I have counseled with thousands of individuals and marriages, trained hundreds to lead marriages courses, and led more than 80 intensive workshops for marriages in crisis. My experience is that, although there are many other common mistakes that people make, when it comes to marriage, these are the most common core issues that are hidden by the many symptoms that are more visible and obvious:
1. Believing that just marrying the right person will make for a great marriage
Some people have no business getting married. As long as they stay selfish and dysfunctional, they will not be able to have a fulfilling, long-term relationship with anyone. So many believe that there is somebody out there that will want to be with them forever, so they don’t have to learn how to really love someone. The reality is that nobody is born to be a great spouse… it’s something one grows in to. That growth comes from being a study of what it takes to be a good relater, and then becoming habituated into practicing what they’ve learned. The really good marriages are ones that have celebrated many anniversaries, filled with many ups and downs, growing along the way, and getting better and better at loving.
2. Trying to change what you don’t like about your spouse
When people look for a mate, they are not in search of someone to “fix” them. They are hoping for acceptance! Sadly, once two people decide to start a life together, they begin to notice things that conflict with their idea of a good mate. It often starts out with trivial things like whether the toilet paper should roll from the top or underneath. As these issues go on unresolved, bigger issues begin to surface. One thinks they should splurge on a nice annual vacation while the other thinks that money would be better saved for the kids’ college fund. As more and more daily, real-life problems arise, the warm-fuzzy feelings they had at the beginning start to fade. So, they begin to think, “If only my spouse was this way, my life would be better”. “If I could fix this about my mate, I would be happy again”.
So, they begin the process of trying to change each other. And, in so doing, they are giving each other the exact opposite of why they got into the relationship in the first place: Acceptance. Furthermore, you CAN’T change your mate. So the very act of attempting to do so only frustrates the both of you. On the other hand, if you choose to accept your spouse, warts and all, you grant yourself the freedom of being able to find joy no matter your circumstances.
3. Letting your happiness depend on your spouse
First of all, let me say that I believe the pursuit of happiness is, at best, a waste of time. That’s because happiness depends on your circumstances… what is happening TO you. Based on that idea, you are only happy when things are going your way. So, when things aren’t going your way, you attempt to change your circumstances. Since life is primarily about relationships, this means you spend much of your time and energy trying to change people. People don’t like to be around someone who is constantly trying to change them, so they begin to avoid you, leaving you with fewer and fewer meaningful relationships, leaving you less and less happy. Joy, on the other hand, is something you choose. It is not dictated by your circumstances. You can be having a day when everything seems to be going wrong (and everyone has their share of those days) but you still have a great day.
Second of all, if you believe that your spouse is responsible for your happiness, then you will only see their acts of love as fulfillments of what they are required to do. And when they aren’t acting loving toward you, which everyone does from time to time, you see them as a failure to the relationship. You start liking them less which leads them to liking you less, providing you with fewer and fewer moments of happiness.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being happy! When my wonderful wife does something loving for me, I get happy. But, since I don’t require her to make me happy, then I appreciate and am thankful for those gestures. This, in turn, makes her want to do those things even more!
More and more I am discovering a bottomless well-spring of perfect, endless joy. Joanna and I are learning to pull our life-sucking IV's from each other and plugging them into a relationship with God. The difference is night and day. As we depend on God for our fulfillment we get a pure flow that is untainted by our own fears, imperfections and insecurities. What we then pass on to each other is more and more a pure, joyful, unselfish love.
4. Believing that how you think and feel about your spouse depends on them
How we think and feel about someone depends much more on what WE do than what THEY do! A real-life example might make this clearer:
One of the first things that attracted me to my wife, Joanna, was that she could easily talk to anyone. Joanna loves to converse with people. I, on the other hand, am a little more introverted. After a couple of years of marriage I began to focus more on what I DIDN’T like about Joanna and soon I began to resent her desire to seemingly want to talk all the time. Then, a wise person advised me to start thanking God for her gift of talking. After a year of praying for this, I noticed that I had done a complete 180. I had become a person who had, once again, appreciated this difference between us.
If you and I were to walk into the same room, at the same time, and place our hands on the same table, you might expect that how we think and feel about that table would be pretty much the same. But if you had just walked in from spending 30 minutes in a 120 degree sauna, and I had just come in from being outside in 10 degrees below zero, then we are going to feel something totally different from each other. To you, the table would feel cool. To me, table would feel warm. If I had spent the prior weekend refinishing that table, I am going to think about it differently than someone who has not invested a single moment into its condition. The table didn’t decide how we think and feel about it. Instead, our actions created our perception of it. The concept also applies to humans. The more time we take to be actively thankful for our spouse, the more we like them. The more we complain, the less we like them.
5. Believing that love is a feeling
There is no feeling called love. When you love someone, over time you will actually experience every feeling there is: Joy, anger, pleasure, sorrow, etc... This is because love is something you DO, not something you FEEL. And, since love is something you do, you can never “fall out of love”. Spouses who never learn this great secret of life will end up on one of two roads: (1) Deciding to remain one of the many “miserably married”. (2) Going from one marriage to another when the honeymoon feelings have faded.
On the other hand, those who understand that love is something you do, begin to learn how to get better and better at doing it, leading to a marriage that just keeps growing better and more fulfilling.