Articles From the November 1997 Unification News
Secrets for a Successful Marriage
by Dr. Deitrich Seidel-NYC
When it comes to building a successful marriage the steps to take often seem hidden and enigmatic. However, after taking a closer look, it involves a simple approach and common sense. The reason that the obvious appears to be concealed is due to undesirable habits which penetrate our marital life. Routines within our daily lives and frequent stretches of over-commitment can create a certain fog for husband and wife in their marriage relationship. Thus, we may lose sight of basic attitudes and skills that are essential for a vital marriage. However, once we realize the need for eliminating this marriage fog, we find ourselves rediscovering simple principles for marital happiness. We then can bring the secrets for successful marriage into the daylight.
How shall we decide what is really important for strengthening our marriages? Recently, I experienced a serious snow storm that left dozens of trees uprooted in my neighborhood including two giant ones in my own backyard. I vividly recall the rushing sound when the trees came tumbling down with a great thump. Their mighty trunks lying down with their roots exposed in the sunlight seemed to convey to me one last message: "We tried hard but we were not anchored deeply enough!"
This whole experience illustrated for me the importance of strong roots and an unyielding foundation as it applies specifically to the communion of marriage. According to marriage experts Stinnet and Trotman, great emphasis is given to the spouses' character development, their attitude and internal disposition. In fact, most advice has to do with strengthening the roots of human relationships. Like the roots of a tree, our internal disposition also needs to be firmly grounded in the solid foundation of our value system and world view so that we can brave even the greatest storms.
To achieve a good marriage, we need to develop two areas, namely, internal attitudes and external skills. Internal attitudes have to do with our spiritual lives which define the roots of our marriages, while external skills focus on building and nourishing our marital bond. As we can well imagine, only the harmonious interaction of these two areas will lead to the realization of successful marriages. The following points of advice address not only the roots of marital life but also basic interactive skills with which we will be able to nourish and develop our relationship as a couple.
1. Have a strong religious conviction. Husband and wife discover the deepest roots of their marriage in their living relationship with God. True family values emerge from that relationship, providing consistent guidance and inspiration for the life-long task of marriage building. In fact, all internal attitudes as outlined in the following paragraphs are rooted in our perception of God's will and the experience of his parental love. Marriage without a solid spiritual foundation is like a house built on sand.
2. Develop the habit of praying as a couple. Our daily communication with God becomes the life line for our spiritual development. In particular, our prayers as couples for the sake of the well-being of family members and other people cultivate our spiritual disposition to live for the sake of others. Soon we will discover that the habit of prayer in marriage is a win-win situation as we also develop the virtue of living for the sake of our spouse. Be creative if differing schedules do not give you enough time for daily prayers. Surprise your partner with a prayer on the phone or by using E-mail.
3. Make loving your spouse a conscious decision. The internal disposition of a lasting commitment in marriage is based on the daily decision to make your spouse the number one priority in your life. Such a heartfelt appreciation of your partner is rooted in an ever present awareness of his or her absolute uniqueness as God's son or daughter. In fact, we can develop an overwhelming sense of appreciation of the special qualities of our mate as a human being that in turn commands a response of love and respect. With such a mind set, we will actively avoid the trap of taking each other for granted. Rather, we realize that a perpetual sense of newness in our marital relationship emerges from the simple habit of honoring our "better half". We may honor our spouse not only by expressing gratitude, appreciation or a sincere compliment, but more importantly by practicing a spirit of service. "I love you" is then communicated as "I care about our life together".
To persevere in our conscious decision to honor and love our marriage partner may sometimes turn out to be a challenging task when facing each other's immaturities and weaknesses. We find ourselves battling a self-centered interpretation of what it means to love our mate. In fact, we are exposed to a culture that seems to operate on a fifty-fifty proposition for living out the marriage contract. This means, I love you if you love me. It explains the impoverishment of the marriage bond in terms of only offering conditional love to each other. However, in order to succeed in marriage, we need to turn to the hundred-hundred proposition of unconditional love. Only such a proposition of genuine self-giving will enable us to mobilize sufficient patience in times of difficulties and stress.
Decide to plan some time together on a weekly basis , just you and your spouse spending "essential time" removed from the "urgent time" of our daily pressing agendas. Turning off the TV and talking to your spouse is one step in the right direction. Demonstrate in no uncertain terms that your spouse is number one in your life by showing plenty of affection, may it be through hugs or back rubs, or acts of kindness and service like helping with cleaning the house or doing the dishes.
4. Learn effective communication skills. Kathy and Mark are one of those couples who are serious about improving their marriage. They have realized that it is not sufficient merely to endure an unfulfilled relationship but they are looking for new avenues to turn their marriage into an exciting and satisfying adventure. They have come to understand that one issue deserves particular attention, namely, improving their communication skills. They have decided to focus on honestly communicating their feelings on a given issue or event. Before starting their dialogue, they agreed to follow certain rules that will enable them to build a safe atmosphere for communicating. It is like agreeing to the rules of a game. Within the framework of observing clear rules one can expect a joyful and meaningful result. This also holds true for developing communication skills, especially if the couple wants to discuss sensitive issues that underlie their marital relationship. Here, an atmosphere of mutual trust and openness becomes indispensable and it needs to be built with patience, care and a clear focus.
Here is a set of rules Kathy and Mark agreed upon:
(1) we agree to make an appointment for discussing a sensitive topic, clearly defining place and time.
(2) we determine to limit our dialogue to the one topic that we previously selected
(3) we each write for ten minutes one brief but loving letter to our spouse expressing with empathy our feelings about a certain issue
(4) we read each other's letter carefully twice
(5) we start our dialogue explaining to each other the feelings we have based on the letter we received
(6) we observe the rule of active and empathic listening
(7) we patiently discuss possible solutions for solving the previously defined difficulty or problem.
(8) we agree to implement a clear course of action for improving our situation
(9) we limit our dialogue to thirty minutes (or any suitable length)
(10)we agree when to meet again for discussing the effectiveness of our course of action.
The above listed points outline one possible set of rules. It is up to the couple to find rules they are comfortable with. As long as they observe the essential skill of empathic listening, their dialogue will move in the right direction. Emphatic listening means that you as the listener repeats the major points of your partner's message in an emotionally responsive manner so that your spouse is assured of being fully understood.
5. Become best friends as a couple. Friendship is the result of sharing common interests whereby the daily practice of kindness and respect creates an atmosphere of joy and trust. For the couple to build their friendship they need to take time to share mutually fulfilling activities. In this way they fill their hearts with joyful memories and develop a team spirit that will enable them to maintain an optimistic outlook on their marriage even in difficult times.
To be best friends means to enjoy each other's company, not in a pleasure seeking superficial way but by exploring our partner's inner world, thus creating an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Friendship is also carried by the courage to have fun together. Often our marriages are driven by a sense of duty, the calling to fulfill a never ending list of responsibilities. Here, it takes courage to break the routine and to share fun activities together such as listening to our favorite music, going on a skiing trip or spending an afternoon at the bowling alley. The idea is not to escape our responsibilities, but to allow new life and joy to enter our marriages. The benefits from husband and wife being best friends are indeed beyond any rational calculation.
In summing up the above issues, we can say that, once our internal attitudes are firmly rooted in a vibrant spiritual life, we are prepared to focus on relational skills that will strengthen our marriages. Today, we often find an imbalance between caring for our spiritual life and becoming more proficient in communication skills. On the one hand, there are numerous sincere believers who practice a spiritual path but are still ineffective in their attempt to improve their marriages and family relationships. On the other hand, we witness the rather limited success of secular marriage counselors who would only employ psychological insights in their practice, thus fighting a losing battle against the alarming decline of family life. A balanced approach is needed that combines the strengthening of internal attitudes based on religious convictions with the development of external skills that prove their effectiveness within the daily life of husband and wife.
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