This is a great time to grow your marriage so it’s healthy, loving, and strong. (Actually, it’s always a great time to make that your goal! We all can improve upon the health of our marriages—even good ones.) And the way to do that is to lean into having a growth-focused marriage.
We’re not talking about a problem-focused marriage, but one that looks for ways to grow it forward.
A number of years ago, marriage experts, Gary and Carrie Oliver, wrote an article (titled, “Ready, Set, Grow”) on this very issue. They gave us permission to share it with our readers. And we are happy to do so because we believe it is just as relevant today as it was when they originally wrote it. Here’s something important they wrote (that you can relate to):
“You don’t have to be married long to discover that relationships are difficult, and problems are inevitable. You’ll experience disagreements that will at times force you to acknowledge that the person you married seems to have disappeared. And he or she has been replaced by someone who is either cranky and demanding or someone who disappears whenever there’s conflict.”
Most of us can relate to the situation that Gary and Carrie Oliver describe. We sure can on both accounts. Often times the person we THINK we married turns out to be different from than we thought. And who would have thought that would happen?
Here’s what they discovered in their beginning years together:
“Our marriage started like many marriages. We experienced a romantic courtship and thoroughly enjoyed being together. We laughed, played, and prayed together. During our engagement we felt a clear sense of God’s blessing on our relationship. But after the wedding, the surprises started coming.”
Then they described the many unexpected strains, and events they had to adjust their way through. This included the birth of two children. Of course, this “meant less sleep and little couple time.” As they said (which many of us can relate to):
Most nights we dropped into bed tired and drained. Like most couples, we expected parenthood to be a time of great joy. We didn’t understand that it’s also quite challenging. While the birth of our children didn’t throw our marriage into a crisis, it dramatically changed the dynamics. We were slowly becoming married singles.
It seemed as if one morning we woke up more aware of each other’s weaknesses than strengths. We were more aware of what each other did wrong than right. We were also more negative and critical of each other, our kids, our friends, and even God.
Neither of us enjoyed dealing with relational problems. They made us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, and brought up painful childhood memories. So, we denied, and ignored the problems. All the while we pretended everything was fine. We didn’t know that whenever you bury a problem, it’s buried alive. At some point it will emerge bigger, stronger, and even more threatening.
Looking back now we know our experience wasn’t the exception. Most couples experience a time when it’s easy to become problem focused. Little irritations that were glossed over by romantic love are suddenly magnified. Combine those with the challenges and it can become overwhelming. Many couples divorce because they get stuck in a problem-focused rut and can’t see any way out.
A Needed Growth Change
After years of struggling, we realized what we were doing wasn’t working. After much prayer and many long conversations, we discovered we’d developed a problem-focused marriage. We needed to spend less time going over the problems and more time talking about solutions.
Amazingly, the mere act of looking for solutions caused the size and number of our perceived problems to shrink. But while the solution-focused stage was an improvement, even it had some limitations. We were solving more problems and arguing less. But we weren’t experiencing the depth and intensity of love God designed for marriage.
God doesn’t want us merely to “get” through our problems. He wants us to “grow” through them. Jesus didn’t die and rise again so we could be mere survivors. In the words of Romans 8:37, Jesus wants to help us “become more than conquerors” and experience “overwhelming victory.” He wants to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20)
He doesn’t want us merely to survive the difficulties. Jesus wants us to thrive in the midst of them.
For the first years of our marriage, we prayed for growth; but we weren’t growth focused. We discovered if we wanted our marriage to go from good to great, we had to take the next step. We had to move beyond merely solving problems to consciously choosing to look at our problems and our relationship from a new perspective.
That’s when we began cultivating new habits that moved us into what we now call the growth-focused stage of marriage.
What is growth-focused marriage? Here are some characteristics:
Couples identify problems but don’t dwell on them. They look beyond the solutions to how God might use this process to teach them more about Him and/or themselves, their partners, and their marriages. They understand problems are inevitable; and the real challenge is in dealing with them in such a way that honors God and each other while helping the couple grow through it.
Couples take seriously the apostle Paul’s urging to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Consistent daily prayer knits hearts together, attunes couples to the leading of the Holy Spirit, increases their ability to listen, and helps them see problems in light of what they can learn from them and not just how they can get through them.
Each partner takes responsibility for what God wants to do in his or her life. Whenever there’s an “issue” they actively seek to apply Psalm 139:23-24. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” Their first prayer is, “Lord, change me.”
Additionally, for the best growth potential:
Couples spend more time focusing on each other’s strengths than weaknesses. Each partner looks diligently for ways to encourage each other. They try to catch each other being healthy. They do this by being patient, kind, quick to forgive, giving the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the best. Plus, they give each other at least one compliment a day. That’s especially challenging when a partner is being a real jerk. But that’s also when it’s the most grace-giving.
Couples really believe “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28) Good marriages don’t just ‘happen.’ While couples don’t ignore problems, they choose to look beyond solving the immediate problem. They look for the ways God might help them “become like his Son.” (Romans 8:29)
Couples understand that as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), so one spouse sharpens another. Sponge doesn’t sharpen sponge. And Nerf doesn’t sharpen Nerf. Instead, iron sharpens iron. When they’re faced with painful or discouraging issues, they remind each other that the product (greater love and deeper intimacy) is worth the process (dealing with the issues).
Also, to be Growth Focused:
Couples choose to assume the best about each other. For years we believed and taught others that, “Love is patient, love is kind; it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, and 7) We now intentionally try to live that out one day at a time.
Making the journey from being problem-focused to enjoying a growth-focused marriage doesn’t happen overnight. It takes determination and a lot of energy. We still have problems. And we still disagree. That’s the real world. But having problems doesn’t mean we have a problem marriage. Cultivating a growth-focused marriage has helped us see the problems and challenges in God’s hands, as opportunities for increased satisfaction.”
It’s true that:
“Marriage doesn’t meet all our needs; it was not designed to do so and it cannot do so. But it can point us to the One who can meet those needs. Marriage is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s important for us to understand and believe this in order correctly face the challenges and blessings that marriage brings.” (Gary Thomas)
When you understand that, you’re more receptive to working on having a growth-focused marriage. The question is, “Where is your focus?” If you focus on your problems, they can take on a life of their own. But if you focus on growing your relationship as problems rise to the surface, you will grow your marriage to be healthy, and strong.
We hope this has inspired you to join us to work together to build GROWTH-FOCUSED marriages. Of course, the ultimate mission is to make it one that reveals and reflects the heart of God.
Cindy and Steve Wright
— ADDITIONALLY —
To help you further, we give a lot of personal stories, humor, and more practical tips in our book, 7 ESSENTIALS to Grow Your Marriage. We hope you will pick up a copy for yourself. (It’s available both electronically and in print form.) Plus, it can make a great gift for someone else. It gives you the opportunity to help them grow their marriage. And who doesn’t need that? Just click on the linked title or the picture below:
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