The Formula That Saved Our Marriage

By Judith Long

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    “Are we going to make this marriage work, or not?” he asked.

    Seven months married, six months pregnant, I sat on the bed, tears streaming down my cheeks and spotting my nightgown. I couldn’t give my husband an answer!

    Jim, a nonmember, and a lieutenant junior grade aboard a U.S. destroyer, sailed out of San Diego harbor every other week. He loved his duty, his friends aboard ship, and coming home to his sweetheart. But I was miserable! Alone every other week and living in a strange city with no friends, no family, and (since I was inactive) no church affiliation, I sank often into a state of despondency. Morning sickness, nausea, and a growing waistline did not improve my attitude. I felt trapped!

    At the end of each “out to sea” week, Jim would return, ever the optimist, expecting to find a happy, smiling wife. But after too many days of lonely vigilance, I was anything but sunshine. A dark gloomy cloud settled over our little rented bungalow. Doubts assailed me. I wasn’t sure I loved him. He didn’t seem to understand me or my needs. Was this what wedded bliss was supposed to be like? We had tried to talk it out before, but each time we satisfied only surface deficiencies, never the real problem.

    Now we sat facing each other across the bed, our relationship teetering seriously. What were we going to do? The word divorce arose. Is that what we wanted? It carried a sound of finality, of permanency, and made us involuntarily shudder. But how could we change?

    We sat in silence, pondering. Then Jim looked up. “Judith,” he said, “I think our problem is one of selfishness. Are you willing to make an honest effort to try an experiment? For the next thirty days, I’ll think only of you and your needs, and you think only of me and my needs. If at the end of that time our marriage has not improved, then we’ll talk about … about another solution.”

    I agreed. I wanted—hungered for—happiness.

    “But we must guard against one thing,” Jim warned. “We must not predetermine each other’s actions judging them against what we would like. Our wants may be out of proportion to what we receive, and disappointment may occur. This is to be a total concentration of what we can do for each other.”

    The next morning I slipped out of bed early, fighting nausea and bleary eyes. Jim loved large hot breakfasts; I preferred sleeping later, with a light morning snack. Nevertheless, muffins, bacon and eggs, and fruit arrived on the table. The aroma was my breakfast bell. Jim came in with a grin of eagerness that would have melted any self-serving heart. So much for sleeping in! An assortment of biscuits, ham, eggs, swedish or oven pancakes, ableskivers, and omelettes arrived on the table each morning, even though every morning I still scaled the same mountain of nausea. I purchased specialty cookbooks on breakfast meals and built up a three-week variety of different foods.

    “Honey, I can hardly wait to get up in the morning just to see what exciting menu is on the table,” Jim said. “You’re a marvelous cook [hug and kiss], and I love it!” With this encouragement, my breakfasts continued to improve—and so did my willingness.

    The second big change came during those week-long assignments out to sea. I took walks every day, started conversations with the local grocer and his wife, immersed myself in uplifting books and music, and slammed the door on every “poor me” thought. Fridays required long preparation. I knew his optimism envisioned me running out the door and into his arms—so I ran! And then I led him back into the house to discover the living room transformed by candlelight, soft music, a lace-covered card table set for dinner, and a little bit of heaven wafting from the kitchen. Romance blossomed again!

    One night he said, “I feel like seeing a movie. Would you like to go?” Actually, I was tired and thinking about retiring early, but I remembered the commitment and grabbed my coat. Perhaps the hardest part is doing what you don’t feel like doing, without minding. The key, I’ve found, is attitude. Discomfort melts to miniscule proportions under a genuine desire to please each other.

    Of course I didn’t do all the changing in our marriage. Jim, too, kept his part of the commitment—and he did it in ways he knew would be most meaningful to me. His largest contribution was personalized attention. Five-minute rubdowns to my aching limbs and back expanded to an hour, soothing nerves as well as body. He provided more opportunities for talk and relaxation—taking me away from our four walls on weekends into the sunshine, to the beach, or to the park for archery or picnics. And he listened more attentively to what I was feeling and going through. He perceived how easily my feelings of confidence could fail, and so he reminded me of my positive traits during those periods to bolster my ego.

    Even though he was only twenty-three years old, Jim commanded one hundred men aboard ship—men who saluted and followed his orders daily. Sometimes I had suspected he unconsciously desired the same behavior from me. But, happily, during our thirty day experiment, that harsh edge disappeared. In a matter of two weeks, I began to feel cherished, appreciated, and loved.

    Our “extreme” commitment meant keeping each other’s needs always in the background of our thoughts; it meant asking ourselves each day “What can I do for him/her? How can I show I care?” It meant—for both of us—literally eliminating “I demand!” and “What about me?” and “Why doesn’t he/she … ?”

    The changes in our marriage were attitudinal initially, but they were based upon a true principle—unselfishness and our understanding and acceptance of the principle dictated our actions. We paid the price to please each other, and in that process discovered the beginnings of true love. All it took was to give instead of take; to be thoughtful instead of thoughtless; to desire to please rather than be pleased.

    About a year later, an elderly friend added his gift of wisdom to our formula: “Think of marriage as if it were an empty jar, waiting to be filled,” he said. “Each act of kindness places a spoonful of sugar into it; every selfish act takes one out. At the end of each year, will your jar be empty or overflowing? Your marriage, bitter or sweet?”

    Learning to be unselfish didn’t mean we could relax; it required continuous effort. Warning signs were not difficult to spot, and during the years that followed we sometimes had to go back to that extreme commitment again to improve our behavior.

    I remember one particular Valentine’s Day with plans to dine and dance in the evening. Jim phoned from the office. “Honey, I’m sorry. We’ll have to cancel. I’m tied up till late tonight.”

    I knew he truly shared my disappointment, so after putting the children to bed, I dressed especially for him. I attached a large card to the door which read, “I Love You!” then watched for his car lights. When he walked into the house, he melted!

    One evening on our anniversary, he and a dear friend Brent Brockbank, conspired together and led Kathryn (Brent’s wife) and me to the backyard to find dozens of carnations, dinner, and Hawaiian music filling the warm California air. Our two husbands beamed from ear to ear.

    In the spring, Jim searched the surrounding hills and found secret spots where wild flowers surfaced. “Come on,” he would say. “I’ve got a surprise for you.” And he swept me off to spend afternoons with picnic lunches amidst glorious color.

    After we had been married six years, I came to a knowledge that the gospel was true. There is no question in my mind that our previous efforts to serve and please one another were at least part of the reason Jim agreed to look into the Church and allow the missionaries to come. I was reactivated, Jim was baptized, and we were sealed in the temple a year later.

    The next six years sped by quickly, and our marriage continued to improve with the foundation and application of gospel principles. Little by little we dropped off the excessive, unneeded baggage that bad habits provide.

    Then one night Jim returned home from an institute class and asked me about several terms he had heard there. “Do you know what these mean?” He spoke them, and they bounced against the blank wall of my mind. “I haven’t the faintest idea,” I answered. As we talked, a suspicion arose in us, awesome, even terrible, that we did not fully understand the doctrines of this gospel we professed to believe in—that our knowledge was shallow and unenlightened.

    We started a concentrated study program immediately. We went back to the beginning again to understand faith, baptism, repentance, and the Holy Ghost. We chose vacations with the express purpose of studying together, weeks or weekends, in quiet places where we could relax, research, pray, and ponder.

    Growth and understanding came in sudden leaps, as well as line upon line. Our efforts again meant selflessness, sacrificing other interests occasionally, in order to keep pace with one another and to share what we learned with our family. To drag a foot was to slow the rest of us, and neither wanted to be guilty of that.

    Today, gospel study and service continue to be a central activity between us, a privilege we hold most precious. As we look back, our first successes seem small now. But we will always acknowledge a certain ray of light that came one late winter evening to two desperate, seeking newlyweds. The gospel has reaffirmed to us that selflessness and service are truly a vital part of our Heavenly Father’s formula for an enduring marriage.

    Let’s Talk about It

    After reading “The Formula That Saved Our Marriage,” you may wish to discuss some of the following:

    1. Discuss President Spencer W. Kimball’s remarks about unselfishness in marriage: “True marriage is based on a happiness … that comes from giving, serving, sharing, sacrificing, and selflessness. … There must be great unselfishness, forgetting self and directing all of the family life and all pertaining thereunto to the good of the family. … Every divorce is the result of selfishness on the part of one or the other or both parties to a marriage contract. … The one who marries to give happiness as well as receive it, to give service as well as to receive it, and who looks after the interests of the two and then the family as it comes will have a good chance that the marriage will be a happy one.” (Marriage and Divorce, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, pp. 12, 17, 19, 22.)

    2. How could a commitment of unselfishness improve your own marriage?

    3. Why would it be important, as this couple acknowledged, not to “predetermine each other’s actions, judging them against what we would like”?

    4. Discuss the wife’s observations: “The key, I’ve found, is attitude. Discomfort melts to miniscule proportions under a genuine desire to please each other.”

    5. Why can unselfishness and service increase love and enhance a marriage?

    Illustrated by Sharon Seegmiller

    Show References

    • Judith Long, mother of five, is president of the Central Point Oregon Stake Relief Society.