How to help your spouse be their bestWritten by Amy Van Veen
What's inside this article
"I wish you would talk more."
"I appreciate that you choose your words carefully and have valuable things to say."
Of these two statements, it’s clear which one is the criticism and which is the affirmation. In the busyness of life, though, it can be far too easy to take the uniqueness of our spouses for granted and find ourselves griping about all the things they’re not.
But what would happen if, instead of criticizing your spouse, you started making a point to regularly appreciate them for the unique person they are? What if you were to take the time to stop and cherish your spouse?
In his latest book, aptly titled Cherish, Gary Thomas talks about how couples often forget the second part of "to love and to cherish." It falls to the wayside either because life gets busy or they just don’t know what it means. But valuing, honouring, loving, supporting and upholding your spouse are all ways you cherish them.
Why you should learn to cherish
Cardus Family, a Christian think tank based in Ottawa, recently published a study entitled Marriage is Good for Your Health. Their research shows that marriage provides health advantages when both partners are experiencing high levels of satisfaction – a fact many of us already know. What’s interesting, however, is that the research also shows how a marriage with low levels of satisfaction can actually be detrimental to one’s health.
That’s why it’s all the more important to make the most of your marriage!
"Learning to truly cherish each other turns marriage from an obligation into a delight," Thomas writes. "It lifts marriage above a commitment to a precious priority."
But it’s not something that comes naturally. Unlike "falling in love," people don’t tend to "fall in cherish." It takes practice and intentionality – but it’s a skill, like any other, that can be learned.
Rewiring your brain to start new habits
In his book, Thomas explains how neurologists have found that our brains are shaped by our habits and experiences over time. Which means the more you do something, the more it becomes a natural inclination. Learning to cherish your spouse, then, can be a skill that gets hardwired into your brain.
Through time and practice, your initial reaction can be "I appreciate that you choose your words carefully and have valuable things to say" instead of "I wish you would talk more."
But, as Thomas says, "We have to be intentional rather than distracted. We have to remind ourselves to think about our spouses with delight. It’s not a choice; it’s a hundred choices, a thousand choices, and then a hundred thousand choices."
How to hone the skill of cherishing your spouse
It may be difficult for you to know what it means to cherish your spouse, but Thomas’ book is filled with ideas and examples of what this looks like. What follows are five simple ways you can hone this skill to make it your default reaction.
1. Be curious about your spouse
In The Meaning of Marriage, pastor and bestselling author Timothy Keller explains that many people want someone better than their spouse, but they forget the "someone better" actually is their spouse. People are complicated, unique and tend to change over time, which allows for you to learn and relearn who your spouse is and who they’re becoming through the many different seasons of life. "Your husband is who he is; your wife is who she is," Thomas writes. "Find out who that person is, and cherish that person as they desire to be cherished."
2. Share lows and celebrate highs
There is great value in showing true empathy in any relationship, but especially in your marriage. If your wife comes home from a bad day at work, share that low with her – don’t brush it off or immediately try to fix it. If your husband successfully solved a math problem before your teenager, celebrate with him – don’t demean him or claim you could have solved it faster. Cherishing your spouse means coming alongside them through the ups and downs of life.
3. Value your spouse’s opinions
Many of us can think of a time in our lives when our opinions were overlooked. It’s hurtful and can make us feel like our voice doesn’t matter. In marriage, it can be easy to not bother asking for your spouse’s opinion because you think you already know the answer. But this familiarity can stand in the way of cherishing your spouse. Even if you think you know how they’ll answer, ask them. Show your spouse how much you cherish them by holding their opinions and their voice in high esteem.
4. Listen to your spouse
"Apathy in marriage is one of the worst wounds a spouse can inflict," Thomas writes. Listening to your spouse may seem obvious, but it’s a skill many of us are lacking. To be curious about your spouse, you have to listen to what makes them feel cherished. To share lows and celebrate highs, you have to listen to them talk about the experiences of their day. To value your spouse’s opinions, you have to ask and listen to your spouse’s opinions. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, "Listening can be a greater service than speaking."
5. Affirm your spouse’s positive qualities
If you make your spouse feel bad about not being a naturally talkative person, they’ll most likely feel as if they’re not quite measuring up. They may even withdraw from conversation altogether. If, on the other hand, you value their voice when it is shared, they may feel inclined to use their voice more often. "Keep in mind that whenever you affirm something, that trait or quality is usually enforced," Thomas notes. "If you want to see change in your spouse, find a kernel of something good and reinforce it specifically and verbally."
Make the beautiful more beautiful
In his book, Thomas paints a picture of what a marriage looks like when spouses cherish one another:
"Famed Russian-born ballet choreographer George Balanchine once said, ‘Ballet is woman.’ The best male dancers recognize that their role is all about showcasing the female dancer’s beauty . . . People generally go to the ballet to see the beautiful form, grace, balance, coordination, and strength of the female lead, but all of those qualities are even better showcased when the ballerina has a male dancer who can set her up, catch her, and support her.
As a former male dancer and later choreographer, Balanchine said his job was to ‘make the beautiful more beautiful.’"
How do you support your spouse to be their very best? When you learn about your spouse, empathize with them, value them, listen to them and affirm them, they will feel showcased – much like ballerinas feel showcased by their partners.
"If two dancers are each trying their hardest to be noticed above or even by each other, the performance is going to be a colossal, ugly failure," Thomas explains. On the other hand, he says, "Beautiful, harmonic marriages are like the ballet and the symphony. They’re not just one dancer or one note. They are built by asking ourselves on a regular basis, ‘Am I trying to showcase my spouse, or am I fixated on how my spouse is not showcasing me?’"
Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.
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