Wedding season is upon us! Engaged and newly-married couples are being flooded with advice from all corners, and asking, “What is MOST important for us to know?” We have the answers!
Based on 18 years of research and 12 nationally-representative studies with more than 40,000 men and women, this series shares the most vital “aha moments” for any marriage—especially those about to tie the knot. This is the first article in the series. Pass it along!
Everyone ties the knot wanting a happy marriage. Everyone hopes for smooth sailing. And yet we all know . . . there will inevitably be times we cross stormy seas!
Thankfully, applying several crucial truths will help you get through the storms quickly and back to sunnier waters—and even avoid some of the storms to begin with.
Based on a special-purpose study of more than 1,000 couples to discover what the happiest marriages do differently, here are three vital habits every newlywed (and about-to-be wed!) couple needs to build, in order to make a great marriage.
Habit #1: When you are hurt or angry with your spouse, stop your natural (negative) train of thought
Your spouse affirmed (twice) that they would be sure to be available to let the A/C repairman in, since you were going to be on an important Zoom meeting in your home office. Yet when the repairman walks up the front steps, your spouse is in the shower. You are trying to explain to your boss and colleagues why you missed your sales numbers for the first quarter, while everyone on the call can hear the doorbell ringing, the technician knocking, and the dog barking. Repeatedly.
You are understandably upset. It is legitimate to be hurt or angry that your mate didn’t remember their commitment and left you in such an embarrassing and difficult situation.
But all too often, our thoughts run a lot further than just being hurt or angry, right? We start ascribing negative motivations to our spouse. It isn’t just that our spouse was forgetful. Instead, we begin thinking things like, She doesn’t appreciate how much stress I’m under this year, as business is bad and I’m trying to avoid being fired! Or, He must not have even written down that the A/C was being fixed—he takes me for granted and just assumes I’ll be the keeper of his schedule!
In the research for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, we discovered it is vital to control those sorts of poisonous feelings—so those feelings don’t control us. And building this habit early can prevent a host of problems down the road.
When we asked couples for their advice for newlyweds, one contributed this astute insight: “When we said our vows, we didn’t promise to always feel loving. But we did promise to be loving in what we say and do. Feelings, by themselves, are not what we solely rely on in determining how we treat each other.”
The first step in being loving, is stopping the negative train of thought. The next step—out of love for your spouse—is redirecting the train onto a different track entirely.
Habit #2: Choose to believe the best of your spouse’s intentions toward you
When you consider those particular negative thoughts about your spouse (and a hundred others), they boil down to just one thought in the end: My spouse doesn’t care about/appreciate me.
That sneaky thought can easily flood our mind—and it is almost certainly not true. Again, based on our nationally-representative study for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, we found that 99.3% of married individuals deeply care about their spouse! Even in the most challenging marriages, that were weathering the worst storms, the number was a startling 97%.
Your spouse almost certainly deeply cares about and appreciates you. But they won’t live that out perfectly. They will hurt your feelings, they will be inconsiderate at times, because they are human. But they care. What does this mean? It means that if you want a happy marriage, you need to choose to believe that your mate cares about and appreciates you, no matter what your feelings may say in that moment.
So instead of my spouse doesn’t appreciate me, you stop the train of thought. You think to yourself, No, that’s wrong. I know my spouse loves me. I know my spouse appreciates me. So there must be another explanation for their behavior.Instead of "my spouse doesn’t appreciate me," stop the train of thought. Think to yourself, "No, that’s wrong. I KNOW my spouse loves me." #shauntifeldhahn Click To Tweet
In the study results, this choice was almost a prerequisite: it is very difficult to have a happy marriage without it. Because if you don’t make that choice, your spouse can never win—and neither can your marriage. For example, your spouse may do or say something out of sincere love for you, and yet you suspiciously think, You’re only doing that to get on my good side. Don’t hold your mate’s sincere efforts hostage to your negative beliefs!
Of course, when we have been legitimately hurt, choosing to believe the best of your spouse’s intentions may be hard. Sometimes it may seem beyond us. Many of the happiest couples say this is when faith comes in, and we ask God for help to do what does not come naturally. Because it is vital. Believing the best is essential for breaking a negative cycle and building a positive one instead. It is essential for plowing through the storms and heading out the other side. And, even better, it is essential for preventing heartache to begin with.
Which leads to the all-important final habit for today.
Habit #3: Look for a more generous explanation of your spouse’s behavior
So here you are, sitting in front of your laptop, having just logged off your rather disastrous Zoom meeting. The A/C repairman left after no one answered the door. You hear the shower turn off. And you have a choice to make.
Your hurt and anger are roiling. You feel put upon and taken for granted. You want to let your spouse have it. Yet that is likely to begin a cycle that will raise other defensive and angry feelings on the part of your spouse. And then you . . . and then your spouse . . .
So you force yourself to pause. You pray for God’s help. You think to yourself, I know my spouse cares. I know they wanted to be helpful. So there must be another explanation for what happened.
So when your spouse comes into your home office, you say, “I’m pretty upset.” You explain the situation and how embarrassed you were. But you don’t say, “You always take me for granted!” Instead, you say, “I know you said you wanted to help. What happened?”
In other words: You are assuming something happened. And you are assuming it is something other than, “Well, I just didn’t care about you being embarrassed in front of your boss. Deal with it.”
By believing the best, by believing there is a more generous explanation of your spouse’s behavior, you open up the space for your spouse to explain what happened instead of defensively justifying themselves. So your mate owns up to the fact that they got caught up in their own work deadline, got a text from their own boss, and ran to take a shower so they could run to pick up the materials for tomorrow’s event.By believing the best, by believing there is a more generous explanation of your spouse’s behavior, you open up the space for your spouse to explain what happened instead of defensively justifying themselves. Click To Tweet
In other words: they simply forgot. But it wasn’t that they didn’t care. In fact, they feel terrible about what happened. Your choice to give them space to explain that doesn’t “let them off the hook.” (After all, you’ve been honest about your feelings.) Rather, it prioritizes what is most important: Not your need to make a point, but your marriage.
In future articles, we will tackle several vital truths that every marriage needs to know about money, communication, sex, and several other vital topics. But this one . . . this one is foundational. You get this one right and it will help you with everything else as you build the happy marriage you are longing for.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out the online courses of Shaunti’s research and teachings at SurprisingHope.com.
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