FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Cultivating Joy in Marriage

with Chris Coursey, Marcus Warner | January 5, 2021
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Dr. Marcus Warner and Reverend Chris Coursey encourage couples to cultivate joy in their marriage. They point out recent discoveries in brain science that are shown to increase joy in couples.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Dr. Marcus Warner and Reverend Chris Coursey encourage couples to cultivate joy in their marriage. They encourage couples to sow seeds of joy for a more satisfying marriage.

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Cultivating Joy in Marriage

With Chris Coursey, Marcus Warner
January 05, 2021
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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?” And here's what he came up with.


Marcus: 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, “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 that 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 Tuesday, January 5th. 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 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? [Pause] 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. 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®.

Marcus: Yes.

Bob: 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]

Marcus: That's Season 2. [Laughter]

Bob: We're talking today about sparking joy in marriage: The Four 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.

Bob: Good to have you guys.

Chris: Thank you.

Bob: 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 are 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—a 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.”

Dave: Yes, I found it fascinating, as I picked up your book. I feel like I’m with two brainiacs today; right? Is that what you guys are?

Chris: Absolutely, just think of us like that! [Laughter]

Dave: There you go.

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: Well, 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, really, 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, just 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 even 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.

Chris: Yes.

Ann: 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: Yes, absolutely. I was a pastor, and decided we were going to do the date night thing. Our first three dates ended in fights. So, 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 understand 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 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, you know, the next day, go, “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. Well, 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. You know, 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; and that is, my task now is to get my brain completely back online: “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.” 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: Yes, right.


Dave: I actually don't think my switch works. [Laughter] I’ve 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 on 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 that’s 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 met some new friends, and we got to talk about joy.” I'd share the three things, and then we would 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. At the end of the day, dinnertime's stressful. Our family’s switch is probably flickering; but after this exercise, the 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 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 just 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, first, you disengage and acknowledge that, “I'm disengaged.” But you use your disengagement to try to find four things: curiosity, appreciation, kindness, and eye contact: CAKE.

Dave: CAKE—I like all your acrostics in the book. [Laughter]

Ann: He’s an acrostic guy.

Dave: That's how my brain works.

Marcus: There you go. It's like I can't remember anything without them, so that's why we have that in there. You notice that, when your switch goes off, “I lose all curiosity about you,” and partly because I think I have you all figured out; right? In marriages, 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 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.

Ann: So 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 album and thinking, “Oh, he used to be blah, blah, blah,” and “He used to be….”; but “Now…”

Chris: Right.

Ann: 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, and say, “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. Now, 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 like 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 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 are 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,’”—okay? You can't say, “I really appreciated 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”—

Ann: Yes.

Marcus: —that becomes an opportunity for prayer. Now, what you do is, you take that to God and say, “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.

When you do find that coming up, this is a good opportunity to back up and say, “God, has the devil been influencing my narrative here?” and “Do you have another one for me?”

Dave: Tell me this: what do you do when you feel like, “I’m trying to flip on the switch. I realize I’m off; I’m discouraged, I’m mad; there’s no joy! I’m supposed to, right now, flip the switch and be curious and be appreciative. I can’t! I’m stuck!” Even if you’re talking to your seven-year-old, you know, they’re like, “No! I don’t want to; I’m just stuck!” It’s almost like the power board is disconnected or has been shut down. How do I get out of that rut?

Chris: You know, for some people, they’re high-energy responders; some people are low-energy responders. If you’re a high-energy responder, it might help to go walk; go move. People, you know, will notice if they go for a jog, they actually find it helps to get them back into relational mode pretty fast. Or, for some people, they’re overwhelmed by stimulation or noise, so they have to go find a nice, quiet place with some soft music, and then they can actually do the CAKE that Marcus was talking about.

When couples are going through the exercises in this book, at first, they find, it’s a bit of an uphill climb. It’s work, because they’re used to this switch being off; but what surprises them is, if they’re building some joy and they’re feeling some joy, and they’re actually starting to smile, your brain starts saying, “Hey, this is good!” If your brain says, “I like how I feel when this happens,” then your brain wants to do it again and again.

But if our switch is off and we’re just trying to, like, talk it through, your brain is going to say, “This is not fun! I don’t enjoy talking with my wife when our switch is off, and we’re talking about the finances,” or whatever those buttons are. You’re brain just says, “I want to avoid that; therefore, I want to avoid her.” The goal is: spark some joy. You’ve got to do it, you know, for a while; that’s why we say 15 minutes per day to start. Just get the joy growing!


Bob: 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.” And this exercise started because my wife, when it was time to go to bed, her mind would race and race and race, for up to several hours. With this brain science in mind, I was like, “Let’s try an exercise.”

The first step of this exercise—we’re lying in bed, so we’re cuddling, and the first step—is, we share three highlights from the 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; okay? Then, 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 of 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.


Then 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.


Ann: And you're saying, 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’s so powerful.

It's kind of interesting, because God designed the brain for joy; but you can imagine, what horror movies and scary movies like that [do]. 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 Four 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 Four Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request your copy.


And I know many of you have wanted to know about our plans for Weekend to Remember® getaways this spring. We have a handful of getaways scheduled; we’re still adding dates this spring. Of course, all of this is contingent upon restrictions that apply in various locations. You can go to our website at to find out more about some of the upcoming getaways that we expect to be having this spring. I should say we expect these getaways will be sold-out; we have limited availability, because of social distancing. If you’re interested in attending a getaway, sign up now and plan to join us for a Weekend to Remember this spring.

And for those of you who can’t get to a getaway, we are making plans to send a getaway to you—it’s FamilyLife’s Date Box—that we’re still putting the finishing touches on. It’s a great way for you to have some customized dates that will help unlock some great conversations in your marriage. Again, stay tuned to FamilyLife Today for more about the Date Box. It should be out before Valentine’s Day.

And we hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to talk about communication, and how when communication breaks down in a marriage, so does the joy. What can we do to keep joy at the center of our marital communication, even when we're not seeing things, eye to eye? We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us 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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