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.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE LIST
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.
A FINAL THOUGHT…
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.