My experience over 25 years of counseling couples has shown that those who are willing to put loving and caring for a spouse above stubborn self-interest can resolve whatever challenges they face in marriage. “Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other,” declares “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102). In harmony with this counsel, I have found many principles that will invariably help couples who apply them sincerely and prayerfully. Here are five of the most important.
1. The Lord can help us overcome marital challenges.
Heavenly Father wants marriages to succeed. Sometimes when couples have stress in their relationship, they begin to slack off on such things as scripture study and praying together. They may become so self-centered and focused on their own pains and troubles that they are reluctant to reach out for help, even from Heavenly Father. Yet this is the time when His help is needed most. I have learned that when couples kneel together and vocally ask Heavenly Father for help with their problems, their hearts soften. If they truly listen, answers will come. Divine assistance is available, and couples who genuinely seek it receive extra help.
2. We must work on ourselves first.
As I visited with Frank and Susan (not their real names), each seemed anxious to show me that the reason they needed help in their marriage was the unwillingness of the other to make some important changes. After reviewing some of the strengths and roadblocks in their marriage, I told them we would learn together some techniques to help them with challenges like problem solving. “But I’ll have to be honest with you—the bottom line is what we might call ‘heart.’ Unless your heart is in the right place, unless your attitude is humble and teachable and you have a willingness to work on what you need to work on personally, we won’t see much real progress.”
Their first homework assignment was to list three things each would be personally willing to work on for the sake of the marriage. They each listed at least one way to reach out to the other: “Help get the children ready for church,” or “Give him a hug when he comes home from work.” As we discussed their plans for personal change, realistic hope for improvement in the marriage began to grow. Frank and Susan were learning that each partner must be willing to work on personal areas of needed improvement without waiting for the other to go first.
3. Mutual forgiveness is essential to happiness in marriage.
We all make mistakes and need forgiveness, but pride often gets in the way; we don’t like to admit we’re wrong. We need to swallow that pride and say, “I’m sorry,” then try to do better. When a spouse apologizes and tries to do better, we need to accept the apology and forget about the past. If a husband or wife still isn’t perfect and stumbles while trying to break old habits or embrace change, we can try not to judge or criticize.
Forgiveness is in part a conscious decision we make, but it also can include a process of spiritual healing. One couple came for counseling because a husband had been unfaithful to his wife. The wife’s hurt was deep, and though he seemed genuinely repentant and contrite, she resisted the need to forgive him, venting her feelings of anger during several sessions (see D&C 42:25; D&C 64:9–10). I encouraged them to pray about this problem and asked her to pray for help in understanding and forgiving. One day when they came in, the atmosphere of tension had changed. I asked what had happened, and she said, “The bitterness is gone. I’m not sure how, but spiritually something has happened. I’ve been able to forgive him, and I know it’s because the Lord has helped me.” Her ability to forgive changed the relationship. While additional work with them was needed, the spiritual healing which had occurred provided a foundation to build on.
4. We can show love in a way that means love to a spouse.
The challenge is to identify things that show love from your spouse’s point of view, then do them. How can you identify them? One way is to notice the things you do which seem to make him or her happier. Sometimes it is a good idea simply to ask.
What you are doing out of love may not be understood that way by your partner. A husband might believe a good way to show love is to take a second job so his wife and children can enjoy more of the material comforts or privileges of life. But his wife may be thinking, He’s never home. He must not love me because he never spends any time here. It is all too easy for children to come to the same conclusion. It may be that what his wife really wants is to have him with her more often rather than obtaining more possessions. Candid, open discussion can help resolve these situations where there is doubt about expressions of love or when they seem to be lacking.
If you are one who sometimes feels shorted on love, remember that behavior which is rewarded tends to be repeated. A number of years ago, teachers in the public schools where I lived were encouraged to “catch students doing something right” and compliment them. If students are rewarded this way, they tend to repeat that behavior in the future. It is important for couples to practice this same principle. If it bothers you that your husband won’t put his dirty clothes in the hamper or that your wife doesn’t put tools away in the right place, don’t criticize or demean. Share your concern, explain nicely how a change would make your life easier, then catch him or her doing something right. When he puts his clothes in the hamper or she puts the tool back in its place, let your spouse know you appreciate it, even if he or she does not do the right thing as often as you would like. Chances are, the behavior will be repeated.
5. Small changes add up.
Sometimes couples get discouraged when improvement doesn’t come as rapidly as they would like. When this happens, I often share a story about a rite of passage for me when I was growing up on the farm: the first time Dad let me plow the field. When he came to see how I was doing and found that my first two rows looked like crooked snakes, he smiled knowingly and said, “Let me show you how to get a straight line. Pick a post or tree at the other end of the field—something that isn’t going to move—put it right over the smokestack on top of the tractor, and keep it there.” It worked, and with a bit of fine-tuning I also found that adjusting my course a few degrees in the beginning made a huge difference by the time I arrived at the far end of the field.
For me, there are several lessons for life in my plowing experience. First, our kind Father in Heaven will not hastily condemn us for our mistakes; He will lovingly help us correct our course. Second, it helps to steer by something that is steadfast and true, like scriptures and the words of living prophets. Third, making minor corrections leads to major improvements over time. I tell couples I work with, “If you are following correct principles and if you keep doing it, things will improve. Slow progress doesn’t mean there’s no progress.” As husband and wife adhere to those principles, they gain greater happiness and fulfillment as a couple, along with individual growth and spiritual development.
Living Worthy of Eternal Marriage
“An eternal bond doesn’t just happen as a result of sealing covenants we make in the temple. How we conduct ourselves in this life will determine what we will be in all the eternities to come. To receive the blessings of the sealing that our Heavenly Father has given to us, we have to keep the commandments and conduct ourselves in such a way that our families will want to live with us in the eternities. The family relationships we have here on this earth are important, but they are much more important for their effect on our families for generations in mortality and throughout all eternity.” Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “The Eternal Family,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 65.
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