Landon and Rissa1 giggled as they described to us how they met and began dating. Rissa blushed as she gazed at Landon admiringly and slipped her hand into his as they reached the climax of their story—the proposal. Landon described his pounding heart as he bent on one knee, asking Rissa to be his bride. “And I said ‘Yes’!” Rissa burst in, eyes misting at the memory.
Their contagious joy warmed our hearts. We were thrilled to agree to do premarital counseling with them. But having counseled so many other eager couples, only to witness heartbreak a few years later, we also sensed the sobering reality (which they could not yet fully grasp) of how much this union would impact the rest of their lives. What principles must be woven through our premarital discussions of budgets, household responsibilities, and sexual expectations? We know that nearly half of first marriages end in divorce or separation.2 The weight of responsibility was on us to help prepare them, as well as we could, to invest for a lifetime of love.
What can dating couples, engaged couples like Landon and Rissa, and couples who have logged decades of marriage do so that their relationships not just survive but thrive? Here are four of the most crucial steps couples can take to make (and keep) relationships fresh and fulfilling.
A relationship begins with two people delighting in one another. “I don’t care where we go—I just want to be with you!” The first rosy blush of love and attraction can be intoxicating. Over time, though, the beauty of appreciation easily melts into the mundane, and we forget to cultivate the joy of togetherness. This is why Ellen White encouraged, “Continue the early attentions. . . . The warmth of true friendship, the love that binds heart to heart, is a foretaste of the joys of heaven.”3
Dating is a rich opportunity to explore not just each other’s tastes and interests, but also what “makes the other person tick.” That’s what makes it exciting! But marriage should be only the launch of this lifelong discovery process. A relationship is always either growing or dying. We need to make time every week to talk, about both the ordinary details of life and the deeper issues in our hearts. “For the rest of your life, you must work every day at your marriage for it to be rewarding and healthy,” wrote Ellen White. “Make your spouse a priority and work together to keep your relationship strong through every stage of life.”4
Even if you are only dating, it is wise to begin investing intentionally now, even if it means sacrifice. We were seven times zones apart most of our dating and engagement, so making time together required intentionality. We decided to spend an hour every day chatting online (the only option we had back then!). That investment was well worth it, as it set the tone for a relationship in which we talked through everything going on in our lives and hearts every day.
Making our relationships all God intends it to be may necessitate purposefully setting a time to put away books, TV, and other technology every day to nurture one another’s hearts. Unplugging helps us to plug into each other’s heart. If we can’t afford to go out on a date, find other ways to spend quality time. A cheap pizza or a simple picnic, followed by a walk together with phones on silent—or not even along—may be the best investment we make all week.
One month into our marriage we began a tradition of having a date on or around our “luniversary,” the day of the month on which we were married. We would thoughtfully listen to and affirm each other about how we had ministered to our hearts that month. “I appreciate how you’ve been cleaning up after meals.” “When you caught my eye at church and winked and smiled at me, I felt so loved!” We also would evaluate how we were doing on consistent goals such as regular exercise, bedtime, and devotional time. And we would discuss how to improve in the coming month. Children, illness, and other things have sometimes come in the way of our dates, but having these regular couple checkups does much to resolve conflicts and build openness and honesty.
Make open communication not just an event but also a way of life. These moments of open conversations will, however, sometimes lead to conflict.
Two honest people will have disagreements! Managed well, conflict can be one of the best opportunities to demonstrate understanding and to learn to love one another more deeply. Most conflict is caused by unmet expectations. When we communicate about those underlying expectations, we can often reap the rich rewards of deeper understanding instead of alienation.
Often, small irritations are simply an invitation to self-sacrifice, an opportunity to lay our petty preferences at the foot of the cross. However, chronic problems managed by mere silence usually lead to alienation and explosions. The prolonged sense that our feelings or needs are unimportant to our partner can create an overpowering temptation to build a wall to protect our hearts, rather than investing vulnerably in the relationship. Such walls are much more easily built than torn down. It’s better to pray through our difficulties, releasing the emotional pressure in communion with God, and then to talk through molehills that could become mountains.
Sandwich growth suggestions within warm, affirming conversations. Don’t simply clam up and hope conflict evaporates. Chances are it will fester instead.
Other conflict is caused by land mines, unresolved wounds from the past that may or may not have to do with the partner. As a rule of thumb, remember that if your response to a situation is not proportionate to the actual situation, there may be a land mine under it. Unresolved emotional wounds have invisible trigger wires waiting to be tripped by an unsuspecting partner, causing visceral responses.
Some conflicts cannot be resolved without outside intervention. Abuse, addiction, and sometimes even chronic conflict are best resolved with assistance. There are many helpful resources available in the form of seminars, books, and other materials. In Matthew 18 Jesus recommended that if two people could not find resolution between themselves, one or two trusted counselors should be involved in order to give perspective and spiritual guidance. Ultimately, if this is not enough, the church might even need to be involved in order to help someone recognize the seriousness of the situation. If a conflict or serious issue remains persistently unresolved despite personal efforts, don’t hesitate to get help! If this simple biblical method were followed, we would see a dramatic revolution in many troubled families.
God designs that conflict grow us closer to one another, not drive us apart. Disagreement should lead us to prayerfully examine our own hearts to see whether our selfish desires—for our way, for control, even for peace at the cost of vulnerable relationship—are driving our responses, instead of love for God and others. Clashes are an invitation to weigh the motivations of our hearts that we ourselves wouldn’t notice without conflict.
Evaluating what binds us together or drives us apart requires prayerful heart work. What drew us together in the first place? We usually start dating because the relationship makes us happy. We assume that the ongoing relationship should continue to bring us fulfillment. But wanting to be happy is an essentially selfish goal that easily leads us, in the midst of conflict, to seek to manipulate instead of minister to the other person.
When we had our first child, it became a constant battle to get anywhere on time. It was easy to blame the other person. Each of us sometimes thought, If only he or she would be ready on time/help me, we wouldn’t be late! This didn’t result in peaceful Sabbath mornings. The other person always seemed to stand in the way of our goal, and we would both find ourselves lashing out in frustration, attempting to get the other person to do what we wanted. Adjusting our approach required communication and sacrifice, but a resulting deeper understanding and respect was worth the work.
God wants us to have happy, fulfilling relationships, but His real goal is to teach us holiness through our relationships. In other words, God wants us to reflect His character of love to each other! Conflict is an opportunity to become more like Jesus. But that transformation happens only when we see our selfishness revealed in the midst of conflict, and resolve to let God teach us to minister to the other person instead of trying to manipulate them to change.
When we love God first, and our partners as ourselves, we will seek to reflect Jesus to each other.
A genuine attitude of “How can I help?” will replace, “How can I get him or her to do what I want?” and helps a relationship to thrive. Holy marriages in which both partners are trying to love like Jesus become happy marriages in which love inspires love. But we can’t pour love like this into one another unless we first drink in God’s love for us, which leads to the final step.
We can never fully quench one another’s thirst for love. Larry Crabb paints the dilemma this way: “Both my wife and I have real personal needs for love and respect that must be met if we are to treat each other as we should. . . . I cannot fully love her until I sense that I am a loved, worthwhile person. . . . She cannot truly love me until she knows that she is a deeply secure woman. What are we to do?”5 Crabb gives four potential solutions: We can ignore our needs; try to find satisfaction in other things; continue the futile attempt to meet our needs in each other; or depend on the Lord to meet our needs.6 Only when our hearts are filled by the love of Christ can we truly love each other.
“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God wants us to invest vulnerably in our relationships, letting conflicts lead to deeper understanding and respect. He wants our relationships with each other to open the windows of our hearts, revealing to us our motivations and leading us into deeper relationship with Him as well as one another. As we depend on God as the true source of our sense of love and worth, He will pour love into our hearts that will overflow into our relationships. Then marriage “will be as it were the very beginning of love.”7
Nicole Parker is a biblical counselor specializing in relationships and sexuality. Her husband, Alan, is professor of religion and director of the R. H. Pierson Institute of Evangelism and Mission at Southern Adventist University.