Falling in love is easy; staying in love takes work. Here are five practices to strengthen the bonds of marriage.
Marriage can be the most gratifying relationship in our lives—but it can also be the most challenging. Even well-matched and committed couples experience real hardship during the course of their lives: Circumstances become overwhelming, partnerships can be exhausting, and raising children elevates the stress felt by everyone.
Without reliable tools in your marital toolbox, it’s all too easy to feel resentful of and distant from the very person to whom you pledged your life. But resentment and distance do not reflect the heart of God for our marriages, and we should never resolve to settle for less than God’s deepest desire for us.
Most couples benefit from marriage counseling at some point in their lives, no matter how healthy they believe their relationships to be. But aside from the important step of seeking professional guidance, there are plenty of smaller ways we can address the challenges in married life and see our homes transformed into a place where both spouses can not only survive, but truly thrive.
1. Make Space for Personal Needs
Spotting the most obvious needs in our homes on any given day is never a hard task: Get the kids to school, buy groceries, make medical appointments, get your work done, and the list goes on. Tangible needs are easy to check off a list, and meeting them gives us a sense of accomplishment.
Taking care of daily minutiae is one thing, but it can be harder to attend to our more personal needs with the same immediacy. After all, keeping our preschoolers updated on their vaccines is a more straightforward task than, say, spending a half hour in prayer or figuring out when on earth to exercise. The demands of child-rearing, work, caring for aging parents, or just regular old life have a way of eating up most of our free time.
But when we make a habit of ignoring our own inner needs for the sake of our families, the results can be disastrous. If family life keeps us from feeling like a whole, balanced individual with a healthy mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical life, eventually we begin to place the blame on the person closest to us: our spouse.
This was the case for me a few years ago. Our marriage was limping along, and I had a pesky habit of blaming my husband, Eric, for every frustration and grievance I felt. When my spiritual director guided me to identify and voice my unmet needs, it was like a light came on in my brain. Armed with a new self-awareness, I began advocating for my own well-being rather than drowning in the needs of my family. I gradually stopped feeling resentful when my husband expressed his needs, because I had committed to communicating and prioritizing my own too.
As I learned to slow down, check in with myself, and identify what I needed to really thrive, I fell in love with my husband all over again for his commitment to helping meet my needs for time away from the kids, physical exercise, and spiritual nourishment. As is so often the case with demonstrated love, the more he responded in support for me, the more I sincerely wanted to support him too. We by no means have a perfect rhythm, but now that we are more proactive about communicating our needs and making plans to have them met, we are healthier individuals, a healthier couple, and healthier parents for our children.
2. Rethink the Division of Labor
Families these days are balancing different dynamics than in generations past: Often both parents are employed, children are involved in more extracurricular activities, and time spent with the kids is more evenly distributed between mom and dad. Still, many of us are stuck in outdated ideas about the distribution of household chores. Human nature seems to slump back into “how it’s always been done” rather than thinking outside the box about what systems might work best.
After more than a decade of cooking dinner night after night, I finally faced the fact that I had come to deplore this evening ritual. It was making me frustrated and grumpy, and I was resorting to increasingly unhealthy meals just to put something on the table. Finally, Eric and I realized this was ridiculous. He enjoys cooking and has always done it here and there when he could, but once we sat down and reimagined how to navigate the division of household labor, we realized that most nights he could tweak his schedule and make it home in time to cook. So we simply switched roles: He now does the meal preparation, and I’m now in charge of kitchen cleanup afterward.
‘Since change is a fact of life, a marriage can often hinge on both spouses’ willingness to evolve and grow alongside the other.’
—Shannon K. Evans
3. Make time to be a Couple
At my bridal shower nearly 15 years ago, the married women in attendance were invited to share advice that might be helpful as I entered into this lifelong commitment. I’m sure I was given plenty of sage advice that day, but the only thing I remember came from an aunt who had lived out a lovely marriage to my uncle for two decades and counting. Her advice was to have a date night once a month to focus on nurturing your partnership in the midst of the craziness of life and child-rearing.
Rather than humble receptivity, my reaction was more aghast. A date only once a month? Not us! We’ll be having a date night once a week, thank you very much. And we did just that—until we started having kids, when suddenly all my smug certainty flew out the window, and I saw how wise my aunt’s advice really was. It’s easy to go on regular dates when you are young and life is unrushed and carefree; but prioritizing connection and romance after years of monotony, hectic schedules, and parenting responsibilities takes a good deal of intentionality.
As is the case for many couples, date night often feels like a luxury we can’t afford. Paying a babysitter on top of dinner and a movie makes for an expensive undertaking—and that’s if we can even find a sitter who is willing to watch five kids! These days, the stars rarely align for that kind of indulgence. But Eric and I have perfected the art of the at-home date night: We put the kids to bed early, pour ourselves some grown-up drinks, and sit on the couch for thoughtful conversation followed by a good movie.
It’s no replacement for a fancy dinner at a nice restaurant—and we still like to do that here and there when we can—but carving out special time to connect in our native habitat has a special charm of its own. It reminds us in the most mundane, familiar environment that we still have that old spark: We still like each other, we still make each other laugh, we still marvel at each other’s thoughts and ideas. And it reminds us that long after the kids are grown and out of the house, we’ll still have our best friend by our side.
4. Support Each other through Change
When we take our wedding vows, most of us young and starry-eyed, we have no concept of just how long “the rest of our lives” is really going to feel. So much can shift for a couple in even one year, much less 50, and it can be scary to figure out how to change together without growing apart.
Since change is a fact of life, a marriage can often hinge on both spouses’ willingness to evolve and grow alongside the other. Marriage partners must be committed to riding the waves that come: jobs lost or promotions earned, babies born or deaths grieved, faith lost or abilities impaired. All our life experiences serve to form us into someone slightly different than the person we were at our wedding ceremony. And while change can sometimes be fun and even unitive, more often humans experience change as threatening, disorienting, even deeply painful.
Eric and I started out in marriage taking the same approach to our faith. Over the years, the way we expressed that faith began to look very different. Initially, this was confusing and even a little scary as we struggled to feel unified within our differences. We worried that we were drifting apart; we worried about what that meant for the future.
But we found that change is not the end of the story. Eventually we learned to trust each other more and to trust God’s involvement in our lives. Through that trust, along with self-discovery and open communication, we eventually came to the healthiest place we’d ever been, both individually and as a couple. We’ve found that the most important thing is not to stay exactly the same as we were when we first met, but to be willing to appreciate the ongoing discovery of the person each of us is becoming.
5. Embrace a Shared Mission
While individuality is important, our marriages will flounder if we do not also possess the deep connection and unity that come with seeking a higher purpose together. When the busyness of everyday life makes our world feel small and insular, it’s easy to get sucked into the mentality that our problems are of utmost importance. By contrast, when our marriages serve a greater good or sense of mission, we gain perspective and can see our place in the world with gratitude and purpose.
Sometimes there are seasons of life when the best we can do is simply care for the people immediately in front of us. But those seasons are not permanent, and finding ways to get involved in communities, programs, or volunteer opportunities as a couple or family can draw us closer together as we seek to build a more beautiful world.
My family does not always have a surplus of time and energy to expend outside the walls of our home. Even so, we’ve tried to prioritize serving others as best we can, whether that be community outreach to the marginalized, college student ministry at our parish, or hosting holiday gatherings for those who might be feeling lonely. Our involvement in community service has ebbed and flowed at different points over the years, but it’s always something we insist on returning to together.
Do we hope our efforts positively impact the world around us? Of course. But we also know that’s not the only measure of success. Looking outward as a couple creates a deeper bond between us and propels us to love the world that extends far beyond our little home.
Committing to a shared mission together makes our marriage more transformative—for us and for everyone we meet.