My wife Kristi and I are invested in helping couples who serve others in ministry. Our heart is for pastors and their wives. As ministry leaders ourselves we know the dangers of being preoccupied and stressed with helping other people while neglecting our own marriage and our own souls.
We have been counseling couples and teaching seminars on marriage since 1987. Talking with hundreds of couples over the years has given us quite an education on conflict resolution and growing intimacy in marriage.
What Does a Healthy Marriage Look Like?
Many people we talk to don’t know what a healthy marriage looks like. What they’ve seen in their parents’ marriage or what they experienced in their own is disappointing and painful. To them marriage leads to divorce, abuse, betrayal, continual conflict, or emotional distance.
If this includes you then it may be hard for you to believe that it is possible for you to have a good and growing marriage. But some people do have great marriages. Your marriage can improve. You can improve as a spouse.
Turn to Christ
It may be a long time that you have been asking, “How can I improve my marriage?” You may have given up hope. Don’t!
Jesus said, “All things are possible to those who believe” (Matthew 19:26). He was telling people that they could experience the grace of God if they turned their lives and their daily decisions over to God, learning to live in his Kingdom of the Heavens in all that they do.
Learning to submit yourself and your marriage to God’s Kingdom is the path to peace and growth. To do this you need to trust that God is good and loving always — even when it doesn’t feel like it, even when your circumstances are bad. Interacting with Jesus in the Kingdom of God today is the source of our joy and strength in life, not our circumstances, including the state of our marriage.
God’s design for marriage is that two individuals become one, become united in his love (Genesis 2:24). And this is meant to be an expression of Jesus Christ’s love for his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:25-33).
In marriage husbands and wives can become faithful friends who care for and encourage one another as they share their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows. This is God’s design. And it makes a strong foundation from which to raise healthy children and to reach out and serve God effectively.
Even if your spouse is not a supportive friend you can find satisfaction and opportunity for personal growth in your marriage through your relationship with Jesus, your Bridegroom and Perfect Spouse. In the meantime, while you’re praying for your marriage to improve there are things that you can do — even without your spouse’s help — to improve your relationship.
Focus on Improving Yourself Not Your Spouse
When people ask us, “How can I improve my marriage?” We always answer, “Look to God to help you improve yourself as a spouse.”
The crucial thing for your marriage is that you have to let go of expecting your spouse to change and start by working on yourself. Developing a better marriage begins with becoming a better spouse yourself!
I don’t think anything hurts a marriage more than expecting your spouse to make things better. I often tell people who think this way that even if their husband or wife changes they won’t feel much better about their relationship until they make some needed changes themselves.
“But if he would just… then I’d feel so much more loved,” wives often reply. Similarly, husbands say to me, “If she would… then I’d be happy.”
This kind of thinking just doesn’t work! Here’s why. You can’t change someone else! You can only change yourself as you entrust yourself to Christ and his kingdom, learning to live in godly wisdom. And if you try to change your spouse you will create more tension in your relationship and actually discourage him or her from changing!
Think about it. You don’t like to be pressured or fixed or judged by your spouse! That feels demeaning. And yet maybe you point the finger at him or her?
Change Demands into Requests
Placing expectations on your spouse is a big problem in marriage. When you expect your spouse to make you happy you put a suffocating burden on him or her. Similarly, if you put the expectation on yourself that it’s up to you to make your spouse happy then you’ll eventually feel angry, anxious, or depressed. Unreasonable expectations in marriage create so much conflict!
The bottom line is that each of us are responsible for our own well-being in life. This is true in any area of life. Jesus always put responsibility on people for their own self — even when he was healing someone he required people to take action. In fact, in most instances the people he healed had to do something that they couldn’t do by their own direct effort, but only by exercising faith in God and Jesus. The paralytic had to stand up. The man with the withered hand had to stretch out straight. The blind man had to walk a long ways and down stairs to get to the Pool of Siloam.
Expecting someone else to make you happy or expecting yourself to make someone else happy always leads to disappointment.
Of course, sacrifice and thoughtful caring for your spouse are important for your marriage. But boundaries of personal responsibility need to be maintained and expectations for your spouse need to be changed into desires, demands need to be expressed as requests.
If there’s something important that you want your spouse to do for you then ask. But make sure that you ask without pressure, realizing that your spouse has the right to say no, even if it’s disappointing to you.
Instead of saying, “You should…” say “I want… Can you support me with that?”
And instead of saying, “Why didn’t you…?” say, “Next time it would help me if you could try to…”
Be Patient: Change Takes Time
As you work at making changes in how you interact with your spouse you’ll need to be patient. It’s difficult to make real and lasting changes in how we relate with others. To do it you’ve got to be motivated. And if you’re the one who wants a better relationship then you’re the one who is motivated!
So don’t expect your spouse to do what he or she isn’t motivated to do. Instead, focus your energies on what you are responsible for and what you can control – your attitude and behavior!
Then as you grow and make changes talk to your spouse about what you’re learning. And set an example for him or her to follow.
You Can’t Lose!
If you focus on being responsible to bring yourself to the Lord Jesus and to learn from him in the context of your marriage then you can’t lose!
Hopefully, your husband or wife will respond well to the changes you make by making some changes of his or her own. In this case you’re marriage will certainly improve.
But even if you’re spouse doesn’t join you and follow your example of improving the marriage by looking to God to make personal changes then you’ll still be better off. Any positive changes that you make and any growth in Christlike character on your part will work to increase your happiness and effectiveness not only in your marriage, but in your other relationships and activities as well.
So with this in mind, let’s work on your growth.
“How Can I Improve My Marriage?” Here are Some Answers
All of us have personal issues that we can improve on in order to be a better husband or wife. I’ve made a list of what I have found to be some of the most important characteristics of a healthy spouse. I’ve limited this list to things that you can do to improve your marriage regardless of whether or not your spouse participates in working with you on your marriage.
As you read these traits I invite you to take inventory of yourself. Resist the temptation to evaluate your spouse! Instead focus on what you need to work on. Start by picking one godly characteristic to develop today, relying on God to graciously helping you.
Ask your spouse how you can pray for him/her. If appropriate pray together for one another and your marriage. In either case, pray for your marriage and pray that God would help you to become a more loving and respectful spouse. The power to be a better spouse comes from relying on Christ and his grace.
Talk with others you trust and respect in confidence about your marriage and your role in it. Seek compassionate support and solicit honest feedback on what you need to work on.
Take Initiative to Spend Time with your Spouse
Don’t wait for your spouse to make a date with you or to set time to talk with you. Suggest it yourself. If your husband or wife feels pressured by this then you’ll need to back off some and chose your opportunities carefully.
Say, “I’m Sorry.”
Admit to your weaknesses and wrongdoings, especially when they’re hurtful to your spouse. And then show concern for your spouse’s feelings and try not to do it again.
When you’ve been hurt by your spouse extend forgiveness. Don’t hold onto resentments, they’ll eat away at your insides and your marriage too.
Be an Active Listener
Ask your spouse how he/she feels and then listen. Listen without giving advice or reacting emotionally. Try to understand life from his/her perspective. Then demonstrate your understanding by summarizing what you’re hearing.
Invite your Spouse to Understand You
Time and again I see people misuse their opportunity to be understood and supported by their spouse because they’re blaming or talking about their partner’s behavior instead of their own experience. When it’s your chance to share, verbalize your feelings (experiences and needs). Don’t argue about what really happened. Don’t analyze your spouse’s behavior, feelings, or motives. Talk about your feelings, making “I statements” and not “You statements.”
Respect your Spouse’s Boundaries
If he/she says, “I can’t talk now.” Or “It hurts me when you criticize me. Please don’t.” Then you need to respect that. Don’t try to control your partner’s behavior. You’re responsible for your behavior and that’s enough for you to manage!
Set your Boundaries
Acknowledge your limitations on your time and energy and abilities. Give what you can to your spouse, but take care of yourself too. And, by all means, don’t tolerate being repeatedly abused, raged at, betrayed, mistreated, or manipulated. You should be treated with respect. If you’re not then you need to speak the truth in love and set boundaries to protect yourself and to get your needs met.
Bless the One who Curses You
An important reason to develop good internal boundaries and a strong relationship with Christ, learning from him how to live as his disciple in the Kingdom of God, is so that you can bless the one who curses you. This doesn’t mean being a doormat or falling into share and fear when you’re mistreated. It means being so strong in your self-identity as a loved child of God, healed from past wounds in your marriage, and realistic about your relationship with your spouse that you are not deeply wounded by being mistreated and are able to give him or her what he needs — not a cursing back or defensiveness, but a blessing.
For more teaching on blessing those that curse you read our article, “Jesus Jujitsu: The Power to Turn the Other Cheek.”
Work to Improve your own Weaknesses
People with strong character that I know are aware of their faults and work to improve themselves. They learn from the feedback about themselves that they receive from others and are invested in their own growth. Perhaps more than any other relationship, marriage makes us aware of our personal issues that we need to work on. Accept this as an opportunity for personal growth.
Be Considerate of your Spouse’s Weaknesses
In troubled marriages the partners criticize each other’s faults, continually expecting each other to be different than they are. By contrast, in growing marriages partners compensate for one another’s weakness by anticipating them and working around them. Give your spouse grace!
Affirm your Spouse’s Strengths
Verbalize admiration and appreciation for the good qualities and contributions he or she makes. This is just as important for little things like, “Thanks for taking out the trash” as it is for big things like, “I admire you as a parent. You really put yourself into caring for our kids.”
Appreciation is especially valuable if it relates directly to your marriage. For instance, a wife said to her husband, “It meant a lot to me when you took time to listen to me last night before we went to bed. Thank you.”
Talk Positively About your Spouse to Others
Frequently, when I talk with people who are having problems in their marriage I find out that they routinely talk badly about their husband or wife to their family and friends, sometimes even in front of him or her. People I know who have good marriages never do this! If they have a problem with their spouse then they talk to him or her about it or they talk to a trusted confidante.
And when they talk about their marriage problems they do so without blaming their spouse. They take responsibility for their part in a problem and own up to their reactions as being under their control.
Respond to your Spouse’s Needs
What’s important to your spouse is probably different than what’s important to you. People feel loved in different ways. Sharing feelings, being appreciated, special time together, affection, sex, thoughtful gifts, and shared activities are a few examples. Know your spouse’s love language and be sure to use it often.
To learn more about one another you and your spouse can take our “Love Languages Test.”
Express Interest in What’s Important to your Spouse
Talk to your spouse about the things that interest him or her. Questions like “How did you enjoy lunch with your friend today?” or “How’s your project going?” show that you care.
This character trait may be last in the list, but it’s certainly not the least important! It needs to be the attitude behind all that we do in our marriage!
Kindness goes along ways to create warmth and positive feelings in a relationship. Every day there are opportunities for simple, kind gestures that show you care. A compliment, a hug, a note, or a favor takes only a moment, and yet they can brighten your spouse’s day and your marriage.
Don’t Miss the Key!
Don’t miss the key to what you can do to improve your marriage which this article opened with! Reading our list of characteristics to grow in as a spouse in a challenging marriage might leave you with the thought that it’s up to you to make a good marriage happen. No. It’s up to you to be responsible to do your part and you can only do that with God’s help.
The key is apprenticing yourself to Jesus and drawing strength from your life with him in the Kingdom of God and then bringing this lovingly to your spouse.