15 TIPS FOR A STRONGER MARRIAGE
by Eric Elder
Last month I performed a wedding for some friends of our family. The bride said she really admired my marriage with Lana and wondered if I would share with them any thoughts I had about what made our marriage so successful. She said she wanted to get the best possible start for her new lifetime commitment of her own.
Although it would be hard to summarize 23 years of thoughts on marriage into just a few short tips, I began to write out some of the things that really did help to make our marriage work as well as it did.
I wish I could say that if you just put each of these 15 tips into practice in your own marriage that you would be guaranteed a successful marriage, but relationships just don’t work like that. Each of us is unique, and the way we relate to each other is unique. Yet, I’ll explain along the way how each tip helped to strengthen our marriage, and hopefully that will help you to adapt them and apply them to your own situation.
This week I’ll share the first 7 tips and I’ll share the rest of the tips over the weeks that follow. Then I’ll wrap it all up with a final tip that can serve as the glue that holds all the others together, and which can be summed up in 3 short words (and the 3 words are not “I love you” or “I am sorry,” as helpful and important as those are!)
Since there are 7 tips in today’s message, you might want to save or print this message and read 1 tip a day for the next 7 days so you can really consider how to apply each tip to your own marriage. And if you know someone who is getting married or who is newly married, or even someone who’s been married awhile but might like to strengthen their own marriage, you might want to share this message with them, too. It just may be the boost they need to make their marriage not just good, but great!
With that as background, here are the first 7 tips for how to have the strongest marriage possible.
1) Pray with each other daily. Before Lana and I got married, I heard someone say that he prayed every night with his wife before they went to bed. He said this assured them of 2 things every day. 1- This assured them that each of them was being prayed for every single day of their lives. Since I believe in the power of prayer, I was so eager to try this even before I got married that I tried it with my roommate at the time. It turned out to be so powerful, and we saw so many answers to our prayers, that I was convinced to do it when I entered into marriage as well. 2- This assured them that each of them would have a chance to express some of their deepest needs that they may never have shared otherwise. Often I would go through a whole day with Lana, talking and doing life together, and think that I knew what she probably wanted prayer for by the end of the day. But there were often times when I asked her how I could pray for her and she would surprise me with something that I would have never guessed on my own.
No matter how late it was at night or what kind of mood we were in, we kept this commitment daily, even if it was just praying a blessing over each other in Jesus’ name. One of Lana’s favorite prayers to pray for me and for the kids was this one from the Bible:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn His face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
I shared this tip with the couple I married and a few days into their honeymoon they posted this on their Facebook page: “A man filled with great wisdom told us before we got married that every night we should pray together before we fall asleep. So far in our short marriage we have done that. There is nothing more intimate.” I agree!
2) Take out the TV. Lack of communication is the #1 cause of divorce. It’s amazing how even having a TV in the room can impact the communication with your spouse. It’s always easier to turn on the TV than to talk to someone else. The TV doesn’t talk back; you don’t have to listen if you don’t want to. You can be delighted and entertained for hours on end without doing any of the heavy lifting of a relationship. Having a TV in the room is like always having a third person in your marriage, even when it’s off, because the temptation to turn it on is still there.
Lana and I read a book before marriage called, “The First Years of Forever” by Ed and Gaye Wheat, which argued convincingly that the patterns you set in the first 2 years of your marriage will set the tone for the patterns you’ll have in your 7th year and 14th year and so on. So to set the patterns right from the start, make communication a #1 goal. Lana and I put our TV in the back of the closet for the first year of our marriage. The only time we got it out was when we heard that the Berlin Wall was being torn down live on television, 1 of the most significant news events of that year. Then back into the closet it went.
I can’t tell you the joy that Lana and I had that first year, just the two of us in our 1-bedroom apartment in Houston, Texas. It freed us up to spend all kinds of time together, whether it was cooking dinner, playing games, cleaning dishes, going out or making love. Someone had given us money to buy a new TV as a wedding present, which we saved for when our first year was over. But we enjoyed our life without a TV so much that we kept it that way for several years, until we eventually bought a new one to watch movies or to teach the kids. 23 years later, we still watched very little TV, nor did our kids, because we never developed the a habit. (And when we did start watching TV again, we were shocked at how much more negative the content on TV seemed to have turned in just those few short years.)
Let me add here again that these are suggestions that you’ll have to adapt to your own situation, be it limiting time on the Internet or social media, or watching only a set number of shows or sporting events per month, or whatever it takes to give you the best shot at increasing your time to communicate. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians:
“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive (1 Corinthians 10:23).
3) Combine your bank accounts. Communication is the #1 cause for divorce, but finances are a close second. Lana and I were encouraged at the beginning of our marriage to combine our bank accounts and share a checkbook. This meant that we had to talk about our purchases with each other so there were no surprises. This also kept us in check from making whimsical or unnecessary purchases. By combining our bank accounts we were also able to better save our money and make a priority of helping to fulfill each other’s dreams, whether it was a special trip for an anniversary or a missions trip to another country or a new vehicle when we needed one.
Because we had to make our decisions together, we simply made wiser decisions. Although it was harder at first because we had to work together, it kept us from having the mentality that “this is my money” and “this is your money.” We realized early on that “this is God’s money” and we wanted to spend it in the best way possible. As King David said in the Bible:
“Everything comes from You, and we have given You only what comes from Your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14b).
This may not apply to every situation or every stage of life, but it’s important to do something to make sure your finances enhance your marriage and not take away from it. For instance, I noticed that Lana was supportive whenever I was asked to speak anywhere special, but that doing so cost her in terms of my time and energy. So I began giving her any money I received from these extra speaking engagements, rather than using it for our every day bills. It was a simple way to make sure the money we received was working for our marriage, not against it.
4) Never use the “D” word: Divorce. There’s a funny line in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, when the house maid Annie gives some money to George Bailey when he’s in dire straights. Annie says, “I’ve been saving this money for a divorce, if ever I got a husband!” It’s a funny line for a movie, but it’s a terrible line for real life. Sometimes we’re tempted to hold things back from our spouse “just in case things don’t work out.” But those very things that you’re holding back could be the pathway to greater intimacy if they were shared, whether it’s money or secrets or simply giving yourself as fully as possible to your spouse.
If you’re committed to marriage for life, which God certainly is, never use the word “divorce,” especially as a threat. Some people hold onto that option and use it as a weapon in an argument. But it’s not a weapon. Jesus said that Moses allowed for divorce only because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but that it wasn’t always that way from the beginning (see Matthew 19:8).
If you’re having problems in your marriage, keep your hearts soft and tender by looking for other ways to deal with your problems, whether you look to God, the Bible, prayer, counselors, friends, or perhaps even time away. But not divorce. “I hate divorce,” God says in the Bible (Malachi 2:16), and anyone who’s been through one knows why.
When I’ve counseled couples for marriage, I’ve sometimes told them that I’m glad to bless their marriage, but on one condition: that if they ever consider a divorce, that they have to come back to me first and get my blessing for that, too. Then I let them know that in all my years of counseling people through even some of the most intense situations, I’ve never blessed a divorce. I’ve always felt that God can work through even the most intense situations, especially if both people are willing to do so.
5) Confess your sins quickly. I heard about a man who walked across America. He said his toughest moments weren’t when he was walking through the rain or snow or to the top of a tall mountain. He said his toughest times were when he got tiny grains of sand in his shoes. Unless he stopped to regularly dump out the sand, those tiny grains would rub against his feet until blisters formed and then it would be days or weeks of extreme pain until his feet healed.
I heard this story in a sermon about marriage one Sunday morning, in the context of confessing even those small sins in our lives to our spouse, dumping them out before they rubbed enough to cause more severe pain. I immediately thought of a particular friendship I had with someone that I enjoyed, perhaps a little too much. There was nothing sinful going on, but the fact that this friendship came to mind as I heard this story made me wonder if maybe I should confess it to Lana and ask her what to do about it. I didn’t want to mention it though, because I was afraid the best solution would be to step back from this friendship all together, and I didn’t want to lose the friendship, too.
But after a few days of praying, I realized that even though this issue seemed like a tiny deal, as small as a grain of sand, I knew I’d rather dump it out now than to let it possibly endanger my marriage down the road. I confessed it to Lana and we agreed it would be best for me to politely back off from the friendship. Even though it was a good friendship in my life, I felt so much freer after that, and it never caused another problem again. Confess any sins right away, even if they’re as small as a grain of sand. As the Bible says,
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
6) Love your way through any “irreconcilable differences.” I once heard about an interviewer who asked several couples who had gotten a divorce how many “irreconcilable differences” they had in their marriage, things that they were simply never able to agree upon. The average answer was 5 or 6 “irreconcilable differences.” The interviewer then asked the same question of several couples who were still together after 40, 50 and 60 years. Their average answer? 5 or 6! It wasn’t the number of irreconcilable differences that made the difference in whether the couples stayed together or not, but their commitment to love each other through them.
We’re all unique. We all have different backgrounds and life experiences. It’s no surprise that we think differently on various topics as well. It’s part of life, and it’s all part of what makes being married work so much better than being alone for so many people, because they can each bring their best ideas to table. But invariably this means that many other ideas have to be left on the table, even good ones. Lana and I agreed on a lot of things, but there were probably 5 or 6 that we never did agree on in all our years together.
We’re all like porcupines, with our various differences and sins poking out of us all the time. And when we get close enough to someone else, there’s a good chance we’ll get poked. Yet even porcupines find a way to have baby porcupines. How do they do it? Very carefully!
Don’t let your sins and differences cause you to lose your commitment to a lifetime of marriage no matter what. Love your way through them instead. As the Bible says:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (John 15:13).
7) Invite and allow Jesus to love your spouse through you. When I married Lana, I knew without a doubt that she was a gift from God to me. But I also realized that if she was a gift from God to me, then perhaps I was a gift from God to her, too. As such, I often wondered what Jesus would want me to do for her if He were here on earth, for the Bible says that we are the body of Christ and He wants to live His life through us to touch others (see 1 Corinthians 12).
So when Lana would lay in bed at night, exhausted from a long day of taking care of everyone else around her, I would think, “What Would Jesus Do?” If He were here, what would He want to say to her? What would He want to do for her? How would He minister to those deepest needs of her heart right now? Then I would try to let Jesus use me to love her, using my words to speak to her, my hands to stroke her head, my ears to listen to what she’d been going through during the day.
WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) might seem like a trite acronym to put on a bracelet or a bumper sticker, but it’s only trite if we make it so. If we take it seriously–and realize it’s exactly what God wants us to ask at all times and in all situations, especially with our spouse–it can change the dynamics of every relationship that we have.
As I was writing this message to you today, I happened to hear from the wife of a couple I had married several years ago. She shared with me that that this was the single most important tip she learned back then, and that it was the #1 thing that was getting her through the mess they were in right now, inviting and allowing Jesus to love her spouse through her.
Just as God has placed your spouse in your life as a gift to you, He has placed you in your spouse’s life as a gift to them. Invite and allow Jesus to love your spouse through you. As the Bible says:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
That’s enough tips for this week (it’s enough for a lifetime, really!) But next week I’ll share some more tips that can be just as significant as these. Then I’ll wrap it all up with 3 simple words that serve as the glue to hold all the other tips together.
If you’d like to hear more thoughts on marriage, I’ve posted more details about what I’ve learned from God in a book that you can read for free anytime day or night on my website at this link. Or if you’d like a paperback or ebook version, just click the link below to get a copy from our bookstore for a donation of any size to our ministry. Your gifts help us to keep sharing about Christ with others, and we’re happy to send you a gift in return!