Oh, it's a controversial concept, I already know. But personally, I think a lot of people worship at the god of happiness. What I mean by that is, so many people end commitments, quit projects, abandon promises, all because they aren't "happy" anymore. But what life is teaching me is it's far more beneficial to focus on making sure that I'm involved with people, places, things and ideas that are healthy for me than focusing on making me happy. For one thing, happiness is an emotion, people are flawed and this world isn't perfect. This means that there are definitely going to be times when I am unhappy; it doesn't matter how great someone or something is, that is a given. Secondly, I agree with a lot of what a Harvard psychologist once said about people's preoccupation with happiness. He said that, "People who are obsessed with being happy tend to wind up less happy than everyone else." A part of the reason is because experiencing other emotions isn't bad or wrong. It's simply a compass to help us to address certain things, assess certain things and, where needed, change certain things.
This is (a part of the reason) why I'm also far more concerned about whether or not a marriage is healthy over whether two people are always happy. Healthy, by definition, means sound, vigorous and prosperous; especially mentally. Life happens. Some of it is going to make us feel quite unhappy. But what makes a husband and wife exceptional is when, even during the tough times, what they care about most, is how healthy they are as individuals and how healthy their bond is as a marital union.
Here are seven signs of what a healthy marriage looks like—and three signs of what the opposite of healthy in a marriage lives like.
HEALTHY SIGN #1: You’re True Teammates and Partners
One of the best compliments that I've ever received came from a married male friend of mine. He said, "Shellie, something that is going to make you a dope wife is you love to see men win." Indeed, I do. Personally, I find it to be quite the compliment that God told Adam in the Garden of Eden that He would make a helper for him (Genesis 2:18-25); that He knew a man would need the kind of assistance and support that only a feminine being could provide. When I think of the kind of teammates and partnership that only comes out of a marital union, that's what immediately comes to mind—a husband and a wife who are passionate (and consistent) about wanting to see their spouse win. Win personally. Win professionally. Win when it comes to their health, their finances, their goals, their spirituality—across the board.
In order for this kind of "winning" to transpire, there are a few foundational truths that must exist. A husband and wife need to complement each other. A husband and wife need to respect each other. A husband and wife also need to accept that, although they are a unit, they are also individuals; they exist, not to be carbon copies of one another but to balance each other out. They need to be at peace with having similar visions in some areas and different ambitions in others. In a healthy marriage, spouses get that they don't have to always want the same things out of life, but they are there to help their partner get to where they want to be. A team has similar overall goals. Partners share in order to accomplish a particular endeavor. People who are thriving in their marriage know that if no one else is on their team, if no one else is a steadfast partner, their spouse is. Always.
HEALTHY SIGN #2: You’re Both Proactive About Spending Quality Together
All of my clients know that one of my absolute favorite relationship-related words is "proactive". A big part of that is because a lot of my past relationships consisted of men who were reactive. You know the kind—not really being intentional about what they could do to make me feel special and appreciated. Also, not staying on top of what they could (and should) do in order to make the relationship run smoothly. Those are examples of what it means to be proactive. Instead, they would wait until I would bring up a need for the billionth time. Or worse, they would go the extra mile after they had dropped the ball over and over again. People who rock like that? They tend to be reactive. And yes, a lot of couples find themselves in dire straits because, far too often, one or both individuals suck at being proactive; especially when it comes to making time for their spouse.
Meanwhile, healthy couples are extremely reactive in this way. They've got pre-planned dates on their calendar. They are intentional about going to bed at the same time as much as they possibly can (a worthwhile read is "If Your Partner's in Bed, You Should Be, Too."). Sex is a priority, consistently so (check out "10 Wonderful Reasons Why Consistent Sex In Marriage Is So Important"). They both seek to become fluent in speaking each other's love language(s).
They are this way because they know that if heartfelt time is not spent with one another, it can eventually starve the emotional connection which could ultimately kill the relationship. And so, nothing gets in the way of spending quality time together. If that's nothing more than pillow talk every night, so be it. But time alone is going to happen. No person, place, thing or idea is going to get in the way of that.
HEALTHY SIGN #3: You’re Both Solutions-Oriented
Actor Will Ferrell once said, "Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow Internet to see who they really are." Sure, it's funny but you know what they say—there is truth in all humor. One of the main things that a lot of single people miss about the purpose of dating is, it gives them, not only the opportunity but the freedom to see someone in a bunch of different situations. It's not just about doing what's fun; it's also about being truly intentional about getting to know another person (which is why you should be open to going on different types of dates and, after about six months, be willing to experience new things with one another, single folks. That's how you get to know each other's core). If they don't do that, they could go into a marriage with an unrealistic perception of who someone really is. Then, when the internet crashes and their spouse totally shows out, well…now what are they supposed to do?
One thing that a dating couple should look for is how the person they are seeing handles stress, challenges and outright problems. What they should desire is a solutions-oriented kind of person. And just what does it mean to be a "solutions-oriented" spouse. An article on Medium's site defined a solutions-oriented person as: "Solution-oriented people don't just solve problems, they help identify the source of a question or challenge and provide the right, or a better, way of doing things." Y'all, I can't tell you how many times I've sat in sessions with couples who can't seem to make progress, and it's all because they keep rehearsing problems instead of finding solutions for them. Back to what Mr. Ferrell said, if you're with someone who is problems-focused, if the internet is slow, all they are going to do is complain about it and present all of the worst-case scenarios that could come from having a slow connection (can't pay bills on time, won't be able to stream anything online, job will be hell on earth, etc.). A solutions-oriented individual will be more in the lane of, "Yeah, the connection's wack. Let's see if there's a loose cable, we need to upgrade our modem or go with a different service altogether." There won't be time to whine because all they'll want to do is fix the issue as quickly and accurately as possible.
When two people are like this and married to one another? So long as they respect each other's approach to various problems (which is kind of another article for another time), they are unstoppable. Nothing can shake them because, to them, problems are challenges and for every challenge, there is a remedy. Simple as that.
HEALTHY SIGN #4: You’re Both Able to Let Things Go
I once read somewhere that sensitive and empathetic people have a really difficult time letting things go because they feel like it's their job to fix everything. If you recall the movie The Secret Life of Bees, that's ultimately why the character May took her own life. That said, if you happen to be married to someone who has a hard time releasing things, before getting all up in arms about it, it might be beneficial to ponder if it's also because they are sensitive and empathetic. On the other hand, if their "not letting things go" consists of them not being able to forgive or leave the past in the past, that usually stems from one of two things (if not both)—someone who never really learned how to forgive well and completely or someone who has major trust issues. To both of these, marriage is going to be really hard because no relationship works without a forgiveness and trust.
In a healthy marriage, spouses know this. Whether they are avid Bible readers or not, they have found a way to make this following Scripture applicable to their daily lives. Ephesians 4:26-27(AMPC) says, "When angry, do not sin; do not ever let your wrath (your exasperation, your fury or indignation) last until the sun goes down. Leave no [such] room or foothold for the devil [give no opportunity to him]." Healthy husbands and wives deal with things as they come, are forthcoming about their feelings, wants and needs, can forgive and release offenses, and choose to spend time moving forward rather than waste time constantly looking backwards. That's because they would rather enjoy the moments that they have together than allowing bitterness and resentment to keep them apart.
HEALTHY SIGN #5: Honesty, Humility and Patience Are at Your Marriage’s Core
From a biblical perspective, the Word commissions men to "love your wife, just as Christ loved the Church" (Ephesians 5:25). If people are really paying close attention to that, I think it sends a pretty powerful message that one of the main purposes of marriage is to teach us how to love our spouse like Christ loves us all—fully, sacrificially and eternally.
But even if you're not a Bible follower, ask any married couple who's been together for more than a couple of years and I'm pretty sure they will tell you two things, without question. First, that NOTHING shows you more about the good and not-so-good of who you are quite like marriage does. Second, if you truly desire to become a better person and to cultivate a healthy marriage, you have to learn how to be totally honest, full of humility (people who can't apologize lack humility; somebody needed to hear that) and patience; not just the "willing to wait" kind but the "the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like" variety.
Honesty is about being truthful, sincere and not doing things that are deceitful…in any category. It's about sharing your feelings, not hiding information that could infect your union, and also not coming up with ways to manipulate situations (or people). An honest person is forthcoming. Their word can be totally trusted. Their partner knows that nothing is going on behind their back—again in any category (because there are all kinds of ways to deceive a person). Because they trust their partner so much, they are totally at peace in their presence.
Humility is about wanting to be happy more than being right. It's about admitting when you were wrong and taking ownership for it without deflection or shifting responsibility. It's about being quick to apologize without following it up with "but" (don't justify your actions, just apologize). Humility is also about being willing to put your own needs before someone else's when necessary and wanting to create a space of peace more than conflict. Humility is also about not needing to always take the credit for things. Again, married people see each other as a team so, if one spouse comes out on top, both automatically do. At least, that's how a humble person sees it.
And patience? Patient people know how to wait. Patient people don't expect their partner to grow or change overnight. Patient people don't expect things to happen on their clock all of the time. Patient people also realize that the more they complain or act out, the worse things tend to be. When the Bible says, "love is patient" (I Corinthians 13:4), it's saying more than a mouthful. You'd better believe it.
HEALTHY SIGN #6: There Are Healthy Boundaries Set
The parents. The in-laws. Work. Church. Besties. And shoot, that's just off the top of my head. Something that healthy spouses are gonna make sure exist is boundaries with other individuals; and by boundaries, what I mean is limits. No, the parents and in-laws can't speak about or two their spouse any ole' kind of way. No, work and church cannot monopolize so much time that their spouse feels disregarded or worse, abandoned. No, besties are not gonna know more about what a spouse has going on in their world than their own life partner does. Wanna know how a lot of affairs start? They start because a husband, wife or both, have some really sucky boundaries.
However, boundaries between a husband and wife—established limits of what's cool and what's not— need to exist too. Going below the belt in an argument should be seen as violating a boundary. Withholding sex as a form of manipulation or punishment is, at the very least, violating a biblical boundary for marriage (I Corinthians 7:1-5). Ignoring your spouse's wants and needs should be treated as violating a boundary. Speaking badly about one another, whether in or out of each other's presence, should be seen as violating a boundary. Not taking ownership for one's actions should be treated as violating a boundary. Dishonesty should be seen as violating a boundary. Not giving each other space when it's requested should also be seen as violating a boundary. In a healthy marriage, a husband and a wife freely discuss what their limits are with each other and other people and they honor them.
HEALTHY SIGN #7: You Have a Fulfilling Sex Life
Anyone who thinks that their spouse should be their all and everything is setting themselves up for some real disillusionment and disappointment. While I do believe that, under your relationship with God, your partner should be your top priority (because when parents are good, kids are good; that's not so much the case in the reverse), that doesn't mean you shouldn't have other relationships too. You definitely should.
At the same time, if there is one thing that should totally set your marriage apart from every other relationship you have, it should be the fact that you have sex with your spouse. For this reason alone, sex is a very (VERY) important part of a marriage.
That's why I am a huge believer that a very telling sign that a marriage is a healthy one is if a couple has a healthy, happy and consistent sex life; if they are making sure that they are maintaining something that "sets their relationship apart" from all of the rest. And just what does a healthy sex life look like? Both partners care about pleasing each other. Both partners are emotionally and spiritually connected during the act. Both partners find it to be a problem if they aren't prioritizing sex. Both partners are doing all that they can to keep their sex life fresh and exciting. Both partners still desire each other, whether they've been together for one year or 20. Both partners find sexless marriages to be a real relational problem and not just "something that happens". Both partners know that while there are seasons of sex for couples, they are not willing to be sexually complacent; they want their sex life to thrive, just as much as any other area of their relationship.
UNHEALTHY SIGN #1: The Communication Sucks
It's no secret that one of the leading causes for divorce is poor communication. And what does a poor communicator look like? Good question. I'll share a brief list.
- They don't think before they speak.
- They cut off people while they are talking.
- Their body language conveys dismissiveness and/or disrespect.
- They mistake assumptions for reliable instincts.
- They want to "win" instead of connect.
- They are doing a million different things during a conversation.
- They are not tone-sensitive (who wants to be yelled at or hear sarcasm dripping off of someone?).
- They don't ask questions in order to seek clarity.
- Everything is about them and their feelings.
- They think they can read someone else's mind.
Shoot, and again, that's a brief list. Am I saying that people who are in a healthy marriage don't struggle in these areas? Of course, they do. But what separates them from unhealthy married people is they aren't the least bit comfortable about communicating with their partner like this. If it's a therapist, some self-help books, advice from friends and mentors or a workshop, they are going to figure out how to get better at connecting with their partner because they know that, if you're not communicating well with your spouse, at the end of the day, you don't have much to go on or grow to.
UNHEALTHY SIGN #2: One or Both of You Are Constantly Criticizing the Other
There is a husband I know who is now divorced, for the second time, from his wife. While there is plenty of blame to go around, if there's one thing I know that he for sure could've improved on, it was how critical he was towards his wife. He nitpicked. Nothing was ever really done to his standards. He was irritated a lot of the time. Who wants to live in that kind of space? (This is something that parents should ask themselves when it comes to if they are hyper-critical with their children too.) As a result, his wife would make poor decisions, as if to "rebel" against all of his criticizing. It was like she would do stuff that she knew was, let's say really unwise, just to show that she was grown and she could. Like I said, they got married twice…and divorced twice.
Super critical spouses are fascinating because they tend to do to others what they can't handle receiving from someone else. Meaning, while they're out here expecting perfection, deciding that others should automatically do what they expect, simply because they expect it and believing that their life's mission is to "fix" their spouse—they flip out when someone comes even remotely close to being the same way towards them. Listen, the world is hard enough, especially for us Black folks, to be coming home and being criticized all night long. Not only is it draining and hurtful, but it's arrogant and counterproductive to a relationship's growth. Because I have sat across from many couples with a critical partner who has found some not-so-productive ways to cope. They might tune their spouse out. They might work longer shifts. Yep, they might even cheat. And none of this is healthy. To a certain extent, understandable. But definitely not healthy.
UNHEALTHY SIGN #3: You’re “Together but Alone”
When I was first embarked upon my abstinence journey, something that a healthy married wife said to me was, "Girl, the loneliest night alone beats being in a bad marriage any day." My initial response was, "I mean, if you say so." But after years of this marriage life coaching journey, I totally agree. I remember once getting my nails done and a random woman sharing with me how she's been taking care of her sick husband (he has chronic back pain and hasn't worked full-time in over a decade) for years now and not once, has he said "thank you". "It's so weird to be in a house with someone and still feel like no one is there or there for you," she said between her tears.
You know, a lot of church folks like to pat themselves on the back (all the while looking down at others) for never ending their marriage. But it's a really low bar to only not get a divorce.
If you believe that marriage is a spiritual union, God doesn't just want us to honor our vows (which is important); he wants us to be in a healthy relationship. A part of what comes with that is loving your partner, supporting your partner and being present in the relationship.
Knowing whether or not your partner feels like they are "with you" or all alone is not something that you can answer for them. If you really want to be clear on if your partner feels close to you or separated from you, not physically, so much as emotionally, mentally and spiritually, do your marriage a big favor and ask them that tonight. A very simple question like that can shed a ton of light on whether or not you've got a healthy marriage or…not.
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