In my last post, I considered how the Bible describes a good marriage. What I described was that marriage should be understood as embodied theology (read here). In Christian marriage, the world gets a window into Christ and his relationship with his church. This is the meta-meaning of marriage. In this blog I want to get practical. What I want to show is how such a Christ-exalting marriage looks like in daily life. In other words, what are the components of a healthy Christian marriage. I have been extremely helped by the research and work of Dr. John Gottman in this regard. Though not a Christian, his research reveals that a basic Christian ethic used in the marital relationship, sets the marriage up to thrive relationally and to be a space where satisfaction and care flourish. Much of what I will share in what follows comes from his research. Gottman’s relational insights along with a theological foundation, give us a real sense of what is a good marriage.
**The relational aspects that make a great marriage**
The first relational reality that is foundational to a great marriage is that there is *fondness and admiration* between partners. Fondness and admiration can be described simply as the emotional reality of liking your partner. Liking your partner is the basis of any relationship and most likely the reason a couple begins their relational journey together. It involves sexual attractiveness but more deeply it is the psychological reality of just clicking as a couple. One way to test whether fondness and admiration are alive in your marriage is to consider the story of how you met your spouse and how you courted one another. When you remember those first months/years of the relationship are you filled with joy and happy remembrance. Are the memories romantic and fun? Or has those moments become emotionally neutral or even negative? Has your beginnings lost the magic of love? Does any of the attraction you initially have remain (or at least you desire for it to be rekindled)? The number one indicator of health for a marriage is the depth and health of the underlying affection each has for the other. If this is missing, or one of the partners no longer desires it, the marriage is under deep and profound threat. If you don’t like your spouse, the enemy is at the door. But if there is affection, friendship and admiration for one another, your marriage has the most important relational reality to be a good marriage.
The second reality of a healthy marriage is whether the couple cultivates the relationship through continuous, ongoing, small acts of connection. Gottman calls these ‘bids’. Bids are any act of connection by one partner to the other in an attempt for connection. This could be as small as asking your partner to look at a picture to as big as listening to a problem your spouse is having at work. These bids happen continually throughout the day and how each partner responds is indicative on whether affection will grow or diminish over time. To each bid given the receiving partner has four choices:
1) he can ignore his partner (she asks him to look at a picture, and he acts as if he didn’t hear her).
2) he can turn away from his partner (she asks him to look at the picture and he tells her that he is too busy right now).
3) he can turn against his partner (she asks him to look at the picture and he uses this moment to berate her on some topic of his choosing.
The fourth choice and what healthy couples do is turn towards one another. She asks him to look at the picture and he acknowledges her request and acts with interest in what she is displaying. When partners turn towards one another consistently over decades in small and big ways, the marriage relationship has depth, affection and is secure in relational love. Bids that are regularly used as moments to turn towards one another are the means of securing and growing love over a lifetime.
The third reality of a healthy marriage is the ability for each partner to listen empathetically to the other partner. The hardest thing that I see couples struggle with is to hear his or her spouse and see an issue, challenge or conflict from the spouse’s point of view. Men and women alike (though men are more prone to do it) are seemingly compelled to lead conversations, insert opinions, try to change a spouse’s opinion or solve a problem. Such behavior conveys loud and clearly that you care more about the sound of your own voice than the heart of your spouse. Healthy couples listen to one another well. Such healthy listening has several components:
– Empathetic listening with thoughtful questions (he tells his wife that he can’t stand a coworker. She says, “that sounds horrible. Tell me about it.”
– The listener takes the side of the spouse. If he can’t stand his coworker, she conveys that she is on his side in the conflict.
– There is no inserting of opinion or problem solving unless asked for. Instead, the goal is to cultivate a space where your partner feels completely heard, accepted and protected.
– Each partner always has time to listen. When a spouse is in distress, everything else disappears and the spouse becomes the focus.
If this is the frame of relational dialogue, most likely we are looking at a healthy couple.
The fourth element of a healthy couple is the ability to navigate conflict in a healthy way. This means the ability to hear a complaint from your partner rationally, empathize with his or her position, take responsibility for your part and together find a solution for the future. Many conflicts in marriage are perpetual. Meaning there are no easy solutions or the ‘solution’ would damage the soul of one of the partners in profoundly existential ways. Healthy couples can live in the tension of difference, find compromises and celebrate the gap that inevitably happens between two people.
Fifth, healthy couples create a culture of love for their relationship and their family. They ritualize important behavior that embodies their values. Here is an example that almost all Christian marriages celebrate that embodies a family’s values: celebrating Easter Sunday. Easter is the yearly moment of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christian families have created rituals to embody their beliefs and values about this day. Church, games and families gathering become yearly rituals that embody a profound family value—Christ is alive and this is profoundly important to us. In some significant way, the day has meaning because each family has given that meaning to it. Healthy couples do these embodied rituals for other areas of life. They ritualize love making–a special way of initiating it, declining it, figuring out what to do, and enjoying one another. They ritualize date night–it is regularly calendars with specific activities that they enjoy together. They ritualize common activities that they do and enjoy together. And as a family, they participate in shared activities that cultivate relationship and love. All of these rituals embody values, beliefs and realities the couple want in their marriage. A healthy couple practice what they see as important by their shared, repeated activities. Because love must be cultivated, healthy couples come together to make sure such cultivation happens.
Finally, healthy couples have shared purpose and meaning. This has two aspects. First, each partner is committed to the other spouse’s calling and dreams. He acts with significant energy and support to help his spouse achieve what she wants out of life (& vice versa). In this way, each partner knows they have a life long ally in life. Each spouse knows that he or she has one person who stands and believes in him or her no matter what. Second, the couple over time cultivates and comes together over a shared purpose for the marriage itself. This might involve parenting but among healthy Christian couples this will also mean embracing the particular reason that God has brought this unique marriage together. This spiritual purpose will be the guiding light of the marriage. The narrative that gives meaning and hope even in the dark places. No matter what this marriage goes through, this marriage stands as a bright light because the marriage is an inseparable team reaching for audacious goals.
When all these components are operating in a marriage, the marriage is healthy and thriving. It is a good marriage.