In 2007, Dana Adam Shapiro interviewed divorced couples to discover why couples break up. He concluded that self-centeredness was the heart of what led to marital disintegration. Each spouse's self-centeredness asserted itself and in response the other spouse got more impatient, resentful, harsh and cold. In one of his interviews a participant said:
Nothing that I ever did during the course of our entire marriage involved me thinking about my wife as a first thought. And yet now, as we were going through the divorce, she was all I could think about.
It’s natural to want to seek our own interests instead of the needs of others. A few years ago, New York Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope wrote an article entitled ‘The happy marriage is the ‘Me’ marriage’. She writes that modern people “want partners who make their lives more interesting... [who] help each of them attain valued goals”. In other words, marriage used to be about seeking the common good, but now it’s about individual satisfaction and happiness.
And yet, speaking to his disciples, Jesus challenges a me first attitude (in which “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”), saying, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant… even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28). In Rome, humble service was looked down upon. Merit demanded honour, public praise and an elevation of reputation and status. Rome’s symbol was an eagle—but Christianity’s symbol became a cross.
Jesus became the chief model for humility in Philippians 2 where he doesn’t consider his status with God as something to be “grasped”, but instead willingly humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. Jesus chose humble service over greatness, and Paul says that this is intended to be a model for us. In Philippians 2:3-4 he says:
… in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Serving others is to be the vocation of every Christian. This is what greatness in marriage looks like. So how are you going at this? In the busyness of life, it’s easy to become preoccupied with our own self-centered priorities, grasping what we feel we are entitled to rather than seeking to serve our spouse. In moments of frustration, I find it easy to lose sight of the amazing privilege it is to display Christ in our marriage, and I sometimes fail to listen, understand and appreciate how Pip is feeling and what she needs help with.
In my first article I spoke about how the example of Christ motivates our service. Now I want to discuss some practical ways you can help form a habit of service in your marriage. Here are ten things I have learned in ten years of marriage that I hope will help you to better listen to, understand, appreciate and serve your spouse, so that your marriage might point others to how great a saviour Christ is.
I have found it helpful to say ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ in a conflict. I sometimes struggle with assertiveness, so I have developed the following approach, which I find very helpful when coupled with active listening:
This approach helps me to remember to be generous with my words and to express my underlying feelings, rather than just reacting unhelpfully in the moment.
When we have an issue that we disagree over, we tend to dig our heels in rather than listen and consider a possible compromise, so Pip and I find it helpful to both write down ten potential solutions and hear each other out without judging any of the suggestions—no matter how crazy they seem. Then we decide together which solutions we can both consider and work towards.
When we spend time listening to and feeling understood by someone, we feel loved and we grow in appreciation. So, when I go away for a conference or have had to put in extra hours at work, the lack of time spent with my spouse creates a deficit of love and appreciation. At the end of one of these periods of time we are more likely to have a fight!
The most simple way to avoid this that Pip and I have found is going for a walk—even with the kids in the pram—and sharing how our day was, what’s on our hearts and minds, and connecting as friends.
Obviously, you can accomplish the same goal by doing anything with your spouse where you can talk and express how you’re feeling and have a laugh together, remembering what you enjoy about one another.
In the busyness of life, it’s so important to stop, lift your needs to God, and to count your blessings together. Most nights, Pip and I end the day by mentioning three things we are thankful for about one another before thanking God and asking for his help and strength in prayer. After being married for a while, it becomes easier to notice your spouse’s shortfalls than to notice the little ways they are serving you or growing in God’s grace. A prayerful and thankful marriage keeps the focus on the evidences of God’s grace, of which, upon close reflection, there are always an abundance. Another thing we have begun doing is to write down our prayer points with checkboxes next to them, so that we can not only recall our prayers but also be encouraged and give thanks to God for the many prayers that he answers. Often in life we go from one prayer request to another and, like the disciples who wondered how Jesus would provide for the multitudes when he had just fed the five thousand, forget God’s faithfulness and provision in the past—and therefore lack the faith to trust in God’s future providence. I also pray each day with our kids for our friends’ marriages.
One of the problems with a ‘me first’ marriage is we are always concentrating on our needs. Much of the conflict that occurs in our marriages comes when we lose focus on how we might serve our spouse, and instead become preoccupied with our own desires or goals. When those are not fulfilled, bad patterns begin, such as Gottman’s ‘four horsemen’: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. However, by taking upon ourselves the mindset of Jesus—who humbled himself, looking to the interests of others, and who came not to be served but to serve (Phil 2:3-8, Mark 10:45)—we shift our focus from ‘my needs, your faults’ to ‘my faults, your needs’. That means, when we have a blocked goal or desire, our thinking shifts to the best interests of our spouse and marriage. In doing this we are able to overlook some of the external expressions of anger and to start meeting our spouse’s deeper needs of being understood, feeling cared for, or wanting intimacy. Often, for me, I start becoming impatient and poor at listening when I have had a long day at work and a sinful, self-entitled desire for rest in front of the TV has eclipsed my commitment to serving my wife and being attentive to her needs. These six words have been profoundly helpful in assisting me to serve my wife: “What can I do to help?” I try and say them every time I get home from work. It’s a really practical way you can demonstrate sacrificial service for your wife.
As the maxim goes, if we know to service our cars regularly, how much more should we be servicing our marriages? Pip has just given birth to our third child; life is only getting busier for us and there is less time available for reflecting on how we are relating to one another. We need to make the most of any moments we get to intentionally discuss what we are enjoying about our relationship and communicating any unresolved conflicts or hurts—and practicing Christian repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
One thing Pip and I discussed before we got married was our willingness to see a counsellor if either spouse thought it would be helpful. This is a conversation I think all couples should have so that there is an openness to receive professional help if need be. We have seen Christian marriage counsellors over the years. We have found it particularly helpful to read Jenny Brown’s Growing Yourself Up which is based on the ‘family systems’ approach. Counselling that has used this method, focusing on how your family of origin impacts the way you relate in marriage, has given us greater self-awareness of faulty thinking and jumping to conclusions, and helped us differentiate ourselves from our parents.
Doing a marriage course every couple of years has been great. It helps us prioritize organizing a babysitter and setting aside uninterrupted time for working on our marriage. We are currently doing Keith and Sarah Condie’s Building a Safe & Strong Marriage course with some friends of ours in London. We do each session on our own and then video call them and discuss what we are finding helpful and challenging together. In between doing marriage courses, we have found it helpful to read books on marriage alongside the Bible. We have read one every two years of our marriage. We generally read it at night in bed together and briefly discuss it before we go to sleep. We don’t expect anything profound from this. It’s just great to keep reflecting on ways we can grow together in our friendship and our marriage.
A lot of conflicts or disagreements come from uncommunicated expectations and commitments. Perhaps you plan to catch up with someone but you forget to talk to your spouse about it. Then, on the day, you finally mention it—but they have a totally different expectation for how that day will be spent, and a conflict occurs. So Pip and I have found it really important to find a time each week to touch base about expectations around how time and money will be spent. We have found it helpful to both look at our digital calendars and also write on a physical weekly calendar so we are clear on what each person is going to be doing and what money we need for certain things.
I have noticed a sinful tendency in myself to presumptuously live as if sacrifices Pip makes for me in regards to my ministry have no ongoing effect on her. But these gracious sacrifices actually function like withdrawals from Pip’s ‘emotional love tank’, and when I overdraw and it starts running low, her patience for me does too—and we fight over some seemingly minor thing. Therefore, I have found it really important to touch base about our expectations and make deposits back into Pip’s love tank by giving her time out or going for a walk or finding some way she would like me to care for her. Husbands asking questions to their spouse like “Are you feeling loved?” and wives asking questions to their husbands like “Are you feeling respected?” are also helpful.
Things are hectic. We get tired. We lose sleep. We don’t get much time to enjoy the things that refresh us. We’ve found a couple of ways to help each other be refreshed.
The first is to nominate different days of the week where we give the other person a sleep-in by waking up early with the kids and doing the morning routine. This also provides the opportunity to show grace and serve our spouses by doing the morning routine on a day when our spouse was meant to do it, because we notice they need the rest.
Another way we do this is by giving each other a free day each month when we look after the kids so our spouse can catch up with friends, read a book, go to the beach or do whatever will recharge them.
The best thing you can do for your spouse in this regard is to find ways to help them spend time in God’s word and with encouraging Christian brothers and sisters. I have found it helpful to do the morning routine with the kids to give Pip time on her own to read God’s word and to pray or to simply get some more sleep.
It can be hard for mums with multiple children they have to look after to effectively engage in God’s word at Bible study. Something I have been doing this year is taking our son to the park while Pip has her Friday morning growth group. This has been great, not only for Pip but for me, as I get to spend quality time with my son. It’s also meant that other fathers have started to join me, which has meant other mothers have become more regular at growth group.
Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed”. Why? Because all of us lack perspective, and all of us are biased towards our own agendas. This is why a healthy marriage cannot thrive in a vacuum. It is easy, over time, to harden in bitterness, to stop listening to your spouse and to no longer want to work through problems in your marriage.
Both Pip and I came from divorced families. We knew we did not know what a healthy and faithful marriage looked like. So, when we were dating, we asked three older, godly Christian families if they would be willing to meet up with us so we could learn from them what a marriage that kept ministry and the gospel at the centre looked like. In God’s kindness, we still meet up with two of these couples even after 11 years.
In his book True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts cites a denotive statistic about the isolation of our increasingly fractured society: 20% of adults admit to feeling lonely at any time, and the same percentage say they have no friend with whom to discuss a personal problem. And such loneliness is possible even in a marriage. The answer, I believe, is friendship.
A key way in which many relationships begin is through having fun together. By again having fun together, you are reminded of the reasons why you came to love one another in the first place. It strengthens the relational foundations of your marriage so that it is more robust in the harder times. But the competing pressures of children and work responsibilities can erode the time for fun together.
We find setting aside a particular date night each week to be helpful in keeping this a priority. What this looks like will be different for each marriage. For Pip and I, it involves eating out, watching TV together, playing board games, catching up with friends, playing sport together, reading a book together and, recently, finding stuff on the side of the road we can restore and sell.
There is perhaps no better picture of friendship than what Augustine (AD 354-430) wrote about friendship in his book Confessions which he described as “a nest of love and gentleness”. He spoke of friendship as the context in which we:
... make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity—just as a person debates with himself—and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival.
Marriage is a gift from God. It is a blessing. But it is also a tool God uses for our sanctification. As it is with the most valuable diamonds, strong and joyful marriages take time and are often forged through great pressure. It’s the habits and intentionality that we invest in our marriages that will determine their quality in the long run, and our own growth in holiness as well.
But on that last day, seeing our spouses dressed in radiant white as the bride of Christ and enjoying our reward together will be totally worth the sacrifices and effort we make for them now.