Best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn offers insights from research she's conducted on what makes for a happier, more fulfilling marriage. She also outlines practical ways to develop a more Christ-like relationship with your spouse. (Part 1 of 2)
Jim Daly: Shaunti, what is one thing a couple can do today to feel happier in their marriage?
Shaunti Feldhahn: When they're hurt, believe the best of their spouse's intentions.
John Fuller: So, don't make any assumptions about their motives.
Shaunti: Bad assumptions--
Shaunti: --about their motives (Laughing)
End of Teaser:
John: That's some great advice from Shaunti Feldhahn and you'll be hearing more from her on our broadcast today with Jim Daly. This is "Focus on the Family." I'm John Fuller and we're returning to one of our best programs of 2014 and Jim, it'll be a fun program.
Jim: It is fun, but actually immensely practical, as well. And I think one reason this program resonated with so many of you, is because Shaunti gives us so many easy things you can implement today to make your marriage better. You know, it's easy to talk about strategies and ideas, but I think Shaunti does a wonderful job of saying, hey, tonight when you go home, try this. And some of her advice might catch you a little off guard, like maybe you should go to bed angry at your spouse.
John: Oh, that's a good one.
Jim: That kinda goes against the grain, but she's gonna talk about that today. You'll hear more about that and many, many other ideas over the next couple of days.
And here at Focus on the Family, we want to come alongside you in your marriage and give you that hope and encouragement to do better and we all want to do that. Jean and I want to do that. And I should note that this program is for relatively healthy marriages. You may just be a bit in a rut and you want some help to get up out of there so you can thrive, not just survive. And if you and your spouse are going through a really difficult season, don't be disheartened by the lightheartedness of this program. Find the little nuggets of wisdom and apply them in your life. Then I think it'll bring you that hope for you and your spouse. And we are always here to talk with you if you need help.
John: We are and you can find specific assistance for your situation at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call and ask to talk to one of our counselors. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. Let's go ahead now and hear this Best of 2014 "Focus on the Family" radio program.
Jim: You've written this new book, some have called it "one of the best books, if not the best book on marriage." That's a big --
Jim: --endorsement. It's titled The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. Let me challenge you on the title right out of the gate. Is happy marriage really the goal for us as Christians?
Shaunti: You know what. Here's I think the thing that we get into, is it's so easy for us to say, "Well, our goal shouldn't be to be happy. It should be like Gary Thomas' book, to be holy, right?" And I once had a pastor that I really respected and he's done tons of marriage therapy. He said, "The problem with that is that we get to the idea that they're mutually exclusive." And he said he has couples come to him all the time who think that they have two choices, which is break up and be happy or stay together and be miserable. And he's like, "Door No. 3!" (Laughing)
Shaunti: Stay together and be happy. And …
Jim: Why don't we talk about that more often?
Shaunti: Well, I think it's because in our culture, we've gotten especially maybe in the Christian community, into this idea of basically saying, marriage is tough and it's hard and--
Jim: We carry the burden of it.
Shaunti: --and we'll carry the burden. And you know, yeah, absolutely. For some marriages, it is tough and--
Jim: And for some seasons.
Shaunti: --it is hard and for some seasons. And that's never an excuse to give up. It's never an excuse to leave. But here's what I realized as I started doing this research, is it is so easy to focus on our problems to try to fix them. Problem, fix it. Problem, fix it. You know, what's the issue here? And what's getting in the way? And that means you're only focusing on the problem. And …
Jim: Well, I want to say something before you--
Jim: --move on, because--
Jim: --as a man, I'm relating to what you're saying (Laughter) right now, because we're problem solvers. You're that analytical mind. I like what you're saying.
Shaunti: Well, here …
Jim: Do most women resonate with that though?
Shaunti: They absolutely do and you know why? Because one thing I always say, when I realized this, I'm like wait a minute. If I want to have a happy marriage, who do I look to? Like if I want to be more like Jesus, do I study the Pharisees?
Jim: I hope not.
Shaunti: (Laughing) Or do I study Jesus? No, I actually study the One Who I'm looking to as the role model. And so, let's look at what the happy marriages have to teach us and celebrate that and say it's possible.
Jim: Well, that leads to a great next question, I think, John. What was your No. 1 finding when you did the research for the book?
Shaunti: Actually, I think the biggest thing that is the biggest prerequisite, you can't have a happy marriage without it, is you have to believe the best of your spouse's intentions when you're hurt.
Jim: What does that look like practically? 'Cause there are times, to be vulnerable, I don't always have that thought. (Laughter) I mean …
Shaunti: Well, most of us don't--
Jim: --it seems more natural and human to have not-so-good thoughts in that regard, that you don't think the best of your spouse's intentions. (Laughing) You know, why did she leave that in the walkway toward the driveway, whatever.
Shaunti: Well, she knew I'd trip over it and break my back--
Jim: Correct, basically--
Shaunti: --I guess, right, yeah.
Jim: --that could be a thought. You're not falling at that moment thinking, I'm sure she intended this for my good. (Laughter)
Shaunti: Pretty much. You know, here's the difference. It was fascinating As I was talking to the really happy couples and you know, we should explain that what I was doing was researching the happiest couples--
Shaunti: --to try to find out what they're doing--
Jim: So, that was your pool--
Jim: --of research.
Shaunti: Yeah, what are these people doing differently than everybody else, 'cause …
Jim: And it was 1,000 couples. Is that right?
Shaunti: Yeah, I did a huge research with a big nationally represented survey, which is, you know, one of the things I always try to do, to nail it down. And I found that these really happy couples, that when they were hurt and everybody gets hurt, right? I mean, just 'cause you have a happy marriage, doesn't mean it's perfect, right? When a normal average couple is hurt, the natural human tendency is to think to yourself, oh, he knew how that would make me feel and he said it anyway, right?
Jim: So, you process that maybe without even thinking that way.
Shaunti: It's subconscious often.
Jim: It just …
Shaunti: Great point. It's really subconscious. But you don't realize that what you're kinda feeling is, he doesn't care. The happy couples I noticed this completely different trend. They basically would say to themselves, ow! Yeah, that hurt, but I know he cares about me.
Shaunti: I know he loves me, so he must not have known how that would make me feel or he wouldn't have said it. It was a totally different way of looking at it.
Jim: And I would think that, that would be a predominant thought. I don't think, happily or average couples go out of their way to hurt. They may just speak without thinking. I mean, is that a copout, do you think?
Shaunti: No, you're right on actually statistically. This is one of the things that I think [the] reason it's a prerequisite is that in almost 100 percent of cases on my survey, even in the most struggling marriages, everybody really cares about their spouse. But if you want to be happy, you have to let yourself believe it. Do you mind if I give you an example?
Shaunti: 'Cause I was talking to this one young woman, who's probably, I don't know, late 20s, married a few years. They were pregnant with their first child and she had been planning this like big romantic, like the last dinner out before the baby comes kind of deal, right?
And her husband worked late that night and they missed the reservation. And it was this big like deal, that this restaurant they'd been looking forward to forever. And she's like, I can't believe that he did this. And so, I said, "Take me through what happened, you know, in your mind." And she said, "Well, I was so upset, like I can't believe he's working late again and he doesn't care. Wait a minute. No. I know he wanted this as much as I did. I knew he was looking forward to this.
And so, she approached him totally differently. Instead of, "I can't believe you missed this and this is our last chance before the baby came" and something that would've him on the "defensives" and you know, started a negative spiral. What happened was, she said, "What happened? I know you were looking forward to this, too." And she heard him say, "The client call came in right at the end of the day. His boss was standing right behind him and he had heard there were gonna be layoffs next week. And he's like, "We have a baby coming. I can't afford to be, you know, looked at negatively by my boss." And so, now we could say as women, well, I wish he would've approached it differently or whatever.
Jim: Choose me over him.
Shaunti: Yeah, but by the way she approached it, because she believed for the best of his intentions towards her, it preserved their happiness and gave him a chance to explain and for her to see, he does care. That's an example of how different things go when you assume the person cares about you.
Jim: Let me continue with the newlywed story, 'cause I think it's a good analogy. I'm sure most people get married with the best of intentions for each other. And you think rightly of each other and the excitement is there. How does the rut begin to get dug, that you know, you end up having a thought that maybe their intention isn't so good for me. They're--
Shaunti: I …
Jim: --believing the worst of me. And then how do you get into that pattern 10 years down the road?
Shaunti: I think it is basically the opposite of what we see in like Philippians 4, where Paul says, you gotta think on what is lovely and pure and excellent and honorable, right and worthy of praise and not what's driving you crazy.
Jim: That applies to a broad array--
Shaunti: This is actually …
Jim: I think it's one of the great issues in the Christian walk where we are so hypercritical on people.
Shaunti: No, really? (Laughing)
Jim: We don't want to think highly of people. It's much more comfortable to be aggressive with people.
Shaunti: And we don't realize how much we do that, even with a spouse
John: Well, that's Shaunti Feldhahn. She's our guest on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. And the book that we're talking about, it's the foundation for the conversation today, is The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big Difference. And you can get a CD or a download of this program and find out more about the book when you stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio . And in fact, we'll send a copy of that to you for a gift to Focus today, a financial gift of any amount. So, please contact us and make a donation today.
Jim: Shaunti, I'm gonna come back to this and press you a little more, because I think it's--
Shaunti: Go for it.
Jim: --it's part of--
Jim: --the cultural problem that we have today. Some people can take happiness to an unhealthy extreme, an unbiblical extreme. And basically, they say in their minds, "If I'm not happy, this marriage is a failure and I gotta find a way out." Speak to the person that's not in that happy marriage right now. They're in that rut. How can I go home today and think differently about my spouse?
Shaunti: Well, one of the most important things honestly does come out of that great passage in Philippians, right? And this is actually one of the other secrets. There were 12 of these habits that I identified of what these couples were doin' differently, the happiest couples. And one of 'em was basically, they learned how to talk themselves out of being upset--
Shaunti: --or being mad or having this weird, you know, icky feeling towards their spouse.
Jim: So, they choose a more positive--
Shaunti: --they choose a more positive perspective and it's biblical. It's not this like weird, you know, guru on a mountain top in Nepal, just you know. (Laughter) It's think out in the cosmos somewhere in some weird New Age way. No, no, no. This is biblical. Paul is saying in Philippians 4, rejoice, right. Remember this; it's this command. Again, I'm gonna say, rejoice. And--
Shaunti: --you think, okay, you know, you are in prison while you're saying this, Paul. You're chained to a wall. How do you rejoice in a prison or in a difficult marriage? And the answer comes in verse 8, just a couple verses later. He says, "Okay, here's how you do it. You think on the best instead of the worst."
You think on the things that you can appreciate about your spouse, rather than what legitimately is really an issue. For example, one of the things that I saw in these happy couples, which just blew me away, is these really happy couples, they had issues just like anybody else. I mean, there was a husband who was struggling with pornography. Or there was a wife who was dealing with, you know, special-needs kids all day at home or there were all of these issues and yet, they were so enjoying their marriage.
And okay, what is it? And I was noticing that what the thing was, one of the things that made this big difference is, when they legitimately had an issue, like, "I wish this wasn't an issue." And we're working on this real problem with my husband, say, but you know what? He's a great dad. He's so tired after work and he takes the kids out and plays ball with them and what a huge way he's pouring into his children. So, she's choosing to focus on what is lovely, rather than what is legitimately an issue. It doesn't mean you ignore the problems, but it does mean that you can completely change how you feel about your whole marriage.
Jim: Well, I like that emphasis, because one, it's rooted biblically and two, it reflects the heart of God. You know what we're challenged with, I think, in our culture today, not just in our marriages, but our culture at large, is we're getting more and more and I think too comfortable attacking each other--
Jim: --and even in the Christian church, rather than trying to think the best of people while you work out your differences, it's almost even within our Christian orthodoxy, we become so polarized that if you don't do it a certain way, you're no longer a Christian. And we're forgetting the principles or what are key, not some of the tactics.
Shaunti: You know, what's really fun is one of the other habits, you know, and this is a little one. I almost missed it. I didn't realize what a big deal it was until I started looking into the numbers. Talking about that kind of polarization and attacking and how you speak to each other, we've gotten into this weird habit when we're in a marriage, we kinda let it all hang out. You know, how you sometimes see somebody speaking to a husband or a wife in a tone that, you know, like I can't believe you forgot the dry cleaning. (Laughter) And I think--
Jim: Do you ever …?
Shaunti: --to myself …
John: Nope, no.
Shaunti: You never heard anybody (Laughter) say that? Well, and I'm not talkin' about you gentlemen.
Jim: Oh, of course not. I have--
Shaunti: I'm talking--
Jim: --a friend.
John: A mutual friend. (Laughter)
Shaunti: --I'm talking about --
Jim: His name's John.
Shaunti: --the people. (Laughter)
Jim: Yeah, you're talking about those people.
Shaunti: I'm talking about the people that you sometimes hear like standing in line at a restaurant or something.
Shaunti: And you hear this stranger saying this and you think, "Would you ever use that tone of voice with your best girlfriend, like you were talking to your husband like that? Why would you ever use that tone of voice with your husband?" And that was another big difference. These happy couples, one of the reasons they were happy is, they had a high level of just kindness.
But I noticed these same five things. It was saying thank you and "He did a great job" in front of other people. It was some of that showing you desire him in the bedroom, you know, some of those things. And on the women's side, the husbands tended to, without knowing it, they would sit at church and put their arm around her in church. And they would walk across the parking lot, just you know, reach out and hold her hand.
Shaunti: And the men were just doing it without realizing that to a woman, that was this like, oh! It feels so good. It's like he's saying, you're mine. And it says these special things to a woman. And so, even though these are little bitty things that the opposite sex doesn't realize are important, they have this huge meaning. And so, that's one of the reasons these couples were happy, 'cause day in, day out, they were sending this message, I care about you. And five minutes later, I care about you still. And five minutes later, I still care about you. And it builds like a bubble or a cocoon that protects the relationship--
Jim: What …
Shaunti: --from some other shocks.
Jim: Gary Chapman, of course, has been a guest on this broadcast, talking about the love languages. And in some ways, you're correlating some of this, I think because a person whose love language is touch. Now you're saying these are more universal truths, but …
Shaunti: That was what surprised me.
Jim: Yeah, so it's …
Shaunti: It was like 97 percent of the men said that when she said thank you day in and day out, it had a big impact, whether or not his language is words of affirmation.
John: Shaunti, there is someone who is thinking, I am really glad to hear what you're saying, but it seems like our roles are reversed in our marriage.
John: And so, it's actually the man saying, "I wish she would cozy up to me in church." Or the woman saying, "I could care less if he changes the light bulb. I mean, it just doesn't mean a--
John: --thing to me. So, address that gender stereotype that you've raised, which obviously is true across the board most of the time.
John: But there are some differences--
Shaunti: Oh, yeah.
John: --in personalities and style.
Shaunti: Oh, sure. There's always exceptions. I mean, when I was writing the books about understanding men and understanding women, that's one of the reasons I did the survey, so I would know what I could make generalizations about. And you know, I always say if 75 percent of men said this way, that means 25 percent didn't, right? And so, there are those exceptions and that's just the way God has wired you. Great. But that's one of the reasons I spent a lot of time also talking to the majority, is because these really are the little things that you don't know matters so much to that other person, 'cause you are wired so differently.
Jim: Hm. There's another one that caught my attention, which is counterintuitive, because we're told as Christians, trained as Christians to not let the sun go down on your anger. So, I mean, in premarriage counseling, you get that all the time.
Jim:Resolve your conflict before you hit the bedroom. And--
Jim: --we've been pounded with that and yet, in your book you found one of the things that married … happily married couples do is, they go to bed mad. What is that?
Shaunti: I knew--
Jim: What do you mean--
Shaunti: --you were gonna--
Jim: --go to bed mad?
Shaunti: --raise this one, yeah. That's so counterintuitive. Here's really the funny part about this, is that we've all heard that phrase. You know, don't let the sun go down on your anger. And when I started talking to these couples, the happy couples, one of the things I most wanted to do was to find out what do they actually do as opposed to what they advised others to do and advised to do?
And so, I would always hear them say this. That would be one of their pieces of advice for me. You know, well, it's really important to not go to bed mad. And I would say, oh, yeah, so do you (Laughter) ever go to bed mad? Well, it's a really important principle, you know. And they'd kinda backpedal, backpedal. And when I'd say, no, I want to know, do you ever?
And almost always the answer was, "Well, yes, sometimes." And so, I started digging into that. What is up with this? And this is the way they put it. In real life, one of the things they found, which we've all seen, is that nothin' good is gonna happen when you get to a certain hour at night and you feel this pressure to try to resolve something because I have to resolve it before bed. And you've got two tired, cranky, exhausted, emotional people trying to duke something out at midnight.
And they said, "You're gonna hurt each other. You're gonna say things you don't mean. You're gonna agree to things you wish you'd never agree to and you get resentful. And so, they said sometimes they would get to the point where they would say, you know what? Nothin's good is gonna happen from us doing this. Let's say we're gonna sleep on it. We'll come back to it in the morning. We're okay. I love you. We need to do this in the morning.
And then the next morning, half the time they were like, what was that about? You know, 'cause you get a good night's sleep; it looks different. So, that was the first thing that I heard. But then I started getting nervous, because it doesn't matter if the happy couples do it, if it's anti-biblical, right? That was my--
Shaunti: --big concern, as a believer.
Jim: How could you explain it?
Shaunti: Yeah and so, I took another look at that Scripture in Ephesians 4 that says, "Don't let the sun go down on your anger." So, it turns out that the whole Scripture is basically saying, in your anger, don't sin. Don't let the sun go down on your anger. We've interpreted that as "Don't go to bed mad," which is not actually what it says, okay.
So, it turns out, Paul in that passage, he's quoting a verse from the Psalms, Psalms 4:4, which says basically, in your anger, don't sin. Think about it overnight and remain silent. (Laughing)
Jim: It's almost the exact opposite.
Shaunti: It's the exact opposite. (Laughter) And I had a counselor who was just a very wise person. And he said, "Look, here's what it is. The key there is don't sin in your anger. If you need to work it out before you go to bed to not sin in your anger, do it. If you need to say, "Look, we'll be able to work this out in the morning," not holding it over your partner's head obviously, but we'll be able to work this out in the morning and work it out the next day in order to not sin in your anger, do that.
Jim: I'm just impressed that they're up at midnight disagreeing. (Laughter) I mean, that's pretty incredible. (Laughter) I mean, I can't get past 10 o'clock. (Laughter) So, I admire the fact that they could stay up that late. (Laughter)
Shaunti: So, one of the interesting things actually about the people who decided to go to bed (Laughter) on it, which is the majority of people regardless, is what they did the next day it turns out was the biggie. The happy couples handled it totally different[ly] from everybody else. If it was still an issue the next day, if the hurt feelings were still there, they dealt with it. The less-than-happy couples were much more likely to just kinda let it float away and hope it went away on its own and not deal with it. And I think that's one of the things that eventually will pull a couple apart. And so, that's the difference often. It's what you do the next day.
Jim: Let me tease that out a little bit.
Jim: So, you go to bed. You think you've resolved this conflict and yet, you haven't, as from your perspective.
Shaunti: You think you've resolved it?
Jim: Maybe …
Shaunti: Like the guy is like, "Whew!
Jim: Let me--
Shaunti: --done with that."
Jim: -- let me say it this way. Maybe your spouse thinks you've resolved it, but you don't feel that it's been resolved yet. How does the happy couple continue to solve a problem when only one of you thinks it's resolved?
Shaunti: Okay, I've seen that as an example several times. And I hate to say it. It's usually the woman, you know, who she's got … we call that an "open window," like on your computer. It keeps popping up--
Shaunti: --right, on the screen of your mind, as a woman. Like "But what about this? And what about that?"
Jim: So, the man's moved on.
Shaunti: The man's--
Jim: --He thinks it's--
Shaunti: --moved on.
Jim: --done. We're--
Jim: --all happy, right?
Shaunti: Yeah and--
Jim: But no.
Shaunti: -- but no, maybe not. Actually, it's really interesting. That gets into how you approach each other when you have a difference of opinion. And that's where that kindness comes back in. And the happy couples, if she still had an issue, she wouldn't be like, "I can't believe you're ignoring this." Instead, it was, "Listen, I know you care about this as much as I do, I'm still having a problem with this." And because she is approaching it kindly and in a way that affirms him, like I know you care about me and believing the best, because she's approaching it that way, he's a lot less likely to get defensive.
Jim: Shaunti, we have so much more to cover. In fact, you talk about (Laughing) this is one of those counterintuitive things, that it's good to keep score. (Laughter) And I--
Jim: --I'm not sure how to understand that, but I want to keep goin' and will you be able to help us better understand where there's a healthy way to keep score in a marriage?
Jim: Let's do that.
Shaunti: And everybody's like, what on earth? Yes, absolutely.
Jim: Let's come back and do that.
John: This conversation has really flown by so quickly and we look forward to hearing the second part of this Best of 2014 radio program next time. And Jim, as we wrap up, you wanted to say a word about how every day we're here working to help couples.
Jim: John, one of the great blessings when I travel is, I'll be in an airport or at the counter getting the rental car or whatever it might be and somebody will come up and say, "Are you Jim Daly?" And they tell me a story about how Focus on the Family has impacted them. Well, guests on the broadcast have that same experience and Shaunti has a story of that nature and I think it's be good for you to hear it.
Shaunti Feldhahn: After a recent conference a couple came up to me and they looked kinda nervous and they were holding hands and they said, "You know, we heard your recent program on "Focus on the Family" and it changed everything." They had apparently consulted divorce attorneys. Things had been awful. They didn't believe they could make it and then they heard this program about what makes happy marriages. And they realized they had not been believing the best of each other's intentions and that the other person cared. And that's one of the main things that I'd been sharing the importance of. And they said, "You know what? We need to try this. I need to believe that he cares or that she cares." And they did and they started to see hope come back. And they tried the next thing and the next thing and here they were. They canceled the divorce attorneys. They were pregnant with their first child and just so grateful for what they had heard om "Focus on the Family."
End of Clip
Jim: Wow! I mean, that is what it's about right there and we're working together to touch couples, to touch parents, to help them do the best job they can do in Christ to live lives that are a good example to the culture around them.
Let me say thank you for helping us do this work. And here at the end of the year, it's especially important for us to hear from you. Help continue to build the apparatus here to do the ministry that is accomplished through Focus on the Family. I hope you feel a part of it, not distant from it when you pray for us and when you support us.
Today when you give, your gift's going to be doubled by some generous friends, who like to give in that way. They want to spur all of us on to give and when you do, they'll match dollar for dollar through the month of December. So, if you can help us, like I said, to touch that life in the name of Christ, to touch that marriage, to touch that parent, to enable them to do better and to be a greater witness in this culture, I think it's a worthwhile effort for all of us to do that.
I'll tell you what, John. The strength of the culture rests on the strength of its families and that's why I'm passionate at Focus on the Family, with your support and effort and partnership, to be able to fight the battles that we fight upstream from so much of what the culture encounters. Let's go right to the root of it and help families thrive in Christ today.
John: Yeah, help us do that and donate generously when you're at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.
And you'll want to ask for a copy of the book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, which as you could tell from our conversation, is full of fascinating data and great insights that Shaunti has gathered about those small things that you can implement today to really make a difference in your marriage. In fact, when you make a gift of any amount today, we'll send that book to you and you'll have the satisfaction, as well, of knowing that your contribution is doubled today. So, please get in touch and help us out with a financial gift of any amount.
And I'd also suggest that you ask about our Best of 2014 radio program collection, which includes this conversation and others, including discussions with Dannah Gresh and Dr. David Clarke, a riveting presentation from the musical artist Lecrae and many others. This is a collection that you'll enjoy listening to again and again and passing on to others.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening in. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow for more from Shaunti Feldhahn about having a stronger marriage, as we once again, provide trusted advice to help your marriage thrive.
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Shaunti FeldhahnView Bio
A graduate of Harvard University and a former Wall Street analyst, Shaunti Feldhahn is a popular speaker, best-selling author and social researcher. Her books include For Women Only, For Men Only, Through a Man's Eyes and The Good News About Marriage. Shaunti and her husband, Jeff, reside in Atlanta and have two children. Learn more about Shaunti by visiting her website, www.shaunti.com.