Against a cultural backdrop where cheating is more prevalent and easier than ever, what can couples do to strengthen their relationships?
1. Take a hard look at how you’re spending your time. On a weekly basis, we need to be giving our spouse significant periods of undivided attention for affection, conversation, recreational companionship, and sexual fulfillment, says Willard Harley, a licensed psychologist in Minnesota and author of the best-selling book His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage. (Sitting adjacent to each other in bed or on the couch while scrolling your smartphone or device doesn’t count.) Think about how you spent your time with your spouse when you first were falling in love—there was lots of communication happening, long hours of conversation, and time spent doing activities you enjoyed. “If you do the things that people in love do, you’re going to tend to remain in love,” Harley says.
2. Steal time from your kids. “Your kids will never say, ‘Oh mom and dad, you should go away for the weekend. You need some time alone,’” says Dave Carder, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California and author of several books on marriage and infidelity. “That’s just not going to happen. So you have to make it happen. And you need to do it regularly and set a model for them to follow.”
A healthy marriage is one where we put God first, our spouse second, then kids, extended family, and work, says Cheryl Scruggs, co-founder with her husband, Jeff, of Hope Matters Marriage Ministries in Texas. When we have this out of order, things quickly become chaotic. Recognizing this proper order is particularly important for adults who come from fractured homes. “Long ago, these adults often made an unconscious promise to themselves that they’d never allow their kids to have the kind of life or experiences they had to endure,” Carder says. “So they come into marriage automatically placing their spouse in a position of priority below children once kids enter the picture.”
3. Spend money on your marriage. “Most people don’t do this,” Carder says. “They’ll buy shoes, a new refrigerator, a car, or whatever. But our relationships should be our biggest investment. It doesn’t have to be a $100 meal, although that’s nice sometimes. It can be little things, such as sharing your favorite sandwich in the park or sharing a bottle of wine at the beach. There’s all kinds of tiny ways that time and money can be invested in each other.”
Carder also recommends that couples identify the eight greatest experiences they’ve shared together from the time they began dating to the present (not including the birth of a child or their wedding day). “People will talk about a picnic they shared; a walk they took; or a favorite dinner at a tiny, cheap restaurant,” he says. “It’s the memories we build that hold us together. That’s what gives value to our relationships. Those are the kinds of experiences we want to keep creating.”
4. Be courageous enough to assess your relationship regularly. “Marriage is an organism, and it will shift dramatically very quickly if you’re not careful,” Carder says. Couples need to evaluate things yearly and be forthright with each other. (He recommends resources such as CoupleCheckup.com.) As much as we think our professional jobs need training, improvement, and correction, our marriages need these things just the same. “There will be years when you realize you need to build certain skills back into your relationship or recognize you’ve lost a sense of intimacy,” Carder says. “You’ll find bad habits that need to be eliminated.”
5. Speak up if your marriage is unhealthy. It’s pretty uncommon for people in a happy marriage to have an affair. “Many people find themselves in trouble because their marriage problems lead them to confide in a friend of the opposite sex about their struggles,” Harley says. “This forms the foundation for a relationship with another person that essentially is taking the place of your spouse.”
Instead, clearly identify your unmet needs or concerns to your spouse. Be willing to see a counselor. Give your spouse the opportunity to work on things. “In so many ways we look for another human being to fill a deep need in our heart and in our lives when it is Christ alone who can ultimately heal and fulfill us,” Scruggs says. “Being honest with your spouse, receiving counsel and working to rebuild your marriage is not easy. But neither is infidelity or divorce. People try to get out because they think they’re going to find relief on the other side, and it’s often just a disaster.”