“Encouragement in Marriage—More Than Just Words,” Ensign, July 1985, 45–47
The perfectly matched couple? Of course we were. After all, hadn’t we spent our entire engagement identifying and resolving all the differences that could possibly arise? But after just a few married days in our humble basement apartment, each of us discovered habits in the other that were annoying, though usually trivial. For one, Scott habitually left every light on in the house. And Marcia’s path through the apartment was always marked by a trail of shoes. Encouragement was the key to overcoming bad habits, we felt, so we devised a game—awarding points and applauding each other whenever we succeeded. The winner each week got a prize. We enjoyed the contest, and the positive reinforcement helped us get rid of some bothersome habits.
Encouragement was so successful that we tried using it to cultivate another habit—reading our Japanese scriptures. Both of us had served missions in Japan and we wanted to continue studying Japanese. So we decided to read a chapter from the gospels each night in Japanese.
Scott, a language teacher at the Missionary Training Center, began the reading. Marcia, who had not really kept up her Japanese, was less confident. She would read only a few verses each night. Strangely enough, the harder Scott tried to encourage Marcia and build her confidence, the more reluctant she became. Scott praised Marcia. She became defensive. More determined, he tried to coax. Each night became a struggle. Ironically, the very activity we had designed to draw us closer together was pushing us apart. And Scott’s encouragement only seemed to make it worse.
If encouragement had worked so well in resolving one set of problems, why was it working against us now? The answer lay in the complexities of Marcia’s needs. She had often felt insecure with her Japanese, and she wanted to feel more like her husband’s partner than his student. Marcia was not simply being contrary. Rather, an important emotional need was keeping her from responding to Scott’s well-meaning encouragements.
This experience taught us an important lesson: effective encouragement is not a simple method to be applied indiscriminately. In order to give the kind of encouragement that really counts, we must first understand each other. Each of us brings to marriage a unique set of needs and backgrounds. This understanding brought new insight to Alma’s description of the Savior: “And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12.)
In other words, the Savior can effectively succor his children because he not only loves them, but also knows them and understands their weaknesses and needs. Even though marriage partners may love each other and have the best of intentions, we are effective only as we come to understand each other’s needs.
In other words, we need to understand each other’s goals and personalities so well that we know what kind of encouragement will be most helpful in each situation. A pep talk might not be appropriate for a spouse who is battling a serious illness. A few hours of quiet might help most when one or the other is concerned about decisions in his Church calling. A shared prayer or fast over a difficult personal decision might be more effective than expounding an opinion.
Often, however, the only encouragement needed is a nod of the head indicating attentiveness, a hug expressing concern, or a short discussion. Marcia found, for example, that helping Scott get up at 6:00 A.M. and retire early in the evening was more helpful in encouraging him in his studies than flowing praises or an offer to type a paper. She could not have known this without knowing Scott’s needs and desires.
Of course, a husband or wife can understand his or her partner’s personal goals, desires, and feelings without adopting them. Marcia may never share Scott’s desire to get up early and put in an uninterrupted twelve-hour workday. On the other hand, he might never share her interest in English literature or her goal to have the entire apartment clean at the same time. Yet our differing perspectives and values do not give us license to downgrade or discourage each other from achieving our individual goals.
Any interest or goal that is wholesome and important to the person deserves a spouse’s support. And a partner who chooses only to support those goals that he defines as interesting or important will subtly discourage his spouse. A husband who praises a wife’s meals but ignores her volunteer work for a charity or a political campaign is saying that he sees her efforts to benefit the community as unimportant.
The Savior, who recognizes all for their individual talents, commands, “And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practise virtue and holiness before me.
“I say unto you, be one.” (D&C 38:24, 27.)
In order to be one as a married couple, spouses need to esteem each other. Esteeming involves not just loving and caring, but valuing the other. We must recognize that wholesome goals, desires, and interests of the other that are appropriate in the marriage merit our consideration, even when we do not value those goals and interests ourselves. It is not important that a wife finds her husband’s stamp collecting as dull as dishwater; what matters is that she appreciates his need to enjoy that hobby.
When a couple esteem and trust each other, they are better able to encourage each other to pursue their individual interests. For example, one wife struggled with her husband’s decision to become a chemist. She had never been very interested in science and had imagined herself married to a man in a more socially prestigious, more lucrative career. The long years of schooling ahead and the prospect of a modest salary frightened her. But as she became aware of her husband’s love for science and his sincere commitment to provide for his family, she stopped trying to direct him to what she considered a more appropriate career. Instead, she tried to understand his research and began to encourage him in his accomplishments.
Actually, taking part in a spouse’s activities goes further than encouraging words alone and is another key in effective encouragement. Participation demonstrates sincerity. As the scriptures teach, love should be “unfeigned” (see D&C 121:41)—that is, not superficial but from the heart. An encouraging word may be helpful, but changing a schedule or altering a lifestyle in order to take part in a spouse’s interest says, “I want you to succeed, and I will help you do so.”
The example of Scott’s parents has been eloquent. Scott’s mother, Alberta, is a talented musician. She teaches piano lessons, plays the organ at church services, and directs a choir. Her work takes time and practice. The tastes of her husband Wake run more to sailing than music, but he has encouraged her musical pursuits throughout their life together. Their children often heard him compliment her efforts, and he arranges his schedule so he can attend performances and conventions with her. For her part, Alberta has spent more evenings than she would care to count on the cold, wet deck of a sailboat. Neither would have chosen the other’s interest for himself, but both recognize the importance these activities have for the other, and do their best to participate in them.
This kind of support is especially needed with church callings. When Marcia’s father, Dean, was serving in a bishopric in a single student ward, her mother, Arlene, managed to attend sacrament meeting first with the children in their home ward and then later with her husband. In the same spirit, when Arlene was busy with Relief Society assignments, Dean scheduled his time so that he could attend some of her functions. Each communicated encouragement by supporting the other’s activities.
But what of callings that are by their nature more solitary? How can we be encouraging to a spouse who is a visiting teacher, home teacher, Relief Society teacher, or quorum instructor? Husbands and wives can actively encourage by helping each other prepare lessons and later evaluating the lessons. (One husband served as audio-visual man when his wife taught the Gospel Doctrine class.) We have found that some of our best gospel discussions have come over dinner or at bedtime as we discuss and ponder together a home teaching message or a Spiritual Living lesson.
Of course, a husband whose wife is a Young Women adviser can’t attend every activity she helps plan, nor can a bishop’s wife accompany her husband on all his visits to ward members. But together partners can determine which individual goals or interests are most important and just how much they can support each other.
We have progressed from a small basement apartment to a more crowded highrise and from lights left on and shoes left helter-skelter to problems both more trivial and more complex. But we have learned that when we take enough interest in each other’s needs to give heartfelt encouragement, our mutual appreciation thrives. We come nearer to expressing unfeigned love and strengthening a relationship that we want to last forever.