Ten Words to a Stronger Marriage/Relationship

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Jim and Barbara LaBate — July 28, 1984

My wife, Barbara, and I celebrated our 33rd anniversary recently, and I am so blessed to have this beautiful woman in my life. As I look back on our time together, I recall the prayer that has helped me to become both the husband she needs and the husband she deserves.

Growing up, I often recited the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught to His disciples. I love that prayer because it allows me to praise my Creator (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name”), to express my faith in Him (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), and to ask for His help (“Give us this day our daily bread”), His forgiveness (“forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors”), and His help again (“and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one”) (Matthew 6: 9–13).

In a general sense, the Lord’s Prayer is beautiful and sufficient for all days and all needs. On certain days, however, I use a more specific prayer to address a specific problem in our marriage.

Barbara is not the problem, of course. I am. And on those days, when I am being selfish or rude or prideful, I find myself reciting my own special prayer, a prayer that might be helpful to anyone who is married or in a serious relationship. I call my prayer “Ten Words to a Stronger Marriage/Relationship.” The first word is “please.”

1. Please. “Please” is one of the first key words my parents insisted on when I was young (“Please may I have a cookie?”) and one of the key words that Barbara and I shared with our two daughters, Maria and Katrina. Yet, as an adult and as a husband, I find that I sometimes neglect to use that word myself, especially with Barbara. Yes, I admit it; I sometimes take her for granted. That’s not good.

“Honey, would you iron this shirt for me?” is not quite as polite as “Honey, would you please iron this shirt for me?” Typically, I don’t use the word “please” with Barbara because after 33 years together, I don’t feel the word is necessary. I assume she knows I love her. Surely, I don’t have to be polite with her all the time too.

So, rather than use that special, key word with the one person I love most in all the world, I use it, instead, with people I’ve never met before and will, most likely, never talk to again: “May I please have a slice of pizza and a soda?” or “Please don’t call this number again.”

Obviously, the absence of that one word won’t, by itself, destroy our marriage, but the word’s presence can help me to return to my courting days with Barbara when I was first trying to impress her with my good manners (“Would you please pass the ketchup?”). In fact, I need to catch up to my old self. I need to really appreciate my wife. I need to be polite and kind to her — always.

2. Help. “Help” is another word I don’t use often in my wife’s presence. Is that because she is not willing to help or not capable of helping? No, not at all. In fact, she is always eager to help, is extremely capable, and would like to help me more often. Again, the problem is with me. I am too independent and too stubborn to ask for help.

If I am moving a bulky piece of furniture from one part of the house to another, for example, I could definitely use an extra pair of hands. However, I never ask for help because I see the task as a “manly” challenge, and I want to do it “my way” without any interference from anyone else. What sometimes happens, though, is that I scratch the wall or knock over something of value in the process, or else I move the furniture to the wrong spot, so I have to move the furniture a second time.

If I were willing to ask for help, obviously, I could avoid such errors, and, together, Barbara and I could share in the job satisfaction. Instead, we share animosity which typically leads to an argument.

The same type of situation occurs in non-physical matters when Barbara and I have to make decisions about our children, our home, or our finances. Due to my independence and pride, I don’t want to consult anyone else. I simply want to make the decision, and I want Barbara to agree. I don’t want her input, I don’t want to debate the various options, and I certainly don’t want to give in and have to admit that her idea might be better than mine.

Fortunately, as I age, and with God’s help, I am getting a little better at all of this sharing. I am finally starting to see the wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one because they get a good return for their work (4:9).

3. Me. At the other extreme, “me” is a word I think about and use much too often. I am always thinking of my needs first: “What’s in it for me? How does that affect me? What can you do for me?” Even in my prayers, I’m typically asking God for things for me rather than asking on behalf of others.

I know this selfishness is a part of my human weakness because God’s Word tells us we are all sinners (Romans 3:23). I also know I should be more thoughtful and generous. Unfortunately, that selflessness requires strength and patience and perseverance, qualities that I work on much too sporadically.

In my heroic fantasies, for example, I sometimes imagine that I would sacrifice my life for Barbara if our home were on fire or if we were threatened in any way. The reality, of course, is much different. My self-centeredness won’t allow me to save Barbara, or anyone else for that matter; my current need for self-preservation is too strong. Yet, if I’m not generous enough and strong enough to do the little things for Barbara — like spend time with her or do what she wants to do once in a while — I’ll never be able to sacrifice my life for her. Thus, I need to forget myself for a while and gradually work my way up to a life-saving level of courage.

4. Lord. Most people get married in the presence of God in a church, but many people neglect to bring “the Good Lord” home with them afterwards. Fortunately, that’s not the case in our home. Both Barbara and I have a deep spiritual relationship with our Creator, and we try to spend time with Him not only on Sunday in church but also at home on a daily basis. What I have found, though, is that if I neglect my daily quiet time with the Lord, then my relationship with Barbara suffers.

Normally, I try to get up early each day to read the Bible and to meditate on God’s words before I go to work. I praise God, I thank Him for His blessings, I ask for His forgiveness, and I ask Him to help me to do His will throughout the day. Naturally, God answers my prayers on these days, and Barbara and I work well together no matter what happens. The problem begins late at night.

If I decide to stay up and watch Monday Night Football or The Tonight Show, I struggle to get up early the next morning. As a result, I sleep late, skip my quiet time with the Lord, and rush through my shower and breakfast. My morning conversation with Barbara becomes curt and impersonal because I am hurrying off to teach at a local community college.

There, I tend to be distracted and impatient with my students and fellow teachers, and when I get home in the evening, I’m still frazzled. Again, unfortunately, Barbara bears the brunt of my bearish behavior. All this occurs because I neglected to spend some quiet time with God before I spend time with others. Obviously, I need to choose the Lord and Barbara over late-night television, or I must be willing to give up my next morning’s sleep. After all, God’s own words in the Bible say, “A chord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

5–6. To Love. “Love” is probably the one word used most often in recorded literature. My problem with the word is not so much that I don’t use it but that I use it incorrectly.

Sometimes, when I think of love, I think of my ninth-grade definition of the word. I think of physical attraction, all-consuming thoughts, and my imagined perfection of the person I love. In other words, from that immature perspective, I love Barbara as long as she lives up to my expectations. Naturally, that approach is not going to work well.

So, instead of holding on to my distorted definition, I should be focusing on the more accurate definition of love as outlined by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud” (13:4). Does that mean Barbara should be patient and kind to me so I can love her? Of course not. Paul is expressing the exact opposite; he is telling me that if I really love Barbara, I will be patient and kind to her. For just as Christ talked about love and then demonstrated it by dying on the cross, I need to express my feelings for Barbara with both words and actions. In theory, my mind knows all this, but in practice, my weak self prevents me from loving Barbara as I should. That’s why I need Paul’s definition of love rather than my own.

7–8. My Spouse. Before I met Barbara, I had serious relationships with three young ladies. During my senior year in high school, I dated a girl, and I often imagined we might get married someday. Unfortunately, this particular girl forgot all about me by the end of her first semester at a faraway college.

When I was a senior in college, I dated a college sophomore, and we actually talked about getting married after she earned her degree. Again, however, she forgot me when I left to work in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica for two years.

Then, early in my teaching career, I met another teacher, and, this time, I was convinced that she was the one for me. Not surprisingly, that relationship didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.

Finally, when I was 32, I met Barbara. We worked together, dated, became engaged, and married all within 14 months. Obviously, Barbara was the woman God had prepared all along to be “my spouse.”

Have I completely forgotten my high school sweetheart, my college heartthrob, or my teaching friend? No. In fact, I still think about each one from time to time. I sometimes wonder what might have been if things had worked out with any one of those three. Typically, though, I only think of them when Barbara and I are struggling, not getting along for one reason or another. When those situations occur, however, I have to remember that Barbara is the one God chose for me.

Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” On our good days, Barbara and I get along beautifully. We enjoy each other. We balance each other. We complement — and compliment — each other. Barbara is definitely the woman God prepared for me. I need to remember that fact, and I need to think of her always. I need to forget the others. I need to love and cherish “my spouse” and enjoy with her the life God has given us.

Just as God does not want me looking back and wondering what might have been, He does not want me to look around in the present or wonder about who might be out there in the future. Barbara is the one woman God created specifically for me, the one with whom I will have “a hope and a future.”

9–10. Thank You. When I look at my daily life and the situations around me, I am sometimes overwhelmed. I begin to agonize over what I don’t have, or I worry about situations over which I have no control. When that happens, I lose focus, I lose sleep, and I lose faith. Fortunately, when all this occurs, Psalm 139 helps me.

In his prayer to the Lord, David — who had endured numerous problems and difficult situations in his life — reflects not on those problems or situations but on God’s provision for him. David says: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I am awake, I am still with you” (Psalm 139: 17–18).

Like David, I need to focus on “God’s thoughts,” and I need to count my blessings. I need to give thanks both to Barbara and to God. For example, when Barbara does something that isn’t what I wanted or expected, I can do one of two things: I can become annoyed with her and let that annoyance bother me all day, or I can deal with that one annoyance and give thanks for all the positive things she brings into my life.

Similarly, when problems arise, I can get frustrated with God, or I can go to Him with my problems, confident because He has helped me in the past and will help me again in the future. I can lie awake at night and worry, or I can count my blessings, knowing that they outnumber the grains of sand and that I will fall asleep before I get to the end of my list. Though worrying is my human tendency, I eventually realize that praying, counting blessings, and saying “thank you” is much more rewarding and peaceful.

As mentioned earlier, Barbara and I recently celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary together. In the last 20 years, we have also had the opportunity to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversaries of both Barbara’s parents and my own. Thus, we have been blessed by their teachings and by their examples, and we hope to pass what we’ve learned on to our own children and, perhaps someday, to our grandchildren. The human element alone, however, is not enough; we need God’s help. That’s where these ten words come in to play.

Together, obviously, these ten words make up a prayer, a prayer that I pray when Barbara and I are arguing or not communicating. If you find that you and your spouse or significant other are ever in a similar situation, you may find that praying this prayer will help you as much as it’s helped me:

“Please help me, Lord, to love my spouse. Thank you.”

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