Column: Ways to make your marriage stronger and healthier
I heard about today's columnists, Gary and Lisa Heim, through Jay and Laura Laffoon. Jay and Laura have written this column for us a few times and appeared in our Civic Center twice. I figured if they were recommending someone it was likely good — and I was not disappointed. Gary and Lisa shed some insights into the various stages of life that most all married folks will go through. As they point out in the article, these stages can come and go at different points in the marriage. The essential idea is to be aware of where you are and what you might need to do to get to a better, stronger, healthier and more enjoyable place in your marriage.
Four phases of marriage
A Facebook comment said, "The older I get, the more I realize it's impossible to please everyone, but irritating them is a piece of cake." Conflict is inevitable in life and most of all in marriage. In fact, the No. 1 reason marriages fail is due to unresolved conflict. When we get hurt, we react by verbally attacking our spouse or emotionally withdrawing. As unresolved hurts and anger pile up, so do our emotional walls of self-protection. We merely survive instead of thrive.
But every marriage that thrives goes through four phases. These phases aren't neat, clean steps but working through each one is vital if we're to become people of other-centered love. The first stage is what gets most marriages going.
The relationship is characterized by optimism. We feel good when we're together. We laugh. We understand each other. We feel safe. The enchantment phase of dating and marriage feels wonderful. When we get hurt, we easily apologize. We believe we have something special. We're not going to fight like others do. Those words are sincere. We think our love and happiness will last forever. If you're in the enchantment phase of early love, enjoy it! Drink deep while it lasts.
I was watching a young couple last Sunday in church. They kept looking into one another's eyes, smiling and hugging. They were smitten with early love. The key phrase that characterizes the enchantment stage is, "All I can see is what's good about you." The other person's love and responsiveness make us feel so good about ourselves.
But sooner or later every marriage experiences pain and disappointment. We get hurt. It's not a matter of "if" but "when." Some wounds come in subtle ways: a harsh tone of voice or an unkind comment, forgetting your anniversary, working late again, the way he smiled at another woman, her constant nagging. Other hurts are big: he's caught with porn or she's having an affair. Wounds fester. We rehearse them in our minds. Anxiety and anger grow. We unplug, disconnect and withdraw emotionally. Pessimism characterizes our relationship. That's the pain stage. We go from saying, "All I can see is what's good about you," to, "All I can see is what's bad about you." We go from being allies to enemies.
Many marriages get stuck in the pain stage for months, years or decades. They live like roommates. Divorce may seem like the only option. Some seek the thrill of enchantment through a new partner where everything's fresh and exciting. But the excitement won't last. Disappointment's inevitable among humans.
But there are some, the few, who take a different path. It's wonderful to see.
Some people refuse to stay stuck in the pain stage. They choose a different path — the growth stage characterized by self-discovery. The growth stage shifts from, "All I can see is what's bad about you," to, "I'm beginning to see my own faults." That focus isn't easy to make, but genuine growth can't happen until it does. Instead of staying focused on how my spouse is failing, we must face ourselves. It's where we begin to ask the deeper questions about how we contribute to the problems in the marriage. We can't make this shift alone. We need the help of a good counselor, church community or a small group of friends who will speak the truth in love to us.
We need to learn to forgive ourselves and forgive our spouse. Lisa and I have found that we need a personal relationship with God to have our needs for love fulfilled. From the inner security we have in Jesus Christ, we can forgive one another as He has forgiven us. Then we can learn to give to one another when we're disappointed. It's not easy. It's not simple. But it's possible to change, grow and thrive if you're willing to face yourself.
The joy stage is characterized by depth of character and other-centered giving. While behaviors such as infidelity and abuse cannot be tolerated if a marriage is to thrive, humbling ourselves and accepting one another with their failures and idiosyncrasies is fertile soil for growing a marriage. This stage of marriage is characterized by, "I'm finding joy in giving to and serving my spouse." Learning to accept and see the benefits of one another's differences breathes life into a relationship. Learning to recognize and celebrate the good in one another and submitting ourselves to help the other flourish are essentials to experiencing the joy of seeing another grow.
We continue to go through these stages at different times. We never "arrive." But marriage can be a mysterious journey of painful yet joyful self-discovery and other-centered giving.
Hear more from the Heims
I'm back and so appreciative of the thoughts Gary and Lisa shared with us today. Marriage will not always be easy, but in the vast majority of cases, it is worth nurturing and giving the attention it needs and deserves. You can learn more about Gary and Lisa at www.truenorthministries.net. There, you can find free resources and more information about their book "True North." You can also hear more from them when they are my guests on "TWOgether as ONE" at 6 p.m. Monday on KLJH 107.1FM.
Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.