Having been a marriage and family therapist for a number of years, people often ask me what needs to happen in order to experience a good marriage. I’m really not a fan of that question because marriages vary between being good and being bad all the time. There are days, months, and years where marriages aren’t “good” and there are days, months, and years where marriages are great. Being happy in a marriage is transitory, it comes and goes and changes based on millions of situations, conditions, and variables. There are no perfect marriages and people who claim to have them are living a grand illusion. Whenever you ask two people to commit to one another for the rest of their lives it’s going to lead to problems because people aren’t perfect. Simple math reminds us that adding 1 imperfect person to another imperfect person only doubles the imperfections in the relationship.
There are a number of great researchers who have provided “best practices” for good marriages. Dr. John Gottman is one of my favorite marriage researchers and a great resource to help people develop solid practices and habits for experiencing a better marriage. However, even if you learn all the techniques, habits, and practices he shares with his readers, there’s no guarantee you’ll have a happy marriage. Happiness tends to be a fleeting experience that comes and goes with the changing seasons. It certainly isn’t a guaranteed state of existence.
I have found the best question to ask yourself in order to improve your marriage is very simple. The best thing to ask yourself is “How can I love my spouse in a way he or she needs to be loved?” Call it what you will, but the forces of the universe have led you to build a shared life with another person and that means life becomes about more than what you want. It means you have to think about what someone else needs from that shared experience the two of you are building. It’s also important to remember people change so to assume you have things figured out within the first two or three years of marriage is misguided. That’s why you need to ask that all-important question again and again while you’re married. You need to ask yourself, “How does my spouse need me to love them? What can I be doing now to give them the love they need?”
There are some general guidelines on how a man and a woman need to be loved. Some of the work I like the most has been provided by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn. They have two books, one called “For Women Only” and the other called “For Men Only.” The book called “For Women Only” provides research-backed information on how a man needs to be loved and likewise, the other book helps men know how women need to be loved. For example, when it comes to sex the book “For Women Only” reminds the ladies sex is more than a biological urge for a man. It reminds him that he is loved and desired and it gives him confidence. Sex is very important to men because deep within their psychology, it is an affirming act that words can’t replace. Likewise in the book “For Men Only” the guys are taught that listening is exceptionally important for the ladies. When men listen to their ladies they communicate that you are important and what you have to say matters. Women aren’t looking for men to fix their problems (and often men aren’t very good at fixing things anyway!) A women sharing her problems from the day isn’t asking her husband to fix her situation. Her emotional turmoil isn’t just another item you check off your to-do list. She wants you to focus on how she is feeling, not the problem. When a man realizes a woman feels loved when he is interested and invested in her emotions then things work out well. Men and women need to be loved in different ways.
While all of this is good and interesting, my main point still overrides these very good ideas. In the end, you aren’t just loving “some” man or “some” woman, you’re loving the person who has decided you’re the individual they want to be with until they take their last breath! That’s pretty powerful. So, while all of this general advice is good, what matters most is whether or not you are sincere when you ask yourself “How can I love my spouse in a way he or she needs loved and not in a way I think is best?” In the end that’s what matters. I’m not advocating for abuse or doing things that make you exceptionally uncomfortable, but an honest answer to that question will go a long way in building a relationship grounded in selfless love rather than self-interested speculation.