It’s been a tough year on marriages.
Maybe after all this spontaneous “together time,” you’re wondering if you’re happily married after all. Or even if “happily married” is still in the cards.
Make no mistake. Happily married isn’t the same as easily married.
Because just like most of life in the real world—and contrary to prime time’s brand of effortless affection—greatness lies on the other side of overcoming natural impulses. Like irritation slouching into contempt. Self-protective grudges trumping self-sacrificing forgiveness. Prioritization of our own schedules, needs, and long-term plans over someone else’s.
In my own marriage—20 years to a man who’s hands-down my best friend—I’ve found that to be happily married, I have to work for it.
Because the work of enduring love doesn’t mean we’re naturally compatible. (My husband and I actually aren’t!) Instead, it means each of us are willing to do the supernatural work of laying down our own lives for each other.
How can couples stay happily married?
The most happily married couples are startlingly and scientifically not the ones sheltered from hardship, financial strain, loss. It’s not even the ones that fight the least.
They’re the marriages who’ve learned to choose us in ways microscopic and monumental.
But what’s that look like in the nitty-gritty? Here’s a simple, 10-step assessment to help steer you in a happily married direction.
The relationship assessment
1. How do I respond to my spouse?
When you dial a friend, there’s only an interchange if your friend picks up the phone and talks back. And marriage isn’t that different. Do you generally receive your spouse’s “calls”—their positive behaviors and moves toward you?
Do you meet those initiations with warm response? Or are they met with disdain or no one “picking up the phone” at all?
Renowned marriage researcher John Gottman finds startling predictors of marital success in how couples respond to each other’s bids for affection—and whether couples respond to each other with contempt.
Gottman discovered those who had divorced six years after his initial study were only positively responsive to each other 33% of the time. Couples still married had responded warmly, on average, 87% of the time, meeting their spouse’s emotional needs.
And it doesn’t stop there. Negative spouses missed 50% of their partner’s positive behavior. They even perceived negative behavior … that wasn’t actually there.
This 21st century science echoes ancient truth: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you not look only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
We need to respond to our spouses as God responds to us: “Let us press on to know him. He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn” (Hosea 6:3, NLT).
2. Where is your spouse (and marriage) on your priority list?
One study that surveyed marriage counselors found quality time—apart from the business of running a household—as one of three key factors in marital success.
Coexisting in parallel lives simply doesn’t stoke the fires of closeness. One counselor mentioned the amount of relational “touch points” in which a healthy couple connects on a given day.
Another pointed out that even in “mental time together, you are thinking about the other person and you’re including that other person in your decisions.”
In your relationship assessment, consider whether your spouse innately knows your relationship gets top-shelf status—even over kids, success at work, your cell phone.
3. How much do I respect my spouse?
Sometimes, the size of a person’s weakness and failure swell beyond our ability to see what’s valuable about them. Or simply see their humanity.
Inner negativity leaks out in contempt—one of Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” of dying relationships, along with defensiveness, criticism, and stonewalling.
When you’re tempted to marinate in your spouse’s prolific shortcomings, reroute by recalling three ways you’re thankful for them (see #8). For more help with this, see 30 Ways to Love Your Wife and In His Corner: 32 Ways to Honor Your Husband.
4. How would I describe our sex life?
Sex isn’t the thermostat for “happily married.” But it’s a decent thermometer.
Yes, sex is complicated by past pain. Baggage. Selfishness. Lack of priority.
…As is marriage. Sex acts as a microcosm of the rest of our relationship. How vulnerable, how “naked and unashamed” are we? How sacrificial, committed, passionate?
Ask yourself what you or your spouse are most frustrated with in the bedroom. Chances are, there’s a more encompassing relational angle to be worked out.
5. How “together” are we emotionally, spiritually, physically, socially?
Being externally committed to your relationship (i.e., sharing space) is one thing. But how well do you and your spouse function as two becoming one? As biblical teaching phrases it, “they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Not in the gosh-I-just-flushed-my-identity way. They’re closer to three-legged race champions: Two complete identities hugging close in perfect sync for the win.
Because there’s plenty that actively pulls you apart: Divergent schedules. Your cell phone. Kids. Fantasizing about life outside your marriage. Porn addiction.
So in your relationship assessment, consider whether your spouse is more of a roommate. Or are both of you actively investing in your relationship?
Because the default state of marriage isn’t oneness. It’s isolation.
6. Do we practice kindness and generosity—even when we’re ticked?
Repeatedly in research, kindness acts as a key predictor of a marriage’s capacity to fulfill and endure. But it’s not just little acts of snagging your spouse’s favorite drink for them at the coffee shop or lobbing your jeans into the hamper. We’re talking kindness baked into the culture of your marriage, even amidst irritation.
As a rule, happily married couples don’t let conflict turn them contemptuous. They tackle the problem rather than the person.
For marriages stuck on negativity, check out social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn’s 30-Day Kindness Challenge.
7. How committed are we to each other?
Someone once told me of their return at a natural-foods store. “Oh, no problem!” the clerk responded. “If this doesn’t fit your narrative in any way, we’ll gladly take it back.”
In marriage, it can be a little too easy to think, You don’t really fit my narrative. Do you happen to have a generous return policy?
God assigns every one of our conflicts. They’re opportunities to love each other more. To become more like Him. To live breathtaking lives not because they were custom-ordered, but because they do the hard work of loving, of fire-escape-free commitment.
8. How thankful are we for each other?
Author Eric Barker writes, “People tend to experience higher gratitude on days when their partner does something thoughtful for them, and such gratitude predicts elevated relationship quality the next day … In the long run, people who experience elevated levels of gratitude also experience stronger relationship commitment and are less likely to break up.”
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that gratitude = happily married. Gratitude swivels us toward what’s going right; toward our spouse’s strengths and contributions.
Better yet, it swings us away from an entitled, “What do you add to my life?”—and toward humility. That gratitude bleeds into thanking a God who orchestrates our lives, generously giving lavish gifts.
9. Are we living for something beyond ourselves?
Yes, there are the usual suspects in this conversation. Many studies indicate happier marriage, lower domestic violence, and better sex lives when both spouses attend church, have regular religious involvement, even pray together.
But think higher than an institution.
Author Skye Jethani writes in With,
God established a garden in Eden where he placed the man and woman and where he walked with them. God welcomed humanity into the eternal communion he had known since before time. We were created in his image so that we might live in relationship with him.
Eden was designed to be a collaborative environment where Creator and creatures worked together for a common goal.
We’re most happily married when working with God, for purposes superseding our own relationship.
10. How willing are we to forgive each other?
Forgiveness says, You and our love are bigger than the ways you fail. Your value to me goes beyond your ability to perform. I’m here for the long haul—not just while you keep meeting status quo.
Ligon Duncan wrote, “People don’t fall out of love. They fall out of repentance and forgiveness.”
(Forgiveness, however, doesn’t excuse or further sin. See “Are you in an Abusive Relationship?”)
More than that, forgiveness offers Jesus to your spouse. It speaks the Gospel to both of you: that while you were both His enemies, He went so far as to give His life.
Part of our ability to forgive, to offer undeserved kindness? We realize how much we’ve been forgiven.
And it’s hard not to be happily married when someone sees you completely as you are, yet loves you completely.
This means it’s worth it to take the next step on the areas of this relationship assessment that could use some fine-tuning … even an overhaul. The hard work to love each other more wholly and steadily means you step closer and closer to the marriage of your dreams.
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Harvest House), releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.