6 Steps to Change Your Marriage for the Better (Part 2) • Shaunti Feldhahn

This week is the second installment of a two-part series in conjunction with the launch of season 4 of our Family Life podcast, Married With Benefits! Brian Goins and I have based this season on my Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages findings. In part 1, we looked at three steps to begin change in your marriage. In this part 2, we’ll tackle three steps to build the habit that all happy marriages have.

In The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, we discovered twelve little habits that make a big difference in marriage. (Well, actually thirteen, and we’ll include the “mystery” secret in Season 4 of the Married with Benefits podcast. Be sure to follow it so you get notified when new episodes drop!)

Although not all of the happiest couples had the same habits, we found there is ONE habit that couples simply cannot have a happy marriage without.

This is essentially the key that turns the lock to all the other secrets:

The happiest married couples choose to believe the best about their spouses’ intentions toward them, even if they are legitimately hurt.

This finding, more than any other, has the potential to flip the script when couples get sideways with each other in the day-to-day push and pull of married life.

I can almost hear some of you asking, “How exactly do we do this – especially when I really have been hurt?!” We’ll get into three specific steps, below. But there is one foundational truth you need to grapple with first.

The foundational truth

When you choose to believe the best of your spouse’s motivations toward you, it’s not just wishful thinking. Fully 99.26% of spouses truly care about their mate and want the best for them, even during painful times.

And even in the most struggling marriages, that rate was 97%!!

This means that almost universally, statistically speaking, your spouse deeply cares about you.

If you’re in a struggling marriage, read that again. (And if you haven’t already, go back and read last week’s Part 1 blog for ideas on how to start nudging your marriage in the right direction.)

Since statistically, your spouse almost certainly does care about you, the secret sauce comes in deciding to believe that!*

We dive into this truth in detail on episode 2 of the Married with Benefits podcast. My husband Jeff joined us in the studio, and the conversation is a game-changer for couples who want to master the art of believing the best even when it gets . . . tricky.

Now, as always, in cases of abuse, or in the rare cases where you mate has checked out (see footnote below), steps that will be productive and necessary for you will be different than those outlined in this blog. But otherwise, here are three steps that the marriage Olympians take ­– and that we can copy. Steps to help our actions align with the statistical truth that our spouse cares about us – even when things are hard.

Step #1: When you feel hurt, acknowledge that – and then find a more generous explanation for your spouse’s behavior

You have been hurt. You’re angry and upset. But you have a choice how to handle it – and the most important choice is how you’re going to view your spouse’s motivations toward you. Seeking a more generous explanation for hurtful behavior than “he/she doesn’t care!” was the first step that moved many marriages in our research from “poor” to “pro.”

So you can get an idea of how this works, here’s an example: On the heels of an exhausting few months with high-stress jobs, the loss of a parent, and parenting their own kids, a couple we featured in the Surprising Secrets book had made long-overdue plans for a night out together.

But then the husband spent all day golfing with his buddies, got home late – and was exhausted.

Instead of elevating the situation to DEFCON 1, the wife did Step #1. She realized his actions did not indicate “taking her for granted” or any of the other negative assumptions her brain wanted to chew on. Instead, they were the actions of an exhausted man who finally – finally – was able to blow off some steam and who had lost track of time. She was honest and told her husband she was really disappointed, but then she said, “But I know you love me. And I know you needed this time with your friends.”

Overwhelmed with her gentle reaction, her husband was awed and grateful rather than defensive.

So the next time your spouse leaves a pile of dirty dishes in the sink again, or seems to brush you off or, or doesn’t ask you about the really important meeting that was on your calendar, go ahead and say “that hurts.” That’s legitimate.

But then ask yourself, “What is a more generous explanation for their behavior?” Do they just not see the dishes or were they too exhausted to do them? Is their brain at maximum capacity with work demands, and even though they prayed for my meeting they just forgot to ask about it later?

Step #2: Assume they must not have known how it would make you feel, or else they wouldn’t have said/done it.

In the first step, you challenged the “He/she doesn’t care about me!” lie about your spouse’s motives. In the second step, you turn that lie on its head, and assume the opposite.  Instead of assuming they don’t care, assume that they do – which means that if they had realized that this thing would hurt you, they wouldn’t have done it!

For example, suppose your teenager has been pushing all the boundaries, and you are trying to impose some discipline. As the situation escalates, you try to enlist the support of your spouse but you feel like they throw you under the bus instead.

If Step #1 is acknowledging your hurt, but looking for a more caring explanation for their behavior, then Step #2 means to approach your spouse with the assumption that they would NEVER have wanted to embarrass and undermine you in front of your teenager.

It might sound something like: “This action felt like ____ to me, and it hurt. I don’t think you realized that, or meant for it to come across that way. Can you help me understand how you did mean it to come across?”

This is all covered in much more detail on episode 2 of the Married with Benefits podcast, so give it a listen. (You’ll also find out exactly how things go in my house when dishes are in the sink and mail is piled on the counter. Ugh. Plus, host Brian Goins has a particular hot take on Lego bricks that I think all parents will enjoy. It involves “devil” and “Lego” in the same sentence.)

Step #3: Be kind.

When we are hurt, instead of acting in bitterness or anger, God offers us a better way: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

We all struggle, and sometimes the deepest parts of these struggles are things we can’t put into words – at least right away – even with our spouses.

Simply being kind in the moments when we are hurt can diffuse conflict, disarm our spouse’s defenses, and change our own feelings for the better. This doesn’t mean ignoring something that needs to be discussed. But purposeful kindness can help part the clouds during a hard time.

After all, when you mess up, you want your spouse to be kind to you, right?

To help you apply this well – and all the other secrets of the happy marriages! – I hope you’ll tune in to this season’s Married With Benefits podcast.

I also hope you’ll consider taking Family Life’s Summer Couple’s Challenge!! It’s a great way of investing in your marriage this summer.

*Sadly, there will be a small percentage of marriages where a troubled spouse has simply emotionally checked out, or where abuse is present. Ask an objective but trusted pastor or friend for their input on the situation in your marriage, and get help if needed.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at [email protected].

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