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A healthy marriage is one in which you go through the stages of self-discovery and learn to identify your healthy and less-than-healthy expectations. Then you choose to take personal responsibility for your actions and reactions. Finally, you make the commitment to honor the marriage and your spouse.

If you’re waiting for your spouse to change first before you take personal responsibility for what you can change in yourself, you may never see an improvement in the state of your marriage. So be the change agent in your relationship and begin showing your spouse how committed you are. Here are three ways guaranteed to improve the health of your marriage.

Step 1: Build Up Your Mate with Encouragement
I like what Mother Teresa said: “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” Your spouse may feel discouraged, frustrated and tired — not just at the end of the day but every day. He or she may be going through a season in life when everything seems too hard to deal with. That’s why it’s so important to be a source of encouragement and hope.

Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess.5:11). He is encouraging people to watch their words, love one another and build each other up. That applies to everyday interactions, including your marriage.

My friend Scott Weatherford recently shared with me the tender story of his dad’s death. His family was gathered at his bedside. On the day of his death, Scott’s father asked the entire family to leave the room and come back in one at a time. As each person walked in the door, Scott’s dad spoke a blessing over his or her life.

When Scott walked in the room, his father gently reminded him, “Son, you are in the second half of your life. I know that for you, the second half is going to be greater than the first half. Don’t give up. Don’t quit.” After Scott’s father gave the last blessing, he passed away. He ended his life by encouraging his children and pouring words of hope and life into them.

What words are you pouring into your spouse? How can you bless with your words?

I (Ted) shared in our book The Language of Sex how Amy is crazy attracted to me when she sees me on the floor playing with our children. It is a major turn-on for her. One night she came in the family room after we put the kids down to bed and simply said, “You are a great dad!” Words of blessing do not need to be profound or long. Her statement was short and has been etched in my brain for life.

Step 2: Pray for Your Spouse
When it comes to marriage, never underestimate the power of prayer. Over the years I have literally seen hundreds of marriages on the brink of divorce come alive with joy, passion and new life because of the power of prayer.

Hebrews 4:16 instructs, “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it” (NLT). That’s right! The mercy and grace you need to love your spouse is available to you every day. Prayer is the key. Sometimes as you pray, you’ll see immediate changes in your spouse; but other times the transformation will be much slower. Often when you pray, the greatest change you’ll see is in yourself — in your heart, your perspective, your attitude.

Matthew 7:7-11 encourages us to be persistent. You have the opportunity to lift the name of your spouse before God every day!

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It’s never too late to begin praying. All too often I have found that when my emotional and relational gauges are low, and I’m low on energy when it comes to loving my wife, there’s no faster way to refuel than spending time in prayer. It’s hard to stay disconnected from someone you are praying for on a regular basis. In fact, it’s almost impossible. You simply can’t harbor anger, bitterness or frustration against someone and still ask God to bless them on a regular basis.

Imagine a six-year-old girl celebrating her birthday. Her parents sneak into her room and gently shake her awake so they can give her a present before she leaves for school. Her eyes open, but with a big yawn, she says, “Mom, since I was up so late last night, can I sleep for another hour or two? I can open my present later.”

Does that ever happen? No way! The child has anticipated this moment for weeks. She’s probably pulling her parents out of bed, impatient to find out what she’s getting. More than likely she has been begging her mom and dad for a hint! She can hardly wait to rip off the ribbons and tear through the wrapping paper.

For me, every day is a little like a child’s birthday. I try to approach God in prayer much like that six-year-old girl. I’ve prayed some of my prayers for years, yet each day I “get in line” with enthusiastic anticipation, asking, “Is today the day, Lord?” All day I wait to see if one or more prayers might be answered. And when they are, I often receive two packages when I only asked for one. But that only doubles the overflow, for my battery is being charged by God every day, no matter how many packages I receive — one, two or none.

Sometimes when I’m reviewing a Scripture verse, like a movie film in my mind, the light bulb burns out or the projector malfunctions. Almost immediately a new film comes into focus, declaring that God will not be faithful to hear me again. This doubting film is so convincing that if I view it for long, I lose hope — like when I think, There’s no way God can bring joy this time. I try to shut off the doubting film as soon as I recognize it, but sometimes it runs for several minutes no matter what I do. Sometimes the on/off switch fails to work at all. When this happens, the only solution is to get up and walk out of the theater. Later, I reenter the theater of faith and restart the Scripture verse film. In this case, I’m big on reruns.

What is doubt? Put simply, doubt is negative faith. Doubt is allowing a film to run through our minds that says, This will never happen to me or God can’t do this in my life or I don’t deserve this. Doubt is stepping out of God’s line. Doubt is Jesus’ disciples saying, We’ll never make it to the other side of the lake because of the storm. Doubt is the widow giving up and declaring she will never receive justice. Imagine if she had gone before the judge for 100 straight days and then given up hope. She would never have known that had she persisted one more day the judge would have granted her request — just to get her out of his hair!

Step 3: Ask God to Let It Begin with You
A broken marriage begins to mend and communication is reestablished when one of the partners is willing to make a breakthrough and say, “Lord, begin with me. I am the one who needs to change, to love more deeply and more wisely.”

Even if you think your spouse is 100 percent wrong, when you stand in the presence of Christ, you will begin to see that you, too, have shortcomings. You will discern where you have failed to accept responsibility for your part in the marital relationship, and you will be able to say, “God, change me.”

A Christian should be committed to follow Christ’s example. He went all the way in love, all the time. So, for a start, stop demanding that your partner change his or her ways. Let God start changing you.

From As Long As We Both Shall Live © 2009 by Gary Smalley and Ted Cunningham. Published by Regal Books, Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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