Three principles to help fix your marriage before it’s too late
is said that every relationship we have is either growing and moving
forward or sliding backward and deteriorating. Relationships never stand
still very long.
certainly noticed this in our marriage. There were times when not only
were we sliding backward; we’d almost slipped over the edge. But
something always kept us from going too far, and eventually we got back
when we were moving forward, though, we found that it still wasn’t easy
or pain-free. We are living proof that great marriages don’t just
happen but always result from hard work. What we are experiencing today
as a couple makes yesterday’s work worth it all.
basic principles, which we share here, have kept our marriage on track.
When we’ve taught them in seminars and retreats, other couples have
enjoyed similar results. We believe your marriage will benefit from them
Principle No. 1: Decide You’re in for the Long Haul
we see marriage as a covenant, not a contract, it’s confirmation that
we are meant to stay together until death parts us. In A Model for Marriage,
Jack and Judy Balswick point out that “the core characteristic of a
covenant marriage is commitment, a factor that is profoundly important
to marital stability, according to research findings.”
very nature of wedding vows implies a covenant, but for most brides and
grooms, the common attitude is to see marriage as a contract that can
be broken. Typically, a couple—despite vowing to endure better or worse
until death—live by the principle that they’ll stay together only as
long as their spouse fulfills their end of the bargain. That’s an
attitude that feeds into the “short haul” approach.
first 10 years of our marriage were terrible—what we call the “Great
Tribulation.” Yes, we had some good times; but, overall, we didn’t have a
good marriage. Yet we never considered divorce as an option. Though we
were both young when we married, one thing was clear: We were determined
to make it work. We didn’t think of our marriage as a covenant in those
days, but we lived as if we had made a covenant. We understood our
vows. We were there for the long haul—for better or for worse.
different our lives would have been if we had given up because we were
miserable. Eventually, we grew past our misery and started to build
something special together.
number of marriage studies have been based on interviews with couples
on the verge of divorce who, of course, reported that they were
miserable. Many of these studies are designed so the researchers can go
back and reinterview the same couples years later. Invariably, the
couples who divorced report that they still are unhappy; but most of the
couples who stayed together report that they are now happy.
worked with couples who were miserable but came to counseling because
divorce just wasn’t an option for them. One of these couples came back
recently to deal with some extended-family issues. I hadn’t seen them in
years. My last memory of them was their telling me they believed they’d
turned the corner in their marriage and had the tools to keep their
relationship on-track. It turns out they did, and they thanked me for
helping them turn things around. What had been misery to them—and the
cause of divorce with many other couples—was long past. They were in the
process of becoming everything they had hoped to be as a couple.
go through seasons. When a couple can genuinely make an unconditional
commitment to stay the course during the cold, dark season of a
marriage, then spring and even summer seasons follow.
is a saying that goes something like: “Don’t doubt in the darkness what
you know to be true in the light.” You can apply this warning to the
seasons of a marriage. When you hit the dark , cold winter season
together, don’t question the vows and commitments you made to each other
in the light of the summer season. Stay the course. Love
unconditionally and know that spring will come.
Principle No. 2: Focus on What You Have, Not on What’s Missing
a couple are ready to give up on their marriage, they’ll often say
there is nothing positive going on between them anymore; it’s all bad.
Researcher John Gottman at the University of Washington found that in a
healthy, growing marriage, positive behaviors outnumber negative
behaviors by a ratio of at least 5-to-1. This means that every negative
behavior directed toward one’s spouse requires at least five good
behaviors to offset it.
a couple’s marriage begins to unravel, the number of positives compared
to negatives begins to drop below 5-to-1. Even in a good marriage,
negative behaviors have more impact on us, but they really take on more
power when they no longer are being offset by positive behaviors.
an interesting point: By the time two people are ready to divorce, the
positive behaviors are actually about equal to the number of negative
behaviors. The positives are not absent or even outnumbered—except in
the minds of the divorcing couple. But they are overpowered by the
negative behavior, which has a way of blocking our vision of the
feeds on our natural human tendency to focus on the negative. Even the
optimist can get caught up in seeing the glass as half empty when it
comes to marriage behavior. We seem to take the positive behavior for
granted, but we can’t let go of the negative very easily.
When a couple focus on what they believe is missing in their relationship, they are looking at what isn’t there. They are also ignoring the very things that brought them together.
I can get them to remember the good things they saw in each other at
the start of their relationship, they begin to look again at what they
have that is positive. Often a man’s or woman’s positive feelings for
their spouse will last beyond the counseling session and prepare them to
take the next step together.
Principle No. 3: Give Each Other Grace
seen couples who supposedly still love each other but nonetheless
attribute some negative motivation to what their spouse is doing or
saying to them. It becomes an automatic response for them and usually
follows a pattern that was set in motion in childhood, when
self-protection required them to prepare for the worst from a parent.
this protective pattern is carried over into marriage, the spouse will
have no rational reason for assuming the worst. It just seems to come
things put a bigger damper on expressing love than for your spouse to
misunderstand your motivation for what you are doing or saying. By
contrast, few things are more powerful in keeping love alive than
showing grace and forgiveness to your spouse.
Balswicks write: “As agents of grace, each spouse participates in …
talking and listening, giving and receiving, honoring differences and
affirming giftedness, forgiving and being forgiven. The far-reaching
effects of [this] culminate in a deeply satisfying relationship.”
a couple assign negative motivations to each other, the complaint often
follows that the two spouses aren’t compatible. Whenever a husband and
wife say this to me, I always agree—but add that every couple is
incompatible. The incompatibility is universal simply because one spouse
is male and one is female.
differences between male and female are enough to make every marriage
an incompatible relationship. When you add to it personality and family
differences and the couple’s differing expectations, you wonder
sometimes how any marital relationship succeeds.
we don’t give each other grace, especially for our incompatibilities,
we eventually make those things even greater. When both spouses accept
each other’s differences with loving grace, their marriage experience is
our marriage, we’ve developed compatibility where there had been
incompatibility. When we embraced each other’s differences, we
experienced grace and love that has fueled our desire to keep our love
for each other alive.
is a gift we give each other. It is never earned. I can’t say, “I would
give you more grace if only you would … .” Giving grace to your
spouse includes the ability to forgive when he or she has failed you in
As followers of Christ, we are encouraged to “forgive one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32,
NKJV). How did God forgive us? He did so freely without any expectation
of us except that we accept His forgiveness. We can’t earn or buy God’s
forgiveness. Like grace, it is His gift to us.
what will happen in a marriage when the partners freely offer
forgiveness to each other, and act and believe that their spouse’s
motives and intentions are for the best, even when it doesn’t seem that
That’s what it means to give each other the gift of grace.
three principles are the essential ingredients of a healthy and
fulfilling relationship. They are foundational to keeping love alive in
marriage. We trust you will be able to apply them to your unique
circumstances and that they will enrich your lives as you and your
spouse journey together.
David Stoop, Ph.D., and Jan Stoop, Ph.D.,
lead seminars and marriage retreats nationally and internationally.
More tips to keeping the love fires burning in marriage are available in
their book Better Than Ever: Seven Secrets to a Great Marriage. Or visit them online at drstoop.com.