Marriage can sometimes be like the utility closet in your garage—it’s the place all the junk you’ve accumulated throughout your life gets shoved. After a few years, it starts smelling musty and needs cleaning, but that would require opening the door and turning on the light, which might be too overwhelming. Somehow, it can seem easier to ignore the smell. Those closets usually overflow at inopportune times, though, like when you’re trying to wedge a particularly nasty bag of Broken Promises between the Load of Guilt your mother gave you for Christmas and the Resentment your wife got you for your anniversary.
So, you turn on the light and indignantly wonder why someone else has been neglecting the build-up. Then, if you’re anything like me, you furiously pull everything out with the intention of dealing with it but suddenly realize it’s Saturday and the garbage truck doesn’t come until Thursday. Your wife doesn’t want to help, of course, because she’s disgusted with the smell of Your Father’s Criticism when you mix it with the stench of Your Secretary’s Perfume, and promptly tosses a bag of Just Desserts onto your head. And there you are, covered in your marriage and wishing you could hose yourself off in the front yard without your neighbors gossiping about it. Funny as the analogy seems, it is not too different from how many of us treat our marriages: we allow trivial clutter to choke the life and power out of one of the most wonderful, mysterious blessings God has given us.
This can be avoided, however, when we accept that a marriage will only flourish if it is actively protected and nurtured. This comment should come with a warning. Some will read this and automatically think of the usual tips for spicing up your marriage: getting flowers for the wife, cooking a nice dinner for the husband, planning a date to rekindle romance. All of these suggestions have obvious merit, but if your relationship is as cluttered and dirty as the utility closet example, it would need the thorough and intensive restructuring of Christ-centered marriage counseling to address its deeper problems. Without it, such attempts at marriage enrichment would neither keep up with the daily additions of conflict, resentment, and stress, nor erase past problems. The result of such an exercise in futility is often a cynical and defeated outlook on the possibility of reconciliation, with the final state of the marriage being worse than it was initially.
If, however, your marriage is relatively healthy and you want to make sure it remains in good shape, there are a number of ways to protect it. Lest you discard these suggestions as the unrealistic ideas of a young married man, I used input not only from my own marriage of fifteen years (and counting), but also from four other healthy couples married 5, 13, 33, and 37 years. I then compiled the answers into the following seven categories. For the most part, all five couples alluded to the same strategies. Consider reading through the list with your spouse to assess how healthy your relationship is in each area.
Praying with your spouse requires and fosters openness, communication, and vulnerability. It gives you each the opportunity to share about struggles, internal and external, and then to intercede for one another. It also allows for time to prayerfully work through and discuss interpersonal conflicts; it is very difficult to stay mad at someone when you are in their presence and praying for them. And let us not forget that praying with your spouse is nothing less than connecting with God in the format originally ordained in the Garden of Eden (man-GOD-woman)—it is the most intimate union of supernatural and natural.
Without exception, all five couples who gave input exhibit a quality of unity within their relationship. Specifically, they intentionally do not keep bank-accounts, text-messages, emails, phone calls, or Facebook messages from one another. More often than not, they know where the other one is and what he/she is doing. While there are a few activities that they pursue separately, the time spent in those activities is dwarfed by the amount of quality time they spend together. Naturally, they try to do things they both enjoy, but all are regularly willing to engage in activities for the sake of the other, regardless of personal interest. Overall, they do not think of themselves as two separate people trying to get along, but as one person leading one life. These marriages embody Paul’s exhortation for husbands and wives to die to self and become one flesh.
Have Realistic Expectations
Intimacy requires vulnerability. To protect their relationship, husbands and wives must be willing to discuss and accept each others’ weaknesses. No person can meet all your needs, not even your spouse. The sooner you recognize that only God can fulfill you in the way of security, love, and acceptance, the sooner you will be able to accept your spouse as a sinner and not be destroyed by unmet expectations.
Guard Against Physical Temptation
Clearly, successful couples have healthy physical relationships, but there is more to this than the obvious aspect of sexual intimacy. Cultivating a strong physical bond also includes regularly communicating about your physical needs and responding to your spouse’s need in turn. It also means guarding your heart from all manner of temptation—pornography, books, movies, or inappropriate relationships with members of the opposite sex. Having accountability with other Christians of the same gender is a crucial component for this to work, as is both spouses making a joint effort to limit exposure to tempting material (for example, installing internet filters).
“God made my wife’s heart, so the best way for me to understand her is to pursue the heart of God,” one of my interviewees stated. If you are interested in protecting your marriage and increasing intimacy, then a vibrant walk with the Lord is essential. It is that same man-GOD-woman dynamic mentioned above: when both spouses seek to be conformed to the image of Christ, they ultimately come to know and understand each other more deeply. A secondary outcome of this conforming is that, rather than spouses relying solely on confrontation to effect needed change in each other, the Holy Spirit is at work to pare away sinful strongholds that could weaken and destroy a marriage. These strongholds often include problems such as resentment, self-centeredness, anger, pride, lust, and fear.
Submit To One Another
Pride and self-focus are the primary obstacles to resolution in the majority of arguments. In truth, most of the arguments we experience in relationships are unimportant, but they become magnified due to our desire to settle the score, to be in the right, or to be in control. As discussed before, however, where unity is intentionally cultivated, self must decrease. In healthy marriages, this is often seen in how readily spouses submit to one another when compromise is required. Couples who practice mutual submission will rarely allow an argument to continue overnight without some significant attempt at reconciliation.
Put Up Boundaries
Healthy couples also carefully guard their time with each other. With the ever growing list of gadgets that allow you to send messages, watch videos online, and update your social networking profiles, there is no end of things which can sap your time. Add to these the demands of daily life (e.g. church, work, meetings, friends, children), and you can see how easy it can be to grow apart from your spouse. Successful marriages are characterized by dedication to quality time, even if it means sometimes turning down things that seem worthwhile.
Someone once said that marriage is a lot like sitting in a canoe in the middle of a river. If you do nothing, you will float downstream. If you paddle, you might stay in the same place. If you paddle really hard, you will go upstream. No marriage is perfect, of course, but if you are willing to submit yourself and your marriage to God and implement these suggestions before problems build up, you will find yourself upstream with an ever-growing love and respect for your spouse.
 See Ephesians 5: 22-33