Making a Marriage Work
September 1981

“Making a Marriage Work,” Ensign, Sept. 1981, 33–37

Making a Marriage Work

My comments are directed to those of you who will dedicate an important part of your earthly life to making your marriage succeed.

Several years ago while visiting in Florida I talked with Frank Shorter, a world-class marathon athlete. He won his event in the 1972 Olympics, placed second in 1976, and has won scores of other long-distance races. As we talked about his training schedule, I learned that he has dedicated a great part of his life to success in athletics. He knows exactly what foods to eat, how many miles to run each day for his needs (which, incidentally, is about twenty), the frame of mind he needs to have if he expects to be victorious, and a number of other characteristics relating to perfection in his chosen field.

While thinking of Frank Shorter and others who have succeeded in their chosen line of work, hobby, or profession, I asked myself, “Why couldn’t more of our husbands and wives have the same type of dedication to a successful marriage?”

I know of nothing worthwhile in life that comes easy—and nothing in life is as valuable as a strong marriage and a secure family. I am speaking to all who want their marriage to succeed, including those who have remarried. My comments are not for anyone looking for simple solutions, or anyone who is satisfied merely to tolerate an uncomfortable arrangement.

Most strong marriages have been severely tested. Husbands and wives who encounter and surmount suffering, pain, misunderstanding, and temptation can enjoy a marriage that is beautiful and eternal. But I do not want us to look to the past—let us look only to today and the future.

Unfortunately, many of the books on how to improve marriages are less than helpful to Latter-day Saints. Our marriages and families are built upon heavenly concepts and principles and not upon worldly ideas or solutions. Let me share some ideas that have helped numerous marriages improve, no matter how long the couple have been married. So many individuals whom I have interviewed have shared with me their joy in the truth many of you know: marriage does get better year after year. True love often is discovered only after time, pain, joy, and heartache, and yes, after enduring many challenges.

The first idea I suggest is fundamental: We must bring the Savior and his teachings into our homes and hearts. To really succeed, an eternal marriage must be Christ-centered. Though directed to priesthood bearers the principles in Doctrine and Covenants 121 apply to both husbands and wives:

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [and here are the characteristics by which power and influence can be maintained] only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.

“Let thy bowels also be full of charity … to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.” (D&C 121:41–42, 45.)

Just as a building must have a strong foundation if it is to endure, a family needs the sure foundation of the Savior and his teachings. We are a spiritual people, believing that we are to use the Spirit in solving problems. Obviously to pray together often—at least daily and hopefully at least twice dailywill lead you to this success.

Second, do not feel that disagreements in your marriage indicate that it cannot succeed. If we are to really communicate, we must be sensitively honest when we disagree. We must tactfully express hurts and let our feelings show. We can do this without becoming angry or inconsiderate. People who keep things bottled up inside are candidates for a variety of illnesses. And equally serious, that approach does not solve problems.

Always be open and straightforward with each other. Too often we may respond to marital tension by “clamming up” or “taking a walk.” A young wife once asked me to talk with her husband and ask him to communicate with her. “All he does is clam up when we disagree,” she said. “He just walks out the door. When he cools down, he comes home; but he is like ice until I make up with him. He can go on for days or even a week or two without saying a word.”

Disagreements between marriage partners merely mean that they are human and that they are not yet perfect individuals. If they acknowledge their differences in a mature way, they can work out their differences without jeopardizing their relationship. They will recognize that their marriage is okay, that they simply have, in this situation, failed to communicate.

While serving as bishop a number of years ago, I became alarmed by the number of young people who came to me, frightened and confused, thinking their parents were not in love and were even heading for divorce because of family disagreements. Because I knew the parents well and knew they were deeply in love, I explained to their children that while this was unpleasant, it was sometimes a part of marriage and did not mean the family was about to disintegrate.

Third, never make your mate the object of jokes either in private or in public. Partners who poke fun at their mates may think of it as good-natured humor. It is not. It is degrading and dangerous to the relationship. The one so ridiculed will be hurt deeply. To make a joke about private things a husband or wife did at home reveals either a lack of sensitivity or hidden malice and anger created by frustration or hurt feelings. Couples who respect each other do not resort to such degradation.

Fourth, do not smother each other with excessive restrictions. A loving wife of many years shared with me one of the secrets of her beautiful marriage. She told me, “It is my duty to maintain an atmosphere in our home in which my husband can reach his full potential. And you know, he is a busy father, bishop, and businessman. In turn, he helps me reach my potential.”

With her encouragement, he was an outstanding bishop. She later served as a counselor in two auxiliary presidencies and then as president of the stake Relief Society. She had her own room where she sewed, painted, and wrote beautiful poetry. He felt comfortable in going fishing, doing some painting himself, and growing in ways that interested him. Neither of these marriage partners was being smothered by a selfish mate. Both respected the other’s needs and goals.

The most fulfilling of all marriages seem to be those in which the husband and wife together commit their love to the Savior’s keeping. They are interested in each other, and yet set each other free to grow and mature, to take on new challenges and to pursue new interests. Of course, this freedom is not the freedom to flirt with another. Jealousy is a subtle form of bondage and is one of the most smothering of human passions.

Husbands and wives who fear the loss of a partner’s love weaken their relationship by holding on too tightly. A husband who thinks to himself, “I won’t let her out of my sight,” is actually expressing a fear that might push her away. Husbands and wives should allow each other room for personal growth and expression. When both marriage partners are able to develop their talents and interests, the marriage is less likely to suffer from boredom and narrowness.

Fifth, compliment each other sincerely and often. A middle-aged wife once told me, “Somebody has to keep my husband humble. He gets so much attention from others that he needs to be brought down a peg or two. He gets too big for his britches.” How sad! Every husband needs a wife who will build him up. Every wife needs a husband who honors and respects her. Building each other with sincere compliments is never a sign of weakness; it is the right thing to do. Anyone who can kneel before a sacred altar with a partner and exchange vows for eternity surely can see enough good in that partner to emphasize the good when talking with others.

So often in counseling situations, a divorced woman or man will say, “John has been gone now for three years. How I wish he would come back. The loneliness is unbearable. I neglected to tell him so many things.” Or, “If only I had let her know how good she was in so many ways. What a fool I was. I could never learn to compliment her. I was always pointing out her mistakes. I see some husbands and wives treat each other so coldly and with such indifference that I want to scream at them to wake up before it is too late. I want to tell them to stop their sarcasm and, instead, to encourage each other.”

Wives and husbands tend to become the persons described in the compliments their spouses pay them. They will do almost anything to live up to the compliments and encouragement of a proud wife or husband.

Many years ago a friend of ours who had not married during the years when most marry selected a young woman to be his wife. His choice surprised a number of us because we were unable to feel she was as insightful, as socially adaptable, or as wise as he was—to the extent that it almost appeared to be a mismatch. Then we observed that during social engagements, in Church situations, and at other places, he would kindly talk with her about everything that was going on. He brought books home from school and read with her. In many other ways he helped her develop into a more mature and lovely person, and, of course, at the same time he also grew. That man and wife now serve in a distant place on a mission, living a full life because of his desire to be helpful and sensitive and because of the deep love they have for each other.

Sixth, never resort to the silent treatment. I have learned that we are wrong to say to our mate, “Just leave me alone. I am going through a rough time. Let me work it out by myself. I just don’t want to be around anybody right now.” Not only is that unfair and a genuine insult, but it is stupid. What is marriage, if it is not sharing and helping each other through crises? We have heard all of the excuses: “I am going through a change.” “I am not feeling well.” “Things are tough at the office.” “The children have driven me crazy all day long.” But none of these excuses gives the moral right to shut out someone who loves you.

Keep the door to your heart open. The times when we shut others out often are the times when we need their help the most. Of course we all need times of privacy, time to think things out, to meditate and pray. We should understand and respect this need in others. However, we should never be inconsiderate or unappreciative of a concerned husband or wife who is trying to help. This is especially true when there are problems.

Seventh, say, “I’m sorry,” and really mean it. Contrary to a popular saying, love, in part, means learning how to say “I’m sorry.” So often when we make mistakes, even innocent mistakes, damage has been done and an apology is in order. Along with learning to say, “I’m sorry,” husbands and wives must learn to say, “I forgive.” Jesus taught that to be forgiven by our Heavenly Father depends, in part, on our ability to forgive those who trespass against us. Some of the strongest marriages of which I am aware have been between partners who could say, “I am sorry,” and who forgive each other.

A couple I know of married later in life; the wife had been married before, but it was the husband’s first marriage. After several months of marital bliss, a serious disagreement erupted that so hurt the husband emotionally that he could not function at his daily tasks.

As he reeled from the impact of this confrontation, he stopped to analyze the problem and realized that at least a part of the problem had been his. He went to his bride and stammered awkwardly several times, “I’m sorry, Honey.” The wife burst into tears, confessing that much of the problem was hers and asked forgiveness. As they held each other, she confessed that in her experience those words of apology had not been used before, and she now knew that any of their future problems could be worked out. She felt secure because she knew they both could say, “I’m sorry”; “I forgive.”

In addition to saying they are sorry and really meaning it, husbands and wives must avoid bringing up the past. Thousands of marriages have survived the most critical problems and have been successful only because godly sorrow for sin was followed by Christlike forgiveness.

Eighth, never turn to a third party in time of trouble, except appropriate family members or your bishop or stake president. In sensitive and inspired ways, such persons will direct you to a competent counselor if one is needed. Someone is always ready and eager to console a hurting wife or husband. And when marriage partners have no one to talk with at home, unfortunately too many seek a friend elsewhere.

And that is where much adultery begins. It can happen in the neighborhood, in a ward choir, at the office, or anywhere else. Secret affairs begin innocently enough—just by talking about mutual hurts. But then comes a dependency period that too often ends in transferring loyalty and affection, followed by adultery.

Never confide your marriage troubles to a third party, except as I have noted, to appropriate family members, bishop, or stake president; no, not even to the closest friend of your own sex. He or she may be the first to tell your troubles to another. Lean on the Savior, and rely upon your bishop or stake president. This system, which the Lord has given us, is simple; but it works well.

Ninth, retain the joy in your marriage. God intends us to find joy in life. (See Neh. 8:10; 2 Ne. 2:25.) Most marriages begin with joy, and those that succeed retain it. When a marriage loses its happiness, it becomes weak and vulnerable. Find a happy home, and you will find a joyful couple at the helm. Husbands and wives who no longer laugh and play together are losing their love for each other and their capacity to stay together.

Last Thanksgiving we spent some time together as a family at our little farm home. One day my wife, Anne, and I began a tickling contest. As the rooms filled with uncontrollable laughter, the children came running in. They could hardly believe their eyes, but after a moment’s hesitation they joined in the fun. It was a great lesson for a father who is too often somber.

True love includes a joyful, almost childlike quality. In other words, have fun.

Tenth, pray often. Adam and Eve, during a period of insecurity, compounded their brief rebellion by hiding from God’s presence. God does not hide; only man does. God was vitally involved with that first marriage, and he is just as concerned and should be just as involved in every marriage today. Ideally, husband and wife and children will kneel together in prayer. But when that is impossible, you husbands and wives be sure to pray for a strong marriage and for the happiness you deserve.

I suspect that our weaknesses and the difficulties we meet in life cloud a marriage enough to make a really strong marriage impossible without God helping us. The Savior can help heal marriages and help keep them healthy.

The future depends on the present, and so we must live well today. Life passes quickly. Let us not be guilty of hoping that some day we will become happy and contented, after all of the bills are paid, after the kids are grown, or when we retire. Now is the time to enjoy the good in life—and the good always outweighs the bad. May we learn to recognize the good now and bring joy into each other’s lives.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Making a Marriage Work,” you may wish to discuss the following questions as husband and wife:

1. Since mental attitude is important to the success of any venture, what mental attitudes are needed to maintain a happy marriage?

2. What attitudes will grieve the Spirit and cause it to be withdrawn from your home?

3. Since problems seem to take on exaggerated significance when borne in silence, what skills will best help to communicate the problem?

4. If you find it hard to admit you’re wrong about something, what can you do to overcome this reluctance?

5. Besides verbal expression, what are some other ways of expressing love and appreciation in your marriage?

6. Of the ten ideas presented for development of a happy marriage, which ones do you feel would be most valuable to your marriage?