Of all the couples that come through my office, most of them do not come in wrestling with some major crisis or find themselves in the midst of major life-altering events. Instead, most of the couples who sit across from me come in feeling disconnected, defensive, not valued, and alone. They often describe communication being a real struggle in their marriages. All of which ultimately take a toll on a marriage and lead to an overall lack of intimacy. Most of the time these couples are looking for help and guidance towards a healthy marriage. However, the reality is that these couples did not get to where they are at overnight. Instead, it was a series of choices that compounded on top of one another over time. What if you could take small steps right now towards a happy, healthy marriage so you and your spouse don’t end up sitting across from me or another licensed clinician one day?
A Healthy Marriage is Made up of Two Healthy Individuals
In a healthy and thriving marriage, two healthy individuals come together in unity. Therefore, the overall health of one’s marriage can be determined by the health of the individuals within the marriage. How do we measure one’s overall health? We start by looking at how well we take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Physical Health continues to develop as we take care of our body. It also can provide us with a ton of mental, emotional, and marital benefits! Taking care of our bodies plays such an important role in our overall health. If we do not fuel our body with the nutrients it needs, provide it with the rest it needs, or allow it a way to dispose of the toxins, it can begin to impact ALL other areas of our health. Taking care of ourselves physically can increase our confidence, improve the physical attraction we have to our spouse, and give us more energy for our relationships and everyday activities.
Mental Health determines how we think, feel, and act as we navigate everyday life. This means we can take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, actions, and beliefs. Taking ownership of what we think, feel, believe, and do helps bring clarity to boundaries that are vital and healthy in our marriage because they help us determine who is responsible for what. Some ways we can actively work to strengthen our mental health are to practice good self-care, attending conferences, reading relevant books, pursuing positive friendships or mentors, seeking out professional help with a licensed clinician.
Emotional Health is a measure of how well we attend to our emotional needs. This means we believe we are worthy of time and attention and we are emotionally aware. In order to do this, we must stay connected to our own heart and be proactively caring for our emotional well-being. We actively pursue this when we attend to heart issues such as hurt, bitterness, unforgiveness, blame, etc. Another critical part of emotional health is taking a look at family of origin and the role it plays in our marriage. There is no getting around the fact that we all inadvertently carry things into our marriage. For example, my family handled conflict by addressing it head-on and just saying whatever was on their mind. My husband’s family never really seemed to have any conflict. Both of these scenarios fail to teach conflict in a healthy way. So as a couple, we have had to learn how to navigate conflict when it arises in our marriage in a healthy manner. Sometimes this can include reading books, attending conferences, finding a mentor, and seeking professional help with a licensed clinician.
Spiritual Health can look different for everyone. However, it intertwines itself into our physical, mental, and emotional health. When we pursue spiritual health, we begin to accept accountability, and we are more able to serve one another by offering love and grace sacrificially. A marriage that is made of forgiveness, love, sacrifice, and love is a marriage that is likely to withstand even the toughest of struggles.
Healthy Marriages Are Built on A Foundation of Safety and Trust
Emotional safety is the foundation of any satisfying connection in a healthy and loving relationship. We must feel safe before we’re able to be vulnerable. Brené Brown reminds us,
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.
In an emotionally safe marriage each spouse feels valued, understood, and accepted. Having an emotionally safe marriage does not just happen. It takes time and practice. Our willingness to show up and care about what is going on within our spouse’s heart paves the way to connection and intimacy. Does your spouse feel accepted and cared for, in spite of his or her faults? If the answer is yes, this type of unconditional positive regard fosters trust and creates an environment for healthy communication and connection.
There Is an Understanding That Communication Leads to Connectedness
Healthy communication paves the way for two individuals to be understood well, so they can express their thoughts, feelings, and needs openly and honestly. In a healthy marriage, both spouses communicate regularly, and they share not only their joys but their sorrows too. They commit to learning more about one another. In fact, communication is the number one problem couples typically give me who are struggling in their marriages. Research also shows that healthy marriages are built on a foundation of open, honest, and empathetic one-on-one dialogue. In simplest terms, it comes down to both spouses feeling safe enough to be transparent enough to know and be known at the most basic level of their being.
Relationships are dynamic in nature and they evolve over time, just as we do as individuals. No matter how long you are married, it is impossible to fully know everything about your spouse. This is why it is important and healthy to maintain a curious posture, becoming a good student of one another. Couples that value these important concepts are comfortable talking to one another and prioritize communication and schedule regular time to connect.
Spending Quality Time Together Is Essential
In marriage, finding moments to enjoy each other’s company should not be few and far between. Instead, it should be part of the foundation of the marriage relationship. In a thriving marriage, couples have a strong friendship and continue to date one another. The couple works together to find hobbies they can both enjoy, they laugh together, adventure together, and try new things. There is a healthy balance of independence and togetherness as a couple. At times, with the business of life, kids, work, household duties, etc., this can mean having to make a choice to prioritize and pursue one another- perhaps as you did in the days before you were married.
If we can think of our relationship with our spouse like a tomato plant for a moment. We could have all the perfect conditions for growing plump, delicious tomatoes: the right amount of sunlight, a fence to keep the animals out, soil with just the right mix of nutrients, and spray to keep the bugs away. However, if we do not water our tomato plant, it will not grow. There is no substitute for it. We could give our plant 1,000 gallons of water once a year (kind of like taking a vacation with our spouse) and our tomato plant still would not grow. In fact, the likelihood of our plant dying is pretty high. This is because the ground is only able to absorb so much water at a time while the rest will roll away.
And we all know there is no such thing as “super wet water” that allows us only to water our plant minimally because of its high quality (this is something I hear often, “we don’t spend much time together but when we do it is quality). Thus, our tomato plant is going to need consistent, daily watering in order for it to grow and produce fruit. Without it, the leaves will wither, the flowers will eventually die, and in time our tomato plant will be nothing more than dust. And so it is with our marriage relationship and quality time. There is no substitute for quality time.
Healthy Conflict Management Is Prioritized
Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. In healthy marriages, couples understand this truth and become students of learning how to manage conflict. They prioritize dealing with issues that arise quickly, always respect one another even if they do not agree, develop a posture of curiosity for their spouses’ point of view, and seek to reconcile after disagreements.
Realistic expectations set couples up for strong and successful marriages. We are all unique- with different interests, values, and personalities. When we come into marriage with different backgrounds and upbringings, we are bound to see situations through different lenses. To add to that, we also come into our marriage relationship with different viewpoints simply from our differences in being male and female. In healthy marriages, couples understand that conflict is an opportunity to learn more about their partner and in doing so they learn to value each other’s differences.
“Fighting fair” means setting an expectation to respect one another despite each other’s differences. In practice this means making a commitment to not calling each other names, bringing up things from the past that are not relevant, making assumptions, or making false accusations. It is about cultivating honesty within the relationship, even in the midst of conflict, while also maintaining a curious posture. Couples who fight fair value each other and work to settle differences through negotiation.
Working as a team is the best pathway to success when trying to resolve conflict. Couples who are thriving understand that the way they respond to their differences is more important than how they resolve them. This is because conflict can actually pave the way to deeper intimacy and connection in marriage. Successful couples understand that even in conflict, they are on the same team. They work together to find win-win solutions to conflicts and problems that arise in their marriages and let go of the idea of trying to get “their way”. In a healthy marriage, there is an understanding that “winning” means finding a solution that works for both people and that both spouses feel good about.
Intimacy Is Valued and Prioritized
Sex and intimacy are a foundational piece of the marital relationship. In fact, healthy sexual intimacy correlates with an overall strong marriage relationship. This is because sexual intimacy leads to deep emotional connection. Your sex life as a married couple is designed to be a profound gift, and it can be a gift you continue to unwrap for the rest of your lives.
*Note: There are times that other things get in the way of healthy sexual intimacy. Things such as pain with sex, sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, etc. If any of these apply to you, I am so sorry. Know that you are not alone and the success rate of working through these types of struggles is very high. I encourage you to reach out to a licensed clinician who specializes in sex therapy (I would recommend a Christian sex therapist).
In his book Sex Begins in the Kitchen, Dr.Leman writes about sex and intimacy within marriage. He describes that sex is an expression of the care a couple shows each other in all areas of their life. These areas could include communicating, sharing thoughts and feelings, raising a family, helping each other around the house, etc. He suggests that what happens in the bedroom is actually the final link in the chain of events that began hours before when your fingers brushed against your spouses while washing the dishes together.
So no matter how long you have been married or what state your marriage is in today, you can take steps towards a happier and healthier marriage right now. By referencing this list of healthy marriage qualities, you and your spouse can continue to grow deeper in your relationship. Marriage is a gift! Take intentional steps daily towards a thriving marriage and enjoy the journey together.