The Dos and Don'ts of a Good Marriage by Louis McBurney, M.D. Commitment. “Commitment” is not a popular word in our culture. Our society emphasizes individual rights, personal freedom and mobility. The idea of giving these up because of dedication to another person or loyalty to a relationship makes a lot of people feel trapped. But I don’t think you can have it both ways. You can’t build a divorce-proof marriage and remain unbending toward your personal rights. That doesn’t mean you give up all your freedoms or choices, but it does mean your commitment to the relationship supercedes your individual rights. Commitment means putting your spouse’s needs above your own. Studies show that the best indicator of marital well-being is how well each partner feels his or her needs are being met. I’ve found that when I focus only on my needs and forget about my wife, I tend to get irritated and disappointed. I may even begin to imagine how much better off I’d be with a different wife. On the other hand, I feel satisfied when I focus on my wife’s needs and how I can creatively meet them. Communication. Someone once said, “Communication is to love as blood is to the body.” Take the blood out of the body and it dies. Take communication away and a relationship dies. The kind of communication I’m talking about isn’t just exchanging information; it’s sharing feelings, hurts, joys. That means getting below the surface and examining the hows and whys of daily life. But it’s not easy since men and women are different in this area. Research makes it clear that women have greater linguistic abilities than men. Simply stated, she talks more than he. As an adult, she typically expresses her feelings and thoughts far better than her husband and is often irritated by his reluctance to talk. Every knowledgeable marriage counselor will tell you that the inability or unwillingness of husbands to reveal their feelings is one of the chief complaints of wives. Like conflict resolution, communication is a learned skill — and it’s often hard work. Time must be reserved for meaningful conversations. Taking walks and going out for dinner are conversation inducers that keep love alive. Patience. We live in an instant world — fast foods, cash machines, computer access to information, direct dial communication all over the world. The problem is we can’t heat up a marriage in the microwave. Relationships just don’t work that way. Marriage, especially takes time and care to become really beautiful. That means learning patience. When you put two people — any two — in the same house, you’re going to have irritations and annoyances. There are times when I think God designed marriage just to teach me patience. My wife doesn’t always respond like I wish she would. And she still expects me to pick up my dirty clothes, be on time for dinner and remember her birthday You’d think that after 30 years of marriage, she would have given up on me. In the meantime I’m considering humoring her a little. Recently I even put my underwear on the floor next to the laundry hamper. I wonder how she’s doing with patience. Beyond the day-to-day quirks and foibles you must accept, patience is needed for the long haul. It may take years for you to develop the kind of relationship that’s satisfying to both of you. A lot of people don’t have the patience to wait around for things to evolve. But if you’re willing to sit tight and hang in there, your marriage can be fantastic. Strong beliefs. We’re more than a bundle of feelings and physical sensations. There is an inner core of our being, an eternal part of who we are, that represents the deepest, most permanent aspect of marriage. Research shows that couples with strong religious beliefs are far more likely to stay together than those without them. It’s the shared morals and values that hold a husband and wife together. This solid foundation is a fortress against the storms of life. For my wife and me, our Christian faith has been the bedrock of our relationship. In our 30-plus years of marriage, we have consistently turned to the Bible for direction, guidance and comfort. Trouble spots There are a lot of problems that can cripple or fatally wound a marriage. Here are some of the common ones: Relying on feelings rather than commitment. Romantic feelings come and go, and many spouses get nervous when the flame dies down. They begin to doubt their relationship and wonder if they married the wrong person. A lot of those misgivings are fueled by the media, which says any successful relationship must run on high-octane passion. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you think marriage will be one long, steamy love scene. Sometimes it’s pure commitment and persistence that keeps a marriage together. In all marriages there are times when the tingle of romance fades. At those times, commitment is the force that pulls you through. Being selfish rather than serving. In today’s world, there are a lot more takers than givers. When two givers do get together, their marriage is usually fantastic. When a giver and a taker marry it’s usually lopsided, out of whack and full of trouble. And the marriage of two takers can crash and burn within a matter of months. Selfishness will damage a marriage, but serving will solidify it. Allowing marital drift. In geography class you may have learned about continental drift, where huge “plates” of earth move slowly and imperceptibly in opposite directions. The same thing happens in a lot of marriages. The shift is often so subtle that one day the partners wake up and say “I don’t really know who you are anymore.” And how can you keep from drifting? By talking regularly setting mutual goals for your marriage, planning the future together, playing together, cultivating shared interests and fanning the flame of romance. Letting your eyes and heart wander. There’s an old song that said, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends loose for the tie that binds. Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” You know that’s an old song, since the idea of loyalty doesn’t crop up in lyrics much anymore. I’ve been around long enough to see how subtly the line between “friends” and “lovers” can be blurred. What begins as a pleasant friendship glides silently across the line. The only way to really avoid those boundary violations is to watch for the early warning signs. If you begin to notice that someone lights up your life a little too much, back off! If you find yourself looking forward to the next time you can be together, cancel it. One sure way to ruin your marriage The media have done us a great disservice by making a big joke out of affairs and unfaithfulness. By watching TV and movies, you’d think that everybody is hopping from bed to bed — and it’s no big deal. The truth is, however, that sexual infidelity is one of the primary causes of divorce. Even those marriages that do survive infidelity are greatly damaged. Here are some things you can do to stay out of that trap: Know the truth. Maximum sexual fulfillment comes in a committed marriage relationship. So if you really want the best, don’t cheat. You’ll be cheating yourself as well as your spouse. Build your emotional closeness. The better you get along with each other, the better your sex will be and the less tempting other people will be. Confide in your spouse rather than an opposite sex friend. Becoming emotionally intimate makes sexual unfaithfulness an easy step. Most affairs begin as an innocent friendship. Guard your thoughts. Don’t risk fantasizing about other romantic attachments. Your actions will tend to follow your thoughts. Keep romance alive. Long-term marriage doesn’t have to become dull and boring, but keeping romance alive takes a conscious effort. It’s your choice to maintain the excitement and enchantment. Don’t listen to the marriage cynics These days, a lot of people put down marriage, like the comedian who said, “I never knew what real happiness was until I got married — but by then it was too late.” Or the talk show host who quipped, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.” In fact, you’ve probably had friends say “Why would you want to get married?” Don’t listen to the humbuggers. Good marriages bring fun and laughter and meaning to life. Even after three decades, my wife and I still have a blast being together. Our love is like a thousand violins playing Tchaikovsky (for you it might be electric guitars or synthesizers). It’s the thrill of shared experiences, building memories and facing new challenges. And it’s so much more! Still, I can’t emphasize this enough — marriage takes hard work and commitment. With divorce so rampant today many young couples enter marriage with one eye on the exit door. But it takes an unwavering commitment — not giving yourself an out — to keep a marriage healthy and thriving. It’s choosing to be kind and giving and courteous and affectionate and affirming. That choice is the glue that will hold you together. Even when the adrenaline rush is gone and the music fades, the love will live on. Copyright © 1992 Focus on the Family. TroubledWith.com is a service of Focus on the Family. It is intended as a practical reference, and should not be considered as a substitute for advice from medical, mental health or legal professionals.