What actually makes a good marriage? What traits do good marriages share?

I got thinking about this, and could easily rhyme off close to 20 criteria for a good marriage–things like “you laugh together”, or “you forgive quickly”, or “you’re kind to one another.” 

But I wanted to get more to the heart of it. 

And before I could figure that out, I decided that we had to define a good marriage first.

I think a good marriage is this:

Two people who share life together, who live together and serve each other, and who both feel truly known, accepted, and loved, so that they are strengthened to go into the world and do what they were born to do. 

Definition of a Good Marriage

Marriage is a relationship in which both people need to feel free to bare their true selves, because that’s what it’s all about. We want to feel cherished, and you can’t feel cherished if you aren’t fully known. And you can’t open up and tell your spouse everything–your hopes, your fears, your dreams–if you’re scared your spouse will reject you or belittle you. You need trust.

And then, once you have that foundation of acceptance, love, and support, you can go out and fulfill the calling you have on your life. As a Christian, I believe that calling was given to us by Jesus before the very foundation of the world (Ephesians 2:10), that He has prepared us with unique gifts, opportunities, and personalities to make our own mark in the world and to do things that only

If that’s what we’re aiming for, then–if we want to be fully known, and fully loved–then the traits of a good marriage must accomplish that. A good marriage has to help us feel safe. So, with that criteria, I came up with just three things that sum up everything else:

1. A good marriage requires two people who think first about “us” before they think about “me”

In a good marriage, both spouses think about the unit before they think about themselves. If someone asks if you’re free on Tuesday night to do them a favour, you don’t just think, “do I have anything on Tuesday?” Your first thought is, “How will this affect my spouse and my family? What does my spouse and my family need?” If you’re considering your future career or education plans, you think about the effects on your spouse, not just on what you want to do. If it’s Saturday morning, you don’t just think, “what do I have to do today?” You think, “what is on my spouse’s plate right now, too?” and you jump in and help.

If one spouse is hurting, then the unit is hurting. The other spouse steps in to help, and to hold that person up for a time.

A beautiful example of this that’s played out in plain sight over the last year or so is Rachael and Jacob Denhollander. Rachael was the first victim of Larry Nassar to come forward and allow her real name to be used, and her boldness and courage inspired others. But then her advocacy work began, and she started calling out abuse in the church, too. Jacob knew that his wife had been appointed “for such a time as this”, and he willingly took on the burden of the childcare and a lot of the other things Rachael would normally have done in order to support his wife. There’s a lovely tribute to them in the Courier Journal this week:

Often in marriage, though, one spouse is more focused on “me” and one spouse is focused on “us” (or, quite commonly, “you”). We’re told to be selfless, after all, and so we do our best to make our spouse’s life easy. However, when this is not reciprocated, we can actually end up enabling selfishness. God does not intend for marriage to be a place where one person is served and one person does all the serving. No, it’s a partnership, where we each hold the other up.

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up. 

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

2. A good marriage requires two people who are willing to admit when they are wrong

In a good marriage, both spouses will show humility. They will admit when they are wrong. They will care if their spouse says, “I’m not feeling loved right now. Can we talk more about meeting each other’s emotional needs?” If their spouse says, “I want to be feel close to you, and I feel as if something’s missing from our sex life,” they will embrace that conversation, rather than reject it out of defensiveness, because they’re focused on building intimacy. Their goal is always more transparency, more love, more vulnerability, not just winning an argument or feeling as if they are in the right. 

When people are able to admit when they are wrong, then they can grow. When people are invested in their own self-image, they won’t grow, because they’re unable to be honest about themselves. 

As iron sharpens iron,
    so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

3. A good marriage requires two people willing to invest in their marriage–who don’t necessarily even recognize they’re doing so

Both parties will naturally want to share with each other what’s going on in their hearts. They’ll talk about their day. Though they have their own lives, friends, and hobbies, they still gravitate primarily towards shared vacations and shared hobbies. They will want to spend time together, and that will be the default setting. Their spouse will be their main confidante, even if they have friends that they also share with. 

And while this may take effort at the beginning of the relationship, as the marriage progresses, it becomes natural, so natural that they may not even realize they’re doing it. They don’t have to think about “date nights” because they naturally do things together at night. They don’t have to think about love languages because it’s become their second language.

That hasn’t happened overnight. But it’s become habit. It’s who they are. It’s how they function. It’s why older couples look like each other, walk like each other, lean into each other. It’s why so many couples die within a few days or weeks of each other–because they’ve become like an extension of themselves.

If you struggle with this, I encourage you to sign up for my FREE emotional intimacy email course, where you’ll get 5 quick exercises by email that can help you grow your emotional connection:

One of the things you’ll notice about each of these criteria for a good marriage is that it requires two people to put in the effort.

You can’t create a good marriage by yourself. You can do a lot to improve your marriage. You can change your own attitude, and that can often cause your spouse to change in return. I talked about this a ton in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: Sometimes the way we think about love, or gender roles, or conflict, or all of those things can actually stop us from having a good marriage because we’re actually working against intimacy, rather than for it, without even realizing it. We can set the stage to a healthier relationship by changing these things.

What’s holding you back from a GREAT marriage?

Do you find yourselves taking each other for granted?

Has marriage lost that “spark”?

Learn how to feel connected again–and how changing the way you THINK about marriage can make all the difference.

As we do that–as we lean in more; as we forgive more; as we study our spouse and learn what makes them tick and genuinely try to serve them–we change the dynamic in our marriage. And, over time, you may find that your spouse changes in return. Your marriage grows easier. You feel more cared for.

If that doesn’t happen, though, change may need to go in a different direction, as I talk about in these posts (and at much greater length in 9 Thoughts that Can Change Your Marriage, too):

If you want to have a good marriage, think as a unit. Act as a unit. And build the unit.

Let the unit become your default. But remember that you cannot hold up the unit all by yourself. Sometimes you’ll need to draw boundaries and say no in order to encourage your spouse to pick up some of the slack and be engaged in the marriage as well. But hopefully, as we think more “us” and less “me”, we’ll all grow the kinds of marriages which are life and energy giving which is, after all, what God designed marriage for.

What do you think? What makes a great marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!

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