You’re Lovers and Friends . . . But Are You Partners?

Partners - An illustration of the silhouettes of a husband and wife. Within the silhouettes, the man and the woman work together to build and care for an island.
Eleni Debo
Building a strong partnership in your marriage is key to a healthy relationship

Elizabeth’s complaints were pretty common. In fact, I’d heard them before from countless couples over my 20 years in ministry. Seth was a good guy—kind, decent and compassionate. But he was failing to pull his weight at home, and Elizabeth was tired of it. Seth, meanwhile, was generally apathetic about failing to contribute to the household’s well-being.

Elizabeth felt justified in her frustrations, and while Seth deserved plenty of blame, I reminded Elizabeth that her behaviors indicated that she was treating her husband like a child and not a partner—and that was just as wrong. She was not his mother.

When two people say, “I do,” they promise to be their spouse’s friend, partner and lover. When any of those roles suffer, the overall relationship struggles. When all three flourish, the relationship thrives. In Elizabeth and Seth’s marriage, their partnership had faltered. Here’s how to build a stronger partnership in your marriage so that both you and your spouse feel supported.

Having each other’s backs

I’ve spoken with many couples before officiating their weddings, and the majority understand the importance of friendship in marriage. Most are marrying their best friend. The same holds true for intimacy: Couples know that sex plays a vital role in marriage. Yet when I talk about the importance of partnership, they look at me as though I’m offering advice from the Middle Ages, when marriages were arranged to strengthen kingdoms or transfer land.

True partners have each other’s backs. Being in a healthy marriage is like having eyes in the back of our heads—our vision increases. I can scan the horizon 180 degrees, looking for potential threats and opportunities, while my wife scans the other 180 degrees for the same.

I realize that partnership can sound cold, like the relationship between accountants or lawyers. Younger couples usually view it as a necessary aspect of their marriage—bills must be paid; kids must be raised—not as an element that can give added life to their relationship. But two decades into my own marriage, I’ve learned that the partnership aspect isn’t cold at all. To my surprise, it’s one of marriage’s greatest benefits.

When a relationship isn’t all it could be

Yet when a marriage goes wrong, the threat of being stabbed in the back replaces the security that comes from knowing someone is watching out for you. There are few things worse than distrust between husband and wife—when neither can look to the future because both are busy looking over their shoulders.

Simon and Allison were two energetic, successful people. They’re smart, 

involved parents who wanted what’s best for their children. From the outside, they appeared to juggle their careers and families with great skill. But on the inside, something was wrong.

Unlike Seth and Elizabeth, Simon and Allison were fully engaged regarding household duties. Their relationship was not a parent-child dynamic. But it also wasn’t a healthy marriage. Both felt alone, overwhelmed and stressed. Most people long for a spouse who works hard, yet Allison and Simon didn’t benefit from each other’s work ethic because they weren’t working together.

Partnerships typically go wrong in one of two primary ways: In the case of Elizabeth and Seth, Seth was failing to do his part, and Elizabeth felt the need to take control of the relationship. As a result, their marriage shifted to a parent-child dynamic.

In Simon and Allison’s marriage, however, both spouses worked hard, yet they weren’t moving toward a common goal. Each was so focused on his or her own responsibilities that neither one considered how each might lighten the other’s load.

When a partnership goes wrong, one or both spouses can feel as if they’re bearing all the weight of the relationship without any support. Partnership is about “partaking” in the relationship. When a partnership is working well, the whole is greater than the sum of its individuals.

A healthy partnership

I do ears; my wife does teeth. I have no clue how we ended up with this arrangement, but it’s what we do. Whenever there is a dental appointment, Jenny takes our kids. Whenever our daughter, who has Down syndrome, needs her ears cleaned, I take her to the doctor. No discussion. It just happens. Sure, there’s the rare occasion when we have to switch, but this is our typical routine.

In a healthy marriage, both spouses are fully invested. That includes parenting and family; finances and the future; hobbies, hopes and dreams; ears and teeth. Husband and wife, of course, do not perform precisely equal work in every area. Whether through negotiation or happenstance, spouses will take the lead in different areas and fully support each other.

When a partnership goes right, both husband and wife feel supported and loved. Life is certainly hard sometimes, but it’s even harder when we have nowhere to turn for help. In a healthy marriage, there’s not only somewhere to turn, but there’s also someone to turn to. For example, I know that if I have an emergency at work, Jenny can handle the family responsibilities. And she knows she can count on me in the same way. A tremendous emotional weight is lifted when either one of us can handle what needs to be done.

Become better partners

To foster better partnership in your marriage, consider these actions:

Deepen your respect. Friendship is built on trust; partnership is built on respect. When you and your spouse respect each other, you also listen to each other. Without respect, a strong partnership is nearly impossible.

Take personal responsibility. To be a good marriage partner, do your part. Helping your spouse (and the rest of your family) begins with taking personal responsibility for your role in the relationship.

See your spouse. This begins with understanding your partner’s concerns, stressors, dreams and even his or her daily schedule. What’s going on in your spouse’s life? At a minimum, figure out a way to provide emotional support each day, but also try to alleviate at least one stress or responsibility. The easiest way to do this is to ask, “What’s one way I can help you today?”

Discuss the bigger picture regularly. Partnership happens in the day to day of life, but if that’s all it’s about, you’re missing out on the good stuff. Partnership is also about bucket lists, hopes and goals, the life you want to create together. Make time on a regular basis to explore each other’s dreams and take concrete steps toward making them happen.

A surprising gift

Twenty years into our marriage, Jenny is my best friend, the one who understands and loves me like
no other human being. Yet she’s also my partner—the one who pushes me to achieve my dreams. And I’m the one who seeks out the desires of her heart and tries to make them come true. That’s one of the most surprising gifts in a good marriage.

It’s been a long time since Elizabeth and Seth sat in my office. To be honest, I didn’t think they were going to make it. Transitioning from an unhealthy parent-child dynamic to a healthy marriage is difficult. But they did it.

Seth grew up. He recognized that he wasn’t acting like a man. He began to take responsibility,
both for himself and for his marriage. Elizabeth adjusted as well. She stopped playing the role of Seth’s parent and allowed her husband to experience the consequences of his decisions while also giving him space to meet his responsibilities. Their marriage isn’t perfect, but their relationship is much improved. They’ve learned what it means to be partners.

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