When you took marriage vows on your wedding day, you undoubtedly had many dreams for your marriage. You most likely still do, no matter what's happened in your marriage since then. And God Himself has great dreams for your marriage - that you and your spouse will enjoy close, loving relationships with Him and each other, and that your life together will bring about much good in the world.

But just like the ancient Israelites of the Bible, you may find that you haven't yet reached the Promised Land of which you dream. If your marriage is stuck in the wilderness of problems, don't give up. You can still enjoy the marriage of your dreams, with God's help.

Here's how you can make dreams for your marriage come true:

Spend lots of time together. Make your marriage a top priority. Schedule as much time as you possibly can to give each other your undivided attention on a regular basis.

Learn about each other. Strive to constantly discover new things about your partner - his or her likes, dislikes, personality quirks, etc. Understand that there is always more for you to learn about your spouse, no matter how long you've been married.

Live by your vows. Reject the idea of marriage as a contract that has an escape clause. Remember that it's a sacred covenant you made with God and each other, promising to stay together no matter what. Stay committed.

Don't stop having fun. Reminisce about ways you and your partner had fun together when your marriage was happy. Start doing those same things again. Enjoy each other.

Watch out for germs that can infect your marriage. Avoid withdrawal (leaving physically or emotionally whenever a conflict arises), escalation (increasing an argument's intensity or volume until it spirals out of control), belittling (calling each other insulting names or using demeaning language), and negative beliefs (believing a lie about your spouse, or accepting that something is far more negative than it really is).

Understand your fear dance. Think about the ways you "dance" in conflict as you deal with your fears. Describe a recent conflict or negative situation with your spouse - something that really "pushed your button." Then consider how that conflict made you feel about yourself. How did you react when you felt that way?

Identify what strategies you usually use to cope with that feeling. Know that once you understand your fear dance, you'll be able to break the unhealthy rhythm and learn new dance steps to create a healthier way of interacting with your spouse.

Take responsibility for your actions. Instead of focusing on what your partner does or doesn't do, focus on yourself. Take personal responsibility for how your own behavior affects your marriage. Realize that you can't control another person's behavior. Stop trying to change your spouse; know that only God can do that. Know that you can't force your partner to act in a way that pleases you, but you can decide to act in a way that will help your marriage.

Don't blame your spouse for pushing your fear buttons. Accept the fact that you are 100 percent responsible for yourself, your buttons, and how you react when your buttons get pushed. Rather than trying to force your spouse into your own dreams for your marriage, strive to discover what dreams God has for your marriage and submit to those dreams, trusting in His wisdom.

Learn to laugh. Expect that making changes to your relationship - even though they're good changes - will be stressful. As you and your partner deal with the uncertainty of change, use humor to relieve the stress.

Forgive your spouse. Understand that you must choose to forgive your spouse whenever he or she wrongs you, whether or not you feel like forgiving or you think that your partner deserves it. Know that since God has forgiven you of your own sins, He expects you to be willing to forgive others.

Rely on the Holy Spirit's help to go through the process of forgiveness, as often as your spouse hurts you. Realize that God doesn't expect you to forget the wrong or condone sinful actions, but He does expect you to release your spouse from ever repaying you or making the wrong right. Trust God to heal your wounds much better than a person could. Let God free you from the poisons of bitterness, rage, hatred, and vengeance.

Seek your spouse's forgiveness. Talk to your spouse gently and humbly. Remember that your approach sets of the tone of the conversation. Ask your spouse to let you know specific ways that you have hurt him or her. Acknowledge every aspect of your wrongdoing and commit to trying to do better in the future. Keep your focus on what you did to your spouse rather than on what your spouse did to you; clean up the only part of the mess for which you're responsible - your own behavior.

Learn to honor each other. Treat your spouse like the priceless treasure he or she is in God's eyes. Remind yourself that God made both you and your partner in His image and wants you to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Ask God to open your eyes to your partner's value. Make a list of all your partner's positive qualities. Believe in your spouse's dreams - including his or her legitimate dreams for your marriage - as you each deal with life's pressures. Encourage your spouse to express his or her opinions, concerns, and expectations.

Take good care of yourself. Remember that you can't give well to your spouse if you don't first take care of your own needs. Take care of your mind by regularly studying and gaining new knowledge. Take care of your body by getting enough exercise and sleep, eating a nutritious diet, and avoiding harmful addictions to things like cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine. Take care of your spirit by praying regularly, participating in a biblical church, and studying the Bible, and constantly growing closer to God. Take care of your emotions by knowing what you're feeling when, and understanding how best to react to those feelings.

Think positive thoughts. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Ask yourself if you could have mistakenly interpreted your partner's actions in an overly negative way. Substitute a more reasonable response for the negative thought in question. Consider alternative explanations for what your spouse does.

Methodically focus on what your spouse does right. Understand that happiness is largely a choice, and you can make it.

Find treasures in your trials. Write down the most painful trails you've endured in your marriage. Then list all the benefits you've experienced as a result of those trials - ways God has used them to make you more mature. Remember that it's possible to find treasures in even the worst circumstances.

View conflict as a doorway to intimacy. Don't avoid conflict. Recognize that it can be a useful tool to build your marriage, if you and your spouse properly navigate it. When discussing an issue about which you disagree, take turns being the listener and the speaker. The listener should focus on the speaker's feeling and emotions, then repeat back what he or she heard for clarity, without editing, evaluating, or defending himself or herself.

The speaker should share needs or feelings using "I" statements rather than "You" statements that blame the listener. The speaker should stick to one subject and avoid bringing up past issues or starting a new argument. The speaker also should give bite-sized pieces of information that the listener can remember easily. When the speaker feels heard, understood, and validated and the listener has captured the essence of what has been said, you can switch roles.

Remember that you're both on the same team and will either lose or win together. Look for a win-win solution to the problem at hand.

Relinquish control to God. Depend on God's unlimited power instead of your own limited power to handle tough situations in your marriage. Know that you can overcome obstacles only with God's help. Pray with your spouse daily. Set healthy boundaries in your marriage (such as calling a time-out when an argument becomes too heated) so your heart doesn't harden toward your spouse. Keep your heart open for God to use to accomplish His purposes.

Create a marriage purpose statement. Think and pray about what principles you want to guide your marriage. Then write a statement with your spouse that expresses them and reminds you both of what's important as you interact with each other. Enjoy building the marriage of your dreams!


Adapted from The Marriage You've Always Dreamed Of by Dr. Greg Smalley, copyright 2005 by The Smalley Publishing Group, LLC. Published by Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill., www.tyndale.com.

Greg Smalley earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University in southern California. He also holds a master's degree in counseling psychology from Denver Seminary. Dr. Smalley is the president and CEO of the Smalley Relationship Center, located in Branson, Missouri. He teaches at the monthly Marriage for a Lifetime marriage seminar across the United States. Greg and his wife, Erin, are the parents of two daughters, Taylor and Maddy, and a son, Garrison. The family lives in Branson, Missouri.