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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Take small steps every day to positively change the culture of your marriage.

As I said last time, the future course of your marriage will be greatly influenced by its culture. Your marriage culture is defined by the beliefs, values, attitudes, achievements and activities that surround your marriage. I tossed out some questions around these in my last post, hoping to prompt you to give some consideration to your current culture.

The Middle French origin of the word culture comes from "cultivate" and is associated with tending, guarding and tilling. Think of culture of your marriage is like a garden: the way you cultivate the soil of your marriage will determine the health of the fruit and the beauty of the flowers it produces.

Want a healthy, beautiful marriage? Check your culture!

Regardless of where your marriage culture is at this point, below I'll offer three simple ideas that will be a positive influence on it. You might be in a marriage where you feel like you are one making all the effort. I understand that it's a hard place to be, but the truth is that you can influence the culture of your marriage in a positive way without your spouse buying into the need for change. Of course it's better if both of you work on your culture together. Progress will be easier if you are both pulling in the same direction, but you have more power than you think you do.

I'm going to suggest that you do each of these three simple things every day for two weeks. Do them regardless of your spouse's reaction or lack of one.

1)  Do Something Generous

Especially after you've been married a long time, it's easy to fall into a habit of doing things for your spouse and expecting something in return. It's pretty natural, but that's not the kind of generosity I'm suggesting here. Find some small, deliberate act that you know your spouse would appreciate and do it solely with the intention to bless him or her. Do it with a smile and warm heart (they will know if you are doing it reluctantly).

Your act of kindness doesn't have to be anything huge. In fact, it's better and more sustainable if it's not. You know your spouse better than anyone else, so you probably already know how to bless them. Just get intentional about doing the things you know they would appreciate. Brainstorm a little and make a list.

For example, many wives appreciate things like five or ten minutes of focused time together, a date night that you plan, a surprise communication from you (text, email, phone call) during the day "just because" If you know she is worn out (or even if she isn't), give her a or a neck or foot rub, lend a hand with the kids or housework, bring her a cup of tea or glass of wine and insist that she rest, or draw her a bath. Bring her a small gift or treat that lets her know your were thinking of her during the day. Offer to pray with her.

For many husbands, having you initiate sexual intimacy is high on their list. If that feels like too much for where you are, try just wearing an outfit you know he likes or his favorite scent. Non-sexual touch, like holding hands, sitting close, or a back rub are things like that say to him "I love you, and I care about you our physical closeness." Learn to flirt a little. Give him a warm greeting when he comes home. Even if you can't always follow through, showing your husband this kind of attention will go a long way.

Do something that shows respect, which is a key need for most husbands. If you tend to be strongly opinionated about things, try letting him take the lead on something without resistance, maybe even ask him to. If you ask him for help with something, thank him for his efforts and do not criticize him.

The words you use are important. Your tongue is a powerful weapon for good or bad; wield it carefully and intentionally to bless and encourage. 

2) Say Something Kind

I did a survey a while back where I asked husbands and wives what their one most important need was and what having that need met would look like. Many of the answers I got really came down to wanting to have words of kindness sincerely expressed to them from their spouses. The desire for appreciation and affirmation came through loud and clear as unmet needs for both men and women, although they tended to express it somewhat differently.

For men, being appreciated for the work they do for the family was important (not that the same isn't important for women, it just tends to be more part of the male identity). Ask him about his job, and be interested and supportive. Feeling regularly criticized was painful for many of the men who took my survey. So during these two weeks, avoid criticism and instead find things to thank and praise your husband for. Thank him for things he does. Tell him something you love about him. Admire him for who he is.

Wives tended to want similar kindness from their husbands. Whereas for husband such needs were expressed as part of feeling respected and trusted, for wives it tended to be seen as part of feeling cared for and to a lesser extend appreciated. Kind words of tenderness mean more when accompanied by things like eye contact, a smile, a hug or other kind physical gesture. Thank your wife for all she does for you and the family, but also tell her you what you love about her. Admire her for who she is.

Regularly practicing kind words and gestures will do more to change the culture of your marriage than anything else.

3)  Ask A Sincere Question

When relationships get stuck on autopilot, one of the things that goes is engaging and meaningful conversation. Topics tend toward the functional and not so much the relational, emotional and spiritual.

So come up with a list of engaging questions for your spouse. Be sure these are things you really do want to talk about, though. Your spouse will spot insincerity, and that could do more harm than good. Here are some good open ended conversation-starting questions of the type I"m talking about:

  • What is the one country you want to visit more than any other and why?
  • What was the best part of your day today? What was the worst part?
  • What did you think of the sermon on Sunday?
  • What is happening (or what are you learning) in the book you are reading now?
  • What is something that is concerning you that I can pray for you about?
  • What is one thing I could do that would say "I love you" to you?

The idea here is to engage the emotions and the spirit and not just the mind.

There are few guarantees when it comes to human relationships, but I sincerely believe you will see your marriage begin to shift slightly toward a more positive culture if you do these three things consistently. The point is not that you have to be 100% every day. The point is to do most of these on most days. Then watch what happens. You'll be surprised at the noticeable shift.

What do you think of my three daily culture changing ideas? What others might you add? Chime in with a comment.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Is the culture in your marriage giving you the kind of marriage you want?

Over the next two posts we are going to be exploring culture. No, not what's happening in society, but rather I'll be encouraging you to take a closer look at the culture that exists within your marriage.

Why is your marriage's culture important? Allow me to borrow a few phrases from the business improvement book, Change the Culture, Change the Game, by Roger Connor and Tom Smith.
Every organization [marriage] has a culture, which either works for you or against you.
Either you manage the culture or it will manage you.
The culture of your marriage will largely determine the future course of your relationship with your spouse.

In a post I did a few years ago, What is the Culture of Your Marriage?, I made the claim that "a pound of culture is worth 10 pounds of strategy." What I meant by that is that if you get the culture right, strategy becomes less critical. The truth is that your actions and words tend to line up more with your culture than with your strategy, plans and intentions.

Your marriage has the culture you and your spouse let happen. You either shaped it intentionally toward what you wanted it to be or it defaulted to something else. Obviously it's better to purposefully craft your culture, but to do that it's helpful to first understand where you are.

Below are five questions that will give you insight into the culture that surrounds your marriage:

1) What do you believe about your marriage? 

Connor says in his book that transformational change doesn't happen until you change what you believe. It's true in business. It's true in your faith walk. And it's true in your marriage.

So what do you believe?

Do you still believe in the vows your made on your wedding day? Believe it or not, they become more important the longer you are married. Do you believe that marriage is a convenient social institution or do you understand it to be a holy union personally designed by God to be reflection of his love relationship with us?

Do you believe your marriage is primarily for what you get out of it, or do you understand that it's about more than your personal happiness?

Do you buy the lie of inevitable marital decline, that all marriage devolve into roommate status? Do you believe that you can have as much intimacy as you desire and that there is always more available to you than what you are walking in right now?

Changing your actions without changing your belief system is unsustainable. As Connor explains, belief is the difference between investment and mere involvement.

 2)  What do you and your spouse value most?

What is most important to you? Family? Faith? Finances? How do your value priorities differ from those of your spouse?

When a couple has differing value priorities, it inevitably creates stress and tension in the marriage. How do you navigate these differences? Do you have a culture of honor, where you respect what is important to your spouse even when it is not something you care that much about? Does your spouse do the same for you?

3) What is your attitude toward your marriage and your spouse?

Attitude is the way you express and apply your beliefs and values.

What would people say about your marriage by observing your behavior? Do you act in a manner consistent with your values and beliefs?

Do you maintain an attitude of grace when your spouse seems to act in a way that is our of character makes a misstep? Or do you hold onto resentments and let them build up to an eventual explosion?

4) How do you steward your marriage?

How do you spend your time, money and energy? These say a lot about your actual values, perhaps despite what you say is important. We all struggle getting priorities right sometimes, but on balance, your marriage needs to be the second most important relationship in your life next to Jesus. Your spouse and God are the only two beings you have a covenant relationship with. Do you treat them that way?

What activities characterize your marriage? Do you still date each other? Do you still pursue each other? Do you have shared interests?

5) What is the main goal of your marriage?

This is a critical question that many couples never bother to ask of each other. Not having a common understanding of the main goal of your marriage means you are likely never to attain it. You may even be heading in the opposite direction.

In my post Is Happiness the Right Goal in Marriage I proposed some possible goals for your marriage: selfless surrender, oneness, reaching your full potential, having joy and peace, or holiness. In What If Intimacy Matters Most? I explained my belief that intimacy is actually the most important goal of marriage. Do you agree?

Having a common goal or set of goals for your marriage can greatly impact its culture.

It isn't my intent to judge  your answers to these questions. I ask them to encourage you to take stock for yourself and see if the culture in your marriage is getting you the kind of marriage you want.

Next time we'll look at three simple steps you can take to help shift the culture of your marriage in a  positive direction.

Until then, I challenge you to reduce all this to three words that best describe the culture of your marriage. It's a worthwhile exercise.  If you feel bold, leave your three word answer in a comment.

Wives Only: The men's ministry of my church is having a conference in September. Ahead of that we are taking a survey about what is important to wives. Will you help us out and take two minutes to complete the quick survey?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Why hitting a wall may not always be a bad thing.

Have you ever "hit a wall" in your life? If you have, then you know what I mean by the term. If not, well, read on, because you probably will some day.

Hitting a wall: you know, when you are striving hard for something and suddenly, wham-o, progress toward your goal suddenly stops.

I recently hit a wall at work. I hit it hard, charging at full speed. I was so angry and disoriented that I took the rest of the week off work.

My wall leapt out at me from nowhere, but walls can also creep up on you. Progress slowly grinds to a halt, and it can take a while to realize what is happening.

Hitting a Wall in Your Marriage

We all have hopes, dreams, goals and aspirations for our marriages. Most of you are probably putting significant mental, physical and spiritual effort toward reaching them. More emotional closeness. A more passionate sex life. Being free of debt. Retiring early and traveling the globe together.

These are all good goals to pursue, but sometimes life and circumstances bring on those wall-crashing moments. Bang! And suddenly the goal seems unreachable.

What do you do when you hit a wall? Depending on your personality, your instinct might be to give up or to put your head down and fight even harder.

Let me give you three tips I recently learned from my own crash and burn.

1.  Rethink Your Instinct

My pastor shared some interesting insight with me in regard to my work situation. He said that sometimes the Lord will put wall in front of us to get us to go a direction other than where our natural path might be. In my job, I would normally have pushed back hard to see my agenda moved forward. But in this case, I felt an overwhelming sense that I was to ease off instead. There was an amazing sense of peace that came over me when I realized that my happiness didn't depend on my own plan being accepted and supported.

When you hit a wall, your emotions will tend to take over and drive to react instinctively. Let me encourage you to respond instead of react. When you react to hitting a wall, it is usually out of fear, insecurity or pain. Choosing to respond (and it is a choice) means you step back and challenge your instinctive reaction and give yourself time to size up the situation. You can then think it through based on your core values and prayerful consideration rather than raw emotion.

2.  Take Time to Reassess

When you pause to do an honest assessment of the situation, you might just find that your most natural course of action is not the best way forward. You may discover that the path you were charging so hard down before you hit the wall wasn't actually taking you where you want to go.

Brain science proves that our human brains are hardwired to look for the autopilot switch. Consider the wall an opportunity to do a fresh assessment. Maybe it is time to dream some new dreams or set some new goals. Maybe it is time to take a different path toward the goals that you want to continue to pursue.

(I shouldn't need to say this, but I will: obviously I am not suggesting that this reassessment include giving up on your marriage.)

Communication with your spouse in this season is critical. This is an opportunity to build intimacy by being vulnerable and transparent. Even if your spouse was the source of the wall, I still encourage you not to draw away, as your natural reaction might be. Instead, respond by reaching out, however meagerly to make some sort of connection.

I encourage you to pray a lot in the wall-recovery season. Search out the heart of God. Our Father is a good Father, and he has only good intentions toward us. Tap into and agree with what heaven says.

3.  Begin Anew

Read the amazing promises from the Lamentations 3 scripture graphic, and take them to heart. Take time to wait on the Lord and to prayerfully think everything through.

But also don't over-think it. Don't get stuck while you are trying to figure everything out. Every day is a new day and an opportunity for a fresh start. Regardless of how you feel, the Lord's compassion and love are unchanging, day in and day out.

Eventually it's time to take a deep breath and then press forward again. Step out in hope and in the confident expectation of God's goodness and love toward you.

When it comes to your marriage, don't just wait around for your spouse to change. Instead, work on yourself. Do the things you know to do. Delight yourself in doing good for the sake of your marriage and in blessing your spouse.

Be thankful. Nothing moves your heart forward after crashing into a wall like giving thanks. You don't have to be thankful for the wall (though you may find that you eventually are), but find the good in your marriage and spouse and begin to be thankful for them. And it really helps to say your thanks out loud, even to your spouse.

Hitting a wall can be brutal. But it also has the potential to bring with it life-changing, eye-opening fresh opportunities, dreams and direction.

Have you hit a wall and seen how God turned it into a blessing? Would you care to share your experience with my readers? Leave a comment.

Date Night!  - I'm running a new survey on my blog about date nights.  Please take a minute to confidentially share about your date night habits and wishes.

wall image credit: imagegunman / 123rf.com 
scripture image credit: (c) Scott Means

Sunday, June 28, 2015

3 Keys to a marriage that sustains love 

I'm concluding my Faith, Hope & Love Series today with a post about love.

Sitting down to write this post I feel the difficulty of the task before me.

How do you write a single post about love in marriage that isn't a 10,000 word treatise, a theological expose' or a concise summary filled with trite sayings?

Impossible? Maybe. But here's my shot at it.

The Greatest is Love

Recall the scriptural basis for this series:

"Now faith, Hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest is love." 1 Corinthians 13:13

The whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 describes in great detail what love should look like. Most of us are well-acquainted with the words of the famous love chapter. Love is patient, kind and believes for the best. It is never jealous or rude or selfish.

I'm madly in love with my wife, yet I sometimes lose patience, say unkind things and behave selfishly. So to me, love is more than a set of good behaviors. It is possible to love deeply and yet fail miserably at showing it from time to time.

There must be more to love than "doing the right things."

Advice From A Prison Cell

I don't usually take marriage advice from people who have never been married. I make one notable exception, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and staunch anti-Nazi dissident. The latter caused his imprisonment and eventual execution while he was engaged to his beloved Maria.

From prison, Bonhoeffer wrote to his niece, engaged to his best friend, on the event of their wedding, which he was unable to attend due to his imprisonment. Among other advice contained in his "Marriage Sermon from Prison," he wrote this:
It is not your love that sustains the marriage,
but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
We have all heard the adage, "Love is more than a feeling." Here, Bonhoeffer takes that notion one step further. He is saying that we cannot count on the feelings of love to carry our marriage through. Feelings can be fickle and deceiving. But he adds to that the notion that love must be sustained, and what sustains love, according to Bonhoeffer, is your marriage.

It is marriage, that supernatural holy covenant union of two becoming one before God and man, that keeps love alive.

A Marriage That Sustains Love?

How do you ensure that your marriage sustains the love in your relationship? Sustaining love comes down to a daily choice - actually multiple choices - to serve and bless each other, even when you don't feel like it.

While there are dozens of ways to keep your love strong, here are three keys that will take you a long way toward lasting love.

1) See your marriage and your spouse as gifts from God.

Rather than look at your marriage as a problem (or set of problems) to be solved, focus and be thankful for the good parts. Even in the most difficult marriages, there are small gems that you can dig out if you look for them. Whatever you focus on will grow, so focus on the good stuff. It's not living in denial to be thankful for to good in your marriage and in your spouse. You can be thankful and still work on the  problems - the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a thankful attitude will actually do more to smooth out the troubled parts than will a bitter, resentful attitude.

2) Believe that you are one flesh, and live that way

Your marriage is not a competition, so don't look at it that way. Instead, remember that when you got married, you and your spouse actually became one. The notion of two becoming one is what the Apostle Paul describes as "a great mystery." Even if it doesn't feel like it, you two are one, so why not enjoy the benefits of being one with your spouse.

When you start to live in the reality of your oneness, score-keeping, battles for control and retribution make no sense. When you believe that you are one, self-focus gives way to other-focus and couple-focus. For more implications of what it means to enjoy the fruit of the one flesh reality you share, see "What If You and Your Spouse Really Are One?"

Are you afraid that being one means giving up your individuality? It doesn't mean that at all.  Read my "One Flesh: Unity and Individuality" post, and set your mind at ease.

3) Relentlessly Pursue Each Other Every Day

Never stop pursuing each other. Never. Jenni and I have just celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, but we both know that we still need to pursue each other. Every day.

The problem most people have with pursuit is that we tend to pursue our spouse in the way we want to be pursued. That rarely works out well, because men and women tend to define pursuit differently. In order to pursue well, you have to become a student of your spouse. It takes some effort and a bit of trial and error, but there is a huge payoff!  The payoff is a marriage that sustains love and passion.

Pursuing your spouse says to him or her, "I still choose you." It also says, "I am willing to do whatever it takes to have you and to keep you."

For more on pursuing your spouse, see my posts on relentless pursuit for husbands and for wives.

What would you add to these three keys that sustain love? What do you do to ensure that your marriage sustains the love in your relationship? Leave a comment.

Related Reading:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Transformational change doesn't happen until you change the way you think.

We are focusing on hope in marriage as part of my "Faith, Hope and Love" series.  In my last post we looked at how hope is more than mere wishful thinking.
True hope is the confident expectation that God will move on your behalf in order to satisfy your heart's desires, rescue you from difficulty or guide you to fulfill your destiny.
But how do we get from the wishful thinking kind of hope to the confident expectation kind of hope?

Getting a hold of true hope starts with changing how you think.

What You Think Matters

Here is an important fact about why what you think makes a big difference. Your brain tends to automatically filter and discount anything that doesn't line up with what you believe.
  • When you believe that your marriage is hopeless, it won't matter what your spouse does, you are going to see everything through the filter of hopelessness.
  • If you believe your spouse will never change, you will automatically discount any effort they make toward positive change.
  • If you believe your spouse is completely selfish, any selfless act will be met with skepticism and accusation about their motivation
  • If you believe God doesn't care about your marriage, you will miss seeing the hand of God move on behalf of your marriage.
  • If you believe you will never have the kind of intimacy you desire, you will miss every opportunity for you and your spouse to move closer to each other.
It is also true that when you chose to believe good things about your spouse and your marriage, you are much more likely to see them when they happen. You see, our brains also have a tendency to identify things that do line up with our belief system.

Start Simply

My daughter was recently going through a hard time, battling pain and hopelessness over a difficult circumstance. In processing things in prayer, the Lord revealed to her the only two questions she was to focus on in this troubled season.
  1. Do you believe I am good?
  2. Do you believe I am for you?
We (okay I) can have tendency to complicate things. Truthfully, it is much better for us to grab tightly to a few essential truths rather than to grapple loosely with dozens of truths.

So when you are trying to change the way you think, pick one or two areas where you sense that your thinking isn't in line with the truth. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light of truth into your heart. He will. God is a good Father. He longs to impart hopeful truth to your heart.

If you aren't comfortable listening to the Holy Spirit, or don't believe you can hear from God, start with the two truths my daughter was challenged to focus on:
  1. God is good and only has good intentions toward you
  2. God is for you and for your marriage
Don't Settle For Less Than Fullness

Maybe you don't have a general sense of hopeless about your marriage, but there may be specific areas of your relationship where you have set aside hope, where you have settled for less than fullness in your marriage.  A lackluster or non-existent sex life, financial struggles, in-law troubles, health issues, or lack of emotional intimacy.

Wherever there is hopelessness in your life and marriage, God wants to restore hope. I strongly encourage you to find a few simple truths that you can press fully into in a way that you start to change the way you think.

I recently came across a short video that beautifully expresses what it means to hope in God.  Here are a few quotes:
  • There are no hopeless circumstances only hopeless people. 
  • God always partners with someone who has hope.
  • The people who made a difference in the Bible were unreasonably optimistic.
You'll find the video of this very encouraging little three minute message on my Facebook page. Be sure to like my page while you are there!

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