Traits of a Thriving Marriage
Chances are you have turned to this guide because you’re about to enter a mentoring relationship with another couple. Good for you! As marriage mentors you have a unique opportunity to support and strengthen this couple in their love for and commitment to one another. At Focus on the Family, we’re here to assist you in doing just that. Along those lines, we’ve created this discussion guide to serve as a springboard to help you enter into candid marriage-building conversations with your mentoree couple.
This guide explores twelve characteristics that we’ve identified as essential ingredients in creating lasting, thriving unions. These traits all have their origin in Scripture, so it is not surprising that research demonstrates that a genuinely thriving marriage is the result of practical progress in these key areas of marital life. Lifelong commitment, shared spiritual intimacy, cherishing one another, healthy conflict management and the rest are among the non-negotiables in building and sustaining a vibrant marriage.
How to Use the Guide
We’ve designed this guide as a helpful tool, not a rigid program. It’s intended to kick-start conversations and shine a spotlight on key facets of marriage, but we encourage you to make it work for you and your mentoree couple. You may want to address each question, or pick and choose, or add questions of your own. It’s also important to remain flexible — if your mentoree couple wants to explore a different subject instead, we’d encourage you to set aside the scheduled topic and go with the flow. And all along the way, ask good questions, actively listen, and share from your own experience.
The guide is ideal for use in twelve sessions. We recommend tackling a single topic per meeting, as you’ll want to facilitate relaxed, in-depth conversations. If you know in advance you will be meeting less than twelve times, we’d suggest asking your mentoree couple which topics are of greatest interest to them and then proceeding accordingly.
Again, thank you for making this investment in another marriage. We’re confident your mentoree couple will benefit from your encouragement and insight, and you may be surprised how much it enhances your own marriage in the process. May God bless each of you as you embark on this exciting and important journey together!
1. Lifelong Commitment
Couples who stick together understand that marriage is a sacred and solemn mystery in the eyes of God. As a result, they enter the relationship with the attitude that divorce is not an option. They understand that marriage is a lifelong adventure, filled with triumphs and defeats. Like Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2), they press on toward the goal in both good times and bad.
- If you had to define “marriage,” what words would you use? What makes marriage unique and different from any other human relationship?
- How would you describe your “long view” of your relationship? Where do you see yourselves in five years? Ten years? Twenty?
- When you run into obstacles, road-blocks, or conflicts in your marriage, what’s your “default” reaction? Do you get angry? Run home to mother? Blame one another? Or do you look for ways to solve the problem and move forward?
- Did you see lifelong commitment modeled in your family of origin? How has your experience affected your view of this concept? In the Marine Corps they say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Does this maxim apply to marriage? If so, how?Would you describe your marriage as “an adventure”? Would you like to make it more “adventurous”? If so, how?
- The Bible says, “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). What do you think it means to be “one flesh”?
2. Shared Spiritual Intimacy
Thriving couples have a deep, shared faith. They consciously regard Christ as the foundation of their relationship (Ephesians 2:20) and understand that a genuinely Christ-centered marriage is a marriage in which both partners actively acknowledge the presence and the authority of God, and where Jesus makes an observable difference in daily life.
- What do you think it means to have a “Christ-centered” marriage?
- Would you say that your relationship is solidly grounded on the foundation of your faith in Jesus Christ? Why or why not?
- What are some practical ways you can acknowledge God’s authority in your home? How does the belief that He is present shape your interactions with one another?
- What do you do differently as a couple because of your Christian faith?Do you pray together as a couple? Study the Bible? Meet with other believers? Do you think that activities of this kind have an important impact on the quality of your relationship?
- Have you shared with your spouse how you came to know the Lord? Do you regularly talk with each other about the things you are learning on your spiritual journey?
- What does the term “walking with Christ” mean to each of you? How do you differ from one another in the way you approach your faith? In what ways are you similar?
3. Positive Communication
Communication is the heart and soul of any vibrant relationship. Successful husbands and wives understand this. They prioritize communication and approach it as a process involving openness, empathy, and a deep heart-connection. They are quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). They ask questions and try to enter into one another’s thoughts and feelings.
- How often do you sit down as a couple simply to talk to one another? Do you set time aside specifically for this purpose? Why or why not?
- What do you need and expect from each other in terms of openness and depth of communication? How do your needs and expectations differ?
- Do you feel that you understand each other? If not, what can you do to improve the situation?
- Males and females often have different communication styles. Have you found this true in your marriage? How do you work through the challenges this can bring?
- If you had three minutes to “explain yourself” to your spouse, what would you say? Is there anything about your partner that you want to understand more clearly?
- Do you find it easy or difficult to be together for any length of time without talking?
- Has your spouse changed significantly since the two of you were married? How does your current relationship differ from the relationship you shared before the wedding?
4. Healthy Conflict Management
Couples who go the distance recognize that spousal conflict is inevitable. They know that the secret of their success lies in the way they handle this conflict, and they embrace the concept that God uses this bumping and jarring to cause them to grow (Proverbs 27:17). They keep short accounts and never let the sun go down on their anger (Ephesians 4:26).
- Do you welcome conflict or view it as a threat?
- As a couple, do you have a conscious strategy or game plan for resolving your differences? If not, have you ever stopped to analyze the way you handle conflict? Do you simply “get by” on “knee-jerk reactions”?
- What does it mean to “fight fair”? Are you comfortable with this concept, or do you tend to feel that any kind of fighting is wrong in marriage?
- How are you both different? How have your differences shaped and impacted your relationship ¬– whether for better or for worse?
- Is forgiveness the same as forgetfulness? Why or why not? Can you forgive and not forget? What does it take for you to move beyond conflicts and get on with life?
- Have you ever had a conflict that eventually led to deeper intimacy and understanding? If so, how did that work?
5. Spending Enjoyable Time Together
Thriving couples are intentional about spending enjoyable time together (Philippians 1:8). They build their relationship upon a foundation of shared values, interests, and goals. They schedule regular date nights and outings and develop meaningful traditions and family rituals. They also know how to maintain a healthy balance between togetherness and independence.
- Do you ever feel that you’re simply too busy to share enjoyable and meaningful time together? If so, are you satisfied with the status quo, or are you motivated to “fight back”?
- Is your spouse fun to be with? Are you? What can you do to foster more spontaneity and laughter in your relationship?
- What would it take to enable you to spend enjoyable time together on a more regular basis? Babysitters? Schedule readjustments? A different approach to balancing work and family life?
- What one thing can you commit yourself to do this week in an effort to free up more time to spend with your spouse?
- Do you have regular date nights? If so, what can you do to keep them from becoming “routine” and “boring”? If not, why not?
- What are your most passionate interests as individuals? What do you enjoy doing most? How would your spouse answer these questions? How can you use this knowledge to plan more meaningful times together?
- What do each of you do or where do you go when you need time to yourself?
Successful marriages are made up of two people who intentionally treasure and honor one another. They do this by keeping a conscious account of the things they value about each other. Just as Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of His redeeming work on the cross (Luke 22:19), they commemorate the blessings of their relationship in a tangible, physical way — with gifts, celebrations, and meaningful mementos of significant occasions.
- Why were you attracted to one another in the first place? What do you like and admire most about each other? Make a list and share it with your mate.
- As a couple, what are some of your most important traditions, rituals, and celebrations? How do you use these traditions to strengthen the tie that binds you to each other?
- Which of your shared memories are most meaningful to you? What are you doing to keep them alive?
- Can you honestly say that you regard your spouse as a “treasure”? How do you express your feelings of mutual appreciation?
- How do you respond when romantic feelings ebb and flow? What do you do to fan the flames of romance and keep them burning?
- How do you talk about each other around other people? In social settings do you feel valued and appreciated by the other?
Nourishing is a matter of discovering your mate’s “love language” and learning how to speak it. It’s about building each other up in active, practical ways and “encouraging one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). It involves nurturing your spouse’s strengths and supplementing his or her weaknesses. This implies a significant investment of time and energy, but it’s an investment that pays off in a relationship capable of weathering any storm.
- What energizes and encourages you? Take some time to think about it. Then write down your answers and go over them together.
- Do you think you have a good understanding of your spouse’s strengths, weaknesses, desires, and aspirations? If not, what can you do to find out more about these aspects of his or her character and personality?
- Is there anything you can do to help your spouse achieve his or her goals and become the person God wants him or her to be?
- When you really want to tell your spouse, “I love you,” what do you say or do? What expressions of love do you find most meaningful?
- What are your greatest strengths? Where are your flaws and weaknesses? List them and share them with your spouse. Then talk about ways you can help highlight one another’s strong points, complement one another’s weaknesses, and help each other become the people God has designed you to be.
8. Shared Responsibility
Couples with vibrant relationships find ways to resolve the issue of male and female roles between themselves with Scripture as their guide. They talk openly about their expectations and personal preferences and hammer out a God-honoring plan that preserves fairness and equity in the way it divides household tasks and responsibilities. Their goal is to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and function as a team.
- Are you happy with the way you’ve divided up household chores and responsibilities between yourselves?
- How did your parents approach the question of male and female roles in marriage? How has the example of the older generation shaped your own attitudes towards this sometimes sensitive aspect of the marital relationship?
- What is your understanding of what the Bible has to say about the roles of husbands and wives? Is that reflected in your marriage?
- What kind of household tasks do you enjoy most? What are you best at — in other words, where do your personal gifts and talents lie? How do you think you can best serve your spouse?
- What do you expect your spouse to do for you? Wash your clothes? Maintain the car? Cook your dinner? Bring you the newspaper or breakfast in bed? What are your assumptions about your own role in the marriage and your own contribution to the relationship? Write down your answers to these questions and share them with one another.
- Have you taken the time to discuss, organize, and codify these expectations and assumptions? Maybe you want to draw up a plan, make a chart detailing each partner’s chores, and post it on your refrigerator.
- When it comes to sharing the load of household chores and responsibilities, are you on the same page, or is this a bone of contention in your marriage? If it’s a source of conflict, what can you do to smooth the waters?
9. Mutually Satisfying Physical Intimacy
Thriving couples regularly celebrate their marriage with passionate sexual intimacy. They don’t regard sex as a “chore” or “obligation,” but as a delightful “dance” in which each spouse puts the other’s needs and interests ahead of his or her own (Philippians 2:4). At the same time, they never lose sight of the fact that sex is not the only element of a vibrant marital relationship. They understand that satisfying physical intimacy also includes plenty of affection, tenderness, warmth, and physical touch as well.
Note to mentors: Some couples will feel comfortable sharing freely around this topic, others will not. We suggest checking with your mentoree couple at the outset to determine whether it would be an appropriate subject for discussion. If they would prefer to skip this one, simply move on to the next topic.
Do you regularly talk with one another about the physical aspect of your relationship?
Are you both mostly “on the same page” when it comes to sexual intimacy, or is this a point of tension or conflict?
How do you express affection for one another outside the bedroom? Are you both comfortable and happy with this aspect of your relationship?
What are your individual assumptions and expectations with regard to the sexual side of marriage? How do they compare with your spouse’s? If you differ, what are you doing to resolve the issue(s)?
What would you say are the five most important elements of a marriage relationship? If you had to rank these elements, where on the list would you place sex? Can you explain the reasoning behind your ranking?
Have you been aware of shifting “seasons” in your sexual relationship? How would you identify the causal factors behind the ebb and flow of sexual desire? Is this a source of conflict in your marriage? How might you both achieve greater mutual understanding in this area?
Coping With Change, Stress, and Crises
Successful couples don’t consider it strange when external trials and pressures come upon them (1 Peter 4:12). Instead, they prepare for hard times and make provisions for seeking outside help when it’s needed. In all kinds of adversity, they take pains to anchor their marriage to the Solid Rock of faith in Jesus Christ.
- Where do you turn when trouble comes your way? Do difficulties throw you into turmoil, or do you take them in stride?
- As a couple, have you ever taken time out to discuss how you expect the pressures of the different stages of marriage — for example, childbirth, parenting, the empty nest, physical separations, financial setbacks, retirement, illness, and aging — are likely to impact your relationship? Do you have a plan or strategy to help you cope with such eventualities?
- Is your house built upon sand or rock? What practical steps can you take together to strengthen the foundation of your marriage?
- We’ve said that conflict, when handled appropriately, can actually strengthen a relationship. Would you say the same thing about adversity and external pressures — for example, the loss of a job or the death of a close family member? Have you ever experienced what it is like to grow closer to one another as the result of weathering a storm together?
- Do you have a strong support system — friends, family members, or mentors to whom you can look for help in a difficult situation? List the names of the people you’d feel most comfortable turning to for assistance in times of trial.
- Have you ever engaged the assistance of a trained marriage counselor? If so, do you think the experience was beneficial to your marriage? Why or why not?
11. Community Minded
Healthy husbands and wives realize that they need other people and other people need them. They are intentional about connecting regularly with other like-minded couples. They stay engaged with nurturing communities of all kinds and make a special point of maintaining an active involvement in the local church, where they have many opportunities to give and receive spiritual support (Galatians 6:10).
- Would you say you are significantly involved in your church and that you are “connected” to other church members? Do you agree that such fellowship is an important part of every Christian’s life, or do you have differing views on that aspect of your faith?
- What are you doing as a couple to give of yourselves to friends, extended family, neighbors, and other members of the larger community? Are there others less-fortunate or in challenging situations — a single mom, a struggling couple, a fatherless child — that you are investing in together?
- How would each of you describe yourself — as a “people person” or as more of a private individual? Are you alike in this regard, or do you have contrasting personalities when it comes to social interaction? How do you work together as a team when interacting with other people?
- Do you have other couples you both enjoy spending time with?
- Have you as a couple ever found yourselves leaning on the church or on a group of neighbors and friends for practical support? Has anyone ever come to your rescue? How do you feel about that experience? How has it shaped your attitude towards others?
- Have you been helped and encouraged by the input of other marriage mentors (official or unofficial)? Would you ever be willing to mentor a younger or less-experienced couple?
12. Healthy Individuals
A thriving marriage is made up of two thriving individuals. It can only be as strong as its component parts — namely, husband and wife. It’s a blending, not a cloning, of two distinct personalities. Common sense itself suggests that healthy relationships emerge when healthy people come together in a healthy, positive way. This means that there’s a place for appropriate self-care and self-improvement in any marital relationship (Galatians 6:4, 5).
- What are each of your most cherished dreams and goals? What are you doing to achieve them? Does your spouse approve or disapprove?
- Are you both comfortable with the idea of taking time out of your schedule for the express purpose of nurturing and caring for yourself? Why or why not?
- Do each of you have a strong devotional life? What do you think it means to “spend time with God”? What steps are you taking to help yourself grow as a Christian?
- Is lifelong learning and education — whether formal or informal — important to you? What interests, hobbies, or activities are you pursuing outside of your marriage, your job, and your life at home? What do you like best to do with your “spare time”?
- What are you doing to stay physically healthy? Are you exercising, eating right, and getting sufficient sleep?
- How are you encouraging your spouse to pursue personal and spiritual self-development? Is there anything practical you can do to create more space and freedom for your mate?
- To what extent do you look to your spouse to meet your needs, fulfill your expectations, or bring significance and meaning to your life? Do you think this is healthy or unhealthy?