How to be Happy with a Less-Than-Perfect Marriage


When I served as a minister to single adults, I’m afraid I made a serious mistake. No, I didn’t have an illicit relationship with someone or misappropriate funds. And I didn’t teach some sort of religious heresy.

What I did was teach single adults how to build good relationships by understanding their past hurts and dysfunctions, setting appropriate boundaries, and not compromising on principles that were important.

Some of you are thinking, “What’s wrong with that? Those sound like good things to teach people!” But the problem wasn’t in what I was teaching. It was in how I was teaching it. I’m afraid I taught these things more as absolute and non-negotiable necessities in a relationship/marriage, rather than good targets to aim for.

When everything a book or a teacher tells you is an absolute necessity for a good relationship, you disregard normal in pursuit of perfection, and your expectations leave no room for adjustment to the other person…which is an absolute necessity for a good relationship. (See what I did there?)


Every marriage is less than perfect and every married person has a spouse who disappoints or hurts them at times. Hopefully, it’s the exception rather than the rule, but it will happen. (Note: if you have a spouse who hurts you and disappoints you on a regular ongoing basis, this is something you need to seek help for.)

But, even though we know there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage, we live in a world where everyone thinks they should get what they want. And if that’s hindered in some way, it’s seen as personal and even abusive.

So we scour the self-help sections. We scrub through Youtube videos. We seek out friends and family members. We may even see a counselor. And all this is an attempt to figure out how we can get our spouse to stop violating our expectations.


But, after 26 years of ministry, 30 years of counseling people, and 41 years of being married, I would teach things a little differently now.

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe things like learning to set boundaries, understanding yourself, and repairing past hurts are important. But now, if I had to boil down what I think it means to have a good marriage into a few simple steps, here’s what I would teach…

Step One: Make Sure the Positives Out-Weigh the Negatives.

Every marriage has a combination of both positives and negatives. And with a few exceptions, the positives typically outweigh the negatives. (If they didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be in the relationship.)

So keep the positives and negatives in proper proportion.

Step Two: Focus More on the Positives Than on the Negatives.

When we’re dating or newlyweds, we tend to focus on the positives and minimize the negatives. Thus, we feel deeply and passionately in love. But after we’ve been married a while, we tend to do the opposite. We focus more on the negatives and minimize the positives. Consequently, we feel less passionate and more disappointed.

Focusing on the positives in your marriage, won’t make the negatives go away, but it will shrink them and make them more tolerable.

Step Three: Tweak a Few of the Negatives to Make Them a Little Better.

There will be some negatives in which you and your spouse can make some changes.

Sometimes, one spouse will be willing to sacrifice for the other. Other times, spouses can barter or trade one negative for another. And sometimes, growing older makes us more settled and less insecure…which tends to shrink the importance of some things we used to view as negative.

So if you can tweak some of the negatives in your marriage, by all means, go for it.

Step Four: Learn to Live With the Negatives That Won’t Change.

There will be some things about you and your spouse that won’t change, no matter how hard you try. My wife is a glass-half-empty kind of girl, while I am a guy that tends to make a place for something, rather than putting it in its place. No matter how much these things (and others) aggravate us, they are probably not going to go away.

There are some things about your spouse you’re going to have to learn to live with…just as there are some things about you your spouse is going to have to learn to live with.

But understand this:

  1. Just because there are things about you your spouse needs to learn to live with, that doesn’t mean you can use this as an excuse to not make changes you need to make.
  2. Just because there are things about your spouse you need to learn to live with, that doesn’t mean you should tolerate abuse, adultery, abandonment, or addictions. These things should never be tolerated and must be dealt with if the marriage is to survive…let alone thrive.

Then finally…

Step Five: Repeat Steps One and Two.

This process is not a one-and-done thing; just like marriage is not a one-and-done thing. You must continue to repeat this process throughout the marriage. But don’t let this discourage you. The more you do this, and the older you get, and the longer you’ve been together…the easier it gets.


Marriage never lives up to our expectations; especially in the early stages. It takes a while before we can let go of our expectations of a great marriage and learn to make the most of a good marriage. For some, this will sound like settling for less. But those of us who have some miles behind us, it’s not settling for less. It’s actually growing into more.

When it comes to marriage, don’t let the less-than-perfect be the enemy of the perfectly fine.

Being Married is Like Playing Poker


I’m not much of a gambler. Never have been. It’s not that I have some moral stance against gambling. I’ve just never felt the need to unnecessarily risk money I already have on the slight possibility I might win more.

But, one day I found myself watching a professional poker tournament on TV. It seemed like a very boring thing to watch, so I didn’t watch it long. But I watch it long enough to think, “Being married is like playing poker!”


Here are some ways being married is like playing poker:

The stakes are high.

In professional poker, you can lose a lot of money in an instant.

Likewise, the stakes in marriage are unbelievably high. Here’s just a taste of what you stand to lose:

  • Your dream of happily ever after.
  • Your best friend of years.
  • Time and loyalty with your children.
  • Financial stability.
  • Friendships you made while married.
  • Your reputation with your spouse, your kids, and others.
  • Your hopes and optimism.

That’s not to say those who go through a divorce are personally losers, or that they can never recover. Like surviving a hurricane, you will rebuild, but it’s never the same.

You have to know when to hold em’ and when to fold em’.

To be clear…I’m not talking about knowing when to keep your marriage and when to end it. I’m talking about knowing when to hold on to a hurt and deal with it, and when to forgive it and let it go. Too many marriages end over an accumulation of things that were never dealt with or never forgiven.

Not knowing when to work through hurts or when to forgiving them is a sure way to lose in marriage. Learn when to hold them and when to fold them. Learn to deal with the things you need to and forgive the rest.

You probably won’t get the exact hand you want.

In poker, you don’t always get the hand you think you need. But poker players win, despite not getting the hand they want. How? By making the most of the cards they have and playing the hand they get well.

You won’t get everything you want in a marriage, but you can learn to make the best of what you have by:

  • Making the most of the “good cards” in your hand and playing up the positives.
  • Learning to negotiate the lesser cards between you and your spouse.

But let me be clear about one thing. If you’re dealing with abuse, adultery, or abandonment in your marriage, those are cards that are never right and should never be accepted. It doesn’t mean you must fold and end your marriage at that point, but it does mean that this behavior must stop and be dealt with before the marriage can move forward. If the abusive, abandoning, or adulterous behavior does not change, then you may have to fold the hand and concede the marriage.

Sometimes you have to bluff your way through.

A good poker player knows how to act like they’ve got a winning hand…even when they don’t. Acting like they’ve got a winning hand may actually bring about a win.

Some people call this “fake it till you make it.” I dislike this phrase because it sounds deceptive. I prefer the phrase “Acting like you want things to be.” For instance…

  • If you want a spouse you can have fun with, start having fun with them…even if they don’t look like they’re having fun.
  • If you want a spouse who helps you around the house, start asking for their help…even if you know they don’t want to.
  • If you want a spouse who’s appreciative…start showing appreciation to your spouse.

In other words, act like you’ve got the hand you want. Things won’t change overnight, but if you’re patient and consistent, things will begin to change.

You don’t always know what cards the other person is holding.

In poker, you don’t know what cards the other person is holding.

In marriage, your spouse may be holding thoughts or feelings they’re not sharing with you. You can guess, but you’re not a mind reader and will often guess wrongly. You might get to know your spouse so well you can come pretty close to reading their mind, but making that assumption can still get you in trouble.

So what can you do?

Fortunately, marriage differs from poker in that the more you share what you’re holding, the better things can become. So, show your cards. Share what you’re thinking and feeling. Ask your spouse what they’re thinking and feeling. If your spouse is not good at showing their cards, be patient. Try different approaches. Figure out ways to make it easier for them. Just don’t give up.

When you think you have It figured out, someone shuffles the deck.

There are multiple hands to a poker game. And even if you’ve got a good hand going, it eventually comes to an end and they shuffle the deck.

The same is true of marriage. About the time you’ve figured out what’s going on, something shuffles the deck.

  • You have children.
  • You have another child.
  • Your first child becomes a teenager.
  • There’s a job change, or a move, or an illness, or a financial reversal.
  • There are new stressors.
  • There are changes related to age.

It’s frustrating when something shuffles the deck of marriage, but that’s the nature of marriage. It keeps changing, so we have to keep learning and growing. Learn to be flexible and accept each new shuffle with grace and inventiveness. Some shuffles may throw you for a bit, but make the most of it. And if you don’t like the shuffle, hang on. There will be another shuffle along shortly.


This post is not meant to trivialize marriage by comparing it to a game. It’s meant to encourage you to approach the surprises and uncertainties of marriage with some skill, some strategy, and most of all…some flexibility.

Now, go find your spouse, give them a kiss, and say “DEAL ME IN!” 

Some Things About Growing Old Together…


When people (particularly young people) are getting married, they post things on social media like…

  • “I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.”
  • “You will always be my forever friend.”
  • “I look forward to growing old with you.”

And I’ll admit that in weddings I officiate, I often challenge a couple to love each other in a way that will take them from their first home to the nursing home.


But, if growing old together is such a romantic idea, why do we work so hard against growing old. We move from one diet to another, one workout to another, and one fad to another. All in a desperate attempt to…flatten our stomach, whiten our teeth, darken our hair, increase our stamina, and reclaim our fading youth.

When you’re starting out in marriage, growing old together may seem romantic. But, if you talk to people who have been married fifty, sixty, and even seventy years, you don’t hear them talk that much about romance. What they talk about is the difficulties they had to face:

  • Making ends meet.
  • Dealing with each other’s quirks and habits.
  • Making a home.
  • Raising kids.
  • Illnesses.
  • Uncertainties.

Oh, they will talk about the benefits of being married, but usually, it’s after they’ve talked about the difficulties of being married.


So let me inject a little realism into the romanticism of growing old together. Here are some things about growing old together you need to know…

  • You will both lose your looks, but you’ll gain a deeper love.
  • Life will gradually get more boring, but it will be more full.
  • Some big dreams will fade, but they’ll be replaced with better ones.
  • There will always be aggravation, but much of it will give way to appreciation.
  • At times, you’ll envy what younger couples have, but you still wouldn’t trade what you have.
  • You’ll be called to sacrifice much, but you’ll get more than you give.
  • Some of the frustrating things about your spouse won’t go away, but by then they won’t have to.
  • Your marriage will not be everything you hoped for, but it will be everything you need.

This may not be the romantic picture you would like, but it’s much more satisfying than resisting your old age and chasing after your fleeting youth.


I’m reminded of a poem by Robert Browning…

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life,
For which the first was made.
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half;
Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
(Robert Browning)

Listen to the theme here:

  • The best is yet to come.
  • The first was made for the last.
  • Youth is but a half.

If we will embrace these truths, then growing old together will get sweeter and truly worth our spent youth.

How to Love Two Spouses

No, this post is not about polygamy or sister wives. It’s just that sometimes it can feel like you’re married to two spouses at the same time; the one you fell in love with, and the one you didn’t.

Let me explain by using a story from the ancient book of Genesis…


Starting in chapter 27 of Genesis, you read about a man named Jacob. Jacob is ambitious and cheats his brother out of his inheritance. Consequently, Jacob winds up on the run. He runs to the far country and begins working for his uncle Laban.

Now Jacob’s uncle had two daughters. One was a rather plain-looking girl named Leah and the other was a beautiful girl named Racheal. One course, Jacob falls head over heels for Racheal and strikes a deal with Laban, to work seven years for Racheal’s hand in marriage.

At the end of those seven years, there’s a wedding ceremony. But, the next morning Jacob wakes up to find that Laban had somehow switched daughters and Jacob was now married to Leah instead of Racheal. (Don’t ask me how that happened!)

Laban gives Jacob some excuse and tells him that if he will agree to work for another seven years, he will go ahead and give him Racheal as well. Jacob agrees and suddenly He finds himself married to two spouses…the one he wanted and the one he didn’t!


In some ways, this is true for almost every marriage. We all get a spouse we want and one we don’t. It’s a package deal!

When we’re dating, we become convinced that this is the person we want. We like their looks, their personality, and the way they make us feel. So we become convinced that they are the one for us.

But sometime after we’ve married, we wake up to discover we’re also married to a second spouse…and it’s not the one we chose. This spouse does things we don’t like. They correct us when we don’t want them to. Sometimes they take an attitude with us. This spouse doesn’t always look good or act appropriately. And sometimes, they’re just hard to get along with.

Now, occasionally, we still see the spouse we wanted; the spouse that’s easy to love. But then the other one shows up and reminds us that we got more than we bargained for.


So, you have to learn to love the spouse you don’t want. But how do you do this?

Here are some things you need to do in order to live with and love the spouse you don’t want:

Quit trying to change the one you don’t want.

Understand that you need the spouse you don’t want as much as the one you do. The spouse you don’t want brings gifts, helps, and perspectives that are much needed…even if they don’t feel good.

You would not be able to become the person you need to be if it weren’t for the spouse you don’t want. So quit trying to change them into the one you do.

Learn to appreciate the spouse you don’t want.

When you realize that the spouse you don’t want actually helps to make you and the marriage better, then it’s easier to appreciate them for what they do.

And…when you appreciate people for who they are and what they bring, they tend to rise to the occasion and become better than they would normally be. Isn’t it true that when your spouse shows you appreciation, it makes you want to be better and do more? If so, then do that for the spouse you don’t want.

Serve the spouse you don’t want.

It’s easy to serve someone who’s saying what you want to hear and acting the way you want them to act. It’s also easy to stop serving someone who’s not saying what you want to hear or not acting the way you want them to act.

But when you stop serving your spouse because they’re not the one you want, you usually get more of the behavior you don’t want. Remember…the way you treat them actually trains them on how to act toward you. So serve them like they’re the spouse you want.


Treat the spouse you don’t want as if they’re the one you do, and you might just find out they really are!

And finally, you’re reading these words to figure out how to live with the spouse you don’t want. But remember…they’re also reading these words to figure out how to live with the spouse they don’t want.  Because you’re not the only one who got the spouse they wanted and the one they didn’t.

Signs of Life

I was talking to a friend who is somewhat particular about his yard, and he told me there are two parts of his yard that are his favorite spots. I thought to myself, “These must be particularly lush and manicured parts of his yard to be his favorite.

But actually, his two favorite spots in his yard are spots where the grass is worn down to the point where many would see them as blemishes in his yard.

But my friend doesn’t see them as blemishes. He sees them as signs of life. The first spot is where he stands to throw pitches to his daughter. And the second spot is where his daughter stands and practices swinging at those pitches. He said these spots are more important than the rest of his nice green lawn because it’s where he and his daughter have great conversations and make lasting memories.

This got me thinking. My friend gets it! He knows that the important thing is not the grass, but rather what happens on the grass. He knows it’s not the possessions, but the people that are important.

Now there’s nothing wrong with taking care of the things you have. My parents taught me to do this, so those things would last. Yet so often we work hard to keep things looking nice and new because we think they were the centerpieces of our life.

But our focus should be more on the people in our lives, than the possessions in our lives. And people are not always neat and clean. They leave behind messes, scuffs, and blemishes. And yes, this can be frustrating, but never forget…these are the signs of life.

Some of the signs of life at my house are…

  • A nicked baseboard from a grandchild rounding a corner on a tricycle.
  • A yellow highlighter mark on the carpet from a grandchild who was more zealous about coloring the picture than staying on the paper.
  • A wall with stains from the stickers a grandchild used to decorate the room.
  • A milkshake stain on the armrest of my brand new car, from an after-school trip to DQ with grandkids who just couldn’t sit still.
  • Black marks on a bathroom wall from my 88-year-old mother’s walker…who got the chance to hang out at our house with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Where are the signs of life in your house, your yard, your car…your life? I’m guessing they are not the pristine spots that are shiny and like new. I’m guessing they are the spots and blemishes that mark a well-lived and well-loved life.

You will either see the blemishes, dents, dings, and worn places as points of frustration or signs of life. It depends on your perspective. Just remember this…someday, when these places are more empty than you would like, it will be these signs of life and the memories associated with them that will mean more to you than having things that are pristine and perfect.

4 Simple Things That Will Improve Sex in Marriage

Maybe you’re in one of those rare marriages where sex is not a problem. Maybe you both agree on the when, where, and how of sex. If so, count yourself as fortunate. But most married couples wrestle with sex. (Pun intended!)


You’d think that something as fundamental to our nature as sex would be simple and easy. But it’s not. In fact, sex in marriage is often fraught with disagreements, misunderstandings, wounded egos, and fighting. There are at least three reasons for this…

1. Sex is very personal.

I know that’s an understatement, but it’s true. Sex is personal because it involves…

  • How we see ourselves.
  • Our self-confidence.
  • How we feel about ourselves.
  • Our self-esteem.
  • Our fear of rejection.

2. Gender Differences.

When it comes to sex, we tend to act like our spouse should think as we think and want what we want. Yet, we are different…

  • Anatomically. – The anatomical differences that attract us, also make it difficult to understand each other’s experiences and desires.
  • Hormonally. – We are driven by predominantly different hormones. It’s as difficult for wives to understand testosterone drives as it is for husbands to understand estrogen drives.

3. Social Messages.

Despite our society’s push to create gender-neutral environments, males and females are different. They are raised differently and given different messages about their gender. For example, if males act out sexually, people say things like, “Boys will be boys.” But if females act out sexually, they are considered loose and immoral. We then carry these cultural messages into marriage, complicating a sexual relationship that should be free and open between spouses.


You and your spouse don’t have to resign yourselves to lives of frustration and misunderstanding when it comes to sex. There are 4 simple things that will improve any married couple’s sex life.


It always amazes me how spouses can get naked in front of one another, and go through the various acts and positions of sex…yet have trouble talking about it!

Yes, talking about sex is personal. It requires vulnerability to talk about your likes and desires regarding sex. And your spouse may not have the same sexual wants and desires as you.

But with all the gender differences, and personality differences, and up-bringing differences between you and your spouse…there’s no way to make things better apart from talking about sex. Sex is like finances, raising kids, or any other part of marriage…for it to get better you need to talk about it.

Too many spouses try to hint about sex…when they want it and how they want it. But this is a recipe for frustration and hurt feelings. Let me give you an example…

One night, I was feeling a little amorous and wanted some sexual time with my wife. But instead of telling her what I wanted, I did the following:

I said, “Tonight, don’t worry about the kids. I’m going to give them their baths and put them to be a little early.” My wife said, “That’s great!” And I thought to myself, “Yes! she got the hint!”

After the kids were in bed asleep, I yelled down the stairs to my wife, “The kids are asleep. I’m going to go take my shower.” She said, “Great. I’ll be up in a minute.” So I took a shower, fully expecting to come out of the bathroom and find my wife naked on the bed. But when I opened the bathroom door, she was nowhere to be found. The bed wasn’t even turned down!

A little miffed by this, I yelled downstairs, “I’m out of the shower now!” And she yelled back, “Ok. I’ll be up in a minute.” So I climbed in bed naked, and I waited…and I waited..and I waited…getting madder by the minute!

Finally, I did the cowardly thing. I snuck down the stairs and peeked around the corner, only to find my wife kicked back in the recliner, newspaper in one hand, snacks in the other, and watching TV.

I went back upstairs furious. “How could she stand me up like that?! How could she reject me?!”

After a few days of pouting, I finally told her how upset I was. And her reply was, “If that’s what you wanted, why didn’t you say so!”

She was so right. I wish I could tell you I learned my lesson then, but I still fall into that hinting trap from time to time.

Hinting is not a good idea when it comes to sex, so talk about what you want and when you want it. Talk about what really works for you, as well as what doesn’t. Talk about things you would like to try. And talk about how you might like to change things up.

It may be awkward at first, but this one habit will improve things greatly in your sex life.


Timing involves two different things…

The “when of sex.

This refers to the time and place sex can occur during the day.

Is it always at night or can it be during the day? Can you have sex in the morning, or is that not a good time? Is sex something that can be spontaneous, or does it need to be planned? Can it happen when the mood strikes, or does everyone need to be freshly showered? Is the bedroom the only place for sex, or can it occur in other rooms and places?

The “how often” of sex.

The second part of timing refers to how frequently the couple should have sex.

It’s rare that a husband and wife agree on how frequently they should have sex. Husbands usually want sex more frequently than wives, but there are times when that gender stereotype is flipped and it’s the wife who wants sex more than her husband.

As a side note…if a husband is experiencing a low sex drive, I always encourage seeing their doctor and having their testosterone levels checked. If there are no testosterone or medication issues, then there may be something going on between the couple that needs to be addressed in counseling.

What should you do if you and your spouse have different ideas about sexual frequency? I encourage each spouse to say how often they would like to have sex. Then I have them target the number in the middle. It’s not a perfect solution. It will be more often than one would like, and not as often as the other would like. But it’s a good place to start.


Trust is an absolute necessity for good sex in marriage. Your spouse must fully trust you in the bedroom in order to relax, let go, and totally enjoy the experience. And this is especially true for wives.

But this kind of trust must be earned long before the bedroom. This kind of trust is earned daily by:

  • Showing you care more about your spouse than yourself.
  • Keeping your word…even in little things, like taking out the trash or being on time.
  • Not making fun of your spouse or treating them sarcastically.
  • Speaking well of them, in front of others, as well as when it’s just the two of you.
  • Caring about the things they care about.

When your spouse can trust you with the small things, then they can trust you with the big things…like sharing their bodies.

But trust is also built in the bedroom by never pressuring your spouse to do something they’re uncomfortable doing…even if you see nothing wrong with it. This will definitely wreck your trust with your spouse…both in the bedroom and out of the bedroom.


When it comes to sex, trying means 2 things…

Continuing to working on your sex life. Contrary to popular opinion, sex does not come naturally. It requires work, effort, and practice. And just when you think you’ve got it, then things change. Stage of life changes. Demands change. Heath changes. Body shapes change. The relationship changes. And on and on it goes. So you must continually work on your sexual relationship.

Keeping things fresh. This is the other part of trying. Like any other part of life, sex can easily fall into a rut or routine. We wind up having sex the same way, at the same time, and in the same place. No one wants to have the exact same meal over and over again, and the same is true for sex.

So change things up occasionally. Surprise one another. Try a different location, a different time of the day, or a different position. Use candles or music to set a mood. If your spouse is typically the aggressor, you take that role for a change. Extend the foreplay. Throw in an unexpected quickie occasionally.

I know it’s harder to find the time and privacy you need when you have kids in the house. So you’ll have to set aside money for sitters, arrange for your kids to sleep-over with friends, plan some quick get-aways, and even invest in a good sound screen and a good lock on your door.

Do what you have to, but don’t let your sex life grow routine and predictable from a lack of effort and planning. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.


These four things (talking, timing, trust, and trying) are great ways to breathe some new life into sex and make sex better for you and your spouse. And even if your spouse doesn’t seem interested in putting effort into these things, you put the effort into the things you can do. I guarantee it will still make a difference in your sex life and your marriage.

Where is Your Home…Really?

I was driving to work one morning in a bit of a funk. It had been a long and taxing week and I was just feeling a little…blah!

I had my favorites playlist on shuffle when a song pulled me out of my fog. Actually, it was the following line that captured my attention…

“This house is just an address. You’re my home.”

I immediately hit the “back” button to hear the song from the beginning. The song is called “Home” by singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. In it, a husband tells the vivid story of the night their house burnt down. The first verse has him watching his wife dreaming in bed while, unbeknownst to them, smoke was rising in the halls. And by the third verse, the two of them are standing outside like statues watching the roof crash down.

But the song keeps coming back to this chorus…

Home is the woman across the table
Home is dreaming in my sheets
This house is just an address, you’re my home

As I listened to this song, my perspective began to change and my blah gave way to blessing.

How easy it is for us to focus on the pursuit of an address and all the stuff that goes along with it.

  • A nicer house in a nicer neighborhood.
  • A bigger garage to hold bigger toys.
  • Remodeling, landscaping, and upgrades.
  • And on and on it goes.

There’s nothing wrong with these things, but they are just part of an address. They aren’t home.

Home is across the table from you. Home is hogging the covers or keeping you awake with their snoring. Home is fussing about your annoying habits one minute and telling you they love you the next. Home is handing you a to-do list then fixing you a drink. Home is the eyes of the one who said “I do,” and still does.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to remind us of this, but home is not the roof over your head, but the people under your roof.

So don’t focus so much on the possessions you own. Focus on the people you’ve been given. They are what makes your house a home, and if you don’t treasure them…all you’ll have is a house.

Not Another Marriage List!

We’ve all seen them. They’re in the magazines that line the grocery store check-out aisles. They’re scattered throughout our social media feeds. They are written by academics, psychologists, and freelance writers. And they have titles that dare us to see how we measure up.

What are they? They are those lists of characteristics that supposedly make up a healthy marriage.

As a pastoral counselor, I might glance over such a list to see how practical and realistic it is. But I don’t spend a lot of time with such lists, because…

  • Marriage is not lived by checking off boxes on some list.
  • Lists are nice and neat, whereas marriage is complicated and messy.
  • No two marriages are the same.
  • We tend to focus more on where we don’t measure up to the list, than on where we do.
  • Once you hold such a list up to your marriage, how do you grade yourself?

But, having said all that, I’m about to eat my words. Because I’ve come across a healthy marriage checklist that’s practical and fits with much of what I see in my counseling office.


I wasn’t looking for a list, but I found it while reading the book, Disarming the Past: How an Intimate Relationship Can Heal Old Wounds, by Jerry M. Lewis, M.D. and John T. Gossett, Ph.D.

I’ve taken Lewis and Gossett’s list on the essential characteristics of a healthy marriage and reworded it as follows to fit my more casual approach to things. But the list is in essence, theirs.

According to Lewis and Gossett, healthy marriages have these things in common:

Power is shared.

Both spouses hold power equally in the relationship. Neither feels dominated and neither dominates. Both can speak into issues and both have equal say in decisions.

There is a good balance of togetherness and separateness.

Both spouses enjoy and even prefer being together, but neither is threatened when the other has outside interests, activities, and friendships. Each spouse has their own identity, along with some healthy autonomy.

Opinions and perspectives are respected and welcomed.

Each spouse is encouraged to share their views, and their views are not dismissed. They are listened to, understood, and respected. To ignore a spouse’s opinions and perspectives is disrespectful to them and destructive to the relationship.

Feelings are welcomed and encouraged.

It’s easy for spouses to get uncomfortable when feelings are brought into the mix because feelings can make things seem highly charged and difficult to control. But, as spouses, we are a package deal, and you can’t welcome your spouse without welcoming their feelings. But remember…feelings must be expressed appropriately and safely in order to be accepted.

Conflicts do not escalate or get out of hand.

Conflict is a normal and necessary part of marriage. It’s a part of two people learning to live and work together. In fact, a marriage without some conflict is not healthy. The health of a marriage is not found in the absence of conflict but in the ability to channel conflict in ways that are productive and helpful to both spouses. This means that: differences are tolerated, the conflict is not generalized or personalized, and resolution is typically achieved.

Spouses share basic values.

This does not mean that spouses are clones of one another, agreeing on everything. What it means is that the couple tends to have the same values when it comes to what they feel is important in life. These couples agree on things like how to raise a family, religion and its place in the family, financial security, morality, etc.

There is flexibility.

Life never goes the way we plan. It tends to throw us curve balls. Children come, jobs change, finances ebb and flow, children leave the nest, illnesses become severe, and retirement becomes a reality. The couples that can anticipate change, roll with the punches, and realign with the current reality will do better than those who can’t.


You may be the kind of person who says, “I don’t need to live by no stinking list!” If so, feel free to ignore it the way I do other lists.

But there’s something basic about this list. It’s practical and adaptable, and it makes sense. So don’t toss it out without some thought.

Then, if you believe the list has some merit…

  • Put a check beside the ones that apply to your marriage.
  • Once you’ve done that, pat yourself on the back and celebrate those.
  • Then, put a star beside the ones you still need to work on.
  • Next, pick one of these and talk to your spouse about it.
  • See if the two of you can come up with one thing you could do to make it better.


And if you’re still having trouble with the idea of a list for marriage, try thinking of it as a recipe. A recipe for cooking up something good.

A Small Surprise Makes a Big Impact

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say this is a post I need to take to heart as much as anyone. Just ask my spouse. 


Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that in the spring he likes to go mushroom hunting. It piqued my interest because this is something that I used to do with my mom when I was a kid. I told him that my 88-year-old mother (whose age and mobility issues have made mushroom hunting a distant memory) still gets wistful every spring as she misses the joy of feasting on fresh-picked mushrooms.

A few days later, my friend showed up at my office with some fresh-picked mushrooms for my mom. I was truly overwhelmed by such a kind and thoughtful gesture toward my mom…and me.

The next day, I called mom and told her I wanted to bring her to our house for dinner. When we got to the house, I told her that she was going to have to cook her own dinner, and I showed her the mushrooms. Her eye widened, her mouth dropped, and I literally heard her gasp for joy. It was just a handful of mushrooms, but her reaction rivaled any Christmas morning reaction I’ve seen from my kids or grandkids.

She savored every minute of cooking and eating those mushrooms. And when I took her back to her assisted living apartment, she was telling everyone she saw about cooking and eating mushrooms. As I drove away, I was so grateful for a small surprise, and for the friend who made it possible.


My mom’s reaction to these mushrooms reminded me of what a big impact small surprises make.

All too often, we think we have to do big things to make a big impact. We think we have to buy a big house, take a big vacation, bring home a big salary, or give big gifts to make a big and lasting impact on our spouse.

But ironically, it’s the small surprises, not the big ones, that touch our spouse’s heart and give them something to cherish. I’m talking about small things that anybody (on any budget) can do. Things like…

  • Giving an unexpected card for no particular reason.
  • Bringing home their favorite candy.
  • Sending a text in the middle of the day, just to tell them how much you love them.
  • Cooking their favorite meal. (The one you rarely cook.)
  • Taking them to their favorite restaurant. (Especially if it’s one you typically avoid.)
  • Bringing home flowers when you’re not in trouble.
  • Planning a day for them to do their favorite thing…with or without you.
  • Taking the kids off their hands for an evening.
  • Preparing them a luxurious bath with soft lights, a nice drink, AND NO STRINGS ATTACHED.
  • Taking them away for one kid-free night. (Even if it’s somewhere close to home.)

When we were dating and first married, we surprised our spouse often.  That’s part of the reason we felt so in love.  But the longer we’re married, the more we let such things fall by the wayside, only to wonder why we don’t feel the way we use to about one another.  (I stand guilty as charged!)


As we said, you would think it would be the big surprises that make the biggest impact. So why do small surprises make such a big impact? Small surprises make a big impact because they show your spouse…

  • You’re thinking about them.
  • They’re important to you.
  • You took time out for them.
  • You want them to be happy.
  • You still love them.

Small surprises will leave strong positive memories stamped on your spouse’s heart and soul. And your spouse will carry those memories with them long after the surprise is complete…and long after you’re gone.


Small surprises are a guaranteed home run in a relationship, and they cost very little in time and effort. So, if you’re wondering how to get started, let me give you some ideas:

  • Take out a sheet of paper and start making a list of all the small ways you could surprise your spouse. You can start with the list above and then build on that. Make the list long. The longer, the better.
  • After you’ve made a good long list, then every Monday look at the list and pick one surprise to do.
  • Decide when you’re going to pull off this surprise.
  • Follow through by carrying out the surprise. And don’t call attention to yourself or expect anything in return.
  • Then repeat this process the following Monday.

When you’ve gone through your entire list, then start over from the beginning or make a new list. You’ll eventually start to watch and listen for things your spouse might like, and you’ll get to the point where you don’t even need the list. You’ll just know what to do.


Just a little gasoline can create a much bigger fire. In the same way, small surprises have a way of enlarging the flame of your relationship. And they’re easier and cheaper than marriage counseling and divorce court.

So what are you waiting for?

How to Spot an Immature Spouse


This is my wedding photo. When I look at this photo, I can’t help but notice how young and immature I was.

  • I was only 21 years old.
  • I was a country boy who had hardly been out of the county in which I lived.
  • I had little education.
  • I had never seen a wedding, let alone been in one.
  • My parent’s marriage was difficult rather than exemplary.
  • I didn’t have a close relationship with my father and had no instruction on how to be a man, let alone a husband or father.
  • The 3 years my bride and I had dated were mostly long-distance; leaving me with no idea of what it was like to spend extended periods of time together.
  • And to top it all off…a few hours after this photo was taken, we moved 600 miles away from home and family to start new jobs.

It’s frightening to think of my level of immaturity at the time. Looking back on it now, it seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen.

But somehow, we made it. We learned to overcome our immaturity and put each other first. It didn’t happen overnight, and immaturity still shows its face occasionally…even after 41 years of marriage.


Here’s the thing. We’re all a little immature when we get married. Before we’re married, life is about “me.” “After we’re married, life is about “us.” And it can be a steep learning curve to shift from “me” to “us.”

The point is this…It’s ok to be a little immature when you get married, but it’s not ok to stay that way!


I’m concerned about a trend I see in my pastoral counseling practice. I feel like I’m seeing an upswing in marital strife, and more and more of it seems to be about immature spouses. These spouses are not young newlyweds. They are older and have been married for a while! And while immaturity in marriage is not gender-specific, I tend to see it more in husbands than in wives. (Sorry guys!)


So, how can you spot an immature spouse?

Below are some of the signs you can look for to spot an immature spouse. (Note: Use this list to identify immaturity in yourself first, and don’t use it as a club with which to beat up your spouse.)

  • They focus more of their non-work time and energy on themselves than on their spouse.
  • They usually feel they’re right and need things to go their way.
  • They’re quick to blame others, rather than own their responsibility.
  • They feel a sense of entitlement, more than a sense of gratitude.
  • They have to be forced to be sacrificial, rather than freely offering it.
  • They want their spouse to understand them more than they want to understand their spouse.
  • They tend to see things as either right or wrong, and can’t see possibilities in-between.
  • They expect to receive more apologies from their spouse than they’re willing to give.
  • They get mad, pout, or withdraw, rather than talking things out.
  • They spend more time talking about respect than they do earning it.
  • They feel they have to be dominant to get what they want.
  • They become passive-aggressive if they don’t get what they want.
  • They make decisions that affect their spouse, without checking with them.
  • They give more ultimatums that compromises.
  • Their wants and needs tend to come before their spouse’s wants and needs.


This is a brutal list.

No one wants to be associated with such a list. So when reading through it, it’s easy to quickly apply it to your spouse rather than yourself. It’s also easy to quickly defend why we might fit some of the things on the list. But look over the list again, and try to be as honest as you can about yourself before reacting.

All of us are guilty of these on occasion.

I’ve been guilty of everything on that list at times. (And I’ve got the scars to show for it!) But if you find one or more of these to be true frequently, or more often than not…then you may have an immaturity problem.

It’s not easy to see these things in ourselves.

If you’re brave and really want to know your immaturity level, ask someone who knows and loves you to weigh in. And if you’re really brave, ask your spouse. Don’t be surprised if your spouse is hesitant to respond. But assure them that it’s not a trick and you really want to know. Then listen openly and carefully. Don’t react. It could be a good time of growth for both of you.


The cure for immaturity is to get your eyes off of yourself. See your spouse for who they are and what they need. Serve your spouse in ways that put them first and lift them up.

I’m not talking about being a subservient doormat. I’m talking about being a mature, loving, adult partner. At times, this may require having some hard conversations which will not always be received well…especially if your spouse has an immature issue.

But growing up and being mature (no matter your age) is the best way to have a real, honest, and lasting marriage that goes the distance.