Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Marriage Essentials

Marriage Image by jcoterhals via Flickr In my training and more importantly experience of counseling couples I have discovered that there are some basics that are needed in a fulfilling marriage.  These basics are expressing love and respect, communicating for understanding, investing in the relationship, focusing on personal character and the other's needs, and nurturing intimacy.  When couples are able to attend to these areas I believe that they can not just have a relationship that is "OK" but one that is fulfilling!

Love and Respect

I believe that you have to have both love and respect in a marriage relationship.  You can have much love, but if disrespect reigns then you are in for an bumpy ride.  It is a bit like and emotional rollercoaster.  You can have high levels of respect, but if you have little love then there is no warmth, compassion, or passion.  Two people share the same address, but not much more.  On the positive side if you have love and respect then you build one another up and have care and compassion for each other. 

There is a book titled Love and Respect By Dr Emerson E. Eggerichs.  In his book he describes the concept of love and respect.  Generally men struggle in showing love that meets their wife's needs.  Generally women struggle in show respect that their husband needs.  This is the central theme of the book.  I encourage you to read it it is very useful material (though it seems to be more oriented toward men).  One draw back of the book is that it implies from the subtitle "The Love She Most Desires / The Respect He Desperately Needs" that men don't need love and women don't need respect.  Dr Eggerich would disagree with this statement, but would emphasize that men experience respect in the same way women experience love it is their "heart language." 

I believe that men and women both need love and respect, but they tend to value them differently.  Love is expressed in tenderness, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, making peace, uplifting the other.  Respect is expressed in kindness/friendliness, enjoying activities together, appreciating contributions and insight, and celebrating accomplishments.  More on this in a future post.

Communicating for Understanding

With the couples that I see in my office the majority of conflict is rooted in misunderstanding or miscommunication.  I would venture to say that at least 70% and as high as 90% of conflict can be traced back to this source.  Think of it.  If you could eliminate 70-90% of your conflicts what would your marriage be like?  The key to avoiding this is a focus on communication.  How we communicate with each other is vital to whether understanding occurs.  This is a process that requires attending, hearing, receiving, and communicating understanding.  One important point understanding is not the same a agreeing with.  You can understand someone without agreeing with them.  We do it all the time in other relationships.  However, in marriage we have an unhealthy expectation that the other person will always agree with us in thought, feelings, and beliefs in all circumstances.  That is not possible you are two different people with two different histories.  What is needed is not agreement in all things, but understanding (in my opinion). 

Investing in the Relationship

Variables proporcionals Via Wikimedia Commons One way to look at the relationship is to think about it as a bank account.  If you never make deposits and only make withdrawals then eventually that account is going to run out of money.  In marriage it is easy to take your spouse for granted, doing so will slowly teardown a healthy relationship.  Investing takes time, effort, energy, focus, and attention.  Without the investment then there is a emotional drift that can lead to all sorts of problems.  The biggest is infidelity.  Another thing related to investment is that your likelihood of having a successful marriage is directly proportional to the energy that you put into it when compared with the alternative.  Divorce is one alternative.  Stated in reverse you make divorce a more likely outcome when you invest time, effort, energy, focus, and attention to considering divorce.  Or you make an affair more likely when you invest time, effort, energy, focus, and attention into a relationship that is not your spouse. 

Focusing on Personal Character and Other's needs

image One of the quickest way to tell if a relationship is in trouble is to listen to a person describe his/her marriage relationship.  If the person describes his/her spouse's character negatively or goes on about how there are needs that are not being met in the relationship then there is either already trouble or trouble not far ahead.  Let's face it none of us are perfect.  When our spouse's imperfections become our focus telling them about it is not going to make them feel warm a fuzzy about you.  In addition focusing on unmet needs all the time will lead to extreme discontent which is poisonous to a marriage relationship. 

Instead the focus ought to be on your personal character as a husband/wife and your spouse's needs.  Doing this allows you to focus first on something that you have direct control over.  It helps you to put energy into something that you can change.  What is more it is difficult to stay persistently mad at someone who is meeting your needs. 

Nurturing Intimacy

Intimacy is the glue that holds two people together in a relationship.  I have identified four types of intimacy that exist in marriage.  I believe that you need all of them though they may vary in importance across life's circumstances. 

Emotional intimacy is the ability to share life's hopes, dreams, fears, feelings, thoughts, and connection with your spouse.  It is being able to lay bare what is on your mind without shame or fear of retaliation.  Is a peace that comes when all is well in the relationship.

Spiritual intimacy is the oneness that comes from the connection to one's spouse.  It much deeper than emotional intimacy and draws a couple together in spite of the hardships and difficulties of life.  Deep Spiritual intimacy takes three, you, your spouse, and God.  As you draw nearer to God then the two of you draw near together in a shared faith. 

Physical intimacy is non-sexual physical touch and closeness.  I know some guys that just read that are scratching their heads thinking, "I got excited when I saw the word intimacy, but BJ has yet to talk about sex and now he presents non-sexual touch.  What is that?"  Physical touch is probably more valuable to women than it is to men.  It is a gentle caress, hugs, kissing, backrubs, holding hands, arm around the shoulder.  For men physical intimacy usually involves engaging in some sort of activity together.  For example a man will feel physically close with his wife going to a sporting event sitting next to his wife holding her hand.  His wife on the other hand will feel physically close when the two of them sit together and he gently brushes her hair with his fingers.

Sexual intimacy is not sex!  You can have sex and never experience sexual intimacy.  You can also (believe it or not) have sexual intimacy and not actually engage in the act of sex (though it is much more work to do it that way).  For sexual intimacy to occur in a relationship then it must become your focus to please your spouse.  Your energy should focus on what makes the other happy and not what makes you personally happy.  Your sexual energy needs to be directed toward your spouse, when it is not then you are guilty of neglect.  Sexual intimacy is never about control, demeaning, guilt, or shame.  If any of these exist in your sexual relationship then you should talk with your spouse about them. 


Over the next few posts I will go into each of these areas (expressing love and respect, communicating for understanding, investing in the relationship, focusing on personal character and the other's needs, and nurturing intimacy) in more depth.  If you have any questions about any of these areas please feel free to post a question in the comment area and I will do my best to answer them.  One more thing, I must admit that even though I have seen these five areas in my counseling practice, my posting here in no way implies that I have arrived at fulfilling these in my own marriage.  I still have much personal work and growth to do.  In fact I have come to the conclusion that when you stop working at growing in your marriage you start drifting.  I pray that God would work to preserve and bring wholeness in your marriage relationship.