From Lori D. Lowe, marriage blogger at Marriage Gems and author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage, due out Dec. 8, 2011.
For two years, I interviewed happily married couples who improved their marriage through adversity. If you ask around, you’ll find nearly every marriage eventually faces adversity. All are changed by it. Some marriages use it as a catalyst for unity or growth, and some do not survive.
What is different about the couples who become stronger compared with the couples who falter at the first storm? How can some marriages survive repeated crises, while others that seem fortunate don’t stand the test of time? That’s what I set out to learn and share.
In First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage, I tell the stories of some couples whose lives didn’t go according to their plans. They didn’t plan on suffering from infertility or having a child with autism, being separated for military service or getting cancer. They didn’t plan on getting a brain injury at a young age, overcoming infidelity or recovering from stranger rape. They didn’t plan on their parents undermining their marriage because of their spouse’s ethnicity. They didn’t plan on having their own baby die in their arms.
The couples I interviewed experienced all of these challenges and many more. They didn’t just survive; they became great love stories of resilience and hope. I share their stories—mistakes and successes—because I think we doubt we could survive given the same obstacles. When we follow their stories, we learn how success is possible.
Thankfully, most of us (we hope) will not experience the level of crises many of them did. But don’t kid yourself into thinking your marriage will be easy and bump-free, that there will be no valleys next to the hills. Even when things do go right eventually, they often don’t go right in our perfect timing.
From each couple’s experience emerged an overarching lesson that I’ve tried to incorporate into my marriage. Here are seven of the book’s 12 lessons, which I hope may strengthen your marriage:
- Never take your life, health or sobriety for granted. Steer clear of addictions.
One woman in the book never expected her husband could become a closet cocaine user who secretly took out lines of credit to fund his drug use. Addictions have a way of taking control of the user, and his personality began to change. She protected herself and her toddler son by kicking her husband out as soon as she found out. Thankfully, he was motivated to get clean and take responsibility for all of his poor choices. Over time, she was able to forgive him, and they reconciled. He proved to be a loving and devoted husband over the years, even helping her battle a life-threatening illness.
Each situation is unique, but addictions can be dangerous for the individual and for the marriage. While this is an extreme example, I’ve seen how other addictions, such as smoking or drinking, can interfere with the intimacy in a marriage. Even “good” habits, such as exercise, hard work, shopping or golf can become obsessive and interfere in a strong marriage when given more attention and devotion than one’s spouse. Our treasure becomes what we devote ourselves to. Where do you place your focus and to whom do you give your attention?
- Focus on your strengths, not your sorrows.
Several couples in the book lost children, which is probably the greatest sorrow we can imagine. At times, couples in crisis turn away from one another as they grieve differently. The despair can feel like physical pain that will never lesson. As difficult as it is, the successful couples who faced severe hardship (such as child loss) were able to eventually communicate about their feelings and become a support for one another. They were able to remember why they fell in love and married and turn their focus on their strengths.
Even couples who are simply drifting apart often focus too much attention on their problems, to the detriment of their marriage. Experts say if we focus on enjoying one another, doing what we used to have fun doing together, and remembering why we chose our spouse, we can strengthen our marriage. On the other hand, if we place our constant attention on the few things that cause conflict, our whole marriage will seem like conflict. Every marriage has some areas of perpetual conflict; if you can’t change something, you need to decide if it’s a deal-breaker.
- Forgiveness is a gift for the giver and the receiver.
Infidelity is a breach of trust from which many married individuals say they could never recover. In the book, I write about a California couple who has been married more than 30 years and their experience with infidelity. The husband and wife were virtual newlyweds when the wife had an affair. They were very different in personality, and their marriage was filled with conflict and poor communication. The unhappy wife was pursued by a man at work who showed her the affection she desired. She even separated from her husband with plans to leave him for her lover. She was sure she married the wrong man.
Before she completed her plan, she realized how wrong she was to cheat, and began to understand that her married lover was no better and would probably not make a great spouse. The husband was able to forgive her wrongdoing and (remarkably) hold no ill will toward her, because he also understood all the ways he contributed to a failing marriage. Trust can be rebuilt when both spouses come clean and ask for forgiveness.
In most marriages, forgiveness is often asked for, given or withheld for lesser matters than infidelity. I think a marriage that harbors negativity and lack of forgiveness in the small, everyday things can be in bigger trouble than a marriage that has one big obstacle to overcome. We don’t just forgive because we want to be nice to our spouse. Withholding forgiveness can be emotionally and even physically harmful, say medical experts. It poisons the marriage, to boot. We may even be holding grudges for misunderstandings or trivial matters. Forgiveness is one of the essential keys to a happy marriage.
- Love is not enough to make a marriage work; it takes commitment and hard work.
Young couples marry because they love each other, and because they want to “make each other happy,” but experienced couples know that’s not nearly enough to succeed. One couple who experienced stranger rape, depression, chronic illness, and many other stresses, taught me that when life throws you curve-balls, a strong commitment is needed to have a thriving marriage. They had to work hard to reinvent their marriage at different stages.
We can act lovingly, even when we don’t feel like it. “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing,” said C.S. Lewis. “It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling.” The loving action is distinct from the feeling, and that action is what is needed in strong marriages.
- Live each day with gratitude, and infuse your marriage with it.
A Blackhawk pilot leading an entire unit in Iraq and performing MedEvac flights while under fire and a wife at home with four young children in her care wondering if her husband will make it back. These are two people you wouldn’t expect to be living in gratitude. You’d expect their days to be filled with worry. However, a shift in their mindset changed the way they viewed their marriage and life in general.
In fact, this young couple says a dangerous deployment was one of the best things that happened to their marriage because it taught them how to focus daily on gratitude for each other and thankfulness for all those around them. Research shows there are many benefits to expressing gratitude.
- Have each other’s back. Be a team. Become one.
We don’t live out our marriages in a bubble, and unfortunately outsiders may sometimes try to intrude on our happiness and create instability. This was the case for an interracial couple who had dated for many years and had a strong, loving relationship. However, his family was unsupportive of the marriage and tried to undermine it by habitually disrespecting his wife.
After years of feeling unsupported by her husband, who didn’t want to admit his family might be racist, the marriage nearly fractured. However, they were able to learn how to create boundaries and expectations for those outside their family unit. They became stronger and learned to “have one another’s back.”
It’s not unusual to have family or friends who do things to undermine a family unit. A husband and wife need to make their relationship primary. A wife shouldn’t act to please her parents if that displeases her spouse, for example. A husband shouldn’t act like a single guy with his friends just to keep them happy.
An Iowa couple who are in their 90s shared with me that no one comes between them, not even their kids. They are the epitome of unity. They’ve experienced everything from The Great Depression to WWII and the loss of an adult son, but they go through it as a team.
- Our spouse cannot be our true source of joy.
Spouses often have expectations that their spouse meet a long list of emotional, spiritual and physical needs on a daily basis. Our spouse will not perfectly meet our needs even if that is his or her intention. Faith, friends and family can offer other types of support, so that we aren’t completely dependent on one person to “complete us.” By working to be interesting, fulfilled, happy people as individuals, we can bring more to the marriage.
Which lesson do you most connect with? What is your best marriage lesson?
Lori Lowe is a journalist, GenXer and marriage researcher. She has been married to her college sweetheart since 1995. They have two children together, one crazy cat, and two aquatic frogs. Lori is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It will be available Dec. 8 on Amazon.com. For details or to connect with Lori, go to www.LoriDLowe.com.