6 Steps to Change Your Marriage For the Better (Part 1)

I’m excited to bring you part 1 of a two-part marriage series, in tandem with the launch of the next season of my podcast with Family Life. Season 4 of the Married With Benefits podcast, with me and Brian Goins, is based on my findings from The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. Each episode tackles a different secret – and there’s even a bonus one that didn’t make it into the book!

We’ve all been there. Something in our marriage needs attention, and we want to do something about it.

But … what?

Maybe we’ve been in a generally good place, but we can tell that issues are creeping up on us. Or maybe we’re stuck in a “just okay” place (or worse), and that’s not what we signed up for. After all, we stood dreamy-eyed at the altar, imagining the “for better” part of our vows, not holding a laundry list of all the things that needed to change. (If we did the latter, that’s a whole different blog series!)

Thankfully, there’s good news. Yes, “for worse” will arise from time to time in any marriage between two imperfect people. But in more than 20 years of research I’ve seen that there are almost always steps we can take to move our marriages toward the delight and connection that God created marriages to enjoy.*  The question, of course, is HOW?

In this Part 1, we’ll look at the key steps to begin any change process. Brian Goins and I dive into this in the kickoff episode of Season 4 of Family Life’s Married With Benefits podcast, so I hope you’ll listen! Then next week, in Part 2, we will tackle the first secret covered in the podcast –one of the most important habits for changing a marriage from good to great (and three steps you can take to reinforce that habit).

So let’s jump in today, with the first three steps that will help you begin powerful, positive change in your marriage.

Step #1: Learn from the “pros.”

If you are on the varsity basketball or volleyball team, and you want to go from good to great, what do you do? As my podcast co-host Brian Goins rather hilariously put it in episode 1, you don’t put a poster of Michael Brock or Megan Hollister on your bedroom wall. Who are Michael and Megan? Well, they are the best players on your varsity team, of course!  

Instead, you put up a poster of a great NBA player, and practice mimicking his stance for free throws. You watch the perfect jumps and spikes of the top women’s Olympic volleyball athletes and try the same thing over and over.

To head toward change in marriage, we have to know where we want to go! So, identify a few “Olympic greats” in your life and begin to study them. Ask them questions. What do they do differently? “Pro” couples tend to have really good road maps.

Here’s the key: Learning from the “pros” is a completely different way of approaching change, and addressing the areas of your marriage that need attention. There’s nothing wrong with the usual pattern of trying to fix things by unearthing and examining problems. But if that’s all we look at, we’re only looking at the problems! If you want to look like Jesus, you study Jesus, not the Pharisees.

One of THE most important shifts toward change for the better, is to know what works to change marriages for the better! For example, our research for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages shows that the happiest couples don’t expect things their spouse can’t deliver (episode 7 of the podcast) and contrary to conventional wisdom they do “keep score” – they just do it completely differently (episode 5).

Yes, very real hurts may have happened in your marriage. If you need to dig into those things to address them and move forward, then do so! But the only way to actually move forward is to ensure you don’t get stuck in a cycle of blame or regret. We must ask: What do we want to do differently? One couple in the research told me that their journey from troubled to terrific happened when they decided, “We need to start creating the marriage we want. At some point we’ve got to stop focusing on the past.”

Step #2: Do the little “pro” habits consistently.

Often, in marriage, we look for a magic bullet that will solve everything. When I was working on Find Hope, my staff director’s pastor, Mo Huggins, reminded me of something profound:

“It is not about doing the amazing things occasionally,
but the simple things consistently.”

My research for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages bears this out. In fact, it’s where the tag phrase for our entire ministry was born: we are all about the little things that make a big difference.

Regular blog readers will already be aware of some of the most simple but powerful actions that will help you pull this off. But I’m repeating two powerhouse actions here, for men and women who haven’t heard them yet:

  • Wives: Look for things your man does and sincerely say “thank you.” Even better, say you “did a great job at ______.” Statistically, this is a powerhouse emotional statement for most men.
  • Husbands: Do little things during the day that tell your wife you love her. For example, take your wife’s hand when you’re walking into the restaurant. Or text her just because you’re thinking about her. Statistically, this is a powerhouse emotional statement for most women.

If the above examples don’t apply to you and your spouse, find what does and be intentional about those statements and actions.

As my husband Jeff and I often say from the stage, we have to remember that it’s usually not the big-ticket issues that cause either the wonderful opportunities or the hard heartache in marriage: it’s the little day-to-day decisions. Jeff and I always see lightbulbs of hope come on when we share this with couples at marriage events.

(If Jeff and I could serve your church or area marriage ministry at an upcoming event, please contact my speaking agent Nicole Owens. We’d be so honored to encourage your couples!)

Step 3: Give yourselves grace – new “pro” skills may take time to learn!

Some of the habits of the happiest marriages will be things you’re already doing! Awesome. Do them more purposefully.

But some will come with an “oof” feeling: We’re going to have to work on that one.

You would never expect to just nail your first few attempts on the office’s new engineering design software. You would never expect the complicated soufflé to work perfectly the first few times you attempt it. You expect to have to practice and get better at most things.

Same thing in marriage. Yes, you have to practice new habits and skills. But if you persevere, most couples will see change. One key is to plan for the long game, not see it as a short-term strategy. That way, when “stuff happens” – and it will! – you’ll be able to resist the urge to throw out the whole plan, especially if you’ve been making progress. (Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog, where I’ll dive into other ways to persevere instead of getting discouraged.)

Two final suggestions

The Married With Benefits podcast is designed to help you apply all of these steps, and develop the habits of the happiest marriages. Make sure to get notified when each episode drops!

Even better, sign up for the Family Life Couples Challenge, which starts this week! You’ve probably already planned out your summer in so many ways (kids’ camps, vacations, etc.) … but have you planned what you’re doing for your marriage? This Challenge is a simple and fun way of using the summer for gradual, sensational change in your marriage. (Invite your friends to do it with you!)

* Of course, much more in-depth help, care, and counseling is needed in some situations. If there is complex trauma, for instance, please seek the help of a skilled Christian trauma counselor. Or if there is an abusive, unrepentant spouse, do not try to apply the principles of today’s blog. Please get to safety and pursue help from a trusted pastor or proper authorities instead.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at nowens@shaunti.com.

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