Put marriage on your checkup list

Early detection and treatment of physical symptoms has drastically reduced fatalities from certain diseases. You can save your marriage from terminal illness the same way.

Reger C. Smith, Ph.D., is associate professor of social work at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Many people conscientiously get an annual physical checkup to head off possible health problems. The yearly date with the tax collector provides a check point for re viewing family finances. Car owners make sure that a car doctor checks their vehicle's pulse, pressure, and respiration at regular intervals. Christians take ad vantage of revivals and consecrations to assess their spiritual progress. But marriage, which has so much to do with our happiness, often is allowed to drift along for years, unreviewed and unrenewed.

John, 41, and Mary, 38, came to see me after fifteen years of marriage and four children. Both were college educated. John was a junior executive and Mary a housewife. Mary had a progressive vision problem that would leave her blind in a few years, and her husband could readily express his concern about her condition. The problem that threatened their marriage was of even longer duration and more threatening to their relationship.

John spent two or three evenings a week away from home meeting social and business appointments connected with his job. Weekends also found him going out while Mary stayed home. He was involved in numerous all-day Sun day or overnight youth activities, and he spent long hours playing golf with friends.

Early in the marriage Mary had adopted an "I'll be a sweet wife and let him go ahead" attitude. But her frustrations grew as children tied her down while John enjoyed so many pleasant outside activities. Her oft-repeated "I don't care, dear, you go right ahead" became reality. She gradually withdrew her caring in order not to feel the hurt. By the time they came in for counseling she could honestly report that there was little love left. How different the situation might have been had John and Mary periodically examined the health of their relationship.

Many of us are aware only vaguely of the basics that are important to the well-being of our marriage. We do not recognize the beginnings of damaging trends or foresee the marital molehills that eventually will develop into mountains. And if we do perceive them we often ignore developing rifts and unmet emotional needs as long as possible.

But all that can change as you and your spouse take the 11-point marital health checkup that follows. Here are some suggestions on how to make the experience most meaningful:

1. Choose a relaxed time of the day and week, when neither of you is upset.

2. Invite the Holy Spirit to sharpen your perceptions and soften your reactions.

3. Find a spot where you can sit comfortably, side by side, and share an undisturbed hour.

4. Take turns reading the questions and explanations to each other.

5. Hold hands as one of you reads the questions for the second time. Respond with a squeeze of the hand, or place a check before any question that you feel needs attention in your marriage.

6. Try to focus on what is happening between you rather than to either one of you.

7. It is healthy to admit shortcomings to your partner in order to inspire hope for change. However, you know your mate best; and you must decide whether the shocking disclosure of some misbehavior will do more harm than good.

8. After the second reading discuss the questions that reveal need for change in your relationship. Some changes can be brought about by setting priorities on how time and money are spent and planning to set aside some of both for a special purpose. Improvements in habitual attitudes and reactions that hurt your marriage can result from (a) a mutual decision to make specific changes, (b) daily prayer, (c) attention to how the change is progressing, and (d) your mutual readiness to reward even the smallest step in the right direction.

9. If your problems seem too deep-rooted to handle in this way, seek professional help. (One sign would be hostilities that make taking the test together impossible.) Marriage counselors should be approached as readily as legal or medical counselors.

The 11-point marital health checkup

1. Does your spouse regularly receive more strokes than knocks from you?

  Bare a forearm and demonstrate a "stroke" by a feather-light caress with the finger-tips and a knock with a sharp rap with the knuckles. The stroke represents the afterglow that can be left by positive words. The knock represents the hurt or irritation left by negative words. (Now, tell each other by this method what you think you are getting.) The spouse who regularly hears more positive than negative statements can take a few negatives now and then. The little attention, the numerous small incidents and simple courtesies of life, make up the sum of life's happiness; and likewise the neglect of kindly, encouraging, affectionate words and of the little courtesies of life helps compose the sum of life's wretchedness.

2. Is the majority of your pleasant, leisure time shared?

Many couples share housework and other necessary activities, and this sharing gives good "vibes." But what about your leisure time? How do you divide it between your spouse and your friends? If your most enjoyable recreation is spent alone or with others outside the marriage, togetherness is losing its appeal.

3. Do you have at least one three-hour block of togetherness time every two weeks, or at least one getaway weekend every three months?

Busyness can choke out meaningful togetherness, and a never-ending round of doing things can be an escape from closeness. Togetherness must be planned for; if it occurs on a regular basis, it can provide even more satisfaction to the pair who look forward to it and back on it.

Plan an occasional weekend "away from it all" in a honeymoon atmosphere. Few of us realize how much we are controlled and inhibited by the telephone, the daily schedule, and the constant awareness that the children are nearby.

Christ recognized the connection be tween relationship and leisure when He counseled His disciples, "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure" (Mark 6:31).

4. Do you usually settle disagreements with mutual satisfaction and no bitterness?

It would be an unbelievable, long-term miracle if two intelligent individuals who live together never disagreed. Marrieds who have serious differences but deny them are merely disguising and postponing trouble. Do you have ground rules for handling differences that allow good feelings for and about each other after the discussion? Some helpful guidelines:

* The use of physical force is a No-no.

* No name-calling. Tossing names like "stupid" and "fool" back and forth does not help either of you.

* Stick to the subject. Bringing up everything wrong that ever happened con fuses the main point of contention.

* No "hitting below the belt." Your intimate knowledge of your spouse ex poses his or her vulnerable areas that are unrelated to the problem under discussion. Your anger will tempt you to bring up a shameful or painful shortcoming as a part of your effort to win. Don't.

Satan always stands ready to take ad vantage of any variance that arises. By inciting objectionable, hereditary traits of character in husband or wife, he will attempt to alienate Christians who have united their lives in a solemn covenant of marriage before God.

5. Do you have a satisfying balance of at-home, away-from-home workload?

Are you happy with the way your partner shares work? Does the amount of work you do in the home take into account what your partner does outside the home? A fifty-fifty division of home chores may not be workable or desirable. But even limited participation in household tasks may demonstrate caring and sharing to your partner. The important thing is, not how much you do, but how each of you feels about the division of home chores. How can husband and wife divide the interests of their home life and still keep a loving, firm hold upon each other? They should have a united interest in all that concerns their homemaking.

6. In your relationship is there any game-playing with money, sex, employment, et cetera?

n marriage, sex and money are common topics for arguments. However, the causes of such arguments are usually deeper. "He" controls the money and "she" the sex. (Today's equality be tween the sexes increases the possibility of reversing who controls what.) Do you use money, sex, or hours on the job to express anger, revenge, a need to control, or other disguised feelings? Love does not hold grudges. If you love someone you will believe in him and expect the best of him.

7. Is your physical expression of sex mutually satisfying?

There is no set frequency for any couple's sexual activity. Are both of you fulfilled and happy with what you do and how often you do it? If not, why not? Have you told each other frankly what you enjoy and what you do not enjoy?

8. Is either of you dallying dangerously with someone?

Many affairs begin innocently enough. One partner will begin to spend a little more time, and to joke with a little more sparkle, with someone of the opposite sex. A common setting for such dalliance is the job. The amount of time spent and the enjoyment of a conversation with a friend tend to increase almost unconsciously and lay a foundation for further involvement. Although such a relationship may seem fun, it must be nipped in the bud by people serious about their marriage.

9. Do you feel wanted, loved, and appreciated? Even more important, does your mate feel wanted, loved, and appreciated?

In a union of two lives each must minister to the happiness of the other. The need to feel wanted, loved, and appreciated is natural and healthy. If this need is not met (and modern families' isolation from relatives puts a heavy burden on marital partners), the void may be inappropriately filled by overeating, an ego-boosting affair, unreasonable demands of the partner, and so on. A satisfying answer to this question can depend on "right" answers to the other ten.

10. Is anything missing in your relationship that you feel is necessary?

Sometimes one partner feels that something needed is missing from the relationship. He or she may attempt to live with the unmet need by altering expectations or by burying frustrations under busyness. Either adjustment can mean lessened satisfaction for both. If one needs more affection, and the other is willing to learn to be more affection ate, the needy partner can attempt to reduce his or her need and meet the mate halfway. Reaching out to show affection can be a new and risky experience. If it is a problem in your marriage are you willing to try?

11. Are you still trying your best to have a happy marriage?

Ministers and counselors sometimes find that a couple with long-term marital problems have given up trying to improve the marriage—as in the case of John and Mary. Either one or both may be resigned to an unhappy, unsatisfying relationship. It is very difficult to change such an attitude, but it is necessary. Both partners must be willing to change. In all successful marriages both partners seek to keep the relationship alive and growing.

If you will review these eleven questions together at least once a year, then you can uncover cracks before they be come chasms. Your efforts can result in a renewed commitment to a rewarding, growing marriage.

Men and women can reach God's ideal for them if they will take Christ as their helper. What human wisdom cannot do, His grace will accomplish for those who give themselves to Him in loving trust.

If the two of you take Christ as your helper you can reach God's ideal for your lives, give yourselves to Him in loving trust, and His grace will accomplish that which is beyond human wisdom.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Reger C. Smith, Ph.D., is associate professor of social work at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 1979

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