There has probably never been a time when the complexities and pressures of daily living have been as great as they are today. This stress has touched every facet of our lives. Even the institution of marriage has been vulnerable to it. With the pressures of providing for a family, paying bills, succeeding in work and professions, and serving in church and community functions, husbands and wives sometimes neglect the nurturing of the romance, tenderness, and companionship that are essential to marital happiness.
This is not to suggest that all marriages are failing or that they are bound to fail. It does emphasize, however, that marital happiness is a fragile thing and that it requires attention and effort to keep it healthy and alive. It does not survive long if it is left unattended.
Marriage is not an easy venture. It is largely a one-time-through, do-it-yourself project for the husband and wife. I repeatedly encounter the illusion today, especially among younger people, that perfect marriages happen simply if the right two people come together. This is untrue. Marriages don’t succeed automatically. Those who build happy, secure, successful marriages pay the price to do so. They work at it constantly.
Some time ago Sister Larsen and I were in Europe on an assignment. One of the appointments we kept on that visit was with a large group of single adult men and women who were enjoying a special conference in the mountains of southern Germany. As a part of the conference activities, I led a session with the men while Sister Larsen met with the women. At the conclusion of these sessions, and as Sister Larsen and I were walking to our quarters, she said, “I hope something I said to the women won’t embarrass you.”
She then explained that the principal concern expressed by the women in her discussion with them was their anxiety to find worthy husbands who could qualify to take them to the temple. In the discussion, one of the young sisters had asked, “Sister Larsen, tell us how you came to marry a General Authority.”
My wife answered, “One thing you must understand: Elder Larsen wasn’t a General Authority when I married him.”
Now, there are some important implications in both the question the young woman asked and the answer Sister Larsen gave. The implication in the question was that I possessed at the time of our marriage a set of qualifications that would make me a General Authority—qualities, frankly, that I’m still working to achieve. And the implication in Sister Larsen’s response is that we have earned what we now have in our marriage. We’ve paid a price, and it has not always been easy. Had we not had such a deep initial conviction of the sanctity of the marriage covenant, and such a determined desire to succeed in spite of all the obstacles, there might have been some difficulties along the way.
We have just passed our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. In retrospect, they have been wonderful years, but they have not been easy or without challenges. They have provided for us the most profoundly important education that life can offer.
Not infrequently now we are told by those who have come to know us that we have the kind of marriage relationship they would like to have. Like the single sisters at the conference in southern Germany, they do not understand the effort it has taken to bring us the love and trust and eternal friendship we now enjoy.
Occasionally couples who have experienced disappointments and problems in their marriage come to me for counseling. Sometimes they wonder if they have made a correct choice of companions. Under these circumstances, they find it easy to give up the effort to build a sound relationship and begin looking for other possibilities. I do not believe there could be a more serious misjudgment. This does not mean I believe that a husband and wife who have differences must resign themselves to nothing more than a toleration of one another in order to keep their marriage intact. I pity those who have reached such a state of resignation, and I am disappointed in them. A happy, fulfilling marriage is possible, but it must be cultivated and nourished. It doesn’t flourish without care and attention. I realize that I am speaking directly and candidly, but I have the advantage of speaking from experience.
With that in mind, I would like to share with you some suggestions that might help you strengthen your own marriage. They are not new ideas, and they are not presented as a surefire formula for success, but they will not hurt any of you, and for some they may be stepping-stones on a pathway to hope.
1. Don’t take one another for granted. Don’t become too casual in your relationship with each other. Don’t overlook the common courtesies, even when you are alone and others will not see. This includes the “may I’s,” the “pleases,” the “thank yous,” and sometimes, when necessary, the “I’m sorrys.” It means you regularly express the necessary endearments that have to be expressed if those feelings that bind you together are to be nurtured, fostered, and strengthened. One of our married daughters expresses it this way: “Don’t always be predictable.” And by that she simply means, do some unusual things occasionally.
I suppose it wouldn’t be inappropriate for me to share an experience I had with my wife. As I returned home one afternoon from a stake conference in Salt Lake City, I found that Sister Larsen had prepared a wonderful meal. The table was set with our best china and the silverware that we usually use only when guests are present. It was special. That doesn’t happen every day or even every Sunday or it wouldn’t be special. But those are the kinds of things that can add greatly to a bond of love and companionship that will endure.
Be good to each other. Find ways to do special things for each other—even little things. I like something John M. Drescher said as he reflected on the things he would do if he were starting his marriage and family over again. “I would love my wife more,” he said. “In the closeness of family life it is easy to take each other for granted and let dullness creep in that can dampen the deepest love. So I would love the mother of my children more … and be freer in letting them see that love. I would be more faithful in showing little kindnesses—placing her chair at the table, giving her gifts on special occasions, writing her letters when I am away.
“I have found that a child who knows his parents love each other needs little explanation about the character of God’s love. The love between father and mother flows visibly to him and prepares him to recognize real love in all future relationships. When a mother and father join hands when they walk, the child also joins hands. When they walk separately, the child is slow to join hands with anyone.
“Sentimentalism? Then we need a lot more of it. Often there is too much sentiment before marriage and too little afterward.” (Reader’s Digest, Feb. 1981, p. 102.)
2. Be pleasant. Smile when you are with one another. Be optimistic and positive, even when things may not be going as well as you would expect or hope. Keep a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Husbands, I think that pertains particularly to you as you come home from your workday and the challenges that you may have faced at work, in the office, in your profession, or elsewhere. Leave your concerns outside the door of your home. Be available to your wife and family when you are home.
3. Pray together every day. I cannot begin to explain to you the tremendous strength that has come into our own marriage through prayer. I know of no better way to bring our Heavenly Father into that relationship. Keep God as a partner in your marriage. Husbands, find reasons to bless your wives occasionally. Let them feel the love that flows to them through such blessings as you use the priesthood that you are privileged to bear. Husbands and wives who do not pray together ignore one of the surest supports to a happy marriage.
4. Study and discuss the gospel together. Share the things you learn. Keep growing together in your gospel knowledge. Keep this process alive, fresh, and exciting. That goes beyond just reading the scriptures, although that’s absolutely essential. It goes beyond just setting apart one hour on Monday night. It means sharing the gospel every day and making it part of the fiber of your lives. It means keeping this growth in gospel knowledge and understanding alive and green and new and exciting.
5. Don’t be critical of one another to others, even if there are grounds for doing so. Avoid harshness and accusations. Praise one another’s virtues and strengths, but never disclose weaknesses and imperfections—not even to relatives or close friends. Such criticism inevitably creates a breach between husband and wife. It destroys trust and confidence.
6. Discover things you enjoy doing together, and then do them regularly. Appreciate one another’s talents, and encourage and foster them.
A wise bishop told me recently that every Friday night is date night for him and his wife. The older children in the family know that they have a babysitting assignment every Friday evening. It is a tradition that they enjoy with their parents.
7. Be patient, charitable, and compassionate. Control your temper. Keep a firm hold on your tongue.
8. Govern your finances carefully. Follow the counsel of Church leaders and live within your means. Spend less than you earn. Be patient in your acquisition of material things. Nothing can wreck the peace of mind essential to happiness at home more quickly and effectively than being in financial bondage. Get expert counsel before major financial expenditures are made. Happiness is not found in always having the biggest and newest possessions. Particularly avoid going into debt for perishable things. Keep away from speculation and get-rich-quick schemes. Operate on a pay-as-you-go philosophy.
Husbands, be certain that your wife has a few financial resources of her own. Even though the amount may be small, it is important for her to have some funds that she can use at her own discretion without accounting to you for every penny. A miserly husband can be a difficult person to love.
9. Finally, never give up. The marriage covenant is too sacred for this. We can enter the celestial kingdom as single individuals, but we can qualify for exaltation only as husbands and wives who “are no more twain, but one flesh.” (Matt. 19:6.)
May we qualify for that ultimate blessing, and may we enjoy the happiness that can come to us here and now as we earn that blessing by the way we live together.
When you have finished reading “Enriching Marriage,” individually or as a couple, you may wish to discuss the following questions and ideas.
1. Some people have the illusion that “perfect marriages happen simply if the right two people come together.” What other illusions do people sometimes have about marriage?
2. The author suggests several attitudes and courses of action that could improve a marriage. Review these ideas in light of your own marriage.