FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Habits of Joy

with Chris Coursey, Marcus Warner | January 6, 2021
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Dr. Marcus Warner and Reverend Chris Coursey, authors of the book "The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages," reveal four habits that will make your marriage happier. Find out more about the habits of playing together, appreciating one another, listening for emotion, and nurturing a rhythm.

  • 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 reveal four habits to make your marriage happier.

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Habits of Joy

With Chris Coursey, Marcus Warner
January 06, 2021
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Bob: We’ve all had the experience of our marital communication breaking down at some point. Chris Coursey says one of the reasons why is because there are times when we try to provide the other person comfort without providing first validation.

Chris: Validation is you say what you see: “Wow; you are really overwhelmed right now. I can see it; I can hear it.” And then comfort is: “What do we need when this happens? What would be helpful right now?”—“Let’s go for a walk,” or “Let’s get a sitter, because we’re going out tonight.”

Validation basically sets the stage for comfort. If I offer the comfort without the validation, then I’m going to minimize; I’m trying to fix it.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, January 6th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at There are ways we can improve our communication in marriage; and by doing so, improve the level of joy in our marriage. We’ll talk about that today with Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember back a number of months ago—it was actually Labor Day—we had the day off and didn’t have anything planned. I had promised Mary Ann that we would do two things that day. The first thing was we were going to get the front hedges trimmed up. It was hot; I did not want to trim the hedges on the hot day. But we went out there together and we trimmed up the hedges.

The second thing was—there is a little room in our garage that is kind of the junk room—she wanted that—pull everything out, clean it out; reassemble.

Ann: Mary Ann is my girl.

Bob: Yes, well—

Ann: I’m with her.

Dave: Bob, this is Labor Day. You’re supposed to rest.

Bob: That’s what I was thinking; right? [Laughter] I was thinking, “Have Ann Wilson come do this with you. The two of you would do great at this. Dave and I could stay inside and watch something on TV.”

But I did that with her.

Dave: Yes.

Bob: About halfway through this cleaning out the room, I realized, “This is like my wife’s best day ever”; right? I’m going, “I just want to take a shower.” She’s like, “This is wonderful that we’re able to get this stuff done. Doesn’t it make you feel good?” I said, “No, it makes me feel sweaty is what it makes me feel.”  

It is fascinating how those kinds of times together can start to open up things, relationally. We were working; it’s not like we went out and had fun. It’s not like we went out and had a date together; we just did a chore together. All of a sudden, she’s—I could see the joy increase in her.

Dave: I am married to the same woman. My wife loves that stuff. [Laughter]

Ann: I love working. If all the kids are out in the yard, and we’re all working, I look at everybody like, “Is this not the best day?” They’re all miserable; they’re hating it! [Laughter] But for me—that fills me up.

But I will say for Dave—when we go play something, some sports or whatever, he is like a little boy; he’s ten years old—we’ll laugh; we’ll compete. I think what happens in marriage is we miss those times.

Bob: Yes; we’re talking about how to get those times back this week as we talk about the habits that lead to a joy-filled marriage. We’ve got Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey joining us this week to talk about this. Guys, welcome back.

Chris: It’s good to be back.

Marcus: Thank you; good to be here.

Bob: Marcus is a conference speaker and author who has, for more than 30 years, worked with organizations on leadership issues, family issues, recovery issues. He is President of Deeper Walk International. Chris leads THRIVEtoday, a non-profit that, again, works with leaders and works on relationship issues. They’ve worked together to create this book, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages: How 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love.

In reading this, and even talking about doing the chores together, I’m thinking about how, at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, when couples carve out time to say, “Let’s be together and do things together,”—even if one of them goes, “That would not be my favorite way to spend a weekend or a day”—there’s something that happens when you’re doing stuff together that starts to open you up. We see that happen at the Weekend to Remember.


Dave: Yes, bottom line is you’re pouring energy into what you would probably—I would—we would all say is the most important relationship in our life. So often, other relationships get all the energy and this doesn’t; so you pull away for about 48 hours and you say, “I’m going to give energy.” You said it, Bob. We’ve been a part of this

30 years. Every single time, we see God show up and literally change people’s marriages.


I do find it interesting—on the back of your book, it says, “What separates happy marriages from miserable ones? Surprisingly, it’s not healthy communication. It’s not conflict resolution skills. It’s actually how often you experience joy.” Let’s talk about that, because you say there’s four habits to finding joy in your marriage. Let’s talk about the four habits. What are they?

Marcus: Sure, to make it easy to remember, we used the word, “PLAN.” You need to have a plan to grow the joy in your marriage.

Dave: I like this guy. I like how he thinks: “P-L-A-N.”

Marcus: “P-L-A-N.”

Habit number one is “P” is “Play Together,”—right?—which we’ve all—you stop and think about who your friends are, growing up; they’re the people you like playing with. When you first get married, you’re convinced, “I’m going to feel joy with this person forever because I love doing things with them. I love talking to them. We have so much joy together.”

Playing together and making sure that stays on your schedule/that it stays a priority—that you’re finding ways to grow the areas in which you can play together—for example, I know a couple—he was really into NASCAR; she was really into HGTV—so they made an agreement. He would start watching one HGTV show that his wife liked so they would have that in common. They were going to expand the area where they could share some joy. She went out and bought The Complete Idiot’s Guide to NASCAR. [Laughter]

Dave: Did she really?

Marcus: Yes, she did. Then they bought tickets to a NASCAR event and went together. She came back with great joy in the fact that she knew more about NASCAR than most people she was sitting with because she had read this book. Again, that’s just an example of growing the areas where you can play together.

Bob: I have to tell you—we have a mutual friend, Tim Kimmel, and his wife Darcy—I’ve never forgotten them saying this—they said, “When we were dating,” Tim said, “one of the things that really attracted me about Darcy is she loved Monday Night Football. We would get together and watch Monday Night Football. She loved/she was so into the game.” Darcy said, “One of the things that attracted me about Tim is when I was cutting out dress patterns, he would help me cut out the dress patterns. Now when we got married, my interest in Monday Night Football went completely away. His interest in helping with the dress patterns…”

Why is it that, when we’re dating, we’ve got all this energy for this, and after we’re married, all of this joy-together stuff just evaporates?!

Ann: Yes, we stop playing together.

Chris: Yes; part of the reason is dopamine, actually. Dopamine is—when I do something that’s new—your brain, actually, has a novelty detector; so when you’re doing something new, and somebody joins you in that, it feels good and you want to do that. But over time, you don’t get the same feeling when you do this, so maybe you shift interests or hobbies to other things.

The nice thing about relational joy is, no matter what it might be that you’re doing, the goal is, “Are we glad to be together while we’re doing it?” For play, for example, the brain is actually wired for play, so play is often a reflection of the joy in our marriage. Marriages with a lot of joy—you’ll find that they’re playful, and they’re playing, and they’re regularly doing things.

But as those joy levels start to drop—because it’s easy to start joy; it’s harder to sustain joy over the long haul—when that joy starts to fade, you’ll notice couples kind of get into a rut. So learning something new, as a couple, would actually be really beneficial. My wife, for example, is wanting to go swing dancing, and I’m not a dancer whatsoever. But she’s always—

Marcus: That’s true. I’ve seen him. [Laughter]

Chris: Yes, it’s not pretty. But it’s something new, and it’s something that we can do together, so we’re going to do it just because, “Hey, play’s good!” You laugh; you smile; you have some fun, and you’re doing it together. Those are the ingredients you want.

Dave: It sounds like play needs to be intentional—the examples you’re using—people said, “We are intentionally going to create space to play,” and that brings joy.

Ann: What we have found is—we’ll talk to couples that are struggling, and I’ll ask this question: “What are you guys doing to play, or to have fun, or to laugh together?” “Nothing.”

Chris: Right.

Ann: They don’t even know how to do that again. You’re saying—as what you said, Dave—we need to make it to be an intentional part of our relationships.

Chris: This applies directly to your sex life as well. We actually put sex under the category of play. The idea is that people are like, “Where are we going to find a better sex life?” Well, if you’re not playing together, chances are that’s not going to do very well either; because then it just becomes a task that you’ve got to get over/got to get through. It brings up a whole other realm of issues.

We have some good friends, who’ve been with FamilyLife a long time, Bill and Pam Mutz—

Dave: Yes.

Ann: Oh, they’re masters of play.

Chris: Exactly; when I was talking to them about the fact that we were going to be writing this book, Bill leans in; he’s like, “What’s your first habit?” I said, “It’s playing together.” He just jumped out of his chair.

For people who don’t know them—they’ve got like 12 kids; they’ve been married like

50 years—they live with more joy than almost anybody I know. He said, “Yes, we’ve been very intentional about building play into our calendar. It’s one of the first things that goes onto the calendar when we set out our agenda for the year.”

Dave: When I read this section of your book, I thought, “One of the reasons our marriage is healthy is I’m married to a woman that wants to play—a lot.” It got to the point when our boys were little, I’d get into the shower, and almost every other shower an ice bucket douse of water would come flying over the top of the shower—

Bob: —from your wife?!

Dave: —from my wife and my little boys—run out of the bathroom. I’d be standing there—just boooosh! I got to the point where I was locking the door. They had little things to open the door. I hear them all giggle and run out. There was just play. There really was. I’d/we’d yell and get mad; and then I’m realizing, “This is a good thing. [Laughter] Getting doused by ice water is a good thing.”

I mean, it’s one of fifty things. We’re working out, not too long ago—we were down in the basement, working out—and she says, “Let’s wrestle!” [Laughter] I’m like, “What?!” “I don’t think you can take me down!” I’m like, “What are you doing right now?!” “Let’s go!” I’m like, “Leave me alone!” I’m running around; she grabbed me. Finally, I pinned her; and we’re laying there, just laughing—like, “What is wrong with us?!”

Chris: That’s wonderful. [Laughter]

Marcus: Yes.

Dave: Again, reading what you said about the brain—I’d never had any understanding—right now, the joy bucket/the joy center of my brain is, actually, still growing. That’s a beautiful thing. I had no idea of the brain science behind it.

Ann: Yes, talk about that.

Marcus: You definitely want your wife and husband to be your play friends, as well as just your business partner. In terms of the brain behind the joy—there is in your front of your brain, something called the right orbital pre-frontal cortex, which is—we call the joy bucket.

Dave: I like joy bucket better. [Laughter] That’s easier.

Marcus: The joy bucket basically is the part of your brain that grows with the experience of joy and rest. Maybe you’ve seen a baby in a grocery store, and the baby locks eyes with you and gets really excited, and you share joy. The baby gets so excited that they finally just turn away. Then, a couple of seconds later, they look back and their seeing you: “Are you still there? Will you do this again?”

What’s happened was, basically, their joy bucket got full; they couldn’t handle any more joy. It would actually almost become traumatizing to them at that point to have more joy, so they had to look away—and that’s the rest time.

Just like when you lift weights, you’re not actually growing your muscles while you’re lifting the weights; you’re growing your muscles in the rest time in between. You’re actually damaging your muscles while you lift; then they recover. In the same way, we need joy and rest, that combination/that rhythm that grows the joy bucket in your brain. The bigger that bucket gets, the easier it is for us to return to joy from upsetting things and the more natural it is for us to live out of a place of joy rather than fear.

Chris: You can see God’s signature in how this works, because so much of the brain works on a “Use it or lose it” cycle. You either use it over time or your brain says, “Hey, we can get rid of that.” There are seasons: certain things grow during this window of time, but it won’t grow later.

However, with this joy bucket that Marcus is talking about, it has something called fetal biochemistry, which means it can grow over the lifetime. It grows in response to joy-filled relationships and joyful moments, so every time that baby looks and sees the smile on someone’s face, this is the part of the brain that’s working out and getting stronger and stronger.

We had my 96-year-old grandmother living with us. We would do a version of these exercises every night at the dinner table. It was amazing to watch my young sons building joy, but then, over here, my grandmother who’s in her 90s building joy. Her joy bucket is still getting a workout as long as there’s relational, authentic, genuine glad-to-be-togetherness.

It’s not happiness; it’s not like we’re forcing it: “We’re faking it ‘til we make it.” Oh, no, this is, “I’m genuinely glad to be with you, and I’m glad that we’re together right here.”


Bob: So playing together is key to joy.

Dave: That’s the “P,” Bob. [Laughter]

Bob: What’s the—what’s the “L” in the PLAN.

Marcus: Alright, “L” is “Listening for Emotion.” This is based off the idea that our left brain and right brain operate differently. Left brain tends to listen for problems; right brain tends to listen for emotions.

You think about it—a lot of times when we’re listening to somebody, if we’re listening in a left-brain fashion—as soon as I hear the problem, I lose all curiosity about where the rest of this is going. My switch shuts down; I become non-relational. Now, at this point, all I want to do is talk about your problem/solve your problem. I largely want to solve your problem so that you’ll go away. It’s really sort of a selfish motivation to solve your problem, because I don’t want to deal with this any longer than I have to.

Whereas, when I’m listening for emotion, what I’m doing is I’m listening to: “How is this affecting you? Is this making you sad? Is this making you feel overwhelmed; in despair? Is this making you feel joyful and excited? What’s the emotion?”

I find that if I’m listening for emotion and I can validate the emotion, I don’t lose my problem-solving capabilities; right? If I’m listening for emotion, I will always be able to come back and do the problem solving. But it doesn’t work the other way around. If I’m listening for the problems only and I’m doing the problem solving first, I will never get to the emotion.

We want to listen for the emotion first is the skill that’s involved here.

Dave: I think a lot of us don’t understand how to do that. We do exactly what you said; I’ve done that. I tell you what—when I read your example of the couple, before they got married—about him wanting to build a house—tell that story, because that helped me understand, “That’s what it means to listen for emotion.”

Marcus: Yes, we had a pre-marital counseling appointment. The couple that was there for counseling. I asked them, “Do you have anything that you argue about?” They both looked at each other like, “Yes, we know what that is.” I said, “Why don’t you do it in front of me while you’ve got a third party present?”

They started to arguing over whether or not they should build the house before they got married or wait until after they were married to build the house. This guy was an engineer. He literally pulled the piece of paper out of his back pocket with seven bullet-pointed reasons why it made more sense to build the house before they got married. [Laughter]

I said, “Alright, I’ve had enough fun here. We’ll take a time out. Why don’t we do this?”—I’m going to give the guy the assignment—“You listen to your wife explain this to you. Now all I want you to do is listen for the emotion and name it accurately.” She goes into this explanation, “You know, I’m just concerned that if you’re building a house, we’re going to get to one of the biggest days in my life, and I’ll find myself going through this…” She was kind of all over the place; you had to listen for it a little bit.

I got done; I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “Fear—she’s clearly afraid.” I said, “What emotion did you hear?” He goes, “Anger.” I’m like, “Whoa!” I mean, it so caught me off guard; it was so obvious she was feeling fear.

I’m like/I told him, “You are either very intuitive or a really bad listener.” [Laughter] He said, “I think I’m really intuitive.” I was like, “Okay, where did you hear anger?” He said, “She knows she’s losing this argument.”—which tells me something—because when my right brain is shut down and I’m totally in my left brain, not only am I in a problem-solving mode, but I’m also—life is all about winning and losing. That is a clear sign that my right brain is shut down, and I’m totally in my left brain.

I’m like, “Alright, let’s try this again. Only this time you tell her what emotions she thinks she’s feeling.” To his credit, he hit a home run. He did it perfectly; so well that she started crying, like, “I feel seen; I feel understood; I feel recognized.” She goes, “Go ahead and build the house.”

I went, “Time out. He doesn’t get off that easy.” [Laughter] He was convinced that he had only logical, rational reasons for wanting to do this—there was nothing emotional about it—until she started asking questions/pulling it out of him—began to realize what he really wanted was to make his dad proud. Once he put his finger on that emotion, now they’re both crying; right?

I asked them—they ended up actually waiting until after the marriage to build the house—but they got to a point where they had to keep the relationship bigger than the problem. One of the ways you keep the relationship bigger than the problem is by listening for the emotion and validating that emotion first.

Chris: That way you feel seen; you feel understood, like: “I feel like he gets me,” “I feel like she understands me now,” —that’s the ingredient right there—that if I don’t feel understood by you, or you minimize or you try to fix it, we’re not even in the same boat. This isn’t going to feel very good, going forward.

Bob: This has been talked about for years—that guys are always trying to fix things; we’re the logical ones—wives are like [tearfully], “I don’t want you to fix it. I just want you to hear me.”

Is there something about men and women that men tend to gravitate toward this?

Ann: Let me give an example of this. [Laughter]

Dave: No, don’t! Don’t! Don’t! I know what she’s going to say!

Ann: At this time, we had three boys under five. Dave came in one day, and I’m crying. I told Dave/he goes, “What happened?” I said, “I feel like a bad mom. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like my life is out of control. I don’t have a life. I think I’m terrible at this.” He’s listening, and he goes upstairs.

Dave: I said, “I’ll be right back. I’ve got to go do something.”

Ann: He comes down with a piece of paper. I’m thinking, “He wrote me a love note. He’s going to encourage me!” I take it out of his hand.

He said, “Here,”—it’s numbered one to ten—I’m like, “Okay; ten reasons why I’m a good mom.” I read it out loud; I say, “Oh, hon! ‘Number one: get more organized.’” [Laughter] Wait; then I’m thinking, “Oh, well, I must be reading this right. ‘Number two: use your time more wisely.’”

Dave: Okay; you get the idea. [Laughter]

Ann: I take it; I said, “What is this?!”

Dave: Watch this.

Ann: He said, “I’m helping you.” I said, “You think this is helping me?” I took it and I ripped it up into little pieces, and I threw it in his face. Then tell them what you said.

Dave: I said, “That was from God,”—I really said that—“That was from God.” Because I’d run upstairs and I prayed. I felt like God gave me “Ten Ways to Make Your Life Better”-type deal. She threw it. That was the day—we can mark it, where she said, “That’s not what I’m looking for,”—what Bob said: I thought she really did want me to fix it.

I’m not saying I’m great at listening for emotion; but I started to learn, early in my marriage, it’s like, “It’s bigger than this.” I never did this though—I never connected what you guys have just brought to this thing—“If I do listen, and she feels heard, joy comes.”

Chris: Yes.

Dave: That’s a motivator that can change your marriage.

Chris: That’s it. You know that’s—what you had in that story—you had good intentions, but the attunement was missing. The attunement is listening for emotions; going, “Wow; I hear you’re really overwhelmed. This sounds awful.”

Marcus and I call it, “Validation and Comfort.” Validation is you say what you see: “Wow; you are really overwhelmed right now. I can see it; I can hear it.” And then comfort is: “What do we need when this happens? What would be helpful right now?”—“Let’s go for a walk,” or “Let’s get a sitter, because we’re going out tonight.” Validation basically sets the stage for comfort.

Dave: VCR, VCR.

Chris: That’s it! If I offer the comfort, without the validation, then it’s just/I’m going to minimize; I’m trying to fix it.

Bob: Alright, the fourth area in your PLAN—you “Play Together”—you “Listen for Emotion”—you “Appreciate Daily”—“Nurture Rhythm” is the fourth one. We are failures at this because we have no time to talk about this on FamilyLife Today. [Laughter] We did not nurture the rhythm, so folks are going to have to buy a copy of your book to figure out how to finish the PLAN; aren’t they?

Marcus: I’m crushed. [Laughter]

Bob: Is that okay with you?

Chris: Yes; no, that’s good. [Laughter]

Bob: Guys, thank you for being here. This has been so helpful and I think very practical for how we can cultivate joy. We’re grateful for your book, and thanks for the time on FamilyLife Today.

Chris: Thank you.

Marcus: We really appreciate the opportunity.

Bob: We’ve copies of the book, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, at to order your copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of Chris and Marcus’s book is The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages: How 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love. Go to to get your copy, or call to order at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

I know many of you have wondered about the Weekend to Remember getaways that we host, here at FamilyLife®: “What’s going on with those?” We have started making plans for some spring getaways—a limited number with limited seating—in fact, we expect most of these getaways are going to sell out because of the limited seating and the social distancing we’ll be doing at these events. There’s more information about the few events we’re hosting this spring online at If this is something that you’ve been wanting to do or needing to do, go to to find out more about the dates and locations for upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.

For those of you who can’t get to a getaway, we want to bring one to you. We have been developing a “FamilyLife Dates to Remember” date box that includes everything you need for three great dates together as a couple. We’ll have more information about this coming up later on this month. We’ll have it out in time for Valentine’s Day, so keep your eyes and ears open for information about the “Dates to Remember” date box from FamilyLife.

We hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to talk to an NFL quarterback, Kirk Cousins, and his wife, Julie—find out about their relationship—how it got started and how they deal with the pressure of living life in a sports bubble, especially when you a have season where things didn’t go exactly the way everybody was hoping they would go. We’ll introduce you to Kirk and Julie 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’ll see you back tomorrow 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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