“We find peace when we see people as God sees them and discover people are more than the sum of their mistakes”
When your marriage has fallen into a state of disrepair, it can feel like the light is going out on your most important relationship. Feelings of sadness or resentment may edge out those of love and happiness. Especially when we’re distracted by the responsibilities and stresses of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook the people we hold dear—but relationships need attention and appreciation to thrive. Just like a little TLC can take a drooping houseplant and perk it right up, a renewed attempt to see and genuinely care for your partner can rebuild joy and love in your marriage.
Recent breakthroughs in brain science reveal that joyful attachment is the most powerful motivator in life. According to attachment theory, the primal part of your brain that grows in the womb is wired for attachment and relational bonding. From the brain’s perspective, there is no greater force than attachment, and consequently there is no greater pain nor joy than the emotions that result from those attachments. The more joy you and your partner can grow in your marriage, the more those feelings of being in love will stay strong. Falling “out of love” results from the absence of joy.
Marcus Warner (president of Deeper Walk International) and Chris Coursey (leader of THRIVEtoday) are co-authors of “The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages.” To help couples remember the four pillars for building more joy in marriage, they also created the acronym PLAN: Play together, Listen for Emotion, Appreciate daily, and Nurture a rhythm. Habits form through repetition—the more often you practice something, the quicker it becomes a part of your subconscious routine. It can take up to 30 days of practicing an activity before your brain begins to rewire itself. Within 90 days, the brain fully forms new pathways and a habit is established.
Thinking back to the honeymoon phase of your marriage, you and your spouse might remember that play was abundant. Smiles, laughter, and touch all produced overflowing joy in the brain that flooded the body with hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. Play is essential for maintaining a stimulating bond in your marriage. Finding ways to connect through laughter and activity keeps the circulation of relational joy from stagnating. Activities like building new hobbies together, weekly dates, and planning vacations all give you something to anticipate and share.
House boundaries are important to keep play and problem-solving separate—the last thing you want to do is make a habit of bringing problems into the bedroom. With busy work lives, it’s all too common that the bed becomes a place where couples unload their complaints and stresses. It’s recommended that you discuss problems in the general-purpose areas of your home, limiting bedroom activities exclusively to play and sleep. Warner and Coursey created two rules for the end of the day:
- We will stop talking about problems and tasks 30 minutes before we go to bed.
- We will play together and share appreciation before we turn off the lights.
If you feel that the relational spark has been dimmed in your marriage, invite your partner to reminisce on shared memories together. Taking a moment to reflect on enjoyable recollections will rouse sentiment, laughter, and most importantly appreciation. When couples don’t actively stay engaged in relational bonding, they can become like two strangers living under one roof. This is one reason why it’s important to plan time together. Start taking an interest in the hobbies and activities your spouse enjoys, and make a habit of participating on occasion. When partners feel their interests can’t be shared or understood, resentment can grow, breeding avoidance and isolation.
Listening for Emotion
When one spouse expresses a problem or concern to another, most likely it’s in seeking emotional support. If your first inclination is finding a solution to the problem, it can come across as apathetic and inconsiderate—nobody wants to feel like a problem that needs fixing. Validating your partner’s emotions before trying to help solve a problem is crucial for compassionate communication.
“Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with what someone is feeling … You simply need to acknowledge that they are, in fact, feeling that way,” writes Warner. Counterfeit validation, on the other hand, is when you don’t name your spouse’s emotions accurately, instead replying, “I understand.” Bypassing your spouse’s emotion by responding with a counterfeit validation is like saying, “Shut up! I’m tired of listening.”
VCR is a simple acronym that Warner created with Dr. Jim Wilder (founder and chief neurotheologian of Life Model Works) to help couples remember the correct sequence of communications—validate, comfort, repattern. First, validate your partner by listening patiently before naming his or her emotion. Next, offer comfort by suggesting strategies and perspectives for problem-solving. Repatterning is the process by which you, yourself, can become more comfortable with responding to your partner’s emotions. Through practicing validation and comforting your spouse, you’ll build the emotional intelligence necessary to support your significant other.
Spousal appreciation directly correlates to the amount of joy a marriage can hold—resentment replaces joy when appreciation fades. Gratitude can be considered the currency of marriage. When we give, receive, and trade fairly, harmony and balance stabilize. For impoverished marriages, there is little of this currency to support emotional stability. Fortunately, we can all grow appreciation through daily exercises that train our brains to recognize blessings instead of fixating on solving problems or avoiding pain.
After studying the effects of appreciation and gratitude, Warner created an exercise that he and his wife practice, calling it the 3x3x3. “First, we take turns sharing three things from our day that we appreciate. Second, we express three qualities we appreciate about each other, including examples of these qualities ‘in action.’ Finally, we highlight three qualities we appreciate about God.”
We all desire to feel appreciated and honored, especially by our significant others. Verbalizing the qualities you appreciate about your partner can foster more admiration, respect, and secure bonding. When too much time is allowed to pass between moments of relational joy, couples may start feeling numb to their adoration for each other, and even forget what they once appreciated about one another. A good exercise to practice with your partner is remembering each other as the people you were when you fell in love. When did you both discover you were in love, and which of your partner’s characteristics did you appreciate and adore?
Another great way to build the habit of appreciation is by putting it into writing. Remembering and writing down thoughts of appreciation for your spouse allows you to slow down and dwell on the associated feelings and reasons behind your appreciation. Five categories Warner and Coursey created for reminiscing over joyful memories include vacation memories, holiday memories, memories of falling in love, romantic memories from after the honeymoon, and joyful parenting memories.
Nurturing a Rhythm
If we can nurture routines that allow for rest as well as play, we can create a fertile environment for growing joy. When we don’t make time for activities that feed the soul, we wilt. Likewise, when you don’t make time for relational bonding with your spouse, your marriage suffers. Developing a rhythm with your partner keeps the foundation of your marriage strong and helps to carry it through difficult times.
Couples who begin and end their days by focusing on their relationship can dramatically increase their capacity for joyful bonding. Nurturing a rhythm can be as simple as waking up and having coffee together before work, eating dinner together as a family, or even enjoying evening walks in the neighborhood. Since everyone operates on a different schedule, the point is to find a common time with your spouse where you can both plan and anticipate social routines together.
A Little Joy Goes a Long Way
“Romance is about taking the time to be together and making a plan is about dedication.”
The goal of cultivating these four habits is to minimize the gaps between moments of shared joy. When a couple builds enough joy in their relationship, they generate more security in their marriage, recover more quickly from conflicts, and embrace spending more time together. Nobody said relationships are easy—but they don’t need to be too complicated, either.
We’re all born with similar attachments and desires for relational bonding—we all need to feel secure, loved, and appreciated. When we get pulled along with the current of daily stress, we can lose sight of the bigger picture, and we’re more likely to neglect or even take advantage of those we hold dear. Relationships need attention and appreciation to flourish. By taking a step back and viewing your partner and yourself with a fresh pair of eyes, you can learn to see and compassionately care for your partner with more gratitude, validation, and joy!
This article was first published in Radiant Life magazine.