I cut into a perfectly grilled steak at the moment the waitress tucked the pad in her pocket and paused at our table. She overheard that it was our anniversary. I was hoping she paused to offer a free dessert for our special occasion. Instead, she paused to receive some free advice.
“So, what’s your secret for staying together?” she asked.
I’m not quick enough to pull up an answer for one secret ingredient for a long lasting marriage. “Happily ever after” is more complicated than that.
But now that I’ve had a couple days to think about it, I’ll share this list of 10 habits that Gary and I practice in our marriage. Our marriage isn’t perfect (do those exist?), but I’m thankful that it is healthy.
These ten habits nurture the friendship that our marriage stands on…
- Home improvement starts with yourself, not with your spouse. When you live with someone, it’s easy to see their flaws. And of course we think we’re the best qualified to help them make improvements. We’ve both learned, a little slow at first, that the best way to improve our marriage is to look in the mirror at ourselves. It’s hard–sometimes I’d like to improve Gary quicker than his own improvement plan. But I trust him with his own growth. He trusts me. We both submit to Christ’s transforming power within us. And we trust God’s Spirit to work in the other.
- Go to bed together. Technology and media have ransacked the ritual of couples going to bed together. There’s always one more task on the computer, one more show to watch or another game to play. But going to bed together is a habit worth fighting for. When we were newlyweds—before Netflix and laptops–we ended the day by curling up in bed to read together. The first books we read out loud to each other were JRR Tolkein’s Trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Tales of orcs and dwarfs, goblins and hobbits wove their way into my dreams. And an important habit for our marriage wove its way into our nightly ritual. Going to bed together helps us stay connected.
- Watch what we say. Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s a lie. Words hurt, so we’ve made it a habit to watch what we say to each other. Some habits are off limits in our household—insults, sarcasm (criticism cloaked in humor) and name-calling. We make it a habit to encourage our friendship with what we say rather than tear it down.
- Give thanks. Gratitude nurtures friendship and reminds us of the positive attributes of others.It’s also a great antidote to a critical heart. When my focus becomes negative, I remind myself to look for Gary’s qualities that make me grateful. Gratitude builds a cushion for those times when the flaws are blaring. Gary and I make it a habit to appreciate each other. And express it.
- Save energy for your spouse. The culture pushes us to be busy. Real busy. All the time. But that doesn’t help a marriage. We choose to say no to other activities so we can say yes to each other.
- Disconnect from media, so you can connect to one another. Technology can build a wall between couples even when they’re under the same roof. So we unplug. We disconnect from the world so we can connect to each other. In Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he sites research indicating that the “average amount of time couples actually engaged in conversation was thirty-five minutes. A week.” It takes discipline to disconnect. But it’s an important habit for the sake of the marriage. Read here for practical ways we practice this.
- Keep dating. Our dating didn’t end with “I do.” Through the years we’ve looked for ways to find special times together to keep up the romance.
- Have fun together. We married each other because we had fun together. So we’ve kept up that habit. Our “fun” has changed through the years— we rode bikes as newlyweds, boated with the kids in the middle years, now we dance the Texas two step in our empty nest season. Whatever stage we’re in, we can count on the habit to have fun together.
- Eat together. A meal together around the table does lots of good for a family, including the marriage. When it’s time to eat, the TV is off and the phones are out of reach. Gottman says that “less than a third of US families eat dinner together regularly, and more than half of those that do have the television on.” If you want to get ahead of the curve, make it a habit to eat together. It’s a great way to connect to one another at the beginning and end of the day.
- Forgive. There will always be offenses–like I said, we’re not perfect. But we’re in this for the long haul. So there’s no reason to drag along a heavy bag of grudges that keep us from seeing the good in each other. We’ve made it a habit to reconcile differences and forgive each other.
I don’t remember what answer I gave the waitress the other night. It must have been short, though, because I was distracted with my special date and scrumptious steak. You’re the lucky one who gets the long answer to her question.
And don’t worry, I still ordered dessert. It wasn’t complimentary, but my strawberry shortcake and Gray’s bread pudding were delivered with a candle on top. Thankfully no song came with it.
What about you? What are some habits in your marriage that make it work for you?