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Five Traits of a Good Marriage

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According to Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, these are the five best tools every good marriage uses to battle bad things.

1. Ownership:  Taking responsibility for the good as well as the bad

2. Hope:  Believing that good wins over bad

3. Empathy:  Walking in your partner’s shoes

4. Forgiveness:  Healing the hurts you don’t deserve

5. Commitment:  Living the love you promised

This list is a tall order for mere mortals, but it is within reach.  With God’s help, you can find the power you never dreamed of possessing to bring each of these qualities to life in your marriage.

1. Ownership: Taking Responsibility for the Good and the Bad

Couples in counseling almost always believe their problems rest mainly with the other person.  Like gun slingers from the Old West, they draw their dueling fingers and point to each other’s flaws and foibles.  They say things such as:  If it weren’t for your anger, we might have a real marriage.  If you didn’t lie about so many things, maybe I could trust you.  If you were ever interested in having a conversation, I might be interested in having sex.

Every competent counselor knows that no matter what the marriage problem, the system that sustains it is found in both people.  Like a mobile hanging from the ceiling, a change to one piece impacts the equilibrium of the entire structure.  In the same way, every marriage maintains balance as two people shift their positions, their attitudes and their behaviors to counter one another.  Thus in a long-term relationship, complete responsibility for problems rarely rests entirely on the shoulders of one person.  Before a single step is taken, before a move is made, spouses will need to realize that it’s not who’s wrong, but what’s wrong that counts.

The single best day in every marriage is when two partners take responsibility for their part of the pie.  Taking ownership for anything of significance presents new fears.  This must be what Nelson Mandela was thinking when he said, “Our greatest fear is not that we will discover that we are inadequate, but that we will discover that we are powerful beyond measure.”

In the short run, it is far easier to avoid responsibility for our problems by blaming someone else.  In the long-haul, admitting mistakes and owning up to our part of the problem is the single most powerful predictor of turning something bad into something good.

2. With Hope:  Believing that Good Wins Over Bad

Once a husband and wife, together, take responsibility for the good as well as the bad in their relationship, a small seedling of hope is planted.  Its tiny roots are found in a rich soil, free from negative thinking about what somebody should have done or what somebody didn’t do. It is a seedling that, in time, will sprout optimism.

I (Les) learned the powerful potential of hope while I was working as a medical psychologist on the burn unit at the University of Washington, School of Medicine.  As part of a two-year study examining how patient attitudes might impact their recovery, it was found that those patients who described themselves as hopeful recovered far more quickly and effectively than those who didn’t.  One hardly needs a study, of course, to know the value of hope to the human spirit.

But when it comes to a marriage burned by something bad, some of us need a little more convincing. After all, hope is a risk, and we fear that what we hope for may not happen.

The Power of Hope

We once asked a group of students at our university if they had hope.  Most of them, as best we can remember, said they did.  But one student raised his hand and asked an intriguing question: “How would I know if I have hope?”  What he was wondering was what the experience of hope looks like.  What are the ingredients?  I don’t know that we gave him a satisfactory answer that day, but we have since concluded that the inward experience of hope involves at least three things.

First, hope includes desire.  We want a kind of marriage we do not yet have.  Hope also includes belief.  We believe that the kind of marriage we want is possible, but hope may also include worry.  Though it is entirely possible to have the kind of marriage we want, we are not completely convinced that we will ever have it.  We fear the possibility that it may not happen, and the greater our fear, the less hope we have.  That’s why human hope is always a risk.  If you are having difficulty churning up hope for your marriage, take comfort in knowing that you have more hope than you think.  It may not be readily accessible; your worry and fear may be keeping it hidden, but you do have hope.

Hope keeps love alive.  Stop hoping and marriage dies.  As long as we imagine a better marriage and keep believing that we are going to one day enjoy it, the battle against bad things can still be won.  Hope lets us see that our world just might be set straight on its hinges once more.

3. Empathy:  Walking in your Partner’s Shoes

“Before you leave this auditorium we want you to pick up a small box you’ll find on a table in the foyer.   Open it once you get home and let its contents run loose.   It’s a box of empathy.”

We’ve often dreamed of being able to say something like this to a group of couples who have come to one of our marriage seminars.   We don’t know of another quality that can do more for a marriage than empathy – that capacity to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and see the world from his or her perspective; to imagine what life must be like to be lived in his or her skin.  It’s what poet Walt Whitman was getting at back in 1855 when he wrote his master work, Leaves of Grass:  “I do not ask how the wounded one feels; I myself, become the wounded one.”

The Heart of Love

Research has shown that 90 percent of our struggles in marriage would be resolved if we did nothing more than see that problem from our partner’s perspective.  Empathy is the heart of love.  Yet loving couples neglect it to their peril.  Why?  Because it’s tough to do.  Empathy calls for loving our partner with both our head and heart, concurrently.  Most of us do one or the other pretty well; we either feel our partner’s pain with our heart, or we try to solve their problem with our head.  To do both can be tricky.  But that is the charge and gift of empathy.

Are some people unable to empathize?  Only narcissists and deviants with no conscience.  Everyone else can use their head and heart to put themselves in their partner’s shoes.  It’s been proven.  Like hope, we have something in our nature, right from the beginning that provides the makings for human empathy.  When a content newborn baby hears another baby crying, for example, it also begins to wail.  It’s not just the loud noise, but the sound of a fellow human in distress that triggers the baby’s crying, research finds.

So if it has been a while since you worked on empathy in your marriage, allow us to make a suggestion.  No matter what your particular struggles may be, no matter what bad things your marriage has bumped into, we are convinced you can soon see the benefits of empathy by conducting a small exercise together.  It has to do with understanding the home your partner grew up in.

The History Factor

Most people don’t realize the extent to which the marriage they create is a product of the marriage they observed growing up.  For better or worse, every husband or wife brings behaviors, beliefs, quirks, and roles into their marriage that they are not even aware of.   Like an actor in a dramatic performance following a script (the one we observed growing up), each of us plays a part in our marriage to which we normally haven’t given much thought.  As a result, we become entangled in a story about us that we never meant to write.  Why?  Because we’ve never taken the time to really explore each other’s early family environments.  Without knowing it, we absorbed ways of being a wife or husband from our family of origin—and we formed standards for our spouse to live up to in his or her roll, too.  That’s why some good couples have a difficult marriage.

You may not have home movies to watch, but you can explore the past with your partner just the same as you try to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in his or her shoes.  When we empathize with our partner we will never look at them the same way again.  That’s the magic of empathy.  It brings more understanding.  Understanding bring patience…and patience brings grace.  What marriage has an overabundance of grace?  None that we know of.  Grace primes the pump for the unnatural act of forgiveness.

4. Forgiveness:  Healing the Hurts you Don’t Deserve

A husband and wife who have taken ownership for the good as well as the bad, who have planted a seed of hope by believing that good wins over bad, and who have dared to walk in each other’s shoes in order to see that the bad is not as bad as they thought—this couple is light years ahead of the masses of married people.  But they will not likely survive without a heavy dose of forgiveness.

The failure to give or receive forgiveness probably accounts for nearly every marriage that does not endure. How can two people who have so much opportunity to step on each other’s toes survive without saying, “I’m sorry.”?  Yet in our counseling work, we have found that many husbands and wives have a hard time knowing when and how to say these words.  They don’t know when forgiveness is appropriate.

Most married people believe it’s good to forgive and bad to hold on to grudges, but this can lead some people to forgive too easily. They become trigger-happy forgivers in order to one-up their spouse, as a way of making them feel guilty. Or they forgive quickly to avoid the pain. They think, “I’ll put up with this horrible treatment because I won’t know what I’ll have without it.”  Either way, rapid-fire forgiveness is unhealthy, and it is certainly not what forgiving is for.

Forgiveness Stinginess

Other people mistakenly take the opposite approach with forgiveness.  They hold on to their forgiveness for fear they may run out.  After all, they reason, it doesn’t make sense to give pardon to the person who has caused us deep pain.  What they don’t know is that the main reason for forgiveness is what it does for the forgiver.  Carrying rage for our partner does more harm to us than to them.  That’s why “the first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness, is the person who does the forgiving,” says Lewis Smedes.  “When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner we set free was us.”

To forgive is to withhold judgment, forswear vengeance, renounce bitterness, break the silence of estrangement, and actually wish the best for the person who has hurt us.  Forgiveness is not for the faint-hearted.  Our sense of justice usually recoils at the thought of this unnatural act.  Only the brave forgive.

In a good marriage, two people help one another become better at forgiving by asking for forgiveness when convicted, as well as by giving it when needed.  “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”  These simple words offer a possible way out of the inevitable blame game that traps so many couples.

“Where’s my white shirt you said you’d pick up from the cleaners?” says the husband.

“I never said I’d get your shirt.”

“I can’t believe you.”

“Don’t pass the blame to me, it’s your shirt.”

“Yes, but I asked you last night to pick it up for me.  Why didn’t you?”

“You’re crazy.  We hardly even talked last night because you were at the game with Rick.  Remember?”

“Oh, I get it.  You didn’t pick up my shirt because you’re mad about me going to the game.”

“Wait a second.  Who’s the one who gets mad if I’m not home to make dinner every night?”

This insane dialogue bleats on and on until, at last, one partner says, “I’m sorry.  Will you forgive me?”  In the daily grind that is sometimes marriage, forgiveness keeps us moving forward.

But for some agonizing couples, a devastating hurt—one that was completely undeserved and goes against God’s moral grain—calls on forgiveness to do much more than that.  Sometimes in a good marriage, a pain of betrayal has cut do deep, that forgiveness is the only thing between this couple and their demise.  Forgiveness is their last home for keeping them from their finale.  Can it do so?  Is it fair to ask so much of forgiveness?  Yes, indeed.  Forgiveness was designed to do this and only this:  to heal the deepest wounds of a human heart.

In addition to breaking the cycle of blame and loosening the stronghold of guilt, forgiveness does something else for a good marriage.  It puts both partners on the same side of the fence, or perhaps it tears the fence down altogether.  Through forgiveness, we realize we’re not as different from the wrongdoer as we’d like to think.  That is what calls every couple to commitment.

5. Commitment: Living the love you promise

“For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”  Just words.  A mere phrase, really.  You hear them at every wedding.  Are you impressed?  Probably not.  It’s one thing to say these words; it’s another to keep them.  Let’s face it, this promise can only be proven over the course of a lifetime, and half the time it is broken.

We assembled a small panel of marriage experts to interview in front of a large auditorium of nearly 200 college students studying marriage at our university.  None of these experts had a Ph. D.  They’d never published scholarly articles or anything else related to marriage.  We don’t know if they’d ever read a single article on matrimony.  All we knew is that these couples were experts by virtue of the longevity of their relationships.  Elvin and Lois, married seventy-two years.  Ken and Mable, sixty-eight years.  Eldon and Dotty, seventy.

Why Some Marriages Last So Long

“Did you know marriages could last so long?” we asked our students, opening the floor for their questions.  They sat in awe of these affectionate couples, like they were viewing a rare curiosity that belongs in a museum.  One student raised his hand to break the ice:  “If you combine the number of years these couples have been married, it comes to 210.”  Students chuckled, but they got deadly quiet when the student asked, “What has kept you together all these years?”

Elvin was the first one to speak up.  “An abiding determination to do so,” he said.  The rest of the panel added in agreement.

Bill Lake would have agreed as well, if he had been present.  Bill is a 103-year-old married man in Yakima, Washington, who has proved his pledge of commitment like few others.  He does so unfailingly every day, sitting next to his wife, Gladys, in her convalescent center and watching her body slowly shut down from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.  Her hands once shook with the disease, but now they have gone still.  Her speech in healthier times was fluid, but she is now mute.  Her face, which used to light up at seeing her husband, now is frozen.

“It isn’t very pleasant for me or her,” Bill says, “but what can you do?”  What Bill does is pure dedication.  He sits in the chair next to Gladys’s bed for hours a day, a visit in the morning and another in the afternoon.  He passes the time reading to her, talking about their life together, or simply sitting – making good on the promise he made seventy-two years ago.

When he arrives for each of his visits, Bill brushes back Gladys’ silver hair and greets her with a kiss on the head and a soothing voice.  “Hi, sweetie.  Can you hear me?”  Her eyes just roll.

For better or worse.  You better believe it.  Bill has been visiting his wife in the convalescent center for nearly ten years.  In that time he’s seen people drop off relatives and never return.  He’s seen people die lonely, but he promises that won’t happen to his wife while he’s alive.  We have a strong feeling he’s right.

The “’til death do us part” aspect of marriage is not an untouchable ideal but a living reality that is insured by an unswerving commitment—a willful agreement to keep love alive.  No matter how long a couple has been married, commitment may be the most effective tool good marriages use in battling bad things. Without commitment and the trust it engenders, marriages would have no hope of enduring.

Two Kinds of Commitment

Dr. Scott Stanley, at the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, has probably done more to help us understand what commitment is and how it works, than anyone we know.  After years of research he has concluded that the term commitment is generally used in two ways.

The first involves constraint and engenders feelings of obligation.  It keeps a couple married, not because their hearts are necessarily in it, but because they gave their word.

The second aspect to commitment involves dedication and engenders enthusiasm and involvement.  It translates into active devotion to one another and to the marriage.  It’s no surprise that studies show dedicated couples battle bad things better than couples who are committed only out of constraint.

Every marriage is held together, to some degree, out of restraint:  the moral compunctions against divorce, the welfare of children, financial considerations, and so on.  Constraints are just a fact of marriage, and they aren’t bad.  Don’t think in terms of abolishing constraints; rather, look at ways to increase your devotion.  Dedication combined with constraint is what Scott Stanley calls the “epoxy glue” of marriage – a super strong bond created by mixing two powerful compounds.

That, after all, is the point of our wedding vows.  Too many good couples have misunderstood the nature of vows.  They thought their vows were an expression of their feelings for one another, a prediction of what their feelings would be in the future, but the very opposite is true.  Vows are promises made for the times when the ecstasy of feeling in love is not present.  Vows are not dependent on feelings, but on a commitment to work on the relationship, to remain faithful, regardless of feelings.

Everybody knows marriage is no picnic, at least not always.  Even when it is, it sometimes rains.  “Ants will sting, mosquitoes will bite, and you will get indigestion from the potato salad,” as Ruth Senter puts it, “but you will say ‘Forever,’ because love is a choice you have made.

Used with permission from the book When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages by Les and Leslie Parrott.


Who is the nicest person you know? What makes you think they’re so nice?

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