Have you settled into a mediocre marriage because you’re in the midst of raising kids? Have you decided your marriage is good enough for now? While you and your spouse get pulled between work, chores, sporting events and school demands, the spark that once lit up the room starts to flicker. The effort you once expended toward your spouse now goes to the kids. The end result: an average marriage.
So how do you reach beyond the ordinary? Here are six steps.
Make an intentional effort to perform generous acts with your spouse. A recent study from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project suggests generosity in marriage is a key factor to happiness. The study of 2,870 men and women identified generosity as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly,” and found men and women with the highest scores of generosity to report they were “very happy” in their marriages. The ratings were particularly pronounced among couples with children. The findings suggest that making an effort to perform small acts of kindness, as simple as taking your spouse a cup of coffee or sending a thoughtful text in the middle of the day, speaks love in a special way and encourages the same behavior in return, resulting in a cycle of generous acts with one another.
Make forgiveness a regular habit and don’t keep score. Forgiveness tops the list as a fundamental component in marriage. But a marriage that goes beyond average not only forgives but releases the right to keep score of another’s wrongs. Without scorekeeping, a couple has a greater chance of success in resolving differences when they occur. Marriage and family therapist Ron L. Deal says, “Couples in healthy versus unhealthy marriages have the same amount of conflict but the outcome is completely different.” Healthy couples know how to work through disagreements without damaging the marital relationship. Forgiveness plays a powerful role in that equation.
Display regular doses of love and respect. In his book, Love and Respect, The Love She Most Desires – The Respect He Desperately Needs, Dr. Emerson Eggerichs outlines “the simple secret to a better marriage — wives need love and husbands need respect.” He calls it the love and respect connection and says, “A wife has one driving need — to feel loved. When that need is met, she is happy. A husband has one driving need – to feel respected. When that need is met, he is happy. When either of these needs isn’t met, things get crazy.”
The cycle couples get caught in when they don’t feel loved and respected leads to unmet needs and ultimately defeat for both husband and wife. Eggerichs theory suggests that as husbands show love and women show respect in all aspects of their marriage, the relationship thrives.
Replace criticism with gratefulness. Perception is often at the root of criticism and gratefulness. Best-selling author Andy Andrews says, “A spirit of gratefulness is not necessarily an attitude one has. It is a way of thinking one is able to choose [and] is a product of perception.” I can criticize my husband for working long hours and neglecting chores at home or I can choose to be thankful for his commitment to provide for our family. Choosing a spirit of gratefulness diminishes negative thinking that oftentimes leads to criticism of our mate.
Engage in meaningful conversation with your spouse at least once or twice a week. It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of discussing only what’s happening with the kids or frustrations at work. But deeper conversations offer meaning to your marriage. Psychologist Matthias Mehl, who published a study on the subject in 2010, says, “People who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier.” We seek to find meaning in life and are driven to connect with others. When we engage in meaningful conversation with our spouse, we accomplish both, resulting in a stronger, happier relationship.
Search out and maintain friendships with other couples. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Friends Help Strengthen a Marriage,” speaks of the benefits of couple friendships. Careers often relocate families, making “friends our family of choice,” writes Katherine Rosman. “Friends help you gather perspective on your relationship to your spouse,” Rosman says. An entire book has been written on the subject by Geoffrey Greif, Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple Friendships. Based on interviews with 123 couples, Greif maintains that couple friendships can play a role similar to that of a marriage mentor and help couples see how others manage the complexities of life such as juggling work and children or the challenges of aging parents. It must be noted, however, that friendships with other couples should be actualized with those in healthy marriages who are seeking to enhance one another’s lives as they journey through life.
Slipping into an ordinary marriage happens easily in the midst of raising a family when life gets in the way. But the benefits of intentional effort toward a flourishing relationship outweigh the costs. The season of child rearing eventually ends. Without the kids at home, the spark of an average marriage might go out completely. Have you settled into a mundane married routine? What will you do to change it?
Gayla Grace is a freelance writer and a wife and mom to five children in her blended family.