Every two years I have the exciting opportunity to go to the World Conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) and meet with thousands of people who work tirelessly to support marriages and families. When I’m there (as I was two weeks ago), I want to wrap my arms around them and say, “Thank you!!” Because I’m not a counselor or therapist or marriage mentor, I feel such gratitude for these folks who are the “boots on the ground” to serve couples or individuals in times of deep need. I love being able to (hopefully) serve and equip any of you who serve others. (And if you happen to be reading this as a new subscriber from AACC, welcome!)
So whether you encourage marriages informally as a mentor or friend or work officially as a counselor or pastor, I want to encourage you today. With a simple truth that I’ve seen strongly in our research over the years: that some very small adjustments can make a big difference to transform struggling marriages. To be clear, these small changes can’t “solve” big systemic issues that might be in play (addiction, the effects of childhood abuse, and so on) but they will often make those issues easier to solve. And although in a few cases it is best to wait (for example, in a truly abusive marriage, ensuring safety would come before any of these factors), in most cases you can see some truly astonishing results from simple changes.
Here are a few of those simple things—new information, attitudes, and actions—that will help you do that!
Break Down the Damaging “Complexity Myth”When you’re working with couples on a regular basis, you probably look out over your congregation—or across the coffee shop table at a friend in crisis—and wish you could do something to give hope to confused or discouraged couples. Well, one of the most effective things you can do is also the most simple: to knock down the subtle but widespread myth that marriage is utterly complicated and that most problems require serious, long-term intervention to solve. As I’ve interviewed and surveyed more than 40,000 men and women over eighteen years, it is clear that most people subconsciously feel that having a good marriage, or fixing a troubled one, requires a Ph.D. in psychology with a minor in mind-reading.
When things are going great, this belief is dormant; but the moment a couple faces trouble it looms all too large. It becomes easy for those two people to feel helpless and confused in the face of it. That sneaky little belief, in fact, predisposes them to give up all too quickly. Because now they have this hidden (and usually inaccurate) sense that they have years of intensive therapy and struggle ahead, with no certain outcome. It is instantly exhausting and overwhelming.
Share the Hope-Filled Research
Thankfully, our research has found the opposite trend is true! In my book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, we studied what happy couples do differently. It was clear that having a great marriage or healing a broken one is usually dependent on the little things, not the big ones! For example, one gold-standard study by multiple respected researchers found that the simple act of “divorce is not an option” commitment alone led eight in ten of the most troubled marriages to becoming very happy if the couple stuck with it for five years!
Hundreds of marriage therapists I’ve interviewed have confirmed that most marriage breakdowns are not caused by what you might call the deep, systemic big-ticket problems—for example, by one spouse being a blackout alcoholic or having been sexually abused as a child. Those tragic situations do exist, but they don’t cause the majority of marriage problems.
Instead, most husbands and wives deeply care about each other (more than 99% in our survey) and are trying very hard—but they don’t realize that they are trying hard in the wrong areas, so they aren’t making the other person feel cared for in the way they think they are. Or they don’t realize they are doing something that is hurting their spouse. Or they are holding on to hurt and unforgiveness instead of looking at the very real positives in their spouse. The hurt feelings spiral, as each person starts believing that the other person “just doesn’t care,” and they subconsciously begin to see everything in that light. All too soon, things seem dark; they helplessly feel like they are at the bottom of a deep pit and they don’t know how to get out.
Imagine the relief for these people once you to show them that there isn’t actually a pit at all! It’s more like a dark room, and they simply need to open the door. Yes, they may have to change some actions and habits of thought, learn some key things about their mate’s unseen needs and insecurities. They also may need to be completely one-sided for a while if their spouse has “checked out.” But in most cases, some small day-to-day actions will end up making a huge difference. So what are some of those?
Try a Few Small Changes That Lead To Big Results
Here are just three small actions you can recommend to a troubled couple, that are likely to deliver some big results and instill some much-needed hope in a fairly short period of time:
- Tell the wife to look for things for which she can say “thank you.” We have seen over the years that in most cases (although not all), where women most doubt they are loved, men most doubt that they are competent and respected. The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages research was clear that a wife’s sincere appreciation for the little day-to-day things he does (“thank you for mowing the lawn even though it was so hot outside”) makes him feel, down deep, she cares about me. Once we truly believe the other person cares, that helps solve (or prevent) bigger problems. (Ladies, if you want more, this blog explains the magic of “thank you,” and this video course will show you exactly how to understand your husband and get to the relationship you want.)
Now, that said, of course there is a corresponding need on the women’s side! Which leads to simple action #2.
- Tell him to reassure her that “we’re okay” when they are having an argument (especially if he has to pull away to process)—and to show “you’re mine” affection when they aren’t. Because most women have a subconscious “would he choose me all over again?” insecurity, some painful feelings are triggered in conflict, particularly if he pulls away. When he instead says “I need to process, but we’re okay” it reassures her at a deep level. And for most women, if he does things like take her hand, put his arm around her in church, or reach over and gently rub her neck when watching a movie, it builds a sense of being treasured and loved, which builds a sense of certainty under the surface. The daily certainty that he would choose her all over again then helps prevent that insecurity from being triggered in the first place. (Guys, if you want more tips on how to do that, look at this article, or this short video course on simple ways to understand your wife and make her happy.)
- When hurt, tell each spouse to look for a more generous explanation and act as if that is the real one—because it probably is. Now, it is important to note that this is the case for the vast majority of marriages, not abusive ones. But it is astonishingly important for everyone else. In our research, we found that one of the most important things the “highly happy” spouses did differently was refusing to believe the worst of their mate’s intentions toward them.If someone thinks “He knew how that would make me feel, and he said it anyway”, that translates to “he doesn’t care” and it’s downhill from there. But in truth more than 99 percent of people deeply care about their spouse—and a huge reason why some couples are struggling is that one or both partners doesn’t believe it. If they change their assumption to “I know he loves me; he must not have known how that would make me feel”, everything about their response—and the pattern of their marriage—will be different.
So as a basic starting point, encourage a couple to try those three simple things for a few weeks and see what happens. Yes, some marriages face big problems that are extremely complex to solve, but those thankfully are rare. In most struggling marriages, whatever their issues actually are, a couple needs to see that they can accomplish a great deal with a few simple changes; and that gives them the hope that having a good marriage might not be so hard and complicated after all.