10 Keys to a 10 Marriage
Want a simple way to divorce-proof your marriage? Well, it is not necessarily simple, or easy, but consistently showing up and intentionally training for a great marriage usually produces one. Based upon over 30 years of counseling couples as a pastor and over 1,000 divorce cases as a mediator, I have created the “10 Keys of a 10 Marriage” concept. Sharlyne and I were married at 19 and love each other more now than then. We are total opposites on almost any assessment. I am an introvert; she is an extrovert. I am serious, she is playful. The list goes on. When we went through a series of assessments to begin our journey with leading House Churches, the leaders asked how we managed to stay together for so long. We intentionally invest in our marriage. We trained for a great marriage, not an average one.
As a mediator, my job provides a front row seat to the world of divorce. Every day I hear the things that tear marriages apart: affairs, money, kids, working too much, working too little, in-laws, etc. As I thought about the ten keys that make a great marriage, the following came to mind:
You will notice a glaring absence of a quality in my list – love. I believe love shows up as part of all the qualities. Love does not keep score and always perseveres. Love is the first to apologize, the first to forgive, the first to serve, the first to initiate, the first to protect and the last to leave. Thus, love is expressed through each individual quality.
Beginning the process of creating a “10 Marriage” is simple. First, rate your marriage overall on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high). Where are you right now? Then, you rate yourself as well as your mate on the 10 key or qualities listed above on a scale of 1-10. You can create your own keys as well. The goal is a great marriage. You may define the keys of a great marriage differently than above. Let me give a brief description of the keys so you get an idea of how to rate yourselves.
Intimacy is not just sex. That is another quality. When I think of intimacy, I think of a deep connection. Total honesty, trust, love, and respect between partners. If I could name the number one issue that leads to divorce, it would be a lack of a deep, honest, and loving connection. Intimacy takes time. You must make space on a continual basis to build and maintain intimacy. Making space is more than spending time with family. This is a space just for the two of you. No others allowed. No phones. No tablets. No laptops. Just the two of you to talk, cuddle, watch a movie or whatever feeds your sense of intimacy. If you lose intimacy, your marriage will lose.
There are few nights that Sharlyne and I do not find time to connect. Before I go to bed (I am the first to bed and first to rise), we spend time relaxing for a bit, talking, and praying together. You may not be a person of faith, however for us, prayer creates an intimate bond between us. With five children, over 24 foster babies and plenty of “adopted” kids along the way, it is not easy to find alone time together. We have actively worked to maintain our intimate space.
Friendship is vital. Marry your best friend. In fact, too often, people treat their best friends better than their partners. Friendship is the foundation for a 10 Marriage. Want a good test for friendship in your marriage? Simply think of how you maintain a relationship with your best friend. Are you doing the same type of things with your spouse? A friend feels secure in your relationship. You value him or her. You are honest, trusting, and expressive at a deeper level than an acquaintance.
Sharlyne and I have other friends, but we would quickly say our true best friend is each other. We have never felt jealous of time spent with other friends or among other activities. The reason? We know our value to each other; we put each other first.
Communication at deeper levels than texts about what to pick up for dinner that night is a critical quality. There are levels of communication ranging from cliché greetings to fully exposed, intimate connection. After the cliché greetings, we talk about facts. Much of our communication on a daily basis is factual data. Our work lives are all about data, and without intentionality, our marriages can quickly follow that pattern. The next level is values. This is when we risk sharing our ideas about religion, politics and other interests. There are likely numerous subjects we can successfully evoke a response, and often a heated one. One level deeper is emotions. That is when we have the courage to say, “I love you”. I still remember the first time I told Sharlyne I loved her. We were on Lookout Mountain in Denver at sunset. I said it so softly Sharlyne barely heard me. So glad she did, responding with an, “I love you, too”! Finally, the deepest level of communication fosters intimacy. Nothing is held back. We are totally vulnerable and willing to risk sharing everything.
When Sharlyne and I first dated, we spent hours just talking. We were building intimacy. After we got married, we drifted into more factual conversations. We became efficient in our communication, so it only took a few minutes instead of hours. We were losing our deeper levels of communication, especially intimacy. We discovered the importance of creating intentional space for deeper conversations and connection. You can say, “I love you” to each other quickly and regularly. If you want a 10 Marriage, you will need to create space for consistent conversations that dive deep.
Nurture is a simple concept. Spend your life as a student of your partner. Learn what he or she likes, does not like, enjoys and hates. Know what feeds them, empowers them and lifts them up. And then, give it to them on a regular basis. If a partner craves physical touch, then hold their hand, kiss, or cuddle. If a partner enjoys gifts, then become their gift giver. There is usually no need to break the bank, just remind your partner he or she is important. Your partner may need time alone with you, just you, and no phone. Give them the gift of time. Or, your partner may need help with the house, with a business, with the kids, with the yard, etc. He or she wants a partner to share the burden, and to not feel alone and overwhelmed. Do the simple acts of sharing life from washing a car, doing laundry, mowing a lawn, or cooking dinner. Lastly, if your partner needs words of encouragement, don’t be stingy. Lavish them with thoughtful and specific words of encouragement on a regular basis. Nurture your spouse.
Sharlyne and I had to learn how to nurture each other. We often miss-fired on what was important. Since her love language was acts of service, Sharlyne would do all kinds of things for me. That was not nearly as important to me as simply holding my hand and giving me words of encouragement. I would bring home flowers and write love notes. I learned what really connected with her was washing the car, mowing the lawn, doing dishes, mopping the floor and giving her a night out once a week when our kids were small.
Sex plays a bigger and smaller role in a relationship than you think. Unlike a thermometer that can tell you the specific temperature at any moment, sex cannot determine how satisfying or successful a relationship will be. However, sex can often work as a barometer in a relationship, forecasting how a partnership will thrive. For instance, when the barometric pressure is low, we can predict rain, snow and unstable conditions, much like how a poor sex life results in poorer connection between spouses. When barometric pressures are high, the weather is much more predictable and sunnier, very similar to a fulfilling sex life and its impact on one’s union.
Ultimately, both partners should fully and completely enjoy sex. Unfortunately, too many partners have frustration, hurt, and even anger over their sexual relationship. There are two areas couples can struggle to fully communicate their feelings in marriage: sex and money. There are countless hurdles that can result in distance, not intimacy, between partners. A woman may feel discomfort or pain during intercourse, she may not reach orgasm as frequently as her male partner or she reaches the point of performing “duty” sex. The man may be frustrated with impotency, or the frequency of sex. If emotional intimacy is lacking, the woman usually is not feeling up to more frequent sex. Therefore, sex is a big part of your marriage, yet, it is not your whole marriage. Hot sex does not make up for the other nine qualities needed for a great marriage. Opt for increased communication and mutual enjoyment surrounding this particular quality.
Sharlyne and I had to work and talk our way through a number of sexual issues throughout our marriage. For example, pregnancy was definitely a game changer! Then, just when her body was returning to a more normal state, she was pregnant again. Our first three children were 16 months and 18 months apart. We purposely wanted them close. With small children comes all the time and responsibility of parenting 24/7. It was then we learned sex was not the center of our marriage, not even close. We cultivated and leaned into other areas and deepened our intimacy. We scheduled time away for the two of us to nurture our marriage. We wanted our children to know the greatest gift we give them is a great marriage.
Conflict is a part of marriage and life. The key is learning how to resolve conflict in healthy ways. Unresolved conflict is a cancer in a marriage. The cancer consists of frustration and anger that can turn into contempt. Most marriages will end in divorce with continued unresolved conflict. One or both partners may avoid conflict. Avoiding conflict does not resolve it. One partner may be accommodating and always yields to the other. This pattern can only last so long until the accommodating partner feels empty and used. Some partners are competitive, where one or both parties always need to win. Marriages with winners and losers eventually lose their marriage. Partners who can learn to collaborate and compromise reaching resolution on important decisions grow their marriage. Furthermore, if someone gets hurt during a conflict, they have the skills to repair damage. Apology and forgiveness are two huge pieces of repairing an injury from conflict. Own what you need to own. There is no need to own more, but own what you need to own.
You would think as a mediator, Sharlyne and I have this down perfectly. Well, there is no perfection in any one quality, including this one (even as a professional mediator)! However, we do talk about everything. And, we have learned how to repair. We have found our small skirmishes are usually caused over dumb stuff often related to our family of origins. My dad was very conservative, financially. One time we were fighting over some little ten-dollar expenditure. Sharlyne turned to me and said, “Can I talk to Randy now instead of your dad?”. We have learned to apologize, forgive, and most importantly, make up!
Safety is more than a lack of physical altercations. Do you feel safe with your partner emotionally, spiritually and physically? For some couples, physical safety becomes a very real concern. If this is the case, you need to seek immediate assistance, and if necessary, call the police. For most couples, when I speak of safety, I am focused upon emotional and spiritual safety. Unfortunately, marriages can drift into very toxic places. Communication becomes minimal. Exchanges are heated and damaging. When you think of your marriage, do you feel safe? Can you discuss anything? Is your home the safest place on earth? It should be. When you are out in public, can you rely on your partner to uplift and edify you? You might get beat up at work, or even get cut off while driving home, but once at home, you can relax. Your spouse has your back. He or she will encourage and support you.
Sharlyne and I have these fun phrases we use frequently, especially when we call each other. When she worked at a UPS Store for a couple of years, I would call ask for the “Most Beautiful Woman in the World”. Who would not want to answer that phone call? Then, she started calling me the “Smartest Man in the World”. My intellect is better than my looks! The point? We edify each other. In all our years of marriage, we have never felt unsafe around each other. Safety is an important quality of a 10 Marriage.
Money is a very critical quality in marriage. Without enough money, even basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are challenging. Far too many children receive reduced or free lunch at school, and that may be their only and best meal of the day. The lack and mismanagement of money can cause tremendous stress on a marriage. Many couples struggle to discuss money issues. Credit card balances continue to grow. Payments are missed. More than one marriage has ended over money matters. Money can cause fights regardless of how much money is available. Where you spend, save and give your money as a couple exposes values. I’ll touch on more about that in the next quality. Your marriage is a business with income, expenses, and a balance sheet. I know. I dissolve marriages and must negotiate assets and liabilities, and how income can now support two households instead of one. I advocate for a weekly business meeting for a couple. Each partner should know EVERYTHING about finances on a current basis. Honesty and transparency around finances are critical to retain trust and respect in your marriage.
Since early in our marriage, Sharlyne and I had a weekly business meeting. When kids came along, we had a weekly family meeting. We talked about calendar commitments, money and kids. Since I handled the money, I wanted her to know balances, upcoming expenses, and how we were doing on long range goals. Some of our more heated exchanges were around money. Our values can collide at times. We worked through the moments, repaired, and kept focused on the overall goals. Money matters to your marriage. Getting on the same page of how you earn, spend, and give your money is an important quality of a 10 Marriage.
Values, and the differences between them, can become deal breakers in many relationships. There is a difference between a value you hold and how you hold it. You may feel strongly about an issue, post on social media and debate it, yet your feelings about the issue would not raise to violence. You have a value of human life that supersedes the other value. Values show up all the time in marriage, either creating a stronger bond or constantly provoking conflict. Let’s take nutrition as an example. One partner wants to eat very clean and organic; the other partner enjoys foods rich in calories, fat and sugar. The question? What will they eat for dinner? How about values around exercise, discipline of kids, or religion to create a bit of tension? From my vantage point as a mediator, the most intense and strongest fights are over values, even if the partners cannot identify the underlying value that triggered the argument. Alignment on values that both partners hold very tightly is critical for the marriage.
Sharlyne and I do not agree on all things because we have different opinions and values around some things. However, we agreed on central values to us. We agreed on our faith. We agreed on children; how many we wanted and how to raise them. We agreed on how to spend our money. Some of our most intense arguments as well as biggest decisions revolved around values. The key to holding our marriage together during intense moments was our value of commitment to one another. We simply would not let anything divide us. We would work it out. And, if we injured one another verbally during the argument, we would repair by apology and forgiveness. The quality of aligned values has contributed greatly to our marriage for over 40 years.
Self-Care does not show up on the list of many couples when I ask for their ten qualities of a ten marriage. Yet, the concept of self-care is an important quality and often is mentioned in a variety of ways by couples. It is important to put yourself first before accommodating others. A great example is when planes have an emergency and the oxygen masks drop. We are instructed to place our mask on first, then assist others. Lack of self-care can otherwise lead to anxiety, depression, anger, stress-induced illness, and even death. Self-care involves your body, mind and spirit. When you care for your body, you eat to live instead of live to eat. You exercise regularly. You get enough sleep. Your nutrition, exercise and sleep patterns contribute to physical and mental health. These three simple areas help relieve stress, increase energy, and usually keep your body attractive to your partner. Mental health is key to self-care as well. Addictions and mental illness place a tremendous amount of stress on a marriage. When a spouse learns how to manage his or her mental health and find success, the quality of the marriage improves dramatically. And, when the other spouse truly partners to support in a healthy manner, the marriage wins. Lastly, there is a spiritual side to marriage. Self-care to pray or meditate, grow and become centered spiritually leads to a better you and a better marriage.
Sharlyne has done great in the area of self-care; me, not so much. When I suffered a torn ACL at 40, my workout routine changed dramatically. I began gaining weight and losing definition. Now, I am totally out of shape and have developed Type II diabetes. For us to have a 10 Marriage, I must address my weight and health. In so many other areas in my life there is great discipline. I reward myself with food and have done so for years. Now, patterns must change to improve my health. It is hard to have any kind of marriage if one partner dies due to lack of self-care. We cannot attain a 10 Marriage without my self-care improving.
As you rate yourself on all the Ten Keys, you can easily identify areas needing improvement. Create a plan that is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relative and Time-Bound). Don’t expect immediate improvements. Find ways to disrupt patterns. Learn. Get people to coach you. Each day become a better you. Don’t just try. Train. Create time, money and energy to improve and reach your goals. When each partner understands what he or she needs to own, creates a plan to improve and correct, and simultaneously works towards common goals, a great marriage and life await you!