Cultivating Joy in Marriage

with Chris Coursey, Marcus Warner | January 13, 2020

Dr. Marcus Warner and Reverend Chris Coursey want you to know how to cultivate joy in your marriage. They explain what recent discoveries in brain science have been found as they relate to joy, and encourage couples to sow seeds of joy into their marriages for a more satisfying marriage.

Show Notes and Resources

Dr. Marcus Warner and Reverend Chris Coursey want you to know how to cultivate joy in your marriage. They explain what recent discoveries in brain science have been found as they relate to joy, and encourage couples to sow seeds of joy into their marriages for a more satisfying marriage.

Show Notes and Resources

Cultivating Joy in Marriage

With Chris Coursey, Marcus Warner
January 13, 2020
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: Marcus Warner remembers the season when his marriage wasn't bad; it just wasn't great. He went to work to try to figure out, “What's wrong here?” Here's what he came up with.


Marcus: We had—we had what we call a joy gap in our marriage; that is, a joy gap is simply the amount of time between moments when you share joy together. What I found was that I was not doing things on a daily basis that let my wife know that, “I'm happy to be with you.” We weren't sharing that look into each other's eyes and have that sparkle. We weren't sharing a touch—sharing those things. It wasn't a regular feature of our marriage, and I had no expectation that it should be. I did not realize that this joy gap in our marriage had gotten quite so big.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 13th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at Is there a joy gap in your marriage? And if there is, how do you fix it? We'll talk with Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey about that today. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think we're going to find out today what happens today if FamilyLife® and Marie Kondo have a mash-up; you know? Because Marie—you know, what's her big thing? You know Marie Kondo; right? Do you not know who Marie Kondo is?!

Dave: Bob, I don't know who you're talking about.

Ann: No, I don't either.

Dave: Nobody is this room knows who you're talking about.

Bob: Our guests don't know. So, Marie Kondo is the woman who's teaching you how to organize everything in your house.

Dave: Oh, the closet girl

Ann: Oh, yes!

Bob: It's all about “Does it spark joy?” That's what it is; so you pick up your old T-shirts and you ask, “Does this spark joy?”: and if it does, you keep it.

Dave: Wait, wait, wait. Is this a real thing?

Ann: If it's not, you don't keep it.

Bob: It's a real thing!

Marcus: Is she Japanese? Is this that?

Bob: Yes.

Marcus: Okay, my daughter watches her all the time.

Ann: Yes, she is big; I forgot—I didn’t know.

Marcus: She is.

Dave: You pick up items in your closet, and you decide to keep them or throw them away.

Bob: I watched Episode 1 on Netflix®. She came into these people's house and had them empty out their closets on their bed. Then you go, item by item; and you hold it up and you go, “Does this still spark joy?” If it does spark joy, you keep it; and if it doesn't, you say, “Thank you”—to it—“for serving me.”

Ann: It's almost like you bless it for serving you.

Bob: Then you put it in the pile, so it can bless somebody else.

Dave: You don't do this with your spouse or your kids; do you? [Laughter] That would be tragic.

Bob: That would be pretty tragic.

Marcus: That's Season 2. [Laughter]

Bob: We're talking today about sparking joy in marriage: The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages. We've got the authors of a book by that name who are joining us: Dr. Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey. Marcus, Chris—welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Marcus: It's great to be here.

Chris: Thank you.

Bob: Good to have you guys here. Marcus is a conference speaker and author. He's the president of Deeper Walk International, working with issues of recovery, and leadership, and marriage, and family life. Chris is president of THRIVEtoday, which is a nonprofit that focuses on training leaders in communities on relationship skills.

Together, they've worked on this book that says on the front: 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love. That's one of those things you put on the front of a book because somebody will say, “I'll buy that book if it will tell me how to stay in love in 15 minutes a day.” Pretty bold promise. What's that based on, Marcus?

Marcus: It's based on the fact that intentionality—15 minutes of actually being happy to be with somebody can do things in your brain that you might not expect. If you make it a habit—15 minutes a day, day after day after day—your brain chemistry literally changes. Your attachment can move out of the fear mode and more and more into the joy mode.

Bob: Chris, you've looked at brain science—and there's a lot of brain science in this book—but we should start off by saying the brain science is just affirming what Scripture says is true about the human condition all along; right?

Chris: You're exactly right. There's a lot of references in the Bible to joy. What brain science is doing is highlighting the significance of joy, because joy means we're glad to be together; it's a relationship.

It's really interesting to look at Scripture with this lens of/relational lens of this glad-to-be-together joy. We have a God, who's really glad to be with His people. It's good to see brain science really starting to highlight that: “Wow; our brain works best when joy is there/when joy is present.”

Bob: You know, it's interesting—we've observed, over the years, as we've been hosting Weekend To Remember®marriage getaways for couples—how on Friday night at the getaway, you can feel that there's still a little edge in the room.

Ann: —tension in the room.

Bob: Right.By Sunday morning, as these couples have been together and have been focusing on their relationship and have been rediscovering some of the joy you're talking about, there have been some breakthroughs. Some dramatic marital breakthroughs happen.

I mention that because this week and next week we are encouraging listeners to attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. These getaways kick off in February; they'll go through the spring. We're in more than 40 cities this spring. In fact, you guys are going to be speaking at the getaway in Nashville in March.

Dave: Looking forward to it.

Bob: I'm going to be at the getaway in Orlando in April.

And again, we'll have dozens of these getaways all across the country. If you sign up this week or next week to attend an upcoming getaway, you'll save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. You just have to call or go online and let us know that you listen to FamilyLife Today and that you want to take advantage of this 50 percent off special. Again, go to or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to find out more about the getaway so that you can go and have a weekend together—maybe spark a little joy back into your marriage, which again, is at the heart of what we're talking about here today.

Dave: Yes; I found it fascinating as I picked up your book—I feel like I'm with two brainiacs today; right? [Laughter] Is that what you guys are?

Chris: Absolutely; just think of us like that. [Laughter]

Dave: I mean, it is interesting—I haven't seen a lot of marriage books that start with brain science, and how our brain works, and how that affects your relationships and your marriage. Talk about this—how the brain works—brain science and even the motivator that sparks something good in your marriage.

Chris: In the 1990s, all this brain science came out because technology had advanced where they could now scan the human brain while people are alive—they didn't have to wait until people died. What happened is that you could see how the brain works and you could actually observe changes in the brain, as well, over time.

This guy by the name of Dr. Allan Schore, out of UCLA, spent a lot of time in a library, pulling together all this brain research. As we looked at all this research that came out, he highlighted something very significant about the brain; and that was—when you look at how the brain works, relational joy is what it's all about. In other words, from before we are born—actually, while we are still in the womb, with just the sounds and everything to when babies are born and different senses develop—joy is that feeling that someone is glad to be with me.

He looked at joy—really is the best motivator for the brain. In other words, if you want to build a really good brain and develop a really good brain, what you need to have present—one of the very important ingredients has to be this “glad to be together,” where “You are the sparkle in my eye.” I show it with my face, and my voice tone, and my body language, and so forth.

Just looking at how significant joy is on a human brain really impacted Marcus and [me] as we started to try to figure out: “Okay; how could we share this news in a very useful resource, where people can actually, not just talk about joy, but build some joy in their marriages?”

Ann: What you're describing is the wedding day. When a couple looks at each other, all you see is joy emanating from one another, and love, and anticipation of the future. Dave and I have been working with couples for 30 years; and then we find this couple that's been married maybe 15 years, and there's no joy. So what happened?

Bob: Well, what happened with you, Marcus?—because 11 years into your marriage, you had a “no joy” evening with your wife; right?

Marcus: Absolutely. I was a pastor and decided we were going to do the date night thing, and our first three dates ended in fights. At dinner one night, my wife starts giving me the image that's in her mind of feeling like she's in a cave—there are bars in front of the cave. I'm outside, and basically ignoring her and occasionally throwing her scraps.

You can tell the tears are starting to come for her as she's telling me this. I am so detached from my right hemisphere—completely in the left part of my brain—that I'm getting angry as she tells me this. I'm not feeling compassion. I'm feeling like: “Here I am, taking you on a date night. You don't understand the sacrifices I make for you. You don't know the priority I'm putting on this,” and “You feel like you're getting scraps.” I'm getting angry while she's pouring out her heart, wanting me to feel compassion.

All of a sudden, she said, “Wait a second; wait a second.” I said, “What?” She said, “Jesus just showed up in my picture.” I'm like, “What do you mean?” She said: “He just unlocked the gate and let me out.” She goes, “I don't know what this means, but I feel different.” I was still mad [Laughter], which kind of shows you where my emotional maturity was at that particular point.

What had happened was that—what we call a joy gap in our marriage; that is, a joy gap is simply the amount of time between moments when you share joy together. What I found was that I was not doing things on a daily basis that let my wife know that “I'm happy to be with you.” I did not realize that this joy gap in our marriage had gotten quite so big. It was shortly after that that we began discovering the brain science that put words and language into what we were experiencing and began to give some tracks to run on to begin repairing that.

Dave: So, did you just, the next day: “I need these practices in my marriage,” and “I'm going to look and bring a sparkle back,” and “I'm going to touch her hand,” and that whole thing? Take us on a journey of the brain science that really impacted your marriage.

Marcus: Sure. I didn't know any of this brain science at that point, so we hadn't learned it yet. I discovered it in a different context, began bringing it in; and all of a sudden, when we understood the importance of joy, I realized, “Okay; so what I'm after

in my marriage is actually joy.” It just changed my whole paradigm; because before, when my wife and I would have a fight, I would go into what I call my mental man cave: I'd just go into this room and I would sit here, and feel sorry for myself, and tell myself how unlucky I was that I had a wife like this.

Instead, now, I began to realize—actually, what has happened is that half of my brain has shut down and is not working. Now, when I'm tempted to go into that mental man cave, I have a very different paradigm in that it's my task now to get my brain completely back online—so: “How do I get my brain re-engaged so I can act like myself here?”; because actually, if I think about it, I'm not acting like myself right now; I've turned into a different person.

Learning the brain science gave me some terminology to put to this and say: “I have an on/off switch in my brain; and when it goes off, I turn into a different person; I don't act like myself. I can't find joy; I can't find appreciation; I forget why I like you; I forget why I even got married to you in the first place.” So, I'm going to have to do some things in those moments to get that switch flipped back on so that I can, once again, even feel appreciation, and feel curiosity, and feel some of these things. It was a journey to get there.

Bob: But how do you do that? I mean, if you're sitting around, going, “I would rather watch ESPN than talk to my wife. I'm not feeling any joy; I'm kind of isolated,”—how do I flip the switch so that—


Ann: Yes, I think every listener is like, “Tell me how to flip this switch.”

Bob: Right.


Dave: I actually don't think my switch works—[Laughter]—I flipped it and flipped it. No; I'm thinking that a lot of us think that: “I have tried, and it just doesn't flip”; so how do I do this?

Chris: One of the best ways to do this is by focusing and remembering the good stuff.

Appreciation is what we call packaged joy. If my wife and I are in an “off space,” one of the things that will help, once we quiet, would be to remember/think about and share: “What were some special moments/what were some good things from your day?”

For example, every evening in my household, my wife and I will do an exercise in this book—we call it “Happy and Sad”—we do this with my sons: “So what were three things from your day that were good?” “Oh, I had this great moment—I mat some new friends, and we got to talk about joy.” I'd share the three things, and then we'd talk about what made us sad from the day as well. For every sad thing, we'd have to do three joyful things/three good things.

When that switch is off, just doing this exercise is remarkable. The end of the day, dinnertime's stressful—our family’s switch is probably flickering—but after this exercise, everyone's switch is on: everybody's engaged; we're smiling; we're laughing.

The goal: “If you can take a little bit of time—even if it's just three minutes—to think about, talk about, and feel the good stuff, and notice: ‘How are you feeling as you remembered that fun getaway that we had on the beach?’—it's amazing what can happen.” The goal is that I have to feel it.

Bob: I'm not necessarily having to go get out the photo albums and say, “Let's remember a fun thing we did together.” If I just talk about what's brought me joy today—whether you've [spouse] been involved in that or not—you're saying that kind of opens up the whole joy capacity, and it starts to happen between us?

Chris: Yes; so if I'm offline and my wife is online, I can even just think about those good things from my day; but what happens is, when you share it with your partner, you get more mileage out of it. In other words, the switch is kind of brighter, so to speak.

My goal would be—I want to get my switch on; and then my goal would be for my wife and [me]: “Okay; now, let's talk about some shared moments.” That's going to give you more mileage in that joy moment.

Marcus: Let me add to that too. In our book, we have a very concrete answer to your question, which is: “How do you get the switch back on?” That is that you, first, disengage and acknowledge that “I'm disengaged”; but you use your disengagement to try to find four things: curiosity, appreciation, kindness, and high contact: CAKE.

Dave: CAKE—I like all your acrostics in the book. [Laughter] That's how my brain works.

Ann: He’s an acrostic guy.

Marcus: There you go. It's like I can't remember anything without them; that's why we have that in there.

You notice that, when your switch goes off, “I lose all curiosity about you,”—partly because I think I have you all figured out—right? In marriage, that's really common; it's like: “I already know what you think about this. I already know how you feel about this. I have no curiosity about what you think; because you always do this, and you never do that,” or whatever; so I have no curiosity.

If I don't have curiosity, my switch goes off; and I need curiosity to get it back on. One of the things that I do, when I disengage, is I'm looking for: “Is there anything I can be curious about here? Let's use some curiosity to re-engage.”

The second one is appreciation, which is really where Chris is camping out here; because appreciation—whether it's for that person or not—helps to get what we call your relational brain circuits back on; that gets your switch back on.

One of the things I've actually done is—I've created an acrostic—I put my wife's name of things that I appreciate about her. [Laughter]  It helps me, immediately, in that moment say: “Now, remember what you appreciate about her.” You go down the list of things, and it gives you a pre-thought-through strategy of thinking on: “You know what? There are things here to appreciate. I've got to get my mind here.” It helps get my switch back on so that I can engage relationally.

Ann: Walk me through this. Dave and I really struggled around our ten-year anniversary.

Dave: Our ten-year anniversary was a little bit like your eleven-year date.

Ann: Yes. So let's say I go back and I think, “These are the things that I used to appreciate about Dave.” I could see myself opening a picture of him and thinking, “Oh, he used to be blah, blah, blah,” and “He used to…; but now…” You know what I mean?

How do we get out of that?—because I'm thinking, “He's none of those things now.” I think a lot of people could say that.


Chris: Well, the good news is God designed our brain that it can update. When this joy part of our brain is on, you can update—so: “Yes; this is how it feels, but maybe this can change.”

Even trying to build some joy in the present, actually, and noticing, “How do you feel right now?”—you just spent five minutes together, doing this fun joy exercise. Let's talk about: “How does it feel?—if I were in your shoes right now, what would I be thinking?—what would I be feeling?”

The moment you do something that's joyful—but then you kind of pay attention to it and go, “Oh! Well, that was fun,”—that basically is putting some cement into that memory for your brain, going: “Oh, this is good. This is really good.” It's actually letting your brain update when you start to notice: “Hey, this was meaningful; this was special. I really enjoyed what you shared about me. That made me feel loved.”

“Now, how does it feel that we did that?” That's why every exercise in the book has this component of—not just physically connecting, like holding hands or something—but it also, pay attention to how you feel. It's like your brain is going: “Oh, okay. Even though this isn't how it's always felt, this is how it used to feel.”

Your brain always looks back in order to predict the future. In those moments your brain's looking back and going: “Oh yes, this is just how he is,” and “I feel pretty discouraged right now. Is this ever going to change?” Well, with a little bit of joy, what happens is—your brain says: “Okay; let me look forward now. Let's see what's around the corner. Maybe there's something good here. Maybe there's hope.” The moment you get hope into the equation, that's a really good thing to have.


Marcus: There's two other points I'd make on that. First of all, whenever you're doing an appreciation exercise, we have one firm rule and that is: “There is one forbidden word whenever you do appreciation; and that is the word, ‘but.’” You can't say, “I really appreciate when you did this, and when you used to do that; but you don't do this anymore.” You're not allowed to say that when you share appreciation with people; because, obviously, it pulls the rug right out from under it; it also does it for us.


If you find yourself, in your mind, having a lot of these “…buts,” that becomes an opportunity for prayer. Now, what you do is—you take that to God and go, “What perspective do You want to give me about this thing that I'm feeling about my husband right now?”


I find that the devil wants to give us a narrative, and the Holy Spirit wants to give us a narrative. Where we have those problems with our spouse, is often where those narratives collide, and without realizing it; because the devil's narrative feels true, and there's evidence to support it. I don't realize how fully I've bought into that narrative.


Bob: So what's the first step? If we're talking to a couple today and they would say: “We're kind of in the doldrums—just blah. We're not mad at each other; there's just not a lot of desire/a lot of joy in our marriage.”


Chris: What I would have them do is actually pick an exercise and do an exercise. Here's an exercise I would do—my favorite exercise is what we call “Triple Three Appreciation.” Cuddling—the first step is that we share three things from our day/three highlights from the day: “Here's what was good from my day…” We're cuddling; and I share these three things; and then Jen, my wife, shares her three things. [Sigh] We're already breathing a little easier.

The next step is three qualities I appreciate about my wife. Even though there's another step here, this would be the step for my wife. I could literally feel her body relax after I shared my three things—what I appreciate about her—physically, her body would relax. She would breathe deeper; she was calming down—it was noticeable. Then she would share her three things about me.


The third is three qualities we appreciate about God. This exercise would take us, you know, less than 15 minutes. Every time we would do this exercise, my wife would fall asleep within 10-15 minutes. The nights that we wouldn't do the exercise, she could be up for, easily, two hours. That exercise/when we saw the effects of doing that exercise—a 10- to 15-minute exercise made that much of a difference for her sleep and, really, for our marriage.


Ann: And you're saying that, if you looked at the brain as that was happening, it would look different from beginning to end.


Chris: Yes; because what happens is—the moment you think about an appreciation file, you remember that special moment. As far as your brain is concerned, your brain is reliving the moment; so this is why the stuff is so powerful.

It's kind of interesting; because God designed the brain for joy—but you can imagine: “Why do horror movies and scary movies like that?”—like your brain responds as though you're living those moments. What Marcus and I want to do is help couples learn to amplify the good stuff/to share the good stuff.


Bob: You have, in the book, a number of exercises like this that couples can do that are a part of your 15 minutes a day. This is your new workout for your marriage—to try to grow joy. The book we're talking about is called The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages: How 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love. We've got copies of this book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book from us online at, or you can call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is if you want to order a copy of the book, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request your copy.


And don't forget—one of the ways you can increase the joy in your marriage is to spend time together doing something that's going to strengthen your marriage, like maybe taking a weekend away together and going to one of our Weekend To Remember marriage getaways. We have about 60 of these events happening this spring in cities all across the country.


If you sign up today to attend one of these getaways, you will save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. There's no better time than right now for you to take advantage of the special offer we're making to FamilyLife Today radio listeners. Go to to find out when a getaway is happening, either in a city near where you live or a city you'd like to visit. Then plan a weekend away this spring and save 50 percent—that will bring some joy—save 50 percent off the regular registration fee—a great weekend and some great savings.


Again, this offer is good for FamilyLife Today listeners over the next couple of weeks; but don't delay. Some of these events are starting to sell out already. Go to for more information about how you can attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway and save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. If you have any questions, or if you'd like to register by phone, call 1-800-358-6329—that's 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”


Now, tomorrow, we're going to continue our conversation with Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey. We're going to talk about communication; and how communication breaks down; and what we can do to keep joy in the middle of our marital communication, even when we're not seeing things the same. I hope you can be back for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas; a Cru® Ministry. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.


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