Mike outlines the 4 "A's" necessary to build a lasting and happy marriage.

No matter what culture you belong to, what religion you believe, what society, level of wealth, or era you live in – one thing common to all people is that they want to be "happy", especially in their marriages. Christians want this, Jews want this, Muslims want this, black, white, yellow, or red people all want to be happy in their marriages.

I've never heard a new bride or groom rub their hands together and say, "I can't wait for the divorce to happen!" Even if your son or daughter marries the sorriest loser, the worst match possible in your eyes – what do parents end up saying anyways? "I hope they'll be happy." Reminds me of the old joke, "Behind every successful man there stands a very surprised mother-in-law."

And why do we want so desperately to be happy in marriage?

  • Because this relationship has the power to make us extremely happy or extremely sad - it affects everything else
  • Because we often measure our success in life by how well we succeed in our marriage - we use marriage to give value to ourselves
  • Because we don't get many chances to get it right - some, for whatever reason, don't get any

There is so much pressure on us to succeed (parents, children, our religious beliefs, society in general, our work/career). Everybody is hurt or disappointed if we fail. Many want to duplicate the happiness and level of contentment that they saw in their parent's or grandparent's marriage. They see this as an ideal they wish to fulfill in their lives.

Others want to be happy in marriage because they've been unhappy growing up, unhappy as single persons, or perhaps unhappy in a previous marriage. They want to experience something they've missed out on and hope marriage will supply it. Finally, people want to be happy in marriage because they've been told that they will be happy, they should be happy when they marry the one they love. So there is this great expectation of happiness in marriage.

And for all this expectation and hope of happiness in marriage, the sad reality is that many couples do not attain this prize they so covet when they say, "I do." According to a survey done of couples here in North America trying to determine the level of success in marriage, the following picture emerged:

  • 50% said that they couldn't resolve issues and ended up divorcing.
  • 25% acknowledged that their marriage was based on convenience (for example, the kids/no choice/too proud/family or religious pressure kept them together).
  • 15% of respondents said that they were generally satisfied with their marriage.
  • 10% answered the survey by saying that they were very happy and they wouldn't change a thing.

Although 100% of people want a happy marriage, the actual number of people who actually accomplish this is far lower. Of course, this particular survey did not focus on Christian marriages where I suspect the numbers may be different. In any case, I believe that God wants everyone to have successful marriages – especially Christians. Now, before talking about how to create a happy marriage, I want to briefly review exactly what takes place when two people marry.

There are significant changes that take place when you get married and understanding these will help when consciously trying to build a happy married relationship:

  • A new legal status begins - You have a new union recognized by law and society.
  • A new relationship begins - You are now part of an exclusive, lifetime relationship. You will be referred to as a couple from now on. Yes, you have to change your Facebook profile.
  • A new role begins - You will now take on responsibilities that you didn't have previously (husband, father, etc.)
  • A new family begins - You leave your old family to begin a new one which will take precedence over the old one.

When people marry and organize a "wedding ceremony" and all the associated activities, what they are doing is symbolizing with vows, rings, songs, prayers, and celebrations all the changes that are about to take place as they marry...and the anticipation of the happiness they will experience as a result of these changes.

You see, this new, exclusive, lifetime commitment that brings a new role and identity and family – this is the source of the happiness that all seek in marriage. When people are unhappy in marriage, it is in these areas that the root of their problems lies. For example:

  • Perhaps there is doubt or a violation of the exclusivity of one's relationship, or a wavering as to the length and quality of one's commitment.
  • Perhaps one or both partners are confused about their married identities or roles that they are to play – maybe they begin to reject these entirely.
  • Perhaps the burden of family is frightening or too heavy, and this is causing hesitation, conflict, or doubt.
  • Perhaps some physical or emotional or spiritual change in one of the partners has caused an imbalance in their relationship.

Whatever the cause for the unhappiness, the solution can usually be found by going back to the basics of what originally created marital happiness in the first place. Let's face it, an exclusive lifetime commitment to an imperfect person by an imperfect person is not an easy thing to accomplish. Because a commitment of this sort is so challenging, couples need to make a constant effort to maintain and improve their relationship. The secret that successful couples who have been happily married for a long time know – is that marriages can and do get better with time.

Unfortunately, a popular misconception is that there is happiness in marriage but it's only temporary. Many people think that the best time in a marriage is at the beginning: Great sex, excitement, discovery, all new adventures in life. Some envy the Hollywood stars who have the fame and money to repeat this "honeymoon" period every few years. They marry, have a great 2-3 years together, get divorced and start the cycle over again with someone new. This has given many the impression that when you get married this is as good as it gets – it only goes downhill from there – wrong! We need to understand that marriages, by design, must improve from where they begin (no matter how happy one feels during those first few months or years) or else they will die.

Marriages must, and can, improve in order to sustain and build happiness for a lifetime.

When this happens, an exclusive, lifetime commitment is a joy – not a burden. In the remaining time therefore, I want to describe 4 things that every married person can work on in order to improve and create happiness in marriage.

Creating Happiness

Everyone receives a basic supply of happiness when they marry. The problem is that many people think that they can live off of their initial deposit of happiness at the time of their marriage. Most of this basic happiness is generated by "romantic love" which is composed of three elements:

  1. Sexual attraction - This is what usually draws us to one another in the first place, and sustains our relationship for the first few years.
  2. Similar interests - The couple loves to ski, dance, go to the movies, drink, hang-out, promote ideas, politics, share religious faith. These engage and fill our time with each other.
  3. Idealism - The other person fulfills our ideals about what is good and beautiful, a match for ourselves.

Eventually, however, most couples learn that if they don't build on these things, they will not be able to sustain the "feeling" of happiness that their marriage provided at the start. In order to build happiness, couples need to work on 4 basic things. I call them the 4 A's of a successful marriage.

1. Agape (the "Bible" word for love)

Not just feelings or emotions (like soap operas), but the kind of love necessary to produce successful marriages. It's what the Bible calls "agape"; biblical love that is adapted to the marriage relationship. The definition of Agape: "A disciplined commitment towards the well-being of another" (in this case – our marriage partner). Let's analyze this kind of love from this definition:

Commitment – conscious choice to commit ourselves to another, permanently. When each partner knows that this is the basis of the relationship, they are freed to be themselves, to show their weaknesses, to be completely truthful without the fear that the other will run off at the first sign of trouble. What constitutes marriage (in every society) is the commitment, not the sex act! What makes you married is the fact that you've committed yourself to live as husband and wife – not just the idea that you've moved in together.

Discipline – self-control is necessary if we are to realize the goals of our commitment. Discipline is necessary in order to overcome sexual temptation that occurs in every marriage. Discipline is necessary in order to be kind, patient, and forgiving. Love needs discipline in order to stay focused.

Well-being of partner – The main objective of marriage is not:

  • To acquire house, car, etc.
  • To raise children
  • To please our parents

The main objective of marriage is the well-being of our partner. When this is the objective, these other activities fall into their right order.

So, agape love therefore is a disciplined commitment towards the well-being of our partners – this is biblical love in marriage. Without this kind of love, marriages can't succeed (they may last but they don't succeed). The objective is to succeed and be happy in marriage, not just to make it last 50 years. With AGAPE Love, marriage is never long enough, there is never enough time to be with your beloved partner.

The second "A" in creating a happy marriage is:

2. Attraction

By attraction, I mean sexual attraction. A good sex life (when health and circumstances permit) is a sign and a necessity for happiness and success in marriage. God created sex for procreation purposes, and the pleasure and comfort of the married couple. That means even after we've had our children, there remains a divine reason for sex (see Genesis 1 and 2).

Sex is a powerful force and when it is expressed in marriage it becomes an act of love, faith, and deeper commitment between the partners. Something that is just a "drive" becomes a precious and creative force when expressed in marriage. Outside of marriage however, it is a destructive force. From this act, children are born – a sign that sex is good because life comes from it. The trick of course is how to maintain that attraction within marriage over a long period of time.

I suggest 3 ways to do this:

A. Believe God when He tells you that the pleasure that comes from sex is good.

Genesis 2:25 says they were "...naked and not ashamed." So many people have poor sex because they feel guilty and unspiritual in sexual relationships with their spouses.

B. Make the other's well-being your major objective within your marriage – especially your sex life!

Sexual feelings are stimulated by kindness, faithfulness, tenderness, generosity, humility, and other "giving" virtues. When we work on these things first, then physical contact is desirable. Who wants physical contact with a selfish, rude, impatient person – even if they have a nice body? Jesus said that impure sex and adultery begin in the heart; well, that is also true of legitimate sex within marriage, it also begins in one's heart.

C. Be available.

There is nothing more encouraging or desirable than a willing partner. Not just willing to have sex, but willing to please. Psychologists have discovered that a man's sex drive goes down when he feels assured that his wife is willing to please him. Women are always afraid that there will be no end if they always give in. They say that when a man is less anxious about this, his needs balance out at a lower level. When this happens women are less nervous and can relax, and usually end up having a greater desire more often. God knew this principle from the start and Paul's teaching reflects this idea in I Corinthians 7:

The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
- I Corinthians 7:3-4

A man is responsible to please and satisfy his wife's sexual needs whatever they are, and vice versa.

We can't always be equally disposed to have sex (that's what causes the tension in the first place, but that tension can be used for good if we are always disposed to please our partner!) When we say no, we're saying that you can't have what is yours – contradicts vs. 4. We maintain sexual attraction in marriage by realizing that God is pleased when we give ourselves to our partner without restrictions or negotiations. And maintaining sexual attraction helps build a successful marriage.

The third "A" in creating a happy marriage:

3. Appreciation

The greatest weakness in men is their lack of appreciation in what being a woman, wife, and mother is all about.
Of course I believe women suffer from the same lack of appreciation about men. The difference is that women think they know men because they know what they want. But most women fail to understand the difference between what men are and what men want. They're not the same.

  • By appreciation I don't mean thank you cards or gifts or flowers on Mother's Day. I don't mean thanking each other.
  • By appreciation I mean understanding what each other's roles and responsibilities are and what that does to you!

For example, in Christian homes the Bible teaches us that men and women have different roles. Eph. 5:22-24 tells us that men are to be the head of their wives and women are to be in submission to their husbands. A marriage succeeds when the husband works at being the head of the woman with her cooperation, and the wife works at submitting to her husband with the same understanding and cooperation. A woman needs to understand the responsibility and pressure that a man is under to fulfill his role (or the anxiety at the thought that he is not). She also needs to help him fulfill his role as leader because not all men are natural leaders.

Women's big mistake is that they "take over" instead of helping him develop and grow into that leadership role. Men's mistake is that they "cop-out" and let women do it.

The reverse is true for women. Men need to understand how hard it is to assume the submissive position because it is not a natural one, and society ridicules women who do so.

When we appreciate (understand) the challenges faced by our partner in fulfilling his/her God given role in marriage – we develop the respect for one another that builds the admiration, loyalty, and empathy so necessary to create a successful marriage, and the happiness that comes from this success.

One more "A" towards a happy marriage:

4. Aid

If no one ever sinned, every marriage would be successful. However, because we are weak and are subject to fall we need to go to God and go to Him often to find Divine help:

  • Help to understand each other
  • Help to raise our children
  • Help to manage our money
  • Help to strengthen us through sickness, sin, and all of the trials we go through in marriage

In I Corinthians 7:5 – Paul encourages couples who are having trouble to go to God for help in prayer. Many people would rather live in misery than ask for help – that's called pride. Sometimes we need to ask our partner for help, real help in dealing with physical, emotional, or spiritual problems. Sometimes the couple needs outside help to get through a tough moment.

There's Farm Aid, Flood Aid, etc. Sometimes we need Marriage Aid. This aid can come in the form of a brother or sister in Christ, a family member, minister, counselor, whatever! Christian couples need to care enough about their relationships that they will seek help when they're in trouble. You know you need outside help when you're no longer able to cope or resolve the situation by yourselves. The successful marriage isn't too proud to ask for help, and you know you need help when you can't make each other happy anymore.

Summary

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list but we have reviewed four important things we need to work at constantly if we want better marriages:

  1. Agape – our purpose is the well-being of the other – #1 priority in marriage – not hobbies etc.
  2. Attraction – caring for and giving our bodies to each other in marriage.
  3. Appreciation – helping the other do their God given job.
  4. Aid – not too proud to ask for help.

Next to grace in Jesus Christ, the most precious favor God gives to man is a loving partner. I pray that all will enjoy better and happier marriages that bless their partners, enable their children to have happy lives and marriages of their own, and glorify God.