What happy couples know

How can we build marriages that will last? Three women - with 109 years of marriage between them – talk to Caroline Masom about some of the attitudes and decisions that have helped them build marriages which have stood the test of time.

Marriage is a work in progress

Christine has been married to Mark for nearly 25 years. They are directors of FamilyLife, part of Agape Ministries, and have written Together: investing in your marriage, a small group resource for married couples.

“I don’t think you can lay down strict rules for success, or slavishly follow a recipe to get your marriage right,” Christine says. “It helps if you think of it as a living thing, like a garden that needs nurturing, watering, pruning, weeding and feeding.

“Having said that, there are some basic areas it’s always good to look at.

“ An attitude of commitment is foundational for a good marriage. For Mark and me that means applying Bible wisdom to our relationship. God’s picture of the first marriage (Genesis 2: 24) includes the elements of physically leaving your parents and your old relationships, and growing in intimacy and commitment to your new spouse.

“Mark and I tumbled into marriage without thinking about it too much. I actually thought he was joking when he first proposed. Virtually our only principle was that we wanted to avoid our parents’ mistakes, and as a result of this lack of good foundations we nearly came unstuck.

“Our marriage is still very much a work in progress; we have our ups and down, like anyone else. But learning that God is ‘for’ marriage has really enabled our relationship to flourish.

“Good communication is extremely important. The nub of this is an inner commitment to try and understand the other person. Although most of our daily conversation is inevitably about the nitty-gritty of life, you do need to ‘talk deep’ from time to time and share your real feelings and inner struggles with your spouse.

“I find going to parties and meeting new people excruciating, whereas Mark is like Tigger, all bouncy and friendly. Admitting to him how I felt and seeing that he took my feelings seriously really helped me.

“Loving unselfishly means making the effort to understand and meet the other person’s needs. I need Mark to help and support me in the home and listen to me without trying to fix me. It makes me feel very loved when he does that. I know that Mark needs me to affirm him verbally, and sex is really important to him, he wants to give me pleasure. For many people sex is a sensitive issue, and it’s important to recognise that there are times of sexual difficulty in most marriages – when the children are small, for instance, or when one partner is ill.

“The Christian understanding of love includes unselfish actions as well as feelings. In the early days, it’s relatively easy to do things for the other person, but it can be just as easy to drift back into self-centredness and put your own desires and feelings first. It helps to be aware that that’s something to watch out for.

“It’s also important to learn how to resolve conflict well. You have to decide: is a particular issue important? If it is, then you should tackle it. If not, forgive and move on.

“Broadly, people tend either to stuff conflict down inside, where it festers, or explode at the slightest thing. I’m more of a stuffer, so I’ve had to learn to stand up to Mark and let him know what the issue really is when a conflict or disagreement develops. Mark tends to explode, so he’s had to learn to be more understanding and self controlled.

“We’ve both had to learn to say sorry – it’s not a skill you learn instantly. But being prepared to work at resolving conflict demonstrates your commitment to each other.

“Keeping the spark alive is essential. We were amazed how easy it was to get sucked into the daily routine of dealing with busy jobs, children and the care of elderly parents, but there are lots of things you can do to invest in your relationship.

“If you hit real problems, get help and don’t give up. We had several very difficult years and went to Relate, which helped. But it was only after we’d both become Christians and went to a couples Bible study group on marriage that our relationship was really transformed.

“Spiritual intimacy is God’s secret weapon to protect marriages. God wants our marriages to be good ones and he can help us as we try to love unselfishly, trust each other deeply and commit ourselves fully to each other.’

Keeping the spark alive: ideas menu

* Arrange a date. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you could buy fish and chips or go for a walk together.
* Take up a new hobby together, but don’t worry if the first thing you try doesn’t work out.
* Go away for a mini-moon once a year. Even when the children are young, this is worth doing: happy children are the ones with happy parents. Arrange a child-swap with friends so that you have their children one weekend and they have yours another.
* Give each other surprise gifts.
* Keep your sexual relationship alive.
* Invest in your relationship by going on a marriage enrichment course for a day or a weekend, or read a book on Christian marriage.

Shared values are important

Isobel and Brian have been married for 47 years and have four children and five grandchildren. They started dating when they were 17.

“I met Brian at the local badminton club,” Isabel says. “He wasn’t a Christian, but I was. He kept inviting me out on Sundays, but I wouldn’t go. In the end he was converted at a Billy Graham rally in Glasgow.”

The secret of their long and happy marriage, according to Isabel, is their love for Jesus and their shared values.

“We do talk a lot about faith, and we sometimes read the Bible and pray together in bed in the morning, although we’re not paranoid about it. We try and put biblical principles into practise, so for instance I won’t usurp Brian’s position as head of the household. If we’ve talked about something and he makes a decision, I’ll agree. Even if he’s wrong – we all make mistakes.

“I think we make a great team. Brian’s quite quiet and I’m quite noisy; he tends to worry about what might happen, whereas I’m very positive. Of course we don’t always see eye to eye, but that’s normal. And we do talk about the things that matter, although neither of us is particularly chatty by nature.

“There’s always been plenty of humour in our marriage – we spark off each other -  and we never take anything too seriously, not even ourselves.”

Build good relationships with your in-laws

Lesley-Jane has been married to Ivor for 37 years.

“We met when we were both students,” Lesley-Jane explains. “I’d always thought I’d marry a vicar – I trained as a teacher so that I’d be equipped to be a missionary wife – but Ivor was Jewish and he said right from the start he couldn’t marry me. After he graduated and left university, we kept seeing each other at weekends until Ivor decided to end the relationship. But he soon changed his mind and proposed on New Year’s Eve 1972. We were married in July.

“The wedding was horrendous. Neither of his parents came, although we invited everyone and some of his other relatives did come. It was upsetting for everyone, including my Dad, who was furious that his princess was being rejected.

“But, not long after we got back from honeymoon, we were invited round to tea by Ivor’s Mum and Dad and gradually things began to improve.

“I was determined always to be courteous and polite to them, partly for Ivor’s sake, but also for my own self-esteem. And as we got together more and more often, I grew to appreciate the Jewish traditions and the huge importance they give to ‘the family’. I learnt such a lot about my own faith through participating in celebrations like Passover.

“I grew to respect the Jewish side of the family and they began to respect me. In the end, that respect deepened into love. It did take a lot of patience and give-and-take – and a lot of years! I do believe that family is important in a marriage: you should always take a close look at your future in-laws!

“All relationships ebb and flow, you have difficult times and easier times. It’s important to balance the intense periods of togetherness and the times when it’s good to have a bit of your own space. We have amazing, intense holidays, but we also have our own separate interests.

“It’s also important to be sensitive to each other’s needs, which does get easier after a while because you just know things without having to be explicit. For instance, I try and keep the weekends free for Ivor, and I’ll go to church on Sunday evening because that fits in best with what he likes to do.

“You need to be able to disagree without it becoming personal. And you both need to know that the other partner has your best interests at heart all the time.

“Lastly, if you’re tempted to give up, just think of all the time and effort you’ve put into training your man. Why throw it all away?”