Our keys to marriage happiness

14 February 2023

On our tenth-anniversary marriage summit, one of the questions we spent time plucking at was: what are our keys to a happy marriage? That might seem like a strange thing to discuss, but when we name what matters, we solidify it – which is the beginning of getting more of it. It was a deeply satisfying conversation, and something I knew I wanted to share in part here.

Of course, sharing feels a little squishy, and I don’t necessarily write to encourage you toward the things that bring us happiness – we are two unique people with unique wiring and a unique history, and what speaks to our deepest needs and desires might not move the needle for you. There are a million ways to have a good marriage. I share in the hopes that it might inspire you to name the keys to your own marriage happiness – to spark a conversation across your dinner table or on your next date night.

And also, selfishly, I’m sharing for my children. I hope they look back one day and think, mom and dad really loved each other, and they enjoyed each other. I hope this post helps them understand why that was so.

Without further ado…

It’s been too long since we looked at some wedding photos, no? I narrowed myself to black and white ceremony photos for today :) All by the inimitable Tanja Lippert!

1. We share a faith that compels us to help each other become more holy. This is the only place to start (and as you can see, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer). While we desire happiness in our marriage, at our best, we aim for holiness. Happiness, we are believing, will be a byproduct of this pursuit.

From The Meaning of Marriage: “What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us. The common horizon husband and wife look toward is the Throne, and the holy, spotless, and blameless nature we will have. I can think of no more powerful common horizon than that, and that is why putting a Christian friendship at the heart of a marriage relationship can lift it to a level that no other vision for marriage approaches.”

When John and I are each pursuing God, by His grace we will find it easier and easier to love each other well. If we are aiming for a standard of marriage and to treat each other in a way that is not of this world, we might expect to find greater marital happiness than most do in this world.

2. Our core values and virtues are aligned. Long before we were married, someone influential told us that “compatibility” is less important in marriage than shared core values, and we’ve found that to be true. We are bound by the things that we hold most deeply and reverently: our faith, integrity, generosity, loyalty, optimism, delayed gratification, personal responsibility, gratitude. Knowing we are united in what’s most important bridges a lot of gaps day to day.

3. We cast vision for our future together. John and I both score highly for the Futuristic StrengthsFinder theme (“People exceptionally talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They energize others with their visions of the future.”), and so we make time to dream together. We talk about what we hope to do next week, month, year, in ten years and fifty years. We talk about what we want our future summers to look like, future anniversaries, camping trips, financial goals, even our retirement. Believing we’re going somewhere good together keeps us united and happy.

4. We started young and have grown in the same direction. In my marriage vows, I promised John that we would always grow toward each other, not away. I know God was with me when I wrote those vows, because this has only become more true and important over time. When you inevitably change (and you will, especially when you’re high school sweethearts), you have the choice of growing toward your partner or away from him. At every juncture, we’ve tried to grow toward each other (though always imperfectly), and it has led to joy and beauty we never would have known had we dug our heels in.

Finding each other young was also a gift we did not deserve – our similar backgrounds and almost non-existent dating history basically took a whole category of potential landmines off the table, and that has certainly aided in our happiness.

5. We regularly reflect on our life together. At Cultivate, one of our core phrases is “reflection reaps rewards,” and it is certainly true in our marriage. Not only do we regularly (at least annually) set aside time to reflect on what’s working and what’s not in our marriage, but we try to act on what we uncover – for example, banning certain phrases, or setting thoughtful intentions. Tiny nudges in the right direction, when extrapolated over time, have made a big difference in how happy our life is day to day.

6. We treasure and celebrate our marriage. We only reflect and dig in and fix things when we believe they have value. And in the case of our marriage, we do – we believe it has great value, that it’s important (see no. 1). We remind each other of that regularly. And we spend time and money celebrating what we have, whether through an end-of-year dinner or a 10th anniversary trip.

7. We want to look good for each other. Some might chafe against this one, and I get it. Of course our love is not conditional on outward beauty, and we are not aiming for perfection. We have plenty of slouchy days. He has seen me and loved me at my most vulnerable, and would do so a million times over if needed (as would I, for him).

But – I am honoring the body he fell in love with just as I am the soul and mind and spirit he fell in love with, and he is doing the same for me. And we cheer each other on in this by doling out frequent compliments (John is exceptional at this; I try to keep up.). The things we love become lovelier when we love them, and we both believe that complimenting each other regularly has helped wire our brains to see each other’s loveliness. And of course it makes the other person feel good! There’s probably some brain science that could back me up in this :)

8. We spend time together. I wouldn’t say date nights are foundational for our marriage – we could survive without them – but as this is a post about happiness, they can’t go unmentioned. Spending time with John and talking with him is one of my greatest delights! As parents, we don’t have a ton of free time, but what we do have, we try to spend with each other. We go for walks. We watch the same shows. Neither of us have hobbies that eat up large chunks of our time. We of course have our own interests, but we make what we have in common the priority.

9. We never give each other a reason to doubt our love. I wrote these words in 2014 and they are equally true today: I’m not sure if I’m qualified to give marriage advice, seeing as we’ve only just passed our first anniversary, but perhaps I can offer some relationship advice — we have been together for almost ten years, after all. There are a lot of things I could tell you about what works for us, but I think one of the strongest things about our relationship is that we trust in it without reservation. We’ve never given each other a reason to doubt it, and so we’ve never been tempted to do so. We don’t treat our love for each other like it’s conditional, or could be threatened to be taken away, or withheld as a bargaining chip. Even if we are angry or frustrated, at bedrock, we both have always known without a doubt that we are acting from a place of unshakeable love.

10. We believe and act like we are a team that’s a force for good in the world. We believe our marriage has a purpose larger than just ourselves, our children, or our happiness. We know we can do more together than we can apart, and we’re curious and expectant about what that might look like in the years to come. And having purpose makes us happier, just like most humans.

I read through a lot of old blog posts as I was writing, and this quote (from John!) stuck out to me: “People often talk about how marriage is so hard, but we’ve found it to be the most comfortable and best thing ever. I think the world (and people thinking about marriage) need to hear more messages about how great marriage can be, and we are happy to do that.” Writing about marriage is not the easiest thing, but I think it’s a good thing. I hope you agree :)

I’m curious: is there one of these keys you’d like to hear more about? Even though this post is long, I had to restrain myself, because each felt like it could be a blog post of its own! And if you’re in a relationship, I’d love to hear a key to your happiness together!

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February 14, 2023 10:31 am

What a timely post for Valentine’s Day. My only critique, which I hope comes across as more constructive is in John’s quote at the end. Something can be hard/difficult to endure at times AND be the best thing ever. I think often, and not just in marriage, people present things as “Oh if this is hard then it can’t be enjoyable.” And that’s not true. For anyone else reading this comment, just know that life can have hard moments, marriage can have hard moments (I’ve been married 10 years and with my partner for nearly 20 and this is true for me), school can have hard moments, raising kids can have hard moments…going to Disney can have hard moments… AND (a very key and important AND not But) it can still be the best thing ever. And for me, accepting that is part of what’s crucial to commitment and life-long love among family and friends.

February 15, 2023 9:58 am
Reply to  Em

Yes, totally agree! I learned this little tactic about replacing “but” with “and” through years of therapy and heard it reaffirmed on a podcast about parenting tactics, and I just love it :) I’ve found it totally changes how I feel about things. So much more, satisfying to hear and say “Yes, I understand you don’t want broccoli, and that’s what’s for dinner.” Game-changing! hahaha

February 21, 2023 2:10 pm
Reply to  Jewel

Oooh, definitely using this one. Probably as soon as tonight!

February 14, 2023 11:20 am

Beautiful, Emily (and John)!
Saving this to read together with my husband. We are coming up on ten years this June! :)

February 14, 2023 2:39 pm

Love these! Thank you for sharing :)
I think in addition to #3, we also do the opposite: my husband and I regularly reflect often on our shared history together. Those “remember when” moments are lovely reminders of the quotidian, the almost-forgotten belly laughs, and the big trips and travels we’ve taken together, and remind of us of all we’ve experienced so far as continue to weave the fabric of our love and life story together.

February 14, 2023 5:04 pm

I absolutely love this post and will be mulling over what our “keys” have been so far! Our 5 year anniversary is next month and this has really inspired me to find some creative ways to ensure we celebrate it intentionally and have some time for reflection. With baby #2 due soon and a very full calendar with family and work obligations, we don’t have enough time for a big getaway, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something special! Thanks so much for the inspiration.

February 15, 2023 8:38 am

My husband and I celebrated our 15th date-iversary this month and will be married 12 years in May. Several of your keys are also keys for us, like planning for a shared future (in short/medium/long term) and annual reflection. A central key for us is that we communicate our needs regularly. We’re not mind readers, so if one of us needs 10 minutes after dinner to close out some emails, we ask, and the other will help with parenting and household tasks. The bonus is our child seeing us regularly ask for help and give it with grace. While this example is a small one, it’s prompted conversations with long-term implications both professionally and for our health.

Kelly Strawberry
February 15, 2023 12:47 pm

Just chiming in to say I love all of these keys that you and John discussed at the marriage summit. :)

February 16, 2023 7:15 am

My husband and I celebrated a belated Valentine’s last night and talked about what our “keys” are for the majority of our dinner. Thank you for the wonderful conversation starter!

February 16, 2023 2:26 pm

Friend! These are all gems but #1 and #10 are diamonds! I love that you are writing with June, Shep, and Annie in mind! What a beautiful ministry to your kids! ❤️