My husband and I just celebrated 13 years of marriage. In light of this milestone, I started to reflect upon the journey of our relationship. Each year gets sweeter and better. Each year God redeems and makes something in us more beautiful than before. Our best selves are starting to emerge because of years of submitting ourselves to the refining process of marriage.
The best marriage advice you’ll ever receive is this: allow conflict to teach and stretch you. Strong marriages are formed under pressure as diamonds. Look for the reward on the other side of the conflict, and it will change the way you fight. Deeper intimacy and resiliency await those who use this perceived setback to their advantage.
The Best Marriage Advice
Over the years, my husband and I have developed a set of core values that reflect how we want to live out our marriage. These values help guide us through conflict and enable us to enjoy the fruit of a solid commitment. Below is my best marriage advice to any couple who wants to upgrade their relationship.
You and your spouse were designed to be on the same team.
Yet, in the heat of offense, couples break their alliance and turn against their teammate. What if you took a risk to treat your spouse in such a way that invited trust and belief in the success of your relationship?
Working together during conflict doesn’t require conformity on the issues, but a mutual value for the wellbeing of the relationship. Teammates commit to work it out and pursue how to function well together. Prioritizing the health of your relationship demands you to dig deep and uphold your commitments to your spouse, even when you don’t feel like it.
What would happen if you gave your partner your best even when it’s painful? Couples must shift to where they are ruled by their convictions instead of feelings. To do so, you must let go of offense and self-protection and do what is necessary to repair the breach in connection.
Create a culture of respect.
What are the rules of engagement during conflict? Is the current status quo, producing life or death in your marriage? It’s not a question of if you fight, but how you fight that determines the health of your relationship. Do you play unfair and attack your partner where they are most vulnerable?
Conflict turns toxic when your spouse becomes a cause of war. People resort to foul play to gain control and inflict pain because they feel justified. Just because you are hurt doesn’t give the right to reduce your partner for your gain. Ask yourself, when did it become ok to treat my spouse like hell? When did I lose sight of the sacredness of the connection?
Don’t allow the lowest common denominator to control your actions. Raise your standard of conduct. Remember, there is a person standing in front of you. Connect to your spouse’s humanity and establish boundaries to respect their worth.
Own your problems and clean up your mess.
Do you have difficulty admitting you are wrong? Let’s be honest, blame, excuses, and defensiveness are not sexy. The worst in people surfaces when they defend their culpabilities. If you cannot be wrong in an argument, it’s time to face why you keep dodging responsibility.
Ask yourself why you care more about the appearance of being right than doing the right thing. Don’t sacrifice your integrity to protect your ego; it’s too costly. The best of you arises when you admit where you were out of line and make it right. No matter how your partner behaves, you are still responsible for managing yourself. Take responsibility for your impact on your spouse despite your intentions. Don’t make excuses. Just own it and change your behavior.
When you do so, you become trustworthy. Powerful people do not base their behavior upon what others do. They are led by an internal standard. They fulfill their responsibilities even if their spouse chooses otherwise. Conduct yourself in such a way that you have a clean conscience and gain your respect at the end of the day.
Conflict can be used as resistance training to shore up your connection if you believe that discomfort can be advantageous.
Choose to allow the pressure to strengthen the integrity of the relationship by approaching conflict as an opportunity to grow. Dysfunctional family systems are created to avoid the pain of dealing with the elephant in the room.
Couples make unspoken agreements to ignore obvious problems. Fear chokes movement toward improvement. Instead of dodging what feels painful, lean into it. What if you were courageous and confronted the issues that cause your marriage to suffer? Couples who endure the discomfort of addressing problems become more resilient and do not easily break under pressure.
They learn how to function well under pressure because they have exercised their emotional regulation and conflict resolution muscles. By bringing the issues to the light, you invite the opportunity for healing and solutions to take place. Problems left unaddressed only grow bigger, louder, and then explode. Put in the work to address the small things. It’s worth it. Sometimes you don’t realize the strength of a relationship until it’s tested.
Be teachable and allow your partner to confront you.
Do you act defensive or angry when your spouse calls you out? Do you play the victim or punish your partner when they are honest? Part of maturing is learning to tolerate hearing things you don’t like. Feedback is difficult to receive because it’s usually perceived as an attack. Walls and defenses immediately go up.
Most likely, your spouse’s feedback will hit a nerve, and you will be tempted to self-protect. But what if you remained open and flexible? What if you did not allow confrontation to threaten you? Feedback is a gift because it illuminates our blind spots. Consider that another person’s perspective of you could be accurate. Listen to how your spouse is experiencing you.
People who welcome feedback, understand it’s not a measurement of their self-worth but crucial for self-improvement. By posturing yourself to be teachable, you set yourself up to receive something better than the status quo. Some of my greatest personal breakthroughs came about by looking beyond my offense and considering the truth in what was said.
Self-confront to be your best self.
Do you often think, “If my spouse changed, our marriage would be better”? Couples are quick to point out their partner’s faults and defend themselves. They become so preoccupied with what their partner is doing wrong that they become short-sighted.
We must be willing to confront where we have compromised ourselves and contributed to the cycle of problems. Couples get stuck when they hold back and fall prey to attitudes like “I’ll change when my partner changes.” If you want change, take responsibility for it and change yourself. Take ownership of your personal development.
Check to see if you are out of alignment with your core values. Increase self-awareness through a daily practice of connecting with yourself. Ask “how am I doing?” Check the purity of your motivations and intentions.
What surfaces in your heart during conflict? Do you control, punish, belittle, or criticize? Do you play the victim or savior role? Are you self-righteous, apathetic, or cold? Think about what it is like to live with yourself. Where have you dropped the ball?
Be courageous and face your demons. Before confronting your partner, remove any planks from your eye. Own up to your hypocrisy with your spouse. Maturity is a willingness to admit, “I can do better.” You self-correct and change not because you got caught but out of a deep conviction to raise the bar in your life.
Practice open and honest communication without hesitation.
Do you walk on eggshells, or are you a straight shooter? Do you alter the truth for self-preservation? Does your fear of rejection cause you to hold back information? Most people are threatened by authentic communication because it disrupts the system. However, when you hold back, you betray yourself and rob your relationship of intimacy.
Intimacy can be unsettling because it necessitates allowing someone to get close enough to see your hidden places. Surrendering to love means taking the risk to be truly known. Love tells the truth. This looks like communicating honestly even when there are disadvantages for you, such as looking bad or upsetting your spouse.
Are you willing to let down your defenses and disclose both positive and negative feedback to your spouse? Will you reveal your desires, needs, and weaknesses? What if you stopped trying to cover yourself up and brought your full self to the relationship? Real intimacy is created between two people with the courage to be themselves.
Are you emotionally reactive during conflict? Do you expect your partner to be your anxiety reliever and source of reassurance? Do you allow your partner’s feelings to infect you? Couples often become dependent upon their spouse’s validation to make them feel better. The belief is, “I need you to be ok, for me to be ok.” Consequently, when your partner is upset, or acceptance isn’t forthcoming, you become unhinged.
Placing the responsibility on someone else to behave a “certain way” to make you feel secure, sets you up to be powerless. Your spouse is not responsible for managing your emotional life. What arises from you during an argument existed inside of you before you were triggered. When you stop blaming your partner for how you feel you can heal.
Cultivate a healthy internal world; love and belief in yourself no matter what. No one else can convince you that you are ok, but yourself. The goal is to focus on regulating yourself instead of expecting your partner to give you something. By doing so, you are less likely to personalize your partner’s strong reactions. You are able to free up space to be present and press deeper into the conversation. Instead of jumping to conclusions, be curious and ask questions.
It’s easy to feel connected with your spouse when you agree. It’s easy to express yourself when there is little risk of conflict. It’s easy to love when you feel loved. When differences threaten your security, how will you rise to the occasion? Will you listen? Will you give up the offense and let your defenses down? Will you find the courage to soften where you are hardened? Will you be open instead of closed? Will you engage with trust and hope? Will you open your heart even in pain?
May this marriage advice sharpen and equip you to fight for a healthy marriage.
“I Think She Likes Him,” courtesy of Travis Swan, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Kiss,” courtesy of Valerie Everett, Flickr Creative Commons, CC 2.0; “Stroll on the Bridge,” courtesy of photo fiddler, Flickr Creative Commons, CC by 2.0; “Together,” courtesy of Alex Iby, unsplash.com, CC0 License