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 2 of 2)
Shaunti Feldhahn: How do you rejoice in a difficult marriage? Here’s how you do it. You think on the best instead of the worst. It doesn’t mean you ignore the problems, but it does mean that you can completely change how you feel about your whole marriage.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Well, those insights come from our broadcast guest on the last Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and Shaunti Feldhahn is back, revealing some of the secrets she learned from very happy couples and ways that you can apply some principles to your marital relationship and increase that happiness quotient. And Jim, imminently practical and very biblical conversation last time.
Jim Daly: Well, I hope so John, and that’s what we’re trying to do each and every day here at Focus on the Family. Shaunti, it was so good to talk with you last time, but you kinda twisted my mind a bit at the end (Laughter). Uh … one of the things we talked about and if you didn’t hear last time, go and get the download. Get it on your SmartPhone, your iPhone. It’s worth it. I think it … there were so many good things that you shared, Shaunti, that people need to hear. And John, you’ll mention those details at the end of the program. But Shaunti, you talked about, it’s good to go to bed mad. Now that seems upside down to me and I think you’re probably gonna turn our world upside down a little more today.
Jim: But let me formally welcome you back to Focus on the Family.
Shaunti: It is always good to be with you guys.
Jim: Well, you have some great concepts and we want to dive into it and I want to start today, Shaunti, by reminding married couples that you’re in a spiritual battle. I think we often lose sight of how our flesh is at war with us and not only that, the enemy wants to also destroy our Christian marriages, because it serves his purposes to discredit God’s sacrificial love for us and to destroy our witness before the world.
Our marriage is the closest relationship we have on this earth and it mirrors that self-sacrificing love that Christ has for us. And in fact, you mentioned earlier about Paul saying, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, think ongood things to equip you to fight the spiritual battle for your marriage, right?
Shaunti: Yeah. Let me give you an example. Okay, this is exactly how I would listen to some of these couples take me through what would normally become a bad interaction and spiral downward, and yet it becomes good instead. Because we know the enemy would love to stand there over our shoulder and say, “He doesn’t care” or “Nothing you do is ever good enough for her”-- right, that’s what we know is happening in the background, somehow, in the spiritual realm.
So here’s an example. A happy couple I was interviewing, I was asking them and I do this with everybody. Uh … take me through your last conflict, the last time that somebody hurt your feelings and that there was a potential for it going downhill.
And I was talking to this one guy who, he had … was getting ready for a really important business trip and had asked his wife, “Are you gonna pick up my shirts at the dry cleaners? I’m leaving really early in the morning. I can do it.” “No, no, Honey, no, I got it. I’ll get ‘em.” “Okay, you’re sure, ‘cause I can go by.” “No, no,Sweetheart, I’ll go get them.”
So, he arrives home at 9 o’clock at night. The dry cleaners are closed and the shirts aren’t there. And he has to leave at 6 in the morning and now he has … you know, what am I gonna do? This big business meeting.
Jim: Jean, I did not talk to her about this. (Laughter)
Shaunti: Really, this is not a real example. And so, I say, “Okay, what happens next?” ‘Cause this is where it can all go downhill. “I can’t believe you … blah, blah, blah, blah.” And the enemy’s going, “You’re right; she doesn’t care. She doesn’t appreciate.”
And so, I said, “Take me … what happens next in your head? What do you do next?” And he said, “Well, I go stompin’ down the basement stairs and down to my workshop to pound somethin’.” Okay, take me through. What happens next?
“Well, I’m pounding the cabinet (Laughter), you know, putting the cabinets together that I had been making.” And okay, what are you thinking? “And I’m thinkin’, I asked her three times and I was willing to do it and … and she said she would. And … but you know, uh … that’s not really fair, because (pound, pound, pound) because you know, the baby was sick all day and she’s been home with these cranky kids who’ve been sick. And she had to take the baby to the doctor and then the … I know the line at … to get the prescription was … took atime and she had to go to the grocery store to get dinner. And … and you know, and she always feeds the family and she’s always cooks [ me dinner. And she’s such a great mom and why am I being such a jerk?”
You know, and what’s just happened there is that he has refused to allow that little voice of the enemy, “She doesn’t appreciate you. You … you work so hard and she doesn’t care.” He’s refused to allow that and instead, he’s talking himself out of being mad by focusing on what is good, not what’s bad and what’s lovely instead of what’s maybe not so perfect right now and what he can appreciate instead of what’s driving him crazy
And that is an example of the kind of things that we canfrom the happy couples, ‘cause what they have found really is the secret sauce to a happy marriage.
Jim: Okay, now I’ve got to hit another trait that you identified though, because it seems again, counterintuitive, where you talk about this idea that, keeping score is a good thing to do.
Shaunti: (Laughing) I knew you were gonna--
Shaunti: --bring that one up.
Jim: --it sounds totally opposite, but what did you find in that regard? Keepin’ score is good?!?
Shaunti: Yeah, we are always told not to keep score, not to keep score. And instead, these happy couples absolutely did keep score, believe--
Jim: I mean--
Shaunti: --it or not.
Jim: --like in a gentle way.
Shaunti: They … but they kept score totally differently.
Jim: Oh, okay.
Shaunti: They kept score of what the other person was giving. And so, it was really interesting watching the difference. Instead of … we’re … of course, it’s terrible to keep score of what they’re not giving. And--
Jim: The wrongs.
Shaunti: --of course, it’s gonna be awful to keep score of the wrongs and what they’re getting and I’m not getting. You know, I mean, that’s gonna always derail your marriage.
Jim: Describe what … what the healthy way of keeping score--
Jim: --looks like.
Shaunti: --an example, all right, so this same husband that I was just talkin’ about, he was describing how um … with his wife, she had gone through a season where their kids were actually sick for a whole week and in and out of the doctor’s and cranky kids and she’s a stay-at-home mom.
And so, he’s automatically, he’s going, wow! I’m really aware of the fact that she’s had this really hard week and she’s been with these sick kids. And oh, my goodness, she’s giving so much to them and she’s gotta be so tired. So, you know, come Saturday when I’m home from work, “Honey, why don’t you just give me the kids. I’ll take the cranky kids and the sick … you know and wiping their noses and all that and you go out with your girlfriends and you just get out for the day.” Because he is so aware of what she’s been giving, that there’s this gratitude and so, there’s this outpouring of, “What can I do to give back?”
And it’slike, “You know, I’m just gonna be such a wonderful husband and I’m gonna allow her to go out because I’m just that nice of a man.” And instead, it’s like, no. I am seriously grateful because I notice what she’s giving and so, I want to give back. And then, that day, she goes out with her girlfriends and she’s like, “Wow, that was so sweet of him. He’s such a nice guy. What can I do to give back to ?”
Jim: And all her girlfriends are saying that, too.
Shaunti: And all her girlfriends are saying (Laughter) that, too. And what can I do to give back to him? Because she is grateful and it becomes this positive cycle. This one right here is another one of the common ways that the couples who started out very unhappy, ended up very happy in their marriage.
Jim: But are you really saying, uh … keep score of how you can bless your spouse?
Shaunti: Actually, believe it or not, it’s not just that. It truly is, keep score of what the other person is giving,that leads to gratitude and then you--
Shaunti: --to bless, as opposed to drudging it up out of willpower like, okay, gotta figure out what to do to bless my spouse. Because it really is out of a gratitude and a love.
Jim: And you’re really living in their shoes then--
Shaunti: Yes, exactly.
Jim: --which again, is--
Shaunti: Great way--
Jim: --a very biblical--
Shaunti: --of putting it.
John: And I think it’s important probably to recognize, Shaunti, that this is a … a matter of time here. This is not an instant fix. Jim, I remember one time, Dena went off on a women’s conference uh … for the weekend. And I was so happy about being the hero and managing the fort with so many kids. And we made it through the weekend.I knew she was gonna walk in the door and just throw her arms around me and thank me. And she walked in the door and said, “I am sick; goodnight.” (Laughter) So … so--
Jim: Well, I mean she--
John: --there I--
Jim: --was sick.
John: --there I am standing with all this expectation and … and I mean, if I would’ve stopped there in keeping the score of a good thing, I mean, it … it could’ve stopped me dead in my tracks. Her response wasn’t what I wanted to see. So, there is an element of time here, right?
Shaunti: Oh, always. I mean, listen, we are married to imperfect people, right? (Laughter) I mean, and … and you know what? are imperfect--
Jim: Oh, there you--
Jim: --go. That’s the--
Shaunti: And they are--
Jim: --part I was waiting--
Shaunti: --married to--
John: Well, I … I was very--
Shaunti: And they are married to us.
John: --I was very proud in my (Laughter) in my handling of that. So, I was sinful in that.
Jim: You’re proud of your imperfection.
Shaunti: Well, you know, we’re all … we’ve all been in those shoes. I think we could all come up with examples for that. And this is all part of that grace and that generosity. This is all part of that awareness and kindness of the other person. This is actually, to me, one of the reasons why, you know, Jim, you talked about, you needed to rely on God for this kind of awareness of what the other person is giving and really trulyto look at the positive instead of the negative. I mean, ‘cause that doesn’t come naturally.
One of the other things that I found in the research, there was a very high number of these highly happy couples that said, I can’t do it on my own, that I have to rely on God. I mean, I was, as a researcher, I was pretty careful to try to go beyond the bounds of the church and interview people in coffee shops and airports and you know, I always feel bad for the person sitting next to me on the airplane for two hours, you know. (Laughter) It’s like …
Shaunti: (Laughing) I’m like …
Jim: Oh, no. (Laughter)
Shaunti: I get great data though, but … but here’s what really stunned me. I was on purpose trying to find people who might not believe in God.
Shaunti: But they kept bringing Him up. It was funny. Like I’d talk to them and say, you know, and they would uh … if they had shown that they were the highly happy couple, you know, I’d say, okay, so help me understand, what are some of the secrets? You know, why are you so happy? And they would often look at each other and then look at me and say, “It’s because of Jesus Christ.”
Shaunti: And I could tell they were saying, “Ooh, it’s a chance to witness to a social researcher,” (Laughter) you know--
Shaunti: --and which was so encouraging to me.
Jim: No and that to me is encouraging. That should be self-evident then--
Jim: --when you’re witnessing to somebody, to be able to bring these things up.
Shaunti: Well, here’s one of the things that was really … as I started looking into the numbers, we have this um … this belief that really isn’t true in our culture, that most couples are just kinda hangin’ on and that they’re really not enjoying their marriages and …
Jim: Right, we have bought into that belief--
Shaunti: We’ve kinda bought into that--
Jim: --even Christians.
Shaunti: --belief. And it’s not true. And you know, all the studies that have been done have found that 80 percent of marriages on average, 80 percent of marriages are happy. And it’s not perfect certainly, but enjoying being married generally.
Jim: Eighty percent.
Shaunti: Eighty percent.
Jim: Folks, hear that? 80 percent.
Shaunti: And the thing … one of the things that to me is even more encouraging, is when I started studying what the numbers really are in the church, ‘cause we’ve kinda bought into this idea that … that--
Jim: Fifty percent.
Shaunti: --50 … yeah, 50 percent divorce rate and it’s the same in the church and none of that is … and that is so not true. It’s based on somemisunderstandings of the Barna data. And that in the church, instead when I was analyzing for book, what percentage of these couples who say that they’re looking to God as the center of their marriage? What percentage aren’t just ? What percent are ?
Shaunti: Where both the husband and the wife are just loving this gift that God has given them. Fifty-three percent of people who say that God is at the center of their marriage are not just happy, they’re very happyAnd the overall number is like 90-something percent. But that is huge! Because out there in the regular culture, it’s probably 25-30% are very happy. The ones who say that God is the center of their marriage is double that.
Jim: Well that, that is amazing and it should be so. And we need to get that word out that it is happening and you can have that kind of happy marriage and it’s rooted in a relationship with Christ. What about the couple, and again, we’re talking hypotheticals here to help everyone, ‘cause--
Jim: --we’re all gonna be at different places in--
Jim: --our relationships together. But uh … what about the couple where uh … you know, the husband, it’s what they both refer to as a vicious cycle. They’re both not thinking the best of each other--
Jim: --perhaps. And um … the husband will say that. “You know, you always think the worst motivation for me.” And the wife says, “Well, you’ve given me plenty of ammunition.”
Jim: Ouch. These are all ouches.
Jim: And she’s thinking, “Well, you’ve wounded me so many times, I’m responding to you. I’m simply reflecting the way you’re--
Jim: --treating me.” And the husband’s saying, “Well, I’m reflecting the way you’re treating me.”
Shaunti: Total vicious cycle.
Jim: What happens there? What are you trying to do and how does a … a couple pull themselves up out of that and get happier?
Shaunti: Yeah, well, here’s one of the other interesting things that I found. Actually probably for me personally, this was one of the most encouraging things that I saw in this entire project over the last three years. It’s that many of the happy couples that I surveyed and interviewed had been there, had been at that unhappy place.
Jim: So, they went through that valley.
Shaunti: They went through that valley and--
Shaunti: --now I’m surveying them, you know, some number of years later and they describe themselves as being incredibly happy in their marriage. And … and I should explain by the way, that the way I identified that is, if the husband and the wife independently without ever knowing what the other person said about their level of happiness, if they both chose that they were at the highest level of the scale of happiness, those were the couples I was talking to.
Shaunti: So, this isn’t like the husband saying, “Yeah, we’re great” and the wife’s like, “Eeh.” You know, this is independently both agreeing. And so, many of those people had gone through the valley. What did they do differently? And one of the biggies is that one person decided to stop the cycle--
Shaunti: --just one. It wasn’t necessarily both. And that’s this wonderful paradox about serving the other person and just doing what you’re called to do, regardless of whether your spouse does their part. And that is honestly, one of the things that allows that cycle to be broken.
For example, maybe you speak to me in a really rough tone. I am not gonna respond in kind. La, la, la, la, la, I’m not listening.
John: It closes--
Shaunti: I’m just--
John: --your heart.
Shaunti: --yeah and I am going to, instead of responding the way Iwant to, I’m gonna force myself to take a deep breath and I’m gonna speak to you kindly regardless. And at some point when you give that grace, it brings conviction. And instead, you know, like that other person starts to want to treat you kindly, ‘cause you’re treating them so kindly. You know, that Scripture about, you know, treat them kindly and it heaps burning coals on their head, you know--
Shaunti: --because you start to feel terrible that you’re being such a grouch, right? That’s an example of one person making a choice can make a big difference.
Jim: And can break that cycle.
Shaunti: Can break the cycle.
Jim: Let’s get back to your book,, uh … in there you talk … these are the little goodies that you found in your research. (Laughter) I like to think of ‘em that way. But you said, happy couples boss their feelings around. Again, that’s … a , but what (Laughter) does it really mean?
Shaunti: This is that thing where they talk themselves out of bein’ mad, right? Or when their … when their thoughts start to go in a negative direction, they’re like, nope. Not gonna go there. I’m gonna do that Philippians 4 thing instead. And I really want to focus on what is , but I’m gonna focus on what lovely. And I want to focus on right now I’m really frustrated and I want to focus on what is worthy of praise. But I’m gonna focus on what worthy of praise. It was actually really interesting. In … they got so used to that or it became such a habit--
Jim: A routine.
Shaunti: --over time, yeah, that in the end, I think it was something like two-thirds of these hap … really happy couples, that had become so much a part of their life, that when I asked, you know, what do you do with a negative train of thought? Instead of saying, okay, well, here’s how I combat it and here’s how I do that. Two-thirds of them said, you know, I’ve gotten so used to doing this, I stop that negative train of thought before it even gets started--
Jim: Before the whistle blows.
Shaunti: --yeah, about my spouse. And so, that’s one of the reasons that they are so enjoying being married, because they are constantly in the state of awareness of all of the good things, even when, yeah, we’re dealing with issues like anybody else.
Jim: Shaunti, let me ask you this question. It’s a little tender--
Jim: --but I think we need to ask it. For that person who feels they’re having to tell their spouse what they want or need, it kinda for them takes all the romance out of it and uh … you know, they would prefer that the spousewhat they want or need. Is that ? Or is that maybe unfair, that they would have that expectation?
Shaunti: It’s unfortunately very unfair. Um … this is one of the things that uh … I … as I identified these 12 things, I kept coming up with this one and going, oh, man, I have a tendency to do this.
Jim: I think we all do. I mean--
Shaunti: Well …
Jim: --to John’s … example, I mean, he was taking care of the kids all weekend,Dena came home. You had an expectation. She (Laughing) did not meet that expectation. (Laughter) And that’s all of our stories
Shaunti: We … we’ve all been there, right? And truly, you know, psychologists will tell you, this is something obviously Greg Smalley can tell you way better than I can, but you know, psychologists and counselors will tell you thatthing that makes someone unhappy is having an expectation that isn’t met. You know, you’re expecting something to happen a particular way and it doesn’t and that’s what makes you unhappy.
And as I had dug into these, you know, what are these happy couples doing differently from everybody else, is they stopped themselves from, I guess you’d put it kind of longing for or expecting something that wasdifficult for their spouse to deliver.
I mean, for example, a common thing that I think we women really long for is, you know, if things are a conflict and … and there’s a lot of emotions in the room and we’re all upset and we’re not feeling like he loves me and you as a woman, sometimes kinda want to test whether he really cares about you by sort of pulling away. “Well, fine. I’ll just go do something else then.” And you secretly want him to come after you (Laughter) and say, “No, I’m not letting you get away, ‘cause I love you,” you know, until we work this out.
Well, actually that’s an expectation from the romance novels. (Laughter) That’s not real life and real life men need time and distance to process when there’s been a lot of emotions in the room. And so, when you say, “You know, fine, I’ll just go do something else for a while,” he’s going, “Oh, good.” (Laughter)
Jim: I’ll get a … I get a break.
Shaunti: Whew! Because I need to be able to go and think what I’m … what am I feeling and how can we talk about this, so … so we can engage well later? And … and so, it’s really not realistic to expect a … most real-life men to do what the romance heroes do. “No, I’m not gonna let you get away ‘cause I love you that much.” And instead, if you let yourself think, “If he cared about me, he wouldn’t let me get away,” that’s an example of something that’s just gonna make you crazy and unhappy, because you are expecting and longing something … for something that isfor him to deliver.
Jim: When you boil it down then, um … for that couple that’s surviving--
Jim: --they’ve heard us talk about these couples um … today and last time that are in a happy state. They’re fulfilled. They’re enjoying each other. Both wives and husbands hearing this are longing for that. Maybe they don’t have it.
Jim: What can they do when they get home tonight when work is done and they’re sitting at the dinner table or maybe after dinner, whatever? What can they do to say, okay, we’re gonna change this?
Shaunti: One of the most big-picture encouraging things is, to sit down and say,you know what, we’re not where we really want to be. We both want to have a great happy marriage. And you know what? If 80 percent of these couples can be that happy, we can get there, too. This is not rocket science. Take out of your frame of reference that it’s gonna be ultra-complicated. It’s not. I was really encouraged when I did this research to find that these weren’t big things you can’t do anything about, like, you come from an intact family and that’s why you’re happy. “Well, that doesn’t help.” You know, if you come from a divorced family, well, hello, is that gonna help me? No. These were these little, individual, day-to-day actions that the couples didn’t necessarily realize made such a big impact, but they did. And there was one thing you were telling me earlier, John, is, these are little but they add up.
Jim: It’s kind of like drip irrigation, isn’t it? It waters the flower.
Shaunti: I love that analogy. And so, a couple can come home tonight and say, “You know what? Let’s just try a couple of these things.” Just pick. And this is my big encouragement for them. Don’t try to pick all of ‘em at once, ‘cause you’ll just like get overwhelmed. We …
Jim: Just one or two.
Shaunti: Just one or two, that’s to us, the key. Pick one or maybe pick one for you and one for your spouse to do. Pick one or two things that you’re gonna try for a few weeks and see what happens. Choose to believe, for example, that the next time you’re hurt, that he didn’t mean that. And he didn’t mean it the way it came across. Choose to believe the best. Choose to look for the good instead of the bad and the things you can appreciate, rather than what drives you absolutely bananas. And refuse to focus on the negative for a few weeks.
And wow, you might find your feelings changing. And then you know what? It’ll be a whole lot easier for you suddenly to then work on the next thing and the next thing, ‘cause now you’re suddenly starting to enjoy each other again.
Jim: And then you develop patterns of good behavior,behavior that really will help your marriage thrive, not just survive.
Jim: You know, many couples feel alone and they don’t realize that others are dealing with very similar issues. That’s why it’s so good to talk openly about the things that we’ve talked about today. Uh … even with the happy marriages, there are gonna be times, seasons, moments where it doesn’t feel very happy. That’s life.
Shaunti: Yeah and--
Jim: And we need to--
Shaunti: --that’s okay.
Jim: --it’s okay and we need to grab that and then we as Christians need to encourage each other, both in our relationships, our marital relationships, as well as brothers and sisters in the Lord, to keepto do better, to think well of your spouse, to think well of God’s intentions for your marriage, rather than just buying the cultural line. And you have done that so beautifully today and last time.
Can I turn to those that are struggling? If you need help, that’swhy we’re here. We want to put that arm around you. We have counselorsable to talk with you and to help you think through these issues. Of course, Shaunti’s book we’ll make available to you for a donation of any amount. And we mean that,. If you can’t afford it, guess what? Others have provided the resources to provide that book for you.
And I want to say thank you to those folks, because we need you. We need the folks to help underwrite this ministry. So, if you can help us to stand in the gap for these couples, we would really appreciate it. we can get the work done that the Lord needs to get done.
Jim: And Shaunti, you have really brought some great insight. I so appreciate your ability in gathering all this research. I’m glad you got out of banking. (Laughter) Maybe I’m glad you went to Harvard. They’ve taught you a lot (Laughter). But you know, talking about, it’s given us all hope. Thanks for doin’ that.
Shaunti: Absolutely. I have so valued my partnership with Focus over the years. And I have seen so many lives changed through this ministry. I’m so grateful for you guys.
John: Well, we’re grateful for the partnership we have with Shaunti Feldhahn and trust that you’ve been encouraged by this conversation today. If you’d like to speak to one of our counselors, as Jim mentioned, or to get a copy of Shaunti’s book or make a donation to the ministry, please, call 800-A-FAMILY. 800-232-6459.Or visit us online at focusonthefamily.com/radio. While you’re there, let me encourage you to take our Marriage Assessment. It’s going to help you evaluate key areas in your marriage and give you some action points to help make your marriage stronger. Jim and I have taken it-- let me ask you to take it as well.
Next time on the broadcast, Dr. Kevin Leman examines some pretty common challenges in parenting.
Dr. Kevin Leman: I’m old enough to remember when kids used to obey their parents. Now parents obey their kids.
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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.