We have been married for more than 50 years. We’ve certainly had our times of struggle, so part of our learning about marriage comes from our own life experiences. At the same time, much of what we’ve learned has come from getting into the trenches with couples and helping them create the kind of marriage they have always wanted. We have led marriage seminars and we have met several thousand couples face-to-face at various stages of their marriages.

We are counselors who are pro marriage. We love working with couples. We think of ourselves as marriage warriors — we fight for marriages! It feels like we are winning when we can help a couple restore their marriage.

We wish we could win every time. When we begin working with a couple, we sometimes think after listening to their story, it shouldn’t be too hard to help them get back on a good track. But surprisingly some of the “easy” couples choose divorce instead. Then there are others who come, and we think, Wow, this feels hopeless! But it isn’t, and they turn things around and restore their marriages, rebuilding them into beautiful, loving relationships. What makes the difference?

We want to help you answer that question by sharing the secrets we have learned about what can make a bad marriage good and what can make a good marriage truly great.

What we’ve tried to do is look at some of the deeper principles that aren’t often talked about — ones that can enrich any marriage. That’s why we refer to them as secrets.

Our hope and prayer is that the secrets will get out! What we’ve written here is designed to help you move your marriage in the right direction — to that place you dreamed about on your wedding day. Pressures facing couples today have evolved from when we married, but the winning principles remain the same. No matter the age of a couple, or the stage of marriage, things can improve. Your marriage can be better than ever.

Defining a “Good” and “Bad” Marriage

Having worked professionally with marriages for more than 30 years, we have found that bad marriages all tend to look alike. When a couple comes in to our office for help, we’ve found there’s not much variety in what they bring to the table — the destructive patterns and problems are pretty much the same. These similarities have led to a rapid increase in the research that helps explain what behaviors and attitudes make a bad marriage a bad marriage. Consequently we can now identify what can make a bad marriage better and what can make a good marriage great.

But when one tries to define the “good” marriage, it is a different story. You will find a large variation in opinions on what a “good” marriage looks like.

We’ve all had the experience of spending time with another couple and marveling at the fact that, despite the negative reactions they have with each other, they stay together. They may argue a lot, or one spouse may seem to be very quiet and uninvolved, or they seem to always be in therapy of some kind — yet they stay together. Are these marriages good marriages? They don’t seem to be bad marriages, but neither are they what we would call a good marriage.

Growth From Conflict

One of the major myths about how we envision great or even good marriages is the assumption they are problem-free. Well, if not problem-free, at least we think they are conflict-free.

Couples seem to believe this from the beginning of marriage. As I talk with young couples in premarital counseling sessions, many tell me of a common experience. They have a big blow-up, and then they struggle with the thought that maybe they shouldn’t get married. They say something like, “We had a really big argument, and we still haven’t resolved it. We don’t know what to do. We’re even wondering whether or not we’re really compatible. Maybe we shouldn’t even be getting married.”

The truth is that it is healthy for couples to have conflicts, especially in the early days of their marriage. When two people begin to live together in marriage, there are a lot of adjustments both of them have to make.

We call the first 10 years of our own marriage The Great Tribulation. We struggled with all kinds of issues, and we didn’t do a very good job of struggling. We look back at that time and know the only thing that kept us together was the belief we both had that there was no option of divorce — we were in this for the long haul. To get our marriage on a growth path took some growing up for both of us, and for Dave some important mentoring. In that process we learned that the conflicts were what really pushed us forward.

Liking and Loving Your Spouse

“Love is one of the most intense and desirable of human emotions. People may lie, cheat, steal, and even kill in its name — and wish to die when they lose it. Love can overwhelm anyone, at any age.”

These are the words of prominent Yale University psychologist Robert Sternberg concerning what he calls the “mystery of love.” Some people who have tried to study love end up saying it is just a glob of intense emotional experiences that cannot be understood. Others have tried to break it down into so many pieces that they end up explaining nothing. Sternberg’s research provides us with a very workable model of love, one that we will cover later in this chapter.

One of Sternberg’s most important insights is that while love may draw a couple together, it is not what keeps a couple together. What is far more important to a couple staying together in a satisfying marriage is this: that husband and wife really like each other.

What’s the difference between liking and loving? Perhaps one way to show the difference is to look at a couple who aren’t married, but who are at very different places in their relationship. Let’s say the man is thinking about a future with this woman, getting married and having children together. He is forming a passionate loving attachment to the woman. He is experiencing love.

But the woman is merely enjoying the company of this man. She considers him a close friend. She looks forward to their times together, has fun with him when they are together. She misses him when they are apart, but she doesn’t feel any strong attraction to him as a sexual partner; she just enjoys being with him and doing things together. She isn’t even thinking about the possibility of marriage and children with this man.

They are obviously on different pages, and at some point, the man is going to be deeply hurt in this relationship. He loves her while she likes him.

Research has shown that in great marriages, the spouses really do like each other, and at the same time, they really do love each other. A strong marriage combines all the feelings of the man and woman in our illustration above. Liking each other is the foundation for feeling close to each other and for feeling a sense of connection to each other, whereas love goes beyond the sense of connection to the why of our connectedness. In truth, in marriage, both form the foundation of a truly loving relationship.

Married to Ministry

In the early years of our marriage, I (Dave) worked as a leader for a youth ministry. Before starting, I went through an intensive two-week training program. The trainers were all men who were legendary in this particular ministry. It was a privilege to have them spend time working with us. Near the end of the two weeks, I remember one of the leaders saying, “Men, you’re now married to the ministry! This is your priority.”

I took that statement very seriously, especially considering its source, and I determined that maxim would launch me into an important new level of commitment to ministry. It certainly seemed like that principle was a part of the leader’s success. So I took it to heart. I can remember driving home to be reunited with Jan with that thought echoing in my head. My guess is that every man there who heard the statement took it as earnestly to heart as I did.

But I’m not sure how many of them were naive enough to arrive home and announce to their wives, “Honey, I’m now married to the ministry.” Yes, that’s what I actually did! If others did, they probably received the same response I did. A strange look came over Jan’s face and she said, “Hmmm, I thought you were married to me.” I don’t remember my response, but it didn’t change my attitude. It took a number of years for me to get it right and undo the damage I had done to our marriage by accepting and living out a wrong priority.

When I made my announcement, in so many words I was telling Jan to move over, because she was being replaced by my new love. Ministering was now No. 1. Obviously Jan wasn’t pleased with my new commitment. Looking back, I can see that this led to a lot of struggles and pain in the early years of our marriage, and that struggle continued until I got the priority thing right. The priority scheme that placed ministry as No. 1 wasn’t the way God designed us to live.

Fortunately for our marriage, I had a pastor friend and mentor who about five years later sat me down on a weekly basis over several months and showed me from Scripture that after God, my wife was to be my earthly priority, followed by my family, and then followed by my ministry. And if I got that order mixed up, my ministry would suffer. “That,” he said, “was really God’s plan.”

Seldom in the church today will you hear such a direct statement like the one I heard during my training. Saying it out loud may have been a product of that time period. But there are still many men and women in ministry who believe their ministries are to be the top priority in their lives, even before their spouses and their families. You can probably achieve a “good enough” marriage this way, as long as both spouses agree on those priorities. Some couples have grown comfortable with a marriage that does not hold top priority. But our goal should be higher than a good enough marriage. Furthermore, we believe there is a price to pay for such choices; the relationship will suffer. And that isn’t God’s choice for what is best for you and your spouse.

Moving Forward in Marriage

Someone has said that every relationship we have is either growing and moving forward, or it is sliding backward and beginning to deteriorate. Relationships never stand still for very long.

We’ve certainly noticed that in our relationship. There were times when we not only were sliding backwards; we almost slipped over the precipice. But something always seemed to hold us and eventually we would get back on track. Sometimes the movement forward wasn’t easy or pain free. In fact, in some of the darkest times in our family, we pulled together and not only grew as individuals but we also grew closer as a couple. We’re living proof that great marriages don’t just happen; they always are the result of hard work. And as we look back, the results made the work worth it all.

Adapted from Better Than Ever: Seven Secrets to a Great Marriage By Drs. David and Jan Stoop
Copyright © 2007 David and Jan Stoop. All rights reserved. Published by Jordan House/Meredith Books

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