I’ll never forget one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard on marriage. The pastor began by using the analogy of a garden when talking about marriage. He said, “Marriage is like a garden. If we want a healthy, thriving garden—a healthy, thriving marriage—we have to spend time regularly weeding and tending to our garden.” Perhaps you’ve heard this analogy.
We all want the perfect relationship; the perfect marriage. However, when it comes to “regularly weeding and tending to our garden” we fall short. We allow weeds—divisive issues—to sprout and flourish. Over time, where there was once a beautiful, lush garden, now stands an overgrown, weed infested patch of soil; devastated and eroded away by unwanted growth.
So, if you’re looking for ways to invigorate growth in your “marriage garden,” here are four articles that will help you develop proactive strategies for a healthy marriage.
In the article, What Research Tells Us About the Most Successful Relationships, Thorin Klosowski provides an overview of recent research and several practical application tools to help cultivate a healthy relationship. Here are a few highlights:
According to research, positivity is an important characteristic to demonstrate in successful relationships. Although several studies suggest that having a positive attitude will lead to a happier relationship, it’s more than that—the focus is on how we positively respond and support our spouse. The way we positively respond to our spouses triumphs, large and small, is one aspect that strongly predicts the strength of the relationship.
While many research studies focus on the BIG THREE issues in marriage—Communication, Money, and Sex—Klosowski illustrates how to be proactive in our communication strategies. Simply put, when it comes to communication, use your words: don’t expect your spouse to read your mind. This will never happen, at least not in the way you think it should. Be willing to invest in the relationship through communication. It may be challenging at first, but even during disagreements, use your words to focus on finding a solution to the issue. Developing healthy communication skills takes time and effort, but learning to be intentional with our words can increase our marriage satisfaction.
One interesting aspect in Klosowski’s research signifies the importance for couples to maintain friendships outside of their relationship. When we have healthy friendships and hobbies that we cultivate with others—not just our spouse—it fortifies our marriage, causing us to have fewer emotional demands on our spouse. Research suggests that “the happiest couples...are those who have interests and support ‘beyond the twosome.’”
In his article, Klosowski offers more insights for improving your marriage: the importance of having fun together; it’s not only the quality of sex, but the frequency of sex that matters; and more.
Dr. Eli Finkel, a psychological researcher of human relationships, takes an analytical approach to discovering the factors that contribute to the decline of marriage in the United States, as well as understanding how a marriage remains resilient over time. In his article, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Dr. Finkel and his colleagues developed a new theory of marriage: Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality—but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership.
In order to understand if marriage is better, stronger, and more satisfying today than historically, Dr. Finkel looked at three eras of marriage and its function:
With the prevalence of individual family farming, marriage focused on food production, shelter, and protection.
With the shift from rural to urban life, marriage revolved around intimate needs such as feeling loved, expressing love, and experiencing a fulfilling sex life.
Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, marriage is about self-discovery, developing self-esteem, and personal growth.
Dr. Finkel suggests that marriage today is less of an essential institution and more of an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment. In that regard, he equates the historical changes in marriage to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Dr. Finkel suggests that the intent of marriage has shifted; once an essential means for meeting low-level, basic human needs (food and shelter), then to mid-level needs (safety, belonging, and love), now toward higher-level needs (self-actualization: reaching one’s full potential). In many ways, our expectations for marriage have changed over time.
What does this say about marriage today? Though satisfying higher-level needs yields greater happiness, serenity and depth of inner life, people must invest substantially more time and energy in the quality of their relationship when seeking to meet those higher-level needs through their marriage.
Here’s the secret: Individuals who can invest enough time and energy in their relationship are seeing unprecedented benefits. In fact, research suggests that spouses who spend “time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once-a-week, are 3 to 5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage. While evidence reflects a decrease in the amount of time spouses spend together, making time to invest in the relationship and spending quality time together will have a profound impact on the sustainability of your marriage.
Dr. Finkel addresses the challenge couples face in spending time together, while in the midst of raising children. To soak up the stats on this and more, check out his article.
Dr. John Gottman, a leading marriage expert, suggests that Building a Great Sex Life is Not Rocket Science. In his synopsis of the book The Normal Bar and based on his own research of more than 3,000 couples, Dr. Gottman highlights the behaviors that consistently lead to a great sex life among couples.
When you’ve studied marriage as long as Dr. Gottman—for more than 40 years—it is easy to identify the behaviors that contribute to a great marriage and a healthy sex life. Here are a few things that couples do who have an amazing sex life:
If you haven’t noticed, the behaviors I’ve listed have nothing to do with sex. They are more about the day-to-day interactions and relationship maintenance that take place between a couple. Dr. Gottman suggests that couples who have a great sex life engage in these behaviors and more. I only posted six of the 13 suggested behaviors, so if you’re curious about the rest (the behaviors that are about sex), check out Dr. Gottman’s article Building a Great Sex Life is Not Rocket Science.
On the contrary, couples who have bad sex—or less than satisfying sex—share common behaviors as well:
1. They spend very little time together during a typical week
2. They seem to make everything else a priority other than their relationship
3. They drift apart and lead parallel lives
Again, I only listed half of the behaviors so you’ll have to check out Dr. Gottman’s article. When it comes to having great sex in a marriage, the research is endless; but it’s important to remember that sex, by God’s design, should be a reflection of the condition of the marriage.
It is impossible for me to talk about having a great marriage without talking about the brain. When we think about fostering a loving relationship, we often think love is an issue of the heart. In reality, we fall in love with our brain.
Dr. Laurie Heap explains how brain chemistry—the correct brain chemistry—is essential for developing Happiness in Long Term Relationships. During the beginning stages of a relationship, when we are “falling in love,” two chemicals in the brain are responsible for the excitement and euphoria we feel: dopamine and oxytocin.
When we engage in pleasurable experiences—eating, drinking, exercise, sex, shopping—the immediate source of gratification causes the release of dopamine. This chemical is responsible for the feelings we experience in a new relationship; the happiness and exhilaration that becomes insatiable. The more dopamine our brain gets, the more it wants. Unfortunately, this dopamine high is not sustainable. While dopamine creates intense feelings at the beginning of a relationship, the effect doesn’t last long.
According to research, the effects of a dopamine-drive love will fade after four years. This is especially true with men, who often develop a tolerance to their spouse, no longer finding her attractive. However, dopamine is only half of the chemical-cocktail at play. When it comes to longevity in a marriage, oxytocin is the superhero!
Oxytocin is a “bonding hormone” that is primarily stimulated through intimate, loving interactions. In marriage, oxytocin creates that warm, relaxed, secure feeling of love and contentment that follows sex and orgasm. It is the brain chemical that makes us feel connected and attached to our spouse; differently than in any other relationship. Oxytocin has a calming effect on the brain and decreases the need for more dopamine.
The best part of oxytocin is that, unlike dopamine, your brain won’t develop a tolerance to it. According to research, a marriage built on oxytocin will stand the test of time!
This article provides the answer to a profound question: Is it possible to be passionately and deeply in love for 20, 50, or even 75 years? Absolutely! If you understand and recognize the significance of increasing the production of oxytocin as you interact with your spouse on a daily basis, you will be on your way to creating a lasting love.
If we want a healthy, thriving marriage, it will take more than “weeding our garden.” We need to be intentional about the way we “tend to our garden” through positively responding to our spouse, strengthening our communication skills, and spending time together. Having activities and relationships outside the marriage increases the quality of our marriage. And, don’t forget the important research on developing a great sex life in your marriage.
It is never too late to develop behaviors that will cultivate new growth and intimacy in your marriage. So, what are you waiting for? Dust off your gardening gloves and get to work!
Heather is our Neuroscience Professional on staff at Pure Desire. She is an integral part of our speaking team, and recently co-authored her first book, Digital Natives: Raising an Online Generation. Heather has a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Criminal Behavior. She is also an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice.