After 67 years of preaching and teaching about marriage, I reflected on the question I have been asked most frequently – what makes a marriage succeed? This may not be my final answer to the question. Ruth and I will be married 64 years next month, and there are things she has yet to teach me.
I offer you three ingredients that I have discovered in more than six thousand couples who have come into my office over these years.
Let me begin with the recognition that marriage is not only one of the greatest – if not the most satisfying relationships one can ever know. One comedian said that marriage is like a train station – those that are in want to get out and those that are outside want to get in! Getting married is not the grand solution to all our problems. Being married is a demanding relationship. It takes two people who choose to believe in the best qualities in each other. Discovering mutual attraction and commitment is only the first step toward building a mutually satisfying life together. But there are ingredients every couple can adopt to make their marriage dreams come true.
First, every marriage needs a gift.
I know that special gifts – purchased or produced by one’s talents are especially important. Remembering anniversaries, birthdays and special occasions fall into this concept. The most meaningful gifts, however, are what I call “special I love you” gifts. Those are the desirable expressions that say “I love you” without an occasion to celebrate! Here is where the rubber hits the road in marriage. Gifts without a meaningful relationship don’t become building blocks for a successful marriage.
The “gift” marriage partners most need is the commitment of self for the appreciation and enrichment of your partner. We give ourselves by discovering the most significant traits in our partners. One “gift” habit is focused listening. Sometimes that involves non-verbal communication rather than words. In fact, the roots of unfaithfulness often grow from the tree of attention. You can firmly ground your marriage on the gift of yourself – attentively, emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually.
The second ingredient is that every marriage needs a goal.
At its best, marriage is not two people standing eyeball to eyeball, lost in each other’s gaze! It is two people standing shoulder to shoulder, looking ahead in the same direction. Companionship is the sharing of mutual interests and pursuits that brings people together. When asked by singles where is the best place to meet a potential spouse, I have often said, “Not at a bar!” If the only thing you want to be sure of is that he or she drinks, that’s a good start. But if you want to find a good fit for your life, pay attention to your own likes: reading, sports, church, politics, or community activities. You are more likely to find your soul mate there.
Sometimes we find ourselves acting competitively rather than compassionately in our relationship. The Hebrew prophet asked a penetrating question, “How can two walk together unless they are agreed?” Discovering the most important goals allows us to clearly see the path of joy together.
The final element of a successful marriage is every marriage needs a God!
You would expect a minister to say that, but I speak from the psychological viewpoint now. Studies have demonstrated that “the family that prays together stays together.” Several years ago, when the divorce rate was one in two marriages, statistics then reflected that couples who regularly prayed together in private or public worship had an astounding divorce rate closer to one in one hundred marriages!
One cannot fully explain what a triangular relationship including God, a man, and a woman means if it is not experienced together. I recall a young couple who had just lost a young child, holding each other, and as they left my office, the husband said, “I don’t know how we would have made it without knowing that God was there.”
Each of us brings flaws into the relationship called marriage. Ruth Bell Graham said, after years of Billy Graham’s travels away from home: “marriage needs to be made up of two good ‘forgivers.”
Marriage, at its best, is a life-long covenant between two people who accept each other and the path they share in life. No one marries a perfect spouse. You are fortunate if you have discovered that you are married to your best friend!