The other day I was telling my coworker stories from the early days of my marriage. It was one of those moments that made me realize, Wow—we really did not know the tools for building a successful marriage back then . . . but thank goodness we found them, because where we are now looks nothing like those days!
As with many couples, one of the most challenging seasons in our early marriage came with the arrival of our first child. When we first had Delani, my stressed-out mommy brain convinced me that Ben was out to make me crazy. I started to become very critical of all he did or didn’t do. Before I knew it, almost everything I said to him revolved around pointing out where he messed up, forgot, or did something in a way I wouldn’t have done it.
Even now, when Ben and I talk about that time, he will say, “There were days I asked myself, ‘Does she even like me?’” Yikes. Those were some hard years. Thankfully, with the help of the great people around us, we started to identify the problems that were hurting our marriage and go after powerful tools for repairing and strengthening it.
The first and most important question we learned to ask ourselves was this: “Who is my counselor right now—love or fear?”
As long as fear is our counselor, we can know all the best relational tools in the world, but we won’t be able to use them effectively, because we won’t recognize the obstacles we’re facing for what they are. Listening to fear led me to see Ben as an opponent, not a partner. I had to fight that internal battle to ignore fear and listen to the spirit of love so I could see, “You are not the obstacle in our marriage—you are my partner in overcoming the obstacles.”
When love is your counselor, it leads and empowers you to recognize the 3 primary obstacles to a successful marriage—and to learn to use the 3 most crucial tools for overcoming them.
OBSTACLE #1: DISCONNECTION
Prioritizing connection is the drum we beat more than any other—for a reason. The greatest obstacle in every marriage is not stress around sex, finances, careers, or kids—it’s disconnection. So the number-one tool we must go after in marriage is twofold: keeping connection as our priority and mastering the art of connection.
In the early years of our marriage, Ben and I were both very busy—me with little kids and side jobs, him with a full-time job in ministry. So many days, I spent my energy on everything but my husband, thinking, “He’ll be fine for today. We’ll connect tomorrow. He’s a grownup and can take care of himself—these kids need me!” Thankfully sooner than later, however, I saw how this was hurting our connection. I realized that I always needed to see Ben as my first target, not my last. Since I’ve learned to put our connection first, our whole family is better for it.
As for mastering the art of connection—well, that’s a learning process, and I can tell you that it involves much more than simply knowing your spouse’s love language! The most important thing, however, is simply that you don’t quit working at this art. Keep actively pursuing what it means to want connection, protect it, and grow it.
OBSTACLE #2: DISRESPECT
Disrespect is a speedway to distance and disconnection. When we meet with couples who have allowed, fostered, and protected disrespect in their communication, they are always fighting to stay connected. This is why we tell them, respectfully but in the strongest of terms, “If you are disrespectful in how you talk to your spouse, stop it right now! We don’t care what your excuse is. There is no reason for this to be allowed in your marriage!”
If connection is your priority, then you must make the commitment to keep communication respectful at all times—that is, to make sure that everything you say, and the way you say it, conveys the message, “Your thoughts, feelings, and needs matter, and so do mine.” (Keep Your Love On is our favorite resource on respectful communication—if you haven’t read it yet, we recommend that you get a copy immediately!)
Believe me—I understand how difficult it can be, especially when you need to confront an issue, to let anger, frustration, criticism, and judgment leak out of your mouth. But I’ve also learned the hard way that whenever I allow this to happen, no matter how self-righteous and justified I felt in the moment, it never helped our marriage to grow. If we can’t communicate in a way that protects connection, it’s better to walk away until we have something helpful to say!
OBSTACLE #3: DISTRUST
In every relationship, trust is built through exchanging the truth about one another’s needs and meeting one another’s needs. Distrust, on the other hand, grows when we don’t communicate and meet one another’s needs.
Most of us come in to marriage not knowing how to communicate our needs. I remember when Ben was first asked, “What do you need?” he sat there almost stunned. He’d never encountered that question before, and it took him a moment to find an answer. Even today, after years of practice identifying his needs, it takes him a little longer than it takes me to figure out what he is needing—but he is committed to getting there!
And knowing what we need is just half the battle! The other half is having the courage to communicate our needs. It’s vulnerable to express, “I have a need,” and then hope our spouse is willing to hear and meet that need. But again, this vulnerability is critical to building trust and showing value for the relationship.
After fifteen years of working at this, Ben and I now know what questions to ask and how to engage in a way that help two powerful people be part of the exchange of needs. This has deepened the well of trust, connection, and fulfillment in our marriage like nothing else.
Every couple we work with who chooses love over fear and goes after these tools sees growth, breakthrough, and transformation in their relationship—from those who simply need encouragement to those who feel hopeless about repairing their connection. So, whether you’ve been married for a week or for twenty years, and whether your marriage is healthy or struggling, I urge you to work on prioritizing your connection, communicating respectfully, and asking for what you need. Partner together to overcome disconnection, disrespect, and distrust, and build a lasting marriage full of love!