Let’s Help This Marriage Grow!

By James M. Harper

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    A young woman sat across from me describing what seemed to her to be a “hopeless” marriage. She had been married in the temple only a few short months before, but things just weren’t working out. The romance was disappearing, she said; her attraction to her husband had been lost in the daily responsibilities of living. When I asked why he hadn’t come with her, she replied that he didn’t see any problem in their relationship. “He’s really a good man,” she said, “but I’m just not committed to him anymore. My love is gone.”

    I have thought many times since that day about commitment in marriage. The Savior taught the principle of commitment when he answered the Pharisees, saying, “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife. …

    What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matt. 19:5–6.) The word cleave is a powerful action word meaning to adhere closely.

    Love is the necessary ingredient in cleaving to one’s spouse. “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart,” the Lord said, “and shalt cleave unto her and none else.” (D&C 42:22.) However, the term love has different meanings to different people. To some, love is only an emotional and physical attraction accompanied by romantic idealization. To them, love doesn’t necessarily include the important concepts of commitment and cleaving. To others, love is the quiet, steady feeling that develops between people when they share important life experiences. Both kinds of love are important; both contribute to good marriages. But in many cases, romantic love is overplayed, while the commitment that leads to true cleaving is lacking.

    As a young missionary in the Republic of South Korea, I was impressed with the quality of many of the Korean people’s marriages. When I was told that the marriages were arranged by parents, I wondered how two people could cleave so well without having first developed romantic love toward each other. Because of the narrow view I had at the time of commitment in marriage, I thought romantic feelings were the sole binding force.

    But I learned some basic principles about committed love as I observed those marriages. I learned that when two people work with each other to produce a home, when they struggle to keep children fed and healthy—then love occurs. When illness or adversity strikes and one spouse sacrifices to help and care for the other—then they learn to love. When husband and wife are progressing together spiritually and emotionally—then love grows. Love, I learned, comes as the marriage, and the marriage partners, develop.

    How then can a married couple foster commitment to each other?

    1. In Times of Crisis, Pull Together

    Crises can build strong marriages. It is unfortunate that some couples see struggles in marriage as an excuse to escape. Too often they fall into blaming each other for the stresses rather than relying on each other for affection and support. Trials in life can serve as a foundation to committed love.

    Recently my wife and children were very ill from an unusual bacterial infection. I gave them blessings and prayed for them. Then, not wanting to expose anyone else to their sickness, I arranged my work schedule to be able to be home to care for their needs. It was soon apparent that my acts of service to help them through three weeks of illness became a strong binding force for us. Such struggles in life sometimes push marital partners apart, but crises can serve as the training ground for commitment. We often perform such acts of service because we are committed beforehand, but in many instances service precedes commitment. It is in serving each other that we become committed to each other.

    The marital relationship is much like raising rare, beautiful flowers. You plant the seed and nourish it with water, food, soil, and light. If the delicate balance of these ingredients is upset, the growth and beauty of the flower may be disturbed for a time. But working to achieve a balance of required nutrition, you can overcome the problem. Commitment to the flower comes as you take care of its needs and try to help it grow into beauty.

    President Spencer W. Kimball has discussed the relationship between marital love and adversity: “A marriage may not always be even and incident-less, but it can be one of great peace,” he has promised. “A couple may have poverty, illness, disappointment, failures, and even death in the family, but even these will not rob them of their peace. The marriage can be successful so long as selfishness does not enter in. Troubles and problems will draw parents together into unbreakable unions if there is total unselfishness there. During the depression of the 1930s there was a definite drop in divorce. Poverty, failures, disappointment—they tied parents together. Adversity can cement relationships that prosperity can destroy.” (Marriage & Divorce, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976, pp. 19, 22.)

    In my own marriage I have made a very conscious decision to not let outside struggles drive me from my wife. I have learned that, besides the Lord, she is my greatest support in any crisis. If I allow fears and irritations about a problem to divide us, I have excluded the person who could best help me turn the crisis into a strength.

    2. Set Common Goals

    Even when a couple experiences a division between them, working toward a shared goal can revive the ties that bind them together. Too often couples negatively emphasize the differences between them. It is more important to emphasize shared aspirations and work toward them.

    I learned this principle as a Boy Scout leader in a struggle to get two groups of boys to change their negative attitudes toward each other. After trying several unsuccessful strategies, I placed them in a situation which required cooperation to overcome an obstacle. They united to achieve a common goal, and we never experienced conflict between the two groups after that day.

    Recently I listened as a couple complained that they had few interests in common. She liked to read; he didn’t. He played raquetball, but physical problems kept her from doing so. The list of differences went on and on. I asked if there wasn’t just one interest they shared. They shook their heads. Finally I suggested they take a ceramics class together. Neither had tried anything like that, so it gave them a new, common interest. The effect was unbelievable. As they worked toward a common goal, the excitement of growing together helped them gradually forget their differences.

    3. Seek Ways to Nurture Your Spouse

    It would be wise for all of us to ask the following question frequently: “What have I done recently to improve my spouse’s feelings about himself or herself?” By deciding to enhance one another’s self-esteem, we become very committed to each other; the other’s improvement in the way they feel becomes our success as well. In addition, we need to be willing to help our partners grow in whatever area they might desire. Spouses need to encourage each other in spiritual pursuits, intellectual development, and physical fitness. It is important to encourage them, rather than discourage them by nagging remarks and demands. When we accept the goal of helping our spouse grow in a chosen area, we will experience the commitment to that person which accompanies such an attitude.

    Nurturing also means finding strengths rather than weaknesses in our spouse. One of the recurring differences in studies of happily married couples compared to marriages in trouble is the amount of positive daily conversation. A good rule is to make at least two-thirds of our conversations with our spouse pleasant, positive, and nurturing to both. Problems need to be talked about and worked through, but to spend all of our time together solving problems isn’t appealing in any relationship.

    4. Learn to Love Yourself

    “He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it.” (Eph. 5:28–29.) It is extremely difficult to be committed to our husband or wife when we feel we have nothing to offer. Just as we can’t focus primarily on our spouse’s weaknesses, we should strive to give positive messages to ourselves.

    We sometimes have degrading conversations within ourselves. Listening to the thoughts and feelings that enter our minds when we look in the mirror, meet someone for the first time, or complete a task can be a key in determining the degree of love we have for ourselves. Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can increase our self-love. Another assignment that has benefitted many individuals is to imagine themselves behaving in successful and positive ways.

    5. Strive to Always Be Open to New Understandings about Your Spouse

    We never know all there is to discover about anyone. Even though we may be married to someone for a lifetime, that someone is growing and changing. This fact makes marriage exciting—there are always delightful new things to learn about our spouse if we search for them.

    One husband was recently astonished at the depth of his wife’s knowledge about political candidates. She had studied the issues and analyzed each candidate’s stand. He gained a new respect for her in his attempts to learn from her study. Another couple spends time sharing the books each reads. The husband doesn’t have as much time to read, but he enjoys her sharing what she reads. The nicest part is that he learns a great deal about his wife’s values and feelings through their discussions. This keeps their marriage vibrant and stimulating.

    6. Give Your Marriage Top Priority

    Some parents become closer to their children than to each other. Children might even try to get one parent to side with them against the other. When this occurs, it does not help the child or the parents.

    Likewise, people and activities outside the family can have a stronger hold on us than our wives or husbands. Work, leisure, and friends can interfere with the strength of the marital commitment. It is important to guard against this by planning and taking time to talk and be together as a couple.

    7. Renew Events That Symbolize Your Marriage

    Anniversaries are significant events because they symbolize the marital commitment. Other events and places associated with the marriage or courtship can also become symbolic. By renewing acts such as giving flowers, writing notes, or observing special celebrations, couples are reminded of their bond. Some couples plan a time when they can leave the children with a competent babysitter for a weekend and get away. These practices serve to strengthen “cleaving together.”

    At a very young age I realized my father and mother loved each other very much. It became evident in the symbols that represented their bond. Their anniversary was an event marked with great celebration. At other times of the year, outward symbols served to renew their marital commitment. The look on my mother’s face when my father presented her with a dozen red roses is indelibly painted in my mind. The symbol was powerful in my life, and my parents renewed the event many times as I grew older.

    On my own wedding day, we also selected roses to represent our special occasion. Thus we continued a tradition that symbolized commitment, a symbol I had loved to witness in my parents.

    8. Make the Gospel the Foundation of Your Marriage

    Celestial living involves a never ending marital commitment. The life that results from obedience to gospel principles is one of service and compassion to one’s spouse and family. When a man and woman are married for eternity, they decide that they can better progress spiritually together than either could alone. The temple marriage does not promise to erase the struggles of married life, but it does offer the potential for commitment that can be achieved in no other way.

    Illustrated by Jillair Henrie Robinson

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    • James M. Harper, an assistant professor in marriage and family therapy, Brigham Young University, and father of four, serves on the high council in the BYU Tenth Stake.