By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
CBN.com – Recent research has shown that divorce rates are just as high among Christians as among non-Christians. It seems that even Christians have trouble maintaining a healthy relationship in which both people feel fulfilled. Why is this?
The problem, says marriage expert Gary Chapman, is that happiness in a marriage is not automatic. Creating a great marriage takes work. In his book, Dr. Gary Chapman on The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted, Chapman tackles some of the everyday issues that married couples face. Originally published in 1979 under the title Toward a Growing Marriage, Chapman has added new material drawn from his 35 plus years of marriage. In this revised edition, he gives practical advice to help couples cultivate the marriage they’ve always wanted.
The key to having a great marriage, Chapman says, is to work hard to keep your love alive. “If we don’t keep love alive in the relationship, then the conflicts are going to overcome us,” he says.
“We get into a negative mindset and the person that we were loving a year ago — and thought they were the most wonderful person in the world — now we are thinking, ‘Why did I marry them? We can’t get along. We are not compatible.’”
What is a Christian Marriage?
Avoiding this problem (or fixing it if it is already happening in your marriage) involves going back to the basics of what God intends a Christian marriage to be. Chapman explains that the “oneness” and unity that the Bible speaks of in reference to marriage is a composite unity. This means that just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, they are also different with different roles. The same should be true in a marriage, Chapman says. “There is oneness, but there is diversity,” he says. “A biblical marriage is that we are committed to each other in every area of life to work together as a team.” If one person’s personality or desires are squelched while the other always gets their way, then the couple is not working as a team.
Chapman says the reason this unity is difficult to achieve is because all people are self-centered by nature. However, as Christians, we have God’s help to make us more loving. “The problem,” Chapman says, “is that many Christians are not walking in fellowship with God and are not reaching out to get His help to change their hearts toward their spouse. They operate the same way everyone else does – if you treat me nicely, then I’ll treat you nicely.”
Having a great marriage means that both people are submitting to each other as Scripture teaches in Ephesians 5: 22-33. Chapman believes that Christian couples have abandoned these principles, with many women especially not favoring the “wives submit to your husbands” verse.
“The problem is that we’ve gone outside the Bible and used non-biblical models, for headship,” Chapman says. “For example, we use military models. The husband is the general. Or we use business models. We say the husband is the CEO. But the biblical model is Jesus.” The picture of submitting that Paul paints in Ephesians is the same as Jesus giving His life away for the Church. And this submission doesn’t only apply to women, Chapman says.
“I like to say that submission is not a female word. We’ve latched it to the females because of that verse, but the fact is, in the context, submission is for all of us,” he says. “You can’t have harmony in a church if you don’t have people submitting to each other, and you can’t have harmony in a marriage if you don’t have people submitting to each other.” Once couples embrace these attitudes toward each other, Chapman says, then their actions will follow and they will begin to have the type of marriage that God intended.
Communication is the Key
Married couples know that even good marriages will have some conflict. What is important, Chapman says, is the way couples handle conflict when it arises.
“If we don’t learn to negotiate our differences and make them an asset,” he says, “then they become a liability to the marriage.”
One of the most important ways couples can manage conflict, and sometimes even avoid it, is to improve their styles of communication. First, Chapman says, couples need to understand the importance of creating a safe environment for communication with their spouse.
“If I feel like it is not safe to talk to my spouse – that is if I share a feeling and they tell me how stupid I am for feeling that – then I am not going to share the next time,” Chapman says. “That is where a lot of couples are. Communication stops because we don’t make it safe to talk to each other.”
To avoid this, he says, couples need to focus more on listening and understanding their spouse’s feelings rather than trying to defend themselves in an argument. They should also avoid judging how the other person feels or responding with hurtful comments.
A second way to improve communication, Chapman says, is for couples to set aside a daily time to talk. Even if they begin with only 10 minutes a day, he says he feels that this daily practice will keep couples from drifting apart.
“If we are apart for 10 hours a day, how can we have an intimate relationship if I don’t share with you something that went on in my life today and you don’t share with me something that went on in your life today? But if we do that, we can stay connected,” Chapman says.
Communication is especially important when it comes to decision making in a marriage. Too often the dominate person in the relationship becomes the primary decision maker. Chapman believes a marriage will be stronger if couples abide by the biblical idea that two is better than one. If both couples have input, he says, then they will often make a more wise decision.
Again he points to the Trinity as a model. “It is unthinkable that God the Father would make all the decisions independent of God the Son, and He would then inform God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,” Chapman says. “That’s unthinkable because they are one.”
He also points to Genesis where God says, “Let us make man in our image.” “It sounds like there is a conversation going on,” Chapman says. “So I think that’s the model for the Christian marriage. We are going to talk together about this decision because we are a team. We are one, and we need the input of both of us.”
It is also important to make decisions a matter of prayer. This means the decision may not be made right away. Often, Chapman says, couples feel rushed in decision-making; but most decisions can wait until the couple feels they either agree or they have reached a suitable compromise.
“I think the key is that if it is the right decision, it is right for both of us because we are a team,” he says.
“Show me the Money”
Couples also need to remember to work as team when dealing with their finances. Money is one of the most common sources of conflict in a marriage, regardless of whether the couple has only a little money or a lot of money. The problem, Chapman explains, is not the amount of money that a couple has, but their attitude toward money and how they handle it.
Most people fit into one of two categories when it comes to money. They are either spenders or savers by nature. And people tend to marry their opposite when it comes to attitudes toward money, Chapman says. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if the two can balance each other.
Chapman believes that the most important thing when it comes to handling money in a marriage is for a couple to establish a budget. “Most couples don’t have a budget,” he says. “In fact, when you say the word budget, most couples go into a trauma because they don’t want to get under one of those things. But a budget is just a plan for handling your money.” He points out that everyone has a plan for how they handle money, they just may not be aware of it because they have never written it down. He suggests that couples spend two months keeping records of how they spend their money each day. Once they’ve done that they can see what their budget has been and ask themselves where they will be in a year if they continue the same patterns. They may find that a new spending plan would help them save money and accomplish future financial goals.
Another practical tip that Chapman offers couples is for the couple to determine an amount that they each receive every month – depending on how much money they have available for discretionary spending. This is money that does not have to be accounted for to each other, so that one person is not asking the other one for money every time they want to purchase something or go out to lunch with a friend. If the person wants to spend it all that month they are free to do so. If they want to save it all and purchase an expensive item in the future, they can do that too.
Also, Chapman says, it is helpful for couples to determine what amount of money needs the approval of both people before it is spent. For instance, couples can agree that they won’t purchase something that costs more than $100, or whatever limit they set, without first discussing it with their spouse.
Deciding these things ahead of time, before you are faced with financial decisions, will help couples avoid problems later. “You’ve got the plan, and if both of you are following the same plan, it is a whole lot easier. You are not as likely to run into as many conflicts,” Chapman says.
Fixing a Marriage in Trouble
What if your marriage is already in trouble? Chapman says that many couples have reached a point where communication has shut down and they feel like the marriage is doomed. Often when couples reach this point, Chapman says, it is because they have built up walls in their relationship.
Every time couples argue, but do not resolve the conflict, they are building walls, he says. Soon they begin to focus on themselves, how they’ve been hurt or mistreated, and they justify their withdrawal or mistreatment of their spouse.
“By nature, we blame the other person,” Chapman says. “We say, ‘Well if they wouldn’t do that, then I wouldn’t do this. If they would treat me better, then I would treat them better. If they would say they are sorry, then I would say I am sorry.”
But the journey to healing a marriage in this predicament begins with looking at ourselves first. Chapman points to Matthew 7 in which Jesus says we must first take the beam out of our own eye before looking at others.
“I tell couples to just sit down with God and say to Him, ‘Lord, where am I failing in this marriage? What have I done wrong today, or yesterday, or last week?’ And that is a prayer God answers.”
He says as God reveals things, you should write them down, ask His forgiveness, and then share the list with your spouse and ask for their forgiveness. Confessing your failures to your spouse is the first step toward tearing down the walls that have been built up, he says.
Whether your spouse responds positively or negatively, you now have a clear conscience before God. Also, Chapman says, if you follow this during the next few weeks or months with loving words and acts to show that you are sincere about wanting to make changes, then most likely, your spouse will respond positively to that.
The next thing that Chapman suggests is learning to speak each others’ love languages. Find out what makes your spouse feel loved and then begin expressing your love in a way that is meaningful for them.
“When you do that, you create a totally different climate between the two of you. We are no longer enemies. We’ve confessed our failures and now we are loving each other,” Chapman says. “When both of you feel loved, you can process all the other things that used to drive you apart. Whatever the conflicts are – money, sex, in-laws – whatever they are, you can discuss them now in a much more civil way because you both feel loved by the other person.”
Never Stop Working
So what is the key to building a great marriage? According to Chapman it is about always putting each other first and keeping the lines of communication open to make sure your spouse feels loved and free to discuss concerns. But a relationship like this will not happen by itself. Both people must be committed to working hard to keep the relationship healthy.
Whether you are a newlywed or you have been married for years, these principles can help you and your spouse create the marriage that you’ve always wanted.