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As Catholics, we know how important the Sacrament of Marriage is for the Church. We also know that for a married person, marriage is the primary mission field—that beautiful relationship wherein they are called to grow together in faith and virtue. As St. John Paul II has said, married couples are called to form themselves as a community of life and love! However, if that is at the heart of married life then why do so many people feel like their marriages are lacking? Why are many marriages only surviving, rather than thriving? Below are some tips to help you and your spouse get your marriage back on track during periods of conflict and stagnation.

Tip #1: Listen to Hear, Rather than Listen to Respond

Oftentimes, when we are talking with our spouse, we listen to respond rather than listen to hear. This means that when our spouse is talking, instead of paying attention to the content and emotion of what they are saying, we are in our own heads, planning out what we are going to say next. When this happens, our spouse does not feel heard. And why should they? We have placed our own thoughts and feeling ahead of their own, inadvertently communicating to them that what they are going through is not as important as what we are going through. If we convey this message to our spouses, then they are less likely to listen to us. As a result, both partners feel unheard by the other and are competing to get their needs heard. Instead, take the time to truly hear what your partner is saying: what message is your partner trying to get across? What emotions are wrapped-up in your partner’s message? Is your spouse expressing a need, want, or a bid for connection? To make sure that you have accurately heard the message that your partner is trying to convey, use such validating statements as:

  • Wow, it sounds like you’ve had a _______day.
  • If I heard you correctly, ______________.
  • It sounds like ________. Am I on the right track?

By listening to our spouse with the intention of truly hearing what they are saying, we not only foster closeness with our spouse, but we also increase the likelihood that they will be more receptive and understanding of what we say. There is a saying: “Hurt people, hurt people.” To this we can add, “Nurtured people, nurture people.” The best way to receive love and support from our spouse is to first show them love and support. By doing this, we not only create deep and enriching empathy in the relationship, but we also break the power struggle of getting our needs across.

Tip #2: Perform Regular Relationship Maintenance

When was the last time you and your spouse performed a relationship maintenance? If you’re like most couples, then the answer is probably “never”. Much as your car needs regular maintenance to continue to run smoothly, our marriages need periodic check-ins to ensure that they have not veered off course. A simple weekly check-in could look like the following: “On a scale from 1-10, how did we do this week?”, “What were the highlights and lowlights from our week?”, and “What can I do for you this upcoming week to be a better spouse?” Once a month, couples can have a bigger maintenance check-in that goes more in-depth into the relationship. From there, couples can have a quarterly or half-year review when you and your spouse take a mini-vacation or stay-cation with the following intentions:

1) Assessing your yearly goals as a couple,

2) Spending some alone time to work on the intimacy and quality-time aspects of the relationship, and

3) Scheduling time to improve the marriage as you aspire to be a community of life and love.

Finally, you’ll want to implement a yearly review where you and your spouse celebrate the wins of the year and set the goals for the upcoming year. Not every couple has to implement a weekly, monthly, six-month, and yearly review conversations to have a successful marriage. However, it is very difficult to maintain a fruitful and thriving marriage without continuous feedback.

To further emphasize this point, consider the following analogy: Imagine you are sitting on a plane at Bush Intercontinental Airport heading to New York. Now, what would happen if the pilot changed the direction of flight by one degree? At first, the change would be negligible. You wouldn’t even notice that a change has occurred. But what happens if the plane remains on this course for the next several hours? Instead of landing in New York, the intended destination, you end up hundreds of miles off course. The same thing happens in our marriages: tiny, negligible deviations lead to huge marital issues over time. A lapse in the communication of emotions leads to severe, heated arguments in the years to come. The sooner you recognize that you’re off course, the easier it is to course correct. By correcting small problems today, you can avoid larger problems in the future and, instead, use that time to strengthen the marriage.

Tip #3: Set Goals for Your Marriage

As Catholics, those of us who are married are called to have marriages that thrive, not ones that simply survive. A marriage without goals is going to have a difficult time thriving. Because of this, it is important for you and your spouse to set SMART goals that will help take your marriage to the next level. What are SMART goals? SMART goals are goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timebound

Specific goals help you and your spouse know exactly what you are trying to achieve. Instead of saying, “I want to pray more with my spouse”, say, “I will pray with my spouse three times a week”. By stating a specific intention, it is easier for you to know when you have achieved your goal. If you had only decided to pray with your spouse more, it would be difficult to determine “what” exactly more meant. This also helps you keep track of or measure your goal. If your goal is to pray with your spouse three times a week, it is easy measure. Being able to measure your progress towards your goal gives you valuable information on the likelihood that you will achieve your goal, or if your goal needs to be tweaked. If your goal was to pray with your spouse ten times a day, you may find that to be too difficult and impractical. In other words, it’s not attainable.

Instead of getting rid of the goal, it might be helpful to change the parameters to something more manageable or attainable. However, you don’t want to set only easy goals. Easy goals (goals that you can achieve with little effort) don’t push you enough for personal growth to occur. In fact, Google has all their employees create a goal list in which 50% of their goals have a 50% failure rate. This means that they should fail at half of their goals in the allotted time. The reasoning behind this is that if you are achieving 100% of your goals, you aren’t aiming high enough.

Relevant goals help you and your spouse focus on certain areas. For instance, if this year the focus of the marriage is to improve financial literacy and management, it wouldn’t be relevant to add a goal focused on traveling the world during the same year. By setting relevant goals, you don’t waste time and energy focusing on too many aspects at once.

Timebound goals give you a deadline to when you will achieve your goals. It is important to have timebound goals because it adds more motivation to accomplish it. If you don’t have time limits for your goals, it is easy for you to forget them as they fall by the wayside. SMART goals give your marriage direction and help keep you both accountable as you continue to learn and grow.

Tip #4: Pray with Your Spouse

This next tip may seem like common sense, but the truth is that many spouses don’t truly pray with each other. Of course, they may pray over the food at dinnertime, but when is the last time that they prayed together before bed or during a rough time together? Prayer life is the foundation of a successful marriage, and too many couples neglect its importance in their marriages. Oftentimes, individuals say that they don’t pray because they aren’t good at it. Well, here’s a little secret: you get good at praying by praying. Very few people are born knowing how to come up with prayers off the top of their heads. It is a skill and, like any skill, it is developed through practice. Also, God doesn’t only listen to the “good” prayers. He won’t say, “I can’t listen to Adam’s prayers because they are not as good as Michael’s prayers”. God just wants to hear from us. He wants to have that relationship with us. It is impossible to have a strong, God-centered marriage without prayer. It is as simple as that. Talk about your desire to pray with your spouse and take turns leading the prayer. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be from the heart.

You can learn four simple steps for strengthening your marriage through intimacy and prayer here.

Challenge: Look over these four marriage tips. Which ones speak to you? Is your marriage thriving or is it just surviving? Are you a community of life and love? Which tips could you implement to strengthen your marriage?