I am always encouraged when a couple seeks counseling to work on a problem in their marriage. It seems so easy today to throw in the towel as soon as one or both people feel unhappy, misunderstood or disrespected. But in most cases there are a few simple (not necessarily easy) things that can produce life-changing results.
In my work with couples, I have discovered four key elements that must be consistently present in order to have a strong and fulfilling marriage.
Put each other first.
As simple as this sounds, it may be the hardest thing you will ever do. Our inner instinct is naturally “Me first.” “What do I want?” “What makes ME feel good – or bad?” “How is my spouse failing to meet MY needs?” Putting someone else above ME is an act of the will and takes practice. But all couples can experience intimacy and satisfaction when both partners are willing to cultivate an attitude of humility and giving. It may seem awkward at first, but when your relationship is strained, ask your spouse, “What do YOU need that will help US make things better?” A strong marriage begins with a willingness to consistently put the needs of your spouse before your own. Here's the principle: When two people consistently prioritize the needs of their partner, no one will have a need go unmet.
Practice good communication.
The second key is possessing good communication skills. This is the ability to talk with and listen to your spouse in a way that reflects genuine love and respect. Many people struggle with communication, but it is a skill you can learn, so I often recommend the books Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzer and Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
Without the right attitude, communication often becomes no more than a tool for manipulation and abuse. If you need outside help with communication, don’t hesitate to get help from a professional marriage therapist.
The third key is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and to be aware of and sensitive to another person’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. Do your best to see life through your spouse’s eyes. Something that doesn’t bother you may be difficult for your spouse because of past hurts, different experiences and their personality type. If you don’t know how they see a situation or problem, set aside your assumptions and ask for their thoughts and feelings. Self-centeredness is typically the major roadblock to empathy, and you can overcome it by intentionally trying to see your spouse’s point of view.
The fourth key to success in marriage is forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t ignore or condone bad behavior, but it helps you move past it. When you refuse to forgive and let go of an offense you automatically compromise and undermine the first three keys.
As a husband or wife, what are you doing to help improve and strengthen your attitude, communication, empathy and willingness to forgive? If you’re not doing much – and it shows - today is an ideal time to start doing something about it.
Couples who consistently put these four practices into effect in their marriages often find that they grow more in love and are much more fulfilled in their marriages.
Live, Work and Relate Well!