Last week, the “Check Engine” light came on in our van, which meant it was time to pay a visit to the local Toyota dealership. The problem turned out to be nothing more than a loose gas cap, which was easily fixed. However, while there, the technician reminded me that our van was overdue for its scheduled maintenance. Replacing the spark-plugs, flushing the coolant, cleaning the throttle-body–these things are well outside my realm of expertise, but I trust my mechanic when he tells me that performing scheduled care will save me hundreds or even thousands of dollars later on. Of course, your marriage isn’t a minivan, but it’s nevertheless true that investing in the health and care of your marriage on a daily basis will go a long way toward a healthy and flourishing marriage. Here are four practical steps you can take to maintain and care for your marriage so that it will go the distance.
Growing up, my parents had coffee together nearly every afternoon. This became a model that we’ve used in our own marriage. In fact, we practice the habit of once a day, once a week, once a month, and once a year. Once a day, usually in the evening, we do something enjoyable together. Whether watching a show on Netflix or competing against each other on Mario-Kart, we’re doing something leisurely, apart from the busyness and stress of daily life. Once a week, we’ll try to do something more involved–we’ll play a board game, or get dinner from our favorite take-out spots. Once each month, we’ll try to hire a sitter and go out on a date. Once each year, we’ll splurge, unloading our kids on another family so we can have an overnight getaway. We’ve done everything from a local night on the town, to a hiking excursion, to a retreat at the coast. All of this takes some planning, and budgeting–but it is a tremendous long-term investment in our relationship.
When you first started dating, the physical connection was electric! You held hands wherever you went, you kissed when said hello, and you kissed when you said good bye. When you were newlyweds, you may have had sex every day, or even more often. But now, with a handful of kids later, a stressful job, volunteer work in the community, and involvement at church, intimacy can feel like one more item to check off the checklist. Marriages thrive, however, when the fires of intimacy are stoked often. This doesn’t mean having mind-blowing sex every day, but it does mean that you are being intentional about making time for intimacy between the two of you. Lest you think this means that you are simply scheduling sex, keep in mind that the biblical picture of sex isn’t just intercourse, but rather it involves cultivating a level of closeness in all areas of a relationship–mental, spiritual, and emotional–so that sexual intimacy becomes a natural continuation of your connection to one another. Find ways to share your thoughts and ideas together throughout the day. Touch your husband on the shoulder as he walks by. Pray together. And, yes, sometimes in a busy world, planning a time to have sex is necessary. True, scheduling sex lacks spontaneity, but it can also give you something to look forward to throughout the day.
Most marriages have particular issues that are sensitive; maybe your mother-in-law is controlling, or maybe one of you tends to spend too much time at work. These hot-button issues can quickly flare up and get out of control. Learn to identify what your trouble spots are, and exercise care in how you handle them. That means, for example, giving the benefit of the doubt to your spouse instead of reading the worst of intentions into their offhand comment. It means learning to state your position calmly and clearly, it means listening without getting defensive to your spouse’s point of view, and it means acknowledging the validity of their viewpoint. It also means talking about shortcomings in behavior, not in character. Calling names, ridicule, and disrespect for your spouse assassinates their personhood, rather than correcting behavior. Contempt kills marriages, so start softly and focus on actions.
I once counseled a couple that rarely resolved their conflicts. They became angry with one another, and then spent the next several days giving each other the silent treatment, until the icy relationship thawed enough to let them be civil again. However, underlying issues were never addressed, leaving a history of pain, anger, and bitterness. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Anger, when mishandled, is a way that Satan can invade a marriage and bring it to ruin. When your spouse has done something to anger you, learning how to respond and work through conflict is vital. Usually, this involves calmly and clearly stating what happened and why you are upset. It involves listening to your spouse’s point of view, and taking responsibility for what you have done. Furthermore, try to look past the issue for the underlying fear. It's not the dishes in the sink, but a fear of disrespect, or a loss of control, or an undermining of authority that drives the anger. Whatever it is that triggers the emotion, try to name the emotion, not the trigger.
When you reach an impasse, get help soon. Sadly, many couples seek help when a great deal of damage has already been done; if you haven’t been able to resolve a problem that continually resurfaces, ask a pastor or a counselor for an outside perspective.
There is no magic formula that guarantees a healthy and happy marriage, of course. At the same time, leaving a marriage to simply drift along through life while hoping for the best is foolish, and is almost sure to fail. What steps will you take to improve your marriage today? Commit to the care and maintenance of your marriage and it will go the long-haul!