What actually makes a good marriage? What traits do good marriages share?
I got thinking about this, and could easily rhyme off close to 20 criteria for a good marriage–things like “you laugh together”, or “you forgive quickly”, or “you’re kind to one another.”
But I wanted to get more to the heart of it.
And before I could figure that out, I decided that we had to define a good marriage first.
I think a good marriage is this:
Two people who share life together, who live together and serve each other, and who both feel truly known, accepted, and loved, so that they are strengthened to go into the world and do what they were born to do.
Marriage is a relationship in which both people need to feel free to bare their true selves, because that’s what it’s all about. We want to feel cherished, and you can’t feel cherished if you aren’t fully known. And you can’t open up and tell your spouse everything–your hopes, your fears, your dreams–if you’re scared your spouse will reject you or belittle you. You need trust.
And then, once you have that foundation of acceptance, love, and support, you can go out and fulfill the calling you have on your life. As a Christian, I believe that calling was given to us by Jesus before the very foundation of the world (Ephesians 2:10), that He has prepared us with unique gifts, opportunities, and personalities to make our own mark in the world and to do things that only
If that’s what we’re aiming for, then–if we want to be fully known, and fully loved–then the traits of a good marriage must accomplish that. A good marriage has to help us feel safe. So, with that criteria, I came up with just three things that sum up everything else:
1. A good marriage requires two people who think first about “us” before they think about “me”
In a good marriage, both spouses think about the unit before they think about themselves. If someone asks if you’re free on Tuesday night to do them a favour, you don’t just think, “do I have anything on Tuesday?” Your first thought is, “How will this affect my spouse and my family? What does my spouse and my family need?” If you’re considering your future career or education plans, you think about the effects on your spouse, not just on what you want to do. If it’s Saturday morning, you don’t just think, “what do I have to do today?” You think, “what is on my spouse’s plate right now, too?” and you jump in and help.
If one spouse is hurting, then the unit is hurting. The other spouse steps in to help, and to hold that person up for a time.
A beautiful example of this that’s played out in plain sight over the last year or so is Rachael and Jacob Denhollander. Rachael was the first victim of Larry Nassar to come forward and allow her real name to be used, and her boldness and courage inspired others. But then her advocacy work began, and she started calling out abuse in the church, too. Jacob knew that his wife had been appointed “for such a time as this”, and he willingly took on the burden of the childcare and a lot of the other things Rachael would normally have done in order to support his wife. There’s a lovely tribute to them in the Courier Journal this week:
- She surrendered her secrets to put away a sexual predator. But her sacrifice isn’t over.
- In her courageous battle for for justice against Larry Nassar, my wife became my hero (by Jacob Denhollander)
Often in marriage, though, one spouse is more focused on “me” and one spouse is focused on “us” (or, quite commonly, “you”). We’re told to be selfless, after all, and so we do our best to make our spouse’s life easy. However, when this is not reciprocated, we can actually end up enabling selfishness. God does not intend for marriage to be a place where one person is served and one person does all the serving. No, it’s a partnership, where we each hold the other up.
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
2. A good marriage requires two people who are willing to admit when they are wrong
In a good marriage, both spouses will show humility. They will admit when they are wrong. They will care if their spouse says, “I’m not feeling loved right now. Can we talk more about meeting each other’s emotional needs?” If their spouse says, “I want to be feel close to you, and I feel as if something’s missing from our sex life,” they will embrace that conversation, rather than reject it out of defensiveness, because they’re focused on building intimacy. Their goal is always more transparency, more love, more vulnerability, not just winning an argument or feeling as if they are in the right.
When people are able to admit when they are wrong, then they can grow. When people are invested in their own self-image, they won’t grow, because they’re unable to be honest about themselves.
As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.
3. A good marriage requires two people willing to invest in their marriage–who don’t necessarily even recognize they’re doing so
Both parties will naturally want to share with each other what’s going on in their hearts. They’ll talk about their day. Though they have their own lives, friends, and hobbies, they still gravitate primarily towards shared vacations and shared hobbies. They will want to spend time together, and that will be the default setting. Their spouse will be their main confidante, even if they have friends that they also share with.
And while this may take effort at the beginning of the relationship, as the marriage progresses, it becomes natural, so natural that they may not even realize they’re doing it. They don’t have to think about “date nights” because they naturally do things together at night. They don’t have to think about love languages because it’s become their second language.
That hasn’t happened overnight. But it’s become habit. It’s who they are. It’s how they function. It’s why older couples look like each other, walk like each other, lean into each other. It’s why so many couples die within a few days or weeks of each other–because they’ve become like an extension of themselves.
If you struggle with this, I encourage you to sign up for my FREE emotional intimacy email course, where you’ll get 5 quick exercises by email that can help you grow your emotional connection:
One of the things you’ll notice about each of these criteria for a good marriage is that it requires two people to put in the effort.
You can’t create a good marriage by yourself. You can do a lot to improve your marriage. You can change your own attitude, and that can often cause your spouse to change in return. I talked about this a ton in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: Sometimes the way we think about love, or gender roles, or conflict, or all of those things can actually stop us from having a good marriage because we’re actually working against intimacy, rather than for it, without even realizing it. We can set the stage to a healthier relationship by changing these things.
As we do that–as we lean in more; as we forgive more; as we study our spouse and learn what makes them tick and genuinely try to serve them–we change the dynamic in our marriage. And, over time, you may find that your spouse changes in return. Your marriage grows easier. You feel more cared for.
If that doesn’t happen, though, change may need to go in a different direction, as I talk about in these posts (and at much greater length in 9 Thoughts that Can Change Your Marriage, too):
If you want to have a good marriage, think as a unit. Act as a unit. And build the unit.
Let the unit become your default. But remember that you cannot hold up the unit all by yourself. Sometimes you’ll need to draw boundaries and say no in order to encourage your spouse to pick up some of the slack and be engaged in the marriage as well. But hopefully, as we think more “us” and less “me”, we’ll all grow the kinds of marriages which are life and energy giving which is, after all, what God designed marriage for.
What do you think? What makes a great marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!
I loved this whole article but the last point I found particularly encouraging. My husband and I have always had a great deal of chemistry physically, but have had to really work at our communication and general relating very intentionally. At this point (9 years since we started dating, which seems like a long time!) a lot of that has become second nature. We’re really happy, and I am really thankful.
That’s lovely! It does become second nature when you work at it and become intentional, doesn’t it?
One of the most profound things i ever read on marriage blog, Sheila is from a statement you made that knocked the breath out of me. I’m not quoting it verbatim, but you said, in a marriage no matter how BIG the problem is if TWO people are willing to work on it the marriage will succeed but no matter how SMALL the problem is, if only ONE spouse is willing to work on it the marriage will fail.
That literally revolutionized my world not only about marriage but about ALL relationships. Today’s topic reminded me of that statement you made long ago. I literally etched it on my mind. “It takes TWO to put in the effort.”
It is really true! That doesn’t mean a marriage where only one person is putting in effort is doomed to fail. Sometimes, over a period of time, the other person grows, matures, comes to their senses, etc. But one person cannot fix a huge problem that they did not cause all on their own.
Wow. As a single woman, I have never read anything that captures so perfectly the kind of marriage I hope for someday. This is beautiful. I so appreciate the lack of Christianese in this article, because I’ve never heard marriage framed like this in the church.
I’ve never commented before, but just know that I have learned so much through reading your blog and then examining my thoughts and beliefs about men and women, marriage, and Jesus. Thanks for being such a big part of my faith journey!
I’m so glad you found me, Sarah, and I hope that you do have that kind of marriage someday!
I do think that God makes up a huge part of my marriage. Jesus really does permeate everything I do. The problem is that we can’t say that a good marriage requires Jesus, because I know so many non-Christians with good marriages. I think what I would say is that a good marriage always reflects Jesus and the kind of relationships He had and would want us to have. And because we’re all made in the image of God, even those who don’t claim allegiance to Jesus can reflect Him, though I would hope that Christians would always do this better and more consistently!
Great article, and I definitely agree that the number one ingredient is making a marriage about “we” instead of me. I know I could improve my own attitude in this area.
That doesn’t mean that you should ALWAYS ignore your own feelings, though. If something’s bothering you, or if you want something that your spouse doesn’t realize, definitely talk it out, in a loving manner. That ties into honesty and communication, which I might list as items 4 and 5.
> > God does not intend for marriage to be a place where one person is served
> > and one person does all the serving.
> > No, it’s a partnership, where we each hold the other up.
You’ve talked about this a lot on this site! My pastor says that the best marriages are where each submits to and serves the other. It usually get tied in with that often misinterpreted passage about wives submitting to their husbands.
He also points out that BOTH must do this equally in order to be successful. Otherwise, we’re right back to that “98 ways a wife can sin against her husband” list!
Absolutely! It really does take two.
I love this. 💜
Great post Sheila. It reminds me of my favorite marriage quote by Timothy Keller ““If two spouses each say, “I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,” you have the prospect of a truly great marriage.” Again, it takes two people deciding to put the other first and putting the “we” before “me”. It can’t be done by only one person and be truly successful.
All very true! If I’m being honest, after just about 8 years of marriage, some seasons we knock these out of the park but some seasons we struggle. I used to think a good marriage one day would just happen after working hard for it, and that’d be that but I’ve quickly learned one never truly “arrives” and the needs of the marriage simply change and we have to refocus on those needs. That’s where prayer and continual reliance on God comes in. This is just my experience which may or may not align with others views.
Sheila, thank you!!! I’m SO honored to be a small sponge in another part of the continent (we live in North Carolina), soaking in your wisdom…I love everything you write, and your ministry means so much to our family and I recommend your books and blog often…prayers for you after an emotional week…love and hugs from NC!!!
I read this and I feel so happy that I have all three in my good marriage! I’m so thankful for my wonderful husband, he’s God’s gift to me!
I have always believed it takes three to make a good marriage work. My husband and I can be working together toward a good marriage but if we do not include God in every tiny aspect we will not have a marriage that is God’s best.
I agree with what you’ve written, I just felt it was missing the key relationship and that would be surrendering to Christ over all. But maybe you alluded to it and I missed it.
I know what you’re saying, Sharon. But the truth is that I know a lot of non-Christians with GREAT marriages. I actually wrote a follow-up to this piece about just that: Can Non-Christians Have Good Marriages? I think that when we do the things that make a great marriage, we reflect Christ, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it.
We were always taught that non-believers were inferior to us. That they had no moral compass. That they would always take shortcuts. That they had no reason for hope without God.
We were not even allowed to acknowledge that they did good deeds, because (we were told) any good things they did were motivated by wanting applause.
I’ve discovered that’s a completely unfair categorization. In fact, I would say all those *negative* traits describes my first husband, the Christian husband I met at church. He was a self-centered pedophile.
Today I’m married to a non-Christian and he’s far more *godly* than any Christian man I ever dated. He is honest, hardworking, respectful, ethical, and kind to me. He is loving, caring, and cheerfully does housework, without me saying anything. He never takes advantage of me in any way. He shows me and tells me he loves me.
We Christians always ignore this Bible verse: but 1 Corinthians 7:14 says that someone married to a Christian is automatically “holy” (or “sanctified,” depending on your Bible version).
“For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”
So I have no worries about my dear husband even though he shows no interest in coming to Christ.
If his love for me counts as his love for Jesus, so be it.
Jane, I’m so glad you’re married to someone who truly treasures you. That’s beautiful.
And in the way that he loves you, he reflects Christ, whether he realizes it or not! He is acting as an image bearer of our creator when he does the things of God, and that’s wonderful.
That is true. He does reflect Christ’s selfless love and sacrifice.