Just as your body needs regular, nutritious meals to thrive, your marriage needs frequent doses of affection to grow. Too many spouses are starving for affection when God wants them to enjoy a delicious feast of it.

If you crave affection, here’s how you can get it in your marriage:

• Understand why affection is important. Realize that affection (which involves specific expressions that result in feelings of closeness, passion, and security) is a vital part of connecting with your spouse. Know that it’s natural as a human being to long for affection, because God has made you with a need to belong and give and receive love.

• Examine your childhood memories. Think about how your family of origin expressed – or didn’t express – affection. Consider how that made you feel. Ask God to give you the wisdom to know how your background is influencing your marriage, and what changes you need to make to your relationships healthier. Challenge the lies of the past with God’s truth, and commit to change as He leads you (perhaps with the help of a mentor, counselor, or pastor).

• Don’t eat junk food instead of a healthy meal. Recognize that looking for affection in the wrong places won’t ultimately satisfy you. Avoid seeking affection through your work, alcohol or other drugs, gambling, affairs, entertainment, fantasies, or any other means except your relationships with God and your spouse.

• Evaluate your friendships with the opposite sex. Ask God to give you the discernment to know if you have a friendship that could prove harmful to your marriage by developing into something it shouldn’t. Set clear boundaries with opposite-sex friends to protect your marriage. Be willing to invest the time and energy it takes to work on establishing and maintaining a close relationship with your spouse.

• Recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy needs. Understand that healthy needs include the need: to be understood; to be accepted for who you are without criticism; to be loved; for affection, closeness, and intimacy; and to feel safe from emotional, physical, or spiritual harm. Realize that many other needs – such as the need to control someone else to demand your own way – are unhealthy.

Ask God to let you know clearly what you should and shouldn’t realistically expect in your marriage. Generally, couples should expect to be able to share conversation, sex (that’s comfortable for both spouses), and non-sexual touch such as hugging and holding hands. Know that you can’t change your spouse, but you can change yourself by adjusting your expectations and developing contentment.

If unhealthy neediness is plaguing you, consider working through the issues involved with a counselor. Make sure you and your spouse both have strong friendships so you can get some of your relational needs met in appropriate ways outside your marriage. Get your focus off your own problems by serving others. Regularly list what you’re thankful for in your marriage, and tell both God and your spouse of your gratitude for what you currently have. Understand that no human being – not your spouse, or anyone else – can meet all your needs; only God can. Pray about improvements you’d like to see in your marriage and have faith that God will help you.

• Keep your emotions in check. Don’t let negative emotions drag you down when you think about the affection you currently lack in your marriage. Keep a regular journal of your feelings. Find healthy outlets for your personal development (such as taking classes or volunteering to help a cause). Develop and maintain an organized routine to follow. Get regular physical exercise.

• Give the gift of acceptance. Know that one of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse is the gift of accepting who he or she really is, without demanding that he or she meet your idealized expectations. Understand that God calls you to love your spouse no matter what.

• Learn the affection language your spouse speaks. Figure out if your spouse is a hand person (who appreciates practical ways of showing affection, such as working together on a shared project), a heart person (who appreciates ways of connecting emotionally, such as through speaking affirming words), or a head person (who enjoys sharing intellectual pursuits with you, such as reading or taking a class together). Then let your spouse which primary way of showing affection is most important to you. Work together to express affection to each other ways you each truly appreciate.

• Take responsibility for how you have contributed to the problems in your marriage. Honestly ask yourself what part you’ve played in creating a relationship that lacks the amount of affection you desire. Don’t place all the blame on your spouse, or bother keeping score. Ask God to give you the wisdom and strength to change your attitudes and behaviors to achieve a healthier marriage. Then commit to do so, with His help. Go the extra mile, remembering that your marriage is more likely to change when you change.

• Be respectful when tackling issues. Don’t be afraid to tackle tough issues in your marriage, like irresponsibility or laziness, addictions, abuse, control, and unfaithfulness. When you’re discussing controversial issues with your spouse, focus only on present behavior and attitudes. Clearly express your needs and desires. Be responsible for taking action only you should take. Hold your spouse accountable for taking action only he or she should take.

• Understand and work with gender differences. Realize that both you and your spouse want the same thing – to enjoy a close marriage – but that you each have different ways of trying to achieve that goal. Understand that men want to be sexually satisfied, to know that they’re respected, to enjoy recreational experiences with their wives, to feel comfortable sharing their dreams and fears with their wives, and to know that their wives are rooting for them as they face life’s challenges. Understand that women want good communication with their husbands, to have their husbands anticipate and meet their needs, to have their husbands take the time to participate in their world, to get plenty of affection, and to feel their husbands’ support.

• Be tender. Demonstrate kindness, tenderness, and respect toward your spouse. Hug, kiss, and cuddle your spouse. Smile at him or her. Speak encouraging words to your spouse. Express tenderness at the right times, such as when your spouse is discouraged or celebrating an important achievement (but not when he or she is angry or acting in an abusive way). Express tenderness frequently and consistently.

• Don’t neglect sexual intimacy. Understand that a mutually fulfilling sexual relationship is essential for an affectionate marriage. Openly share your sexual desires with your spouse and listen well to the desires he or she shares with you. Work together to create an exciting sex life with which both of you are comfortable. Consider abstaining from intercourse for a limited amount of time to focus on improving the ways you express non-sexual affection to each other.

• Cast a vision for your marriage. Ask God to give both you and your spouse a clear picture of a desirable future together. Make sure that vision includes a shared purpose, a shared commitment or responsibility, and a shared problem or goal.

• Pursue spiritual growth together. Pray together and individually, read the Bible together, participate in church together, and frequently talk about how God is working in your lives. If your spouse is not yet a believer, focus on areas of common ground you currently have and work to build a bond that way as you pray for him or her. Don’t focus on your pain; focus on the fact that God will work in your life through the difficulties that you experience. Ask God to help you and your spouse move toward spiritual unity.

• Build trust in your marriage. Remember the vows you said at your wedding and take them seriously. Work hard to fulfill your vows. Choose to act in love toward your spouse no matter how you may feel at any given time. Honor your spouse by placing his or her needs above your own. Don’t bail out during times of physical, emotional, or mental sickness. Be faithful and avoid lying, cheating, stealing, pornography, and affairs. Be thoughtful by avoiding behaviors you know annoy your spouse.

• Get a grip on attraction. Strive to be attractive to your spouse by being kind and considerate, and taking good care of your physical health, fitness, and hygiene. Work on being attracted to your spouse by focusing on aspects that have eternal value – such as his or her character – more than physical beauty that can change over the years. Remember that your spouse won’t look that same at age 50 as at age 25. Ask God to help you be content with your spouse and feel constantly attracted to him or her. Don’t give into the temptation of trying to replace your spouse. Know that once you married your spouse, he or she became the right person for you. Don’t consider divorce. Instead, work to bring good chemistry back into your marriage.

• Enjoy the process. Don’t expect dramatic changes overnight. But celebrate progress as it happens, and trust God to continue to help you build a more affectionate marriage.

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Adapted from Starved for Affection: Why We Crave It, How to Get It, and Why It’s Important in Marriage, copyright 2005 by Randy Carlson. Published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Ill., www.tyndale.com.

Dr. Randy Carlson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional counselor, is the CEO of Family Life Communications, a national radio network dedicated to igniting transformation in marriages and families. He hosts On Call … with Dr. Randy Carlson, which airs daily on more than 100 radio stations. He has written Father Memories, The Cain and Abel Syndrome, and the national bestseller Unlocking the Secrets of Your Childhood Memories (co-authored with Dr. Kevin Leman). Dr. Carlson lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his wife Donna; they are the parents of three grown children.