Jeff and I recently read an excellent marriage book entitled The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. I recommend it highly for those interested in reading further on the topic. I have written before about why I think it is important for couples to read good books about marriage and to increase their relational vocabulary (here). We study all sorts of things that are important to us – instruction manuals, recipes, non-fiction books about various topics, product reviews, text books, etc. Yet sometimes people resist the idea that we might be able to study marriage – they find the idea of analyzing matters of the heart cold, calculating and unromantic. Obviously I disagree with that. While I am an analytic in personality, training and temperament, I find it much easier to passionately enjoy our romance when Jeff and I aren’t arguing. And if studying makes that easier, then, hand me the book…
The marriage practice I want to discuss today is not about study or reading more on the topic, although I think many couples would benefit from this. Instead, I want to acknowledge that most people actually know what makes a marriage work well. Not all, as some people are remarkably un-self-aware, not very emotionally intelligent, carrying tremendous baggage from the past or have only had destructive relational practices modeled for them. For these people, moving towards a healthy marriage is like starting a race several miles behind the start line. Sometimes the distance is too much to overcome. In my experience however, the average person seems to already have a good cognitive overview of healthy marriage practices.
Be committed to the relationship. Love sacrificially. Communicate your needs. Build a life together, not two lives that run parallel. Listen to what the other is saying and respond accordingly. Be kind and thoughtful. Make whatever is important to them important to you. Talk with relationship mentors who can walk you through the intricacies of marital challenges. Learn to talk with each other about important things and do so regularly. Be willing to work through the pain to the joy on the other side. Don’t quit too soon. Laugh often together. Tell her she’s pretty. Show him you respect him. Be friends as well as lovers. Make love often and joyfully. Don’t lie. Be trustworthy. Meet their needs as you want them to meet yours.
If you’ve been married more than two minutes, you already knew much of this. Most people do. What most people lack is the discipline to do the things they know they should do.
When it comes down to the moment of an important conversation and it is your turn to listen or to speak gently, many just can’t seem to control their tongue. They…just…have…to…say…it!!! And hurtful things come spilling out. When it comes time to engage in meaningful conversation and connect emotionally – or at least logistically regarding how your lives intersect, you…just…can’t…turn…off…the…tv! When you could unselfishly meet the other’s need, you say no in your heart and love yourself more than them in that moment. When they want your presence, your body, your heart, you show them that other things are more important to you. Your choices illustrate your priorities. And your marriage or partner is not at the top of whatever list it is you are working from.
In other words, even with the best of intentions, there is no self-discipline, no ability to say no to lesser things now in exchange for greater things later, no willingness to submit personal needs and wants under those of another.
I think one of the greatest things a couple can do for their marriage is to learn personal discipline – in whatever form presents itself. Exercise, diet, scheduling, choices…whatever works in your heart to teach the principle of saying yes to the right things and no to the wrong things. Of being willing to endure a little pain now in exchange for a greater gain later. Learning discipline in the little things makes it easier to do it in the important things.
Marriage is an exercise in discipline. There are just times when you have to do those things that don’t come easily or naturally. But discipline brings joy. Choosing things now that might not be our first choice, because they lead to the things later that are our ultimate choice. A love-filled, comfortable, passionate, kind and joy-producing marriage is built upon the smaller choices we make in the everyday – the choices that require discipline to choose wisely.
Heb. 12:11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.