This post is a composite response to several questions I received last week via email, and the post comments (here). The basic idea of all the questions was this:
How do you create and maintain a happy marriage? (People ask me because they know I've got one.)
There is so much written about marriages from experts and prophets that I don't need to add a lot. (I will put some links to some of that good stuff at the bottom of the post.) Remember, I am not a professional therapist, psychologist, or marriage counselor. I am not your church leader. I merely offer my opinions. What I will do is mention one small thing that I believe can make a humongous difference in marriages that range from solid to shaky.
To explain that one small thing, I will start by telling you an unbelievable, fictional story. (Only one part is unbelievable, and it should be obvious to you.)
Sally was celebrating her 40th birthday by going to lunch with a dozen of her good friends. They had chosen a soup and salad place that they all loved. Mostly because the salads were really yummy and expensive because they had fruit in them.
(Perfectly believable so far, right?) (If you would like, you can substitute men for the women, and buffalo wings for the salads.)
The friends sat at a long table and visited with each other as best they could. One of Sally's friends asked her a question.
"So what is Jack doing for you tonight for your birthday? It's the big one!" Everyone stopped talking to hear what Sally had to say.
"Well..." Sally hesitated. "Jack left town on business this morning, and won't be back until the weekend, so no birthday tonight."
You could have heard a pin drop. But Sally jumped in to kill the silence. "But that's okay, I understand. He works hard."
(Still believable - are you with me?)
"I am so sorry Sally. You must be so disappointed." One friend chimed in.
"You would think he would have planned better, or figured out how to get out of it for the Big 4-0." Said another.
"Didn't he do something like this last year?" Someone remembered.
"You deserve better."
Sally tried to defend Jack - for a minute, but truth be told, she was hurt, and upset. Her eyes welled up and she explained. "It's not like that. Yes, Jack loves his job, and most of the time he is there for me, but... sometimes he is just stupid and insensitive. Or forgetful."
She put her fork down in frustration. The friends all looked at her fondly. They empathized, and sympathized with Sally, and commiserated with her about how unkind Jack was, and how sorry they were for her sad, neglected plight.
They finished with lunch and Sally announced that she had to be on her way. Several of the ladies watched her go, and clucked to one another, "What's Jack's problem?" and "Don't you think Sally deserves better?"
(Believable? You bet? Sadly, I KNOW this does happen.)
Sally pushed the button to open the garage door, and was surprised to see Jack's car parked in it's normal spot. She went in the house to find Jack, standing in the kitchen, with a rose in one hand, and a suitcase standing on the floor next to him.
"Happy birthday! Are you ready to go?"
"It's a surprise, we are running away for a few days."
"But I thought you were out of town for work?"
"Like I'm going to miss your 40th Birthday? Are you crazy?"
'What about the kids?"
"Your Mom will be here before they get home. Everything is taken care of. I promise."
"What do I need to do?
"Get in the car!"
Sally rushed into Jack's arms and gave him a huge hug.
(Believable? Maybe less frequent, but still believable. Why? Been there, done that.)
Jack and Sally watched the garage door as it began to close in front of them.
"Jack! Wait!" I need to do something before we leave.
"Can it wait?"
"No. I need to take care of something. Give me a few minutes. I'll hurry."
Sally pushed the button to open the garage again, and hopped out of the car. She held up one finger to Jack, and went inside.
She went to her bedroom and dropped to her knees, asking the Lord forgiveness for the feelings of hurt and anger she had been holding in her heart all week. Then she asked forgiveness for having said such negative things about her husband - her eternal companion - to her friends.
After she felt a bit better, she sat on the edge of the bed and began calling each and every one of her friends from lunch. She knew she needed straighten things out - to apologize to them for saying unkind things about her husband, and for calling him names. They needed to know that she was in the wrong. It took a while, but she contacted every person who had been misled before she went back outside to join Jack, and enjoy their escape.
(Believable? Ha! Like Part 5's ever gonna happen!)
Here is my simple suggestion to help have a happy marriage:
Never say anything negative about your spouse to anyone. Ever.
I am serious.
There are four people who are exceptions to this rule.
1) God. Through prayer.
2) Your spouse.
3) Your bishop. (Or Quorum leader, as directed/inspired)
4) A professional counselor/therapist.
Four. There are four exceptions. Four. End of list.
Here is list of the people who are not on the exception list.
2) Best friends.
3) Lifelong BFF that is like a brother, or sister to you.
4) Mom and/or Dad
6) Internet friends
8) Your children
9) Every other person not on the list of four.
Why? Basically, because anytime you say negative things about your spouse to any of these people, you are betraying your spouse. You are betraying his/her trust in you.
A quick rundown:
1) Why God? Because many of our marriage problems come from the hardness of our hearts. God's Spirit can fix that.
2) Why your spouse? Because that is who you should be talking to about issues concerning you.
3) Why the bishop? Most bad marriages are rife with sin. The sin of unforgiveness, the sin of judgment, selfishness, addiction, messed up priorities, unresolved sin, unkindness, and yes, betrayal. The bishop can help you recognize and partake in the Atonement to resolve those sins that could be killing the marriage.
4) Why a professional? Often, the behaviors, histories and struggles are hard to identify, and deeply ingrained. This takes a "Pro." A bishop is not a professional - don't ask that of him. LDS Social Services is a great place to start. Your bishop can steer you in that direction.
And those not on the list? Simple answer: It's NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS!
1-3) Friends. Friends love you, and will almost always take your side - even if you are completely wrong. Also, friends don't usually get to see the whole picture - only the semi-true version you are telling. (So, had Sally not reached out, the next time the friends see Jack, they are wrongly thinking "What a jerk!")
People love to go watch fireworks, but they don't stick around to see the mess get cleaned up.
An interesting side note - studies have shown that friends "bond" better when discussing negative things about other people than positive things. link here.
If you truly love your friends, you won't burden them with stuff like your marriage struggles. They probably have enough on their own plates already.
4) Mom. Mom loves you. Moms often give bad advice because they love you. Dads too. A wise mother or father would simply reply, "I'd be happy to talk to both of you about this - together, but I won't talk to you about it alone."
5) Same goes for siblings, They are usually on your side - right or wrong. Don't dump your problems on them.
6-7) Strangers. Just. Don't. Do. It. ESPECIALLY strangers of the opposite sex.
8) Your children. Do you want a sure-fire way to mess up your kid's emotional health? Tell them negative things about your spouse.
9) Anyone else - even Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, or the guys at the gym. Or any blogger that acts like he knows everything. (Not interested.)
Is it possible? Yes. I have friends that I have associated with for years who NEVER say anything negative about their spouse. I admire them, and try to emulate them. Granted, it is probably easier because my wife and I aren't mired in a struggle - but maybe that is one reason we aren't.
So, when you feel like bellyaching to someone about the most important person in your life....Shut up!
Here are some great talks by great leaders about marriage. While I only mentioned one point, they have a whole library of counsel as to what it takes to have a happy marriage.
Sepncer W. KImball: Oneness is Marriage
Russell M. Nelson: Celestial Marriage.
Richard G. Scott: The Eternal Blessings of Marriage.
Dallin H. Oaks: Divorce