Keeping Your Marriage Alive
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“Keeping Your Marriage Alive,” Ensign, July 1982, 56

Keeping Your Marriage Alive

The voice on the telephone said, “Paul, I must see you as soon as possible. My wife and I are having problems in our marriage.” We made an appointment for later that day, and as I put down the telephone, I felt shocked and concerned. Here, I had thought, was a solid marriage. What could have gone wrong?

There were several possible factors, including stress over financial matters, but after my discussions with Bill and Sharon (not their real names), I found that the failure to develop and continually maintain a good husband/wife relationship was central. As we talked, I concluded that they were both doing adequate jobs in their roles as father and mother, but that they hadn’t spent enough time and effort on their own relationship.

In their twenty years of marriage, Bill and Sharon had usually included others in their activities, especially their children. But very seldom did just the two of them spend time together. They emphasized children’s birthdays, but not each other’s. When Christmas arrived, most of the gifts were for the children; this was also true of other occasions during the year. Yes, they were involved as parents, but they were neglecting each other. Even when they went to dinner it was always with another couple. And when Bill expressed his feelings about Sharon’s personal grooming, she responded, “There was never enough time or money after providing for the children’s needs!”

She then expressed feelings of being ignored and never really feeling important in her husband’s eyes. “In fact,” she stated, “I have felt just like another one of the children. Everything has been planned to meet their needs.” Humbled, Bill admitted: “I have heard so much through the years about the importance of being a father, that I apparently have forgotten how to be a husband.”

At this point, I felt it was appropriate to share a statement made by one of my influential teachers. He said that no couple can meet their full potential as parents until they have first developed a strong husband-and-wife relationship. Bill and Sharon agreed with this and acknowledged that they both had much to learn about being good marriage partners. They also felt empathy for another couple who, the morning after the last child was married, came to breakfast, and as they looked at each other across the table, found they had nothing to talk about.

Bill and Sharon realized that they needed to do something immediately to avoid a trend to divorce. They had a strong desire to strengthen their marriage and quickly took steps to develop their relationship. Together, they accepted and worked on the following specific assignments:

Assignment 1: Strengthen Your Relationship with Our Father in Heaven.

Remember that Heavenly Father can soften hearts, soothe hurt feelings, and bless a couple with the ability to forgive past mistakes. He can help husbands and wives draw closer to each other, increase their communication skills, and magnify their understanding and love.

Sometimes couples are too embarrassed to share spiritual feelings with each other. Or they get so busy with other things that they don’t make time for this crucial part of their relationship. I counseled Bill and Sharon to pray together daily and to study together the scriptures and recent talks from the General Authorities. I encouraged them to make discussion and testimony bearing a part of these sessions.

Assignment 2: Spend Time Alone Together.

I had learned by personal experience the importance of time alone with my wife. With the beginning of a new school year, student conferences, opening socials, and upcoming stake and general conferences, September is always a hectic month for our family. Several years ago I spent four successive weekends away from home, and I was behind with many household and yard chores. The first free Saturday found me doing some needed chores at my workbench (and really feeling good about getting caught up) when I was surprised by a knock on the door. There stood my wife, and she stated with much conviction, “I just want to let you know I’ve got to get away and I’m leaving now. If you want to come, fine; but I’m going.”

Well, I may not be the most intelligent person in the world, but I understood the message. I left my now no-longer-important project and escorted her straight to the car. “Let’s have a picnic—all alone,” I suggested, and we stopped by a convenience market to buy some sunflower seeds, yogurt, and fruit juice. A strange picnic? Not when we both liked this combination of items. We drove to a national monument a few minutes from our home, and under the pleasant, fall Arizona sunshine enjoyed a memorable picnic. We included a short hike, talked about the two of us, and enjoyed one of the most eventful afternoons of our life. It didn’t cost much and we didn’t go very far, but it accomplished the needed renewal: we spent some time alone.

I shared this experience with Bill and Sharon and was happy that each succeeding week Bill reported on their “dates” together. He discovered that a date could be simple and inexpensive, like taking a walk, going on a picnic (even without yogurt and sunflower seeds), taking a drive, watching the sunset, going to dinner, eating at home (when the children were out), or shopping together.

This couple made an effort to share time together. It did take extra planning, especially in finding someone to watch the children for them. Neither Bill nor Sharon had family living near them, so they located a neighbor willing to watch the children for a few hours (occasionally overnight) in return for a similar favor. But the rewards were well worth the planning. They were able to create the time they needed. As Clayton C. Barbeau states: “I have never yet stumbled across twenty minutes lying on the sidewalk, though once I found a twenty-dollar bill. Nor have I ever met anyone who just happened across two weeks of time somebody had left in the park. I doubt that anyone else has done so either, for the simple reason that time is not found.” (Creative Marriage, New York: Seabury Press, 1976, p. 75.)

Bill and Sharon planned each week to include more and more of the things they both secretly had long yearned to do together. Time was also allotted for the children, and they continued to have activities as an entire family on a regular basis.

Assignment 3: Listen to Each Other.

For years Sharon had been trying to express to Bill her special needs; in turn, he had been attempting to communicate his feelings regarding her appearance. But neither had had “ears” for the other. I asked them to take thirty minutes each day during these critical weeks to listen. They decided that late evening, just before retiring, was the most convenient time for them. I asked them to take turns expressing something positive about the other person and then wait for a response. Building upon that base of appreciation, each was then to discuss one frustration they felt concerning their mate, but in very loving terms, again taking turns and awaiting a response. As their confidence increased, they were willing to discuss lovingly some feelings they had been carrying for years, and they thus developed a trust they had previously never known. This time together was so rewarding that it became a regular habit.

One of the important results of this experience has been that they now regularly discuss their budget. This has reduced the strain between them created by misinformation about the family’s financial affairs. Both understand how much money can be spent, and together they decide how it is to be spent.

Assignment 4: Develop a Friendship with Your Spouse.

Recently a woman in our town, who had been a wife for forty-two years, stated that she and her husband were “terribly good friends” and had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. She said this greatly strengthened their relationship because they always had something to talk about. They understood each other and were interested in each other. Too often we think that friendships are something external to marriage; but it is my experience that a really happy and healthy marriage is based on a solid friendship. Eventually, Bill and Sharon developed a strong friendship—the result of taking time to recognize each other’s unsatisfied needs, and then working together to fulfill them.

Assignment 5: Do Something Special for the Other Person Every Day.

Many marriages terminate because one or both of the partners take the other for granted. The marriage gets lost in the woodwork of life, with each person becoming involved in his or her own interests. The wife too often spends all of her time caring for the children. The husband may become totally immersed in his work. Sometimes church callings and other activities consume all of one’s extra time. In such a situation, the image of the other spouse becomes almost invisible against the background of the busy environment.

This couple was a classic example. In fact, they were so far apart in meeting each other’s needs that they did not know where to begin. As they commenced talking, they were very cautious. For example, Sharon said, “If I baked you a pecan pie, would that be something special?”

Bill exclaimed, “Would that be special! You’ve never baked a pecan pie. You’ve always felt we couldn’t afford it.” Then he asked, “Would it be special if I took you to the stake sweetheart dance next week?”

She started to cry and said, “I didn’t think we would ever go to a dance again.”

Sharon was elated with little gifts from her “new” sweetheart during the subsequent weeks. And she supplied basketball tickets for the two of them so they could attend a game that was special to Bill. Most important, however, was Sharon’s asking Bill to share with her what he really did at his job. She had never before shown an interest.

Too often we equate doing things for others as something that will cost considerable money. I well remember my first Valentine’s Day with my wife. We had been married just six weeks. I was attending school and was a typical struggling student with no extra money. Having a desire to please my new bride, I took the $1.25 I had and went to the florist for two daffodils, to the candy shop for a small box of chocolates, and then to the drugstore for a valentine. I placed them on our small living room table, and when my wife returned from work you would have thought she had received a dozen long-stemmed roses, a two-pound box of chocolates, and the world’s largest valentine. The next year was somewhat different—after all, we had then been married over a year! I neglected to purchase a remembrance. The disappointment was obvious—so obvious in fact, that during the last twenty-eight years I have not forgotten a Valentine’s Day, birthday, or anniversary.

Sometimes couples think they get too old to do special things for each other and to express appreciation. But age doesn’t have to present a barrier. An excellent example comes from Mrs. Edwin R. (Mary) Firmage, the daughter of President and Sister Hugh B. Brown, who shared the following regarding the marriage of her parents in their later years:

“Up until Mother’s stroke they’d go through a ritual daily. Daddy would get up from the breakfast table that Mother had set very nicely, with a pretty cloth, matching napkins, and flowers. He’d kiss her good-bye and then they would walk to the front porch together.

“Daddy would go down three steps, and then turn around and ask, ‘Did I kiss you good-bye?’ Mother would answer, ‘Why, no, you didn’t.’ Daddy would kiss her again.

“As he walked to the car, Mother would run into the dining room where she would blow kisses to him from the window. While Daddy was backing the car out of the drive, mother would run back to the porch where she’d wave a handkerchief until he drove out of sight.

“Just before the car turned the corner, daddy would blink the brake lights three times, his code for ‘I love you.’” (Church News, 26 Oct. 1974, p. 5.)

These are the kinds of “little” things that keep a marriage alive.

Assignment 6: Share with Your Spouse Those Things in Your Marriage That Have Been Most Meaningful to You.

A very effective exercise to help develop communication is to list individually positive experiences from the marriage that you remember best. For practical purposes, limit each list to twenty items. This will help to identify those areas in the marriage that have been most meaningful. In making the list, make only brief statements. For example: 1. Our honeymoon, 2. When you surprised me on my birthday, 3. When we walked together along the beach. Then find adequate time to share the lists. Discuss each event and why it was meaningful. Make plans to see that more of the same happens.

When Bill and Sharon took time to use this simple exercise, they were surprised to find there were really more positive events in their marriage than they had ever realized.

Assignment 7: Take a Second (or Third or Fourth) Honeymoon.

Bill and Sharon needed a second honeymoon—to find themselves exclusively in the role of a married couple, unhindered by the presence of children, friends, or relatives. Every couple needs, on a regular basis, to escape the myriad of roles expected of them, to enjoy nothing but a husband-and-wife relationship in a setting that each enjoys. This honeymoon may last only one day or involve a short trip, but it does mean getting away from family and acquaintances and especially the telephone.

A bishop’s wife once confirmed this by stating that the survival of her marriage depended on these rendezvous with her husband several times a year, usually just traveling across town to a motel. Some of our acquaintances go camping on their “honeymoon” since they both enjoy the outdoors. It certainly should be a situation where both husband and wife can relax and share the entire experience. A honeymoon is not the husband playing golf while the wife remains at the hotel reading her favorite book. It must be a sharing experience. Bill and Sharon spent a weekend “honeymoon” and were overjoyed with the experience.

Assignment 8: Share a New Experience.

It has been said that one of the basic needs of mankind is new experiences. I have found marriages must also have new experiences. They need to be redecorated periodically with fresh activities just as we redecorate our homes. Several years ago I was made aware of an older couple who always had bread, milk, and cheese for their evening meal. As I observed their relationship, it was obvious to me that their marriage was no more exciting than their routine supper menu. Marriages can get into ruts, and the ruts grow deeper and deeper over the years.

Couples need to do new things continually to expand their boundaries. Travel, try a new hobby together, work together on creative projects. There are many activities that can be shared. Bill and Sharon decided to take up dancing. Although they were both interested in dancing, they had never taken the time to enjoy this activity. They took lessons and thoroughly enjoyed their new, shared experience. Other couples have taken up such activities as golf, bowling, rock hunting, eating new foods, cooking, and taking adult education classes.

Happily, Bill and Sharon were able to heal the crack that had developed in their marriage. They learned, as Paul said, that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:11.)

Their completeness was restored as they shared once more their sacred roles and learned that it can be a great joy to be husband and wife. They became aware that no marriage will fail—no matter how long the couple has been married—if each partner seriously strives to enrich the marriage on a continual basis.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Keeping Your Marriage Alive,” individually or as a couple, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions and ideas during a discussion period.

1. What have you found helpful in your marriage to keep your love alive and growing?

2. What specifically can you do to ensure that you spend some time with each other?

3. Take time now—or plan a time—to discuss the joys and frustrations you find in marriage, and do so in the loving, accepting way suggested in the article.

4. Plan something special for your spouse this week.

5. Are there any other ideas expressed in the article that could help you strengthen your marriage?

  • Paul E. Dahl, director of the LDS Tucson Institute of Religion and father of five, is president of the Tucson Arizona East Stake.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten