You’re probably thinking how can one question save a marriage or relationship? It’s difficult to believe that something so important could be so simple. You may be feeling angry, confused, hurt or perhaps even alone; but yes, this question can improve or even save your relationship. The power of this question is best illustrated by something that happened on my honeymoon.

My wife, Erin and I had the opportunity to honeymoon in Hawaii. During the months leading up to our trip, I’d been dreaming about swimming under the cascading water of a towering waterfall. Just as I had imagined, we found the perfect spot; however, a NO SWIMMING sign was posted about fifty yards from the falls. Overwhelmed with excitement, I reasoned that we wouldn’t be breaking the law since we’d be swimming by the waterfall and not by the sign. Erin, however, did not fall for my warped logic and refused to break the law. The discussion quickly deteriorated to the point where I blurted out that the honeymoon was ruined.

As a result of my insensitive remark, we didn’t speak for the rest of the afternoon. Later that night, however, we decided to visit a local theater. As we were sitting in the dark, I felt that it would be a good time to make up. Gently, I put my arm around Erin and began touching her shoulder. Feeling more confident, I leaned in for a kiss but noticed the woman next to Erin glaring at me. Horrified, I realized that I was not touching my wife — but instead, rubbing the shoulder of a total stranger. Later that evening, after both women forgave me, we were able to resolve our conflict by asking each other a very important question.

As problems develop in relationships, couples might spend money on counseling, marriage conferences, books and videos. These are important tools for gaining insight, yet most men and women don’t realize that they have the world’s greatest relational instructors living right under their own roofs. I believe that each person has a natural insight into what they need to build a strong relationship. It’s like we’re born with built-in marriage manuals. On our honeymoon, Erin and I each knew what we wanted at the waterfall. I wanted to feel like my dream was important, and Erin needed to feel like I valued and respected her decision. However, if we hadn’t asked what each other needed to move back into harmony, we might have remained in conflict.

If asked, most couples could create a list of the things that they need from the other to have a good relationship. For example, a wife might say that respect, honor, quality time, playing with the kids, sharing housework, and going to church are her needs from her husband. The key is that each person has different needs and desires which help make a strong relationship. Therefore, a husband and wife are a gold mine of relational skills. All they have to do is learn to tap into their built-in marriage manuals.

Before we get to the one question that can improve or even save a relationship, two preliminary questions need to be answered. First, determine the type of relationship your mate wants to have. By using a scale from zero to ten, with zero being terrible and ten being a great marriage, a powerful question to ask is where would you like the relationship to be? By asking this type of question, you can clearly see the kind of relationship your mate longs to have. Naturally, almost every person answers that they would like to have a nine or a ten. After all, how many of us want to live in misery?

Next, evaluate where the relationship is currently. Ask your mate on a scale from zero to ten, overall, where would you rate the marriage today? In most cases, a man will rate the marriage two to three points higher than his wife will, so if a difference occurs between you and your spouse, don’t let this discourage you. Be sure to give each other the necessary time to share why you rated the marriage the way you did. Each opinion can provide such valuable information.

The next question is the crucial one. In fact, in some ways it doesn’t matter how the other questions were answered. Potentially, this question can flip open the pages to each other’s built-in relational manuals. The question that can improve or even save a relationship or marriage is: As you consider our relationship, what are some specific things we can do over the next week that would move us closer to a ten?

As this question is being answered, listen for the exact things your spouse is communicating to you. The power of this question is that the focus of the relationship is changed. Instead of feeling overwhelmed because the focus is on the problems, listing the ways to improve the relationship turns the attention towards solutions. Being in the middle of a marital conflict can feel like you’re stuck in quicksand. The more you dwell on the problem and who’s to blame, the faster and deeper one sinks. However, solutions are like a rope tied to a tree. They provide the means to change, therefore freeing the relationship from sinking hopelessly in the quicksand.

As your mate begins to answer these questions, remember that she may be reluctant at first. Your partner may fear that your feelings will be hurt — or even worse, that you’ll hurt his or her feelings by a defensive response. It’s crucial to patiently give each other the time to talk. Consistently reassure each other about the security of your relationship — no matter what is said or how things are rated. If you both feel secure in your love, almost without exception you’ll be able to provide many helpful specifics which can strengthen the marriage and family God has given you.

I am convinced that answering this type of question on a weekly basis could reduce long standing marital problems. Imagine how low the divorce rate would fall if conflicts, hurt feelings and anger were resolved within a week. The key is remembering that love is a decision and not merely a feeling. Many times we do not feel like loving our mate. We can, however, make the decision to love them by doing the things that strengthen the relationship. Questions like the one mentioned here can help as you make the decision to love your mate. I recently read a poem that emphasizes the importance of making a daily decision to love the people in your life.

The world we know can construed for hours

On a fantasy love filled with moonlight and flowers,

But real love isn’t like that — it has highs and lows,

Les Parrott's Making Happy
Get more — Free! e-booklet — Les Parrott's Making Happy

And we must keep out direction, however it flows.

I made the decision right from the start

That I’d always love you with all of my heart;

So if my pulse stops racing as you enter the room,

If my sunshiny days turn to gloom,

If words said in anger cut deep to the core,

I won’t love you less — just perhaps, forgive more.

Emotions are fickle; we can’t live by whim,

Changing affections like chaff in the wind.

I’ve made my decision and I’ll follow through;

Love is a decision, I’ve decided to love you!

– Anonymous

Taken from The Center for Relationship Enrichment, by Greg Smalley. Copyright © 2007 Greg Smalley. All rights reserved. Used by permission

Greg Smalley, Psy.D. is director of Marriage Ministries for the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Greg is the author or co-author of eight books concerning marriages and families. Visit Greg at