, it’s easy to enter marriage with unrealistic expectations. The secret to success? Laying all those expectations aside and, by God’s grace, making the most of the reality with which you’re presented. Regardless what kind of decisions you made before marriage.
Your prince doesn’t have to carry you off on a white charger to a castle in the clouds. If you know where to look, you can find marital bliss just as readily within the walls of a shabby little apartment in a neighborhood full of drug dealers and topless dancers. Which is exactly what we did when we were just starting out.
That’s one of the first secrets to marital success I learned as a new wife. In no particular order, here are some of the other lessons 30 years of marriage have taught me:
30 Secrets to Success in Marriage
Apologizing is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.
Whoever said, “Love means never HAVING to say you’re sorry” probably didn’t stay married for long. If you’re wise, you’ll apologize as soon as you realize you’ve done or said something that hurt your spouse. Love means never HESITATING to say you’re sorry.
Men think differently than women.
Thinking differently isn’t a necessarily a bad thing — in fact, a contrasting perspective is often quite helpful — but the fact that our brains are wired so differently does take a little getting used to. And while you should work on communication skills so your spouse will better understand your point of view, trying to force him to adopt it is an exercise in futility.
Build each other up; don’t tear each other down.
You nurture your marriage by choosing to speak words of encouragement and affirmation. (1 Thess. 5:11) This is true whether you’re talking to your spouse directly or talking with friends behind his back. Ditch the critical spirit that cuts others down to size, as it will tear your marriage apart, as well.
Dirty dishes don’t wash themselves.
My parents didn’t require me to help much with kitchen chores growing up, so it was a bit of a shock when I got married and the dirty dishes didn’t magically disappear from my new sink overnight like they’d always done back home. I quickly discovered that keeping a spotless kitchen takes a lot of work — and so does maintaining a happy marriage.
Sometimes my way ISN’T the best way.
Even as early as kindergarten, I was convinced I knew the best way to do everything. This is reflected in the fact my K-5 teacher repeatedly docked my conduct grade several letters because I was “too bossy” with the other children. Such bossiness would not have boded well for a successful marriage, so it’s a good thing I eventually learned that other people (including my husband) can come up with pretty smart ideas, too. Sometimes, his way of doing a particular task is far superior to mine, although it means swallowing my pride to admit it.
Stop waiting for the “perfect time.”
I understand the desire to make wise, responsible decisions, but if you refuse to get married or have a baby or buy a house or anything else until circumstances are ideal, you’re dooming yourself to a life of inaction. You will never have every duck in a row. While God’s sense of timing is perfect, ours is guesswork, at best. We must be willing to step out on faith and do important things, even when we don’t feel 100% ready for the challenge. (Prov. 3:5-6)
Marriage takes teamwork: tackle problems side by side.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that you and your spouse are on the same team. Through every hardship, every trial, you should be working together, not in opposition to each other. (Mark 10:7-9)
Nothing pretty ever grows in the soil of selfishness.
Big, nasty weeds with sharp, painful thorns and deep, gnarly roots: that’s what a life of selfishness and narcissism produces. God desires that we produce a crop of far more beautiful fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)– but He must amend our soil before that can happen. Marriage is one means by which He does it.
Think about what you say BEFORE you say it.
We should be quick to listen, but slow to speak. (James 1:17) Weigh your words and give them careful consideration, since there’s no taking them back once they leave your lips.
Don’t make big decisions when you are hungry, tired, or stressed.
Gather facts, discuss options, weigh the pros and cons, pray about the matter, yes, but whenever possible, sleep on it before making any major, life changing decisions. Clarity comes more easily in the light of morning, once you’re well-rested. (Psalm 127:2)
You can never pray too much!
That much should be obvious. After all, God commands us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) But since my husband and I committed very early on to always pray together before times of intimacy, the phrase carries a double meaning for us: It also serves as a reminder that a married couple can never have too much sex. 😉
Focus on the good, not the bad.
Would you rather your husband focus on your loveliest, most noble and praiseworthy qualities, or ignore your good points entirely and concentrate instead on your most annoying and bothersome flaws? Then treat him the way you’d want to be treated! When you habitually focus on your spouse’s best qualities, you not only improve your marriage, but you fulfill the command of scripture in the process: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)
When the engine light comes on, stop and check it out immediately.
One time, our car’s engine light came on while we were on the way to an out-of-state wedding. Knowing we’d miss the ceremony if we stopped, we kept driving and made a mental note to have the car checked before heading home. Bad decision. We could’ve flown to Europe for what that trip to Oklahoma cost us after paying for a tow truck, a rebuilt engine, a rental car to get us home, and a plane ticket to fly my husband back to Oklahoma two weeks later so he could retrieve the car once it was repaired. And we ended up missing the wedding, anyway!
What this experience taught us: Pay attention to warning signs! Whether you’re taking care of a car or maintaining a marriage, ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. You can save yourself a lot of pain and expense by dealing with problems as soon as they crop up.
Never go to bed angry.
The Bible tells us not to let the sun go down on our wrath (Eph. 4:26), and that’s a principle my husband and I have done our best to live by. Even if a conflict has not been completely resolved, we kiss and make up before bed and promise to revisit the conversation in the morning.
Life is sweeter when you learn to laugh at yourself.
Laughter is good medicine. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. I never suspected what a boon a good sense of humour would be to my marriage — it never even occurred to me to add wittiness to the list of qualities I was looking for in a spouse — but I’m eternally grateful that God made provision for that, anyway. (Prov. 17:22)
You can choose to do the right thing, even when your spouse doesn’t.
Never make your obedience to scripture contingent on somebody else’s. If you refuse to do right by your spouse until your spouse has done right by you, you will be locked in a stalemate indefinitely. Someone has to make the first move. Why not let it be you? The Bible says, “To one who knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17) Although your spouse will someday answer to God for HIS sin, you are the only one who’ll be held accountable for YOURS (Romans 14:12) — even the sin of not doing what you know you should be doing.
Forgive. Forgive. And keep forgiving.
If you want a happy marriage, you must learn to forgive freely and completely. Your marriage will never thrive — it may not even survive — as long as you harbor grudges or give place to bitterness and resentment against your spouse. (Col. 3:13)
Love is patient, kind, and puts the other first
1 Corinthians 13 maps out exactly what love should look like in a healthy marriage. It’s a tall order, but the closer you come to loving your spouse as you love yourself and treating him the way you wish to be treated, the stronger, stabler, and more satisfying your marriage will be.
Marriage is a sanctifying process.
God is far more concerned with refining our character than with ensuring our comfort and happiness, even (or perhaps ESPECIALLY) within the context of marriage. His goal is to shift our focus off ourselves and onto those around us. He wants to teach us to consider their needs as more important than our own. (Phil 2:3) The more we cooperate with that plan, the better our marriage will fare.
Respond, don’t react.
We read in Proverbs, “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool displays folly.” (Prov. 13:16) Reacting is something we do instinctively, but as sinners, doing or saying “what comes naturally” may not always be the most God-honoring response. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, aim for a measured, well-articulated response that reflects God’s heart and character.
Watch out for traps!
Have you ever fallen prey to a speed trap while driving through a small town? You know, when the speed limit drops dramatically two or three times in a row, and a cop parks his patrol car in the trees just beyond the last sign, waiting to give chase when you miss it? You’d think that after getting a handful of speeding citations for failing to slow down, you wouldn’t make that mistake again, but sadly, that’s not the case. In the same way, Satan has a handful of snares he uses over and over again with great success against married couples — pride, anger issues, sex differences, and financial struggles, to name just a few — but when we’re aware of his wiles, we are better prepared to stand guard against them. (Eph. 6:12-17)
Never lose your temper at the same time as your spouse.
The Bible commands us to put aside all anger, rage, malice, slander, foul language out of our mouth. (Col 3:8) Ideally, both husband and wife should exercise such restraint at all times, but even if one spouse slips up, the other can minimize damage by not indulging in a simultaneous lapse of self-control.
If you must argue, argue naked.
You’re less likely to storm out of the room, slamming doors behind you, if you ditch your clothes before the discussion. Nudity puts you both in an exposed, vulnerable position that can serve to calm tempers and soften tones of voice. Plus, you’re just that much closer to making up once the argument is resolved!
Be intentional about nurturing your marriage
Make time for connecting with one another EVERY DAY. This is especially important once children arrive on the scene. Do not use their needs as an excuse for marginalizing the needs of your spouse. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true: One of the best things a father can do for his children is to love their mother (and vice versa).
If you aren’t pulling together, you’re drifting apart.
I’ve read that when a pair of otters sleep in the water, they hold hands so that the waves won’t separate them while they slumber. Life tends to ebb and flow like the tides and can split us apart if we aren’t careful. Make it your habit to hold firmly onto your anchor and to your spouse even when the seas are calm… or you may find yourself adrift and alone when the billows really begin to roll.
Nagging never works.
If you think harping on your husband about anything is going to elicit positive change, you are merely deluding yourself. More likely than not, nagging will only set him more stubbornly in his own way. Besides, the Bible makes it clear that most men would prefer to live in a hot, dusty desert (Prov. 21:19) or in the corner of a roof (Prov. 25:24) than in a house shared with a quarrelsome and nagging woman.
When you feel like saying, “I told you so,” bite your tongue.
Your spouse is smart enough to realize that without your reminders. In fact, there are several phrases my husband and I agreed very early on we would never say to one another. Among them are anything that demeans the other’s value (“I hate you” or “You’re worthless”) and any threats of separation (“I’m outa here” or “I want a divorce”). We’d also advise against speaking in generalities (“You always…” or “You never…”), but that’s a habit that’s hard to break in the heat of the moment!
Use it or lose it!
This admonition can be taken in two ways. First, we should volitionally get rid of the things we no longer use: the blue jeans in our closet that are three sizes too small, the white elephant gift we won at an office party last Christmas, the forgotten fondue pot that’s cluttering up our kitchen cabinets. Pack up all that stuff and donate it to charity to benefit someone who’ll actually appreciate it.
Second, we should regularly set aside time for utilizing and enjoying those things we don’t want to lose: muscle strength, rational thinking, musical talent, etc. Don’t you remember the parable of the talents? The servant who invested his talents wisely received even more for his efforts; the one who buried his talents in the ground lost even the ones he was originally given. For married couple, I believe a vibrant sex life is a gift that should be enjoyed regularly. If you go weeks or months or years without doing so, you may eventually find you’ve lost the ability to enjoy it at all — and that would be a crying shame.
Pray consistently FOR each other and WITH each other.
God created the institution of marriage in the first place,and He desires its success as much or more than we do. Enlist His help! Pray for your spouse — and for yourself — that your love for one another would accurately reflect the love of Christ for His church, as God intended from the beginning. If your spouse is agreeable, you should make joint prayer a priority, as well. Studies show that couples who pray together regularly reduce their risk for divorce to less than one percent.
Living happily ever after doesn’t happen by chance; it’s a CHOICE.
Martha Washington wrote, “The greater part of our happiness or misery is determined not by our circumstances, but by our dispositions.” This is as true for couples as it is for individuals. Want to live happily ever after? You can. Just make up your mind and do it. (Phil. 4:4)
Want more time-tested tips for nurturing your marriage? Get a copy of my book, Love Your Husband, Love Yourself.