How can our marriages become exceptional?

In this week’s book, The Exceptional Seven Percent: Nine Secrets of the World’s Happiest Couples by Gregory K. Popcak, MSW, the author discusses a continuum of marriage types from weakest to strongest.

Deadly Marriages:

In Chaotic marriages, both husband and wife are bent on self-destruction in an attempt to escape, either from their past or from the world as it is.

In Codependent marriages, one is bent on self destruction and the other is determined to save the partner.

 If either of these two deadly marriages lead the couple to learn to demand basic safety and financial security from their lives and relationships, they can grow to become more functional but will focus on survival rather than love as in the following group:

Shipwrecked marriages are all about staying afloat. They may be

Materialistic, where they value financial security above all else. In these the husband is often neglectful or controlling while the wife is dependent.

Or Safety marriages, where the wife with a traumatic past chooses a nice, quiet man to avoid conflict and pursue a stress-free life.

Or Rescue marriages where both spouses fled traumatic childhoods. They are happy to have survived, and don’t ask for more.


If they do learn to expect more from life,

find meaningful roles or work,

learn to meet their own needs, rather than rely on spouse,

learn to relate to their mate,

AND challenge their addiction to comfort in the relationship, they may move to:


Conventional Marriages which are built to support and maintain a couple’s place in world. In a conventional marriage:

  • Both spouses are relatively sure of their own ability to provide for at least basic needs.
  • Both have found personally meaningful work or social roles to play.
  • Both have at least a casual identification with or membership in some significant “values group,” for example churches or organizations. They use their membership to sharpen their self concept and clarify the values that are   important to them.
  • Both have negotiated at least the most basic communication differences between men and women.
  • Here  love is warm and comfortable but the number one threat is growing apart. Other problems include domestic scorekeeping (whose turn it is to do what and how much is fair) and marital chicken (you change first). Most marriages in this category are moderately stable and moderately satisfying. With work, they can become:


Exceptional Marriages

These marriages make up only 7 % of first time married couples and 7% of remarried couples. The first stage is:

Partnership Marriages which are primarily concerned with pursuing and increasing personal competence. This pursuit allows:

  • Egalitarianism. No job is off limits for either spouse. A 100/100 partnership keeps them from 50/50 mentality.
  • True intimacy, because no matter how much they give to the marriage they know they will not be taken for granted. They see each other as their best hope for becoming the people they want to be by the end of their lives, by helping each other grow in identity strength and move toward actualization of their shared spiritual values, moral ideals and emotional goals.
  • Rapport and negotiation. The intense interest in and sharing each other’s worlds tend to remove the last barriers to communication.


To move up, partnership marriages must develop a truly spiritual sexuality and exhibit a willingness to make financial sacrifices, setting serious limits on anything that distracts them from actualizing their value system. Then they may find themselves part of a

Spiritual Peer Marriage whose marital theme is the pursuit of intimacy, simplification, and actualization. These couples are a joyful, living breathing example of their particular value system. These couples hold common traits:

  • Simplification – they are off the fast track, having discovered deeper values.
  • Competence – both husband and wife are competent at all aspects of family life
  • Egalitarianism over equality – they know they are equal, they don’t have to prove it. In a “dance of competence,” they desire to never take other for granted so they accomplish what needs to be done without worrying about whose responsibility a task is.
  • Each other’s best friends, they have virtually no secrets from each other, and have achieved a level of spiritual sexuality that is truly enviable.
  • As in Maslow’s definition of self actualized – They are accepting of themselves and others, are at peace when life becomes unpredictable, are spontaneous and creative, have a good sense of humor, value their privacy, can take care of themselves, are capable of deeply intimate relationships, and have an open, positive attitude about life.


How can our marriages become exceptional?

1. Design a marital imperative – an internalized set of values, ideals, and goals which must guide and clarify every action and decision of your life. Then every interaction—pleasant or unpleasant—between you and your spouse becomes another opportunity to pursue those very principles and qualities you hold most dear.

Work to improve in the areas exceptional couples excel in:

2. Exceptional Fidelity, the promise to “forsake all others,” includes all those friendships, family-of-origin commitments, career opportunities, and community involvements that do not serve to increase either the physical and mental health of each spouse or the intimacy of the marriage.

3. Exceptional Love is a calling. They do loving things for their mate every day, whether or not they feel like it and whether or not their mate “deserves” it.

4. Exceptional Mutual service is valued more than “fairness” or sharply defined roles and responsibilities. Each actively looks for opportunities to serve and nurture their mate, creating a dance of competence that enables chores and other domestic responsibilities to be passed back and forth gracefully, and accomplished efficiently.

5. Exceptional Rapport becomes the result of overcoming both their basic gender and personality differences, allowing them to achieve an enviable level of understanding and in their relationships.

6. Exceptional Negotiation – All needs are respected and met—even when a partner’s need is not completely understood. That your need will be met is never called into question; the only topic of debate is, “What is the most efficient, respectful means by which your need can be met?”

7. Exceptional Gratitude – Every service—no matter how common or simple—is viewed as an active expression of love to be noted and appreciated.

8. Exceptional Joy – An ability to play and be joyful together. They look for new interests to share and work to share in the interests they already have. They make time to be together, work at being present to each other, and actively seek ways to ease each other’s burdens.

9. Exceptional Sexuality – They view sex as something they are. For them, lovemaking is not an activity or a performance; it is a total self-gift, a symbol and expression of all that is good about themselves and their relationship. It is a spiritually active way to connect with the Divine.

What more could we want than to connect with the Divine through our marriage? May your marriage continue to grow and bring you closer to God.

Blessings on your week!

Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.

We’re going to shift gears a bit this week. Maybe you’ve tried to get your spouse to read a relationship book, an article, or even these posts and have met with resistance. Maybe each time you get excited about improving some aspect of your marriage your “other half” maintains things are just fine the way they are.

For many spouses, your desire to make your relationship better implies it isn’t good enough now, which further implies failure. Patricia Love and Steven Stosny tackle this challenge in their book, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.

 Points from the blurb of the book:

  • “Love is not about better communication. It’s about connection.”
  • “You’ll never get a closer relationship with your man by talking to him like you talk to your girlfriends.”
  • “Male emotions are like women’s sexuality: you can’t be too direct too quickly.”
  • “There are 4 ways to connect with a man: touch, activity, sex, routine.
  • “When men feel connected, they talk more.”

The authors find that talking about feelings and intimate issues doesn’t come naturally to most men. Instead, it heightens their anxieties and can cause them to withdraw. If you find this to be the case in your marriage, the authors have many suggestions to help.

They acknowledge that women bring one set of fears to their relationships, typically fear of isolation, harm, or deprivation. So we talk in order to reconnect and soothe away our fears.

But men tend to bring their own fears to the table, including a hidden sense of shame, inadequacy, and failure. And when women try to talk their way into connection by expressing their vulnerabilities, the men feel that they have failed the women for not protecting them from their fears. Typically men respond to this sense of failure by withdrawing, in order to escape the fears. As the men withdraw, the women feel disconnected and push to reconnect with words. Then the men withdraw more.

So we tend to exacerbate each other’s fears, rather than reassure each other.

Among the worst things a woman can do to a man is to criticize him—or behave in a way that can be construed as critical, even if not intended.

Among the worst things a man can do to a woman is to leave her feeling alone, whether concretely—alone at home or alone in bed—or abstractly—alone outside his depression or alone with her dreams or fears.

If we are left wallowing in our fears, we become vulnerable to infidelity. When we become infatuated with someone, chemical changes in our bodies make men feel more confident and women feel more connected. Simultaneously, our sense of shame decreases, which can lead us into poor decisions. Be forewarned, allowing private or secret time with someone who sparks our infatuation will permit the chemistry to lead to an affair.

Instead, Stosny and Love encourage us all to decide what our core values are and then to enhance them by

  • improving a little bit in that area,
  • appreciating our partner,
  • connecting by genuinely caring about our partner’s emotional state,
  • and protecting our beloved—
    • helping a husband relieve his dread of failure as a provider, lover, protector and father and
    • helping a wife relieve her fear of isolation, deprivation, and harm.

If you are a woman who is feeling resentful, angry, anxious, or afraid and your partner is not helping, he is trying to avoid feeling shame. Your anxiety increases his sense of inadequacy or failure. Use a physical gesture, a touch, to show that you’re with your husband. Be available to do something he’s good at. This replaces his sense of failure with competence. Honor a man’s need for routine and by doing so, help him feel loved and connected. He doesn’t know how to say it, so he tries to show you that you are what gives meaning to his life. Remember, your words can destroy him.

If you are a man who is feeling resentful, angry, sulky or withdrawn and your wife is not helping, she is feeling anxious. Your irritation increases her fear. Instead, be there, in her emotion, with her. Don’t try to fix her problems. Incorporate small gestures of connection like hugs or kisses or focused attention to her into your daily routine.

The authors say the bottom line is to think connection, rather than communication. We must protect each other from our respective vulnerabilities to fear and shame.

Both men and women must replace resentment with compassion. We need binocular vision – to see every upsetting time from both our and our partner’s point of view. Then we must respond to the anxiety, rather than the situation content.

Ask yourself, how do I make it hard for my spouse to give me what I want? (How do I increase my beloved’s fears?) How could I make it easier?

Generally, the authors say we must “step into the puddle.” Tune into the emotional state of the other. Imagine it. Try to feel it. It will be uncomfortable, but don’t respond with defensiveness.

Approach rather than either avoiding or attacking.

Here are a few concrete suggestions they offer:

  1. Fix your partner firmly in your heart 4 times a day – upon waking, before leaving home, returning, and before sleep.
  2. Hug 6 times for at least 6 seconds per day. This is said to increase serotonin (a calming neurotransmitter).
  3. Hold positive thoughts about your relationship for 10 seconds as often as possible.
  4. Make a contract to hand out love with compassion and generosity.
  5. When you make a mistake, recognize it, feel remorse for it, and repair it.
  6. Finally, a nightly embrace – “allow the warmth of the embrace to wash out every sliver of fear and shame.”

And so doing, create love beyond words.

Sacred Marriage Cont’d

What did you think of Gary Thomas’ idea that God designed marriage to make us holy even more than to make us happy?

There’s more intriguing wisdom in his book Sacred Marriage. As a husband, Gary speaks from his own perspective about the care of wives. Of course, all he says can encourage wives to treat husbands as treasures, too. He writes:

  • My wife was created by God himself! How dare I dishonor her? In fact, shouldn’t it even give me pause before I reach out to touch her? She is the Creator’s daughter, after all!”
  • “The biggest challenge for me in upholding my spiritual obligation to honor my wife is that I get busy and sidetracked. I don’t mean to dishonor her; I just absentmindedly neglect to actively honor her.” Quoting Betsy and Gary Ricucci, “Honor isn’t passive, it’s active. […] Honor not expressed is not honor.”
  • “Quoting Dr. John Barger:  ‘[When women] love, they love quietly; they speak, as it were, in whispers, and we have to listen carefully, attentively.’ Isn’t God also this way? Doesn’t he intervene in most of our lives in whispers, which we miss if we fail to recollect ourselves and pay careful attention—if we do not constantly strive to hear those whispers of divine love? The virtues necessary in truly loving a woman and having that love returned—the virtues of listening, patience, humility, service, and faithful love—are the very virtues necessary for us to love God and to feel his love returned.”
  • “In his audiotape series According to Plan, C.J. Mahaney pleads with men to recover [a] sense of sacrifice. He points out that sacrifice isn’t sacrifice unless it costs us something, and then he leaves a challenging question hanging in the air: ‘Gentlemen, what are we doing each day for our wives that involves sacrifice? What are you doing each day for your wife that is costing you something?’”

The author also shares a thought aimed primarily at women who have allowed this appearance-focused society to damage their self-esteem:

  • “Continuing to give your body to your spouse even when you believe it constitutes “damaged goods” can be tremendously rewarding spiritually. It engenders humility, service, and an other-centered focus, as well as hammering home a very powerful spiritual principle: Give what you have.”

He speaks to all of us about creativity:

  • You were made by God to create. If you don’t create in a thoughtful and worshipful manner—whether preparing meals, decorating a home, achieving a vocational dream, responsibly raising children—you will feel less than human because you are in fact acting in a sub-human mode.[…]The creation, of course, must have a proper focus—namely, the glory of God.”
  • “When this sense of creation is lost, marriage loses some of its spiritual transcendence. […] If we don’t nurture a godly sense of creativity, we will experience an emptiness that we may perversely and wrongly blame on our marriage. The emptiness comes not from our marriage, however, but from the fact that we’re not engaged in our marriage. We’re not using this powerful relationship in order to create something.”

And he continues his thoughts on creativity to include the creation of family:

  • “As people created in the image of God, we have a responsibility to create. […] Creating a family is the closest we get to sharing the image of God.”
  • “Building a family together isn’t a side avocation. It takes enormous energy, concentration, and self-denial.”
  • Quoting Jerry Jenkins, “Tell your [marital] story. Tell it to your kids, your friends, your brothers and sisters, but especially to each other. The more your story is implanted in your brain, the more it serves as a hedge against the myriad forces that seek to destroy your marriage. Make your story so familiar that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. It should become a legend that is shared through the generations as you grow a family tree that defies all odds and boasts marriage after marriage of stability, strength, and longevity.”
  • Quoting Evelyn & James Whitehead: “In our marriage we tell the next generation what sex and marriage and fidelity look like to Christians. We are prophets, for better and for worse, of the future of Christian marriage.”

Then he extends the idea of family and asks us to be of service to the world because, “When marriage becomes our primary pursuit, our delight in the relationship will be crippled by fear, possessiveness, and self-centeredness.”

  • “But a man and woman dedicated to seeing each other grow in their maturity in Christ; who raise children who know and honor the Lord; who engage in business that supports God’s work on earth and is carried out in the context of relationships and good stewardship of both time and money—these Christians are participating in the creativity that gives a spiritually healthy soul immeasurable joy, purpose, and fulfillment.”
  • “I will be most fulfilled as a Christian when I use everything I have—including my  money and time—as a way to serve others, with my spouse getting first priority (after God).”
  • Quoting Evelyn & James Whitehead, “Christianity has long called us to this truth: Marriage must be about more than itself because love that does not serve life will die.”
  • “We allow marriage to point beyond itself when we accept two central missions: becoming the people God created us to be, and doing the work God has given us to do. If we embrace—not just accept, but actively embrace—these two missions, we will have a full life, a rich life, a meaningful life, and a successful life. The irony is, we will probably also have a happy marriage, but that will come as a blessed by-product of putting everything else in order.”

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