Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Dr. Greg Smalley and Dr. Shawn Stoever's book, The Wholehearted Marriage: Fully Engaging Your Most Important Relationship, (Howard Books, 2009).   

The passion and intimacy you wish you and your spouse could enjoy together isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky dream. That kind of marriage is within your reach. But it’s possible only if you both devote yourselves wholeheartedly to your relationship – fully engaging and giving 100 percent, without reservation.

Here’s how you can put your whole heart into your marriage:

Recognize where love comes from. Do you find yourself thinking that you’re not in love with your spouse anymore? Perhaps you feel like you just don’t connect with your spouse. Maybe you feel alone, even though the two of you are still living under the same roof. Have you chosen to settle, compromise, or go into survival mode in your marriage? Worse, have you given up and started looking for love somewhere else?

It doesn’t have to be that way. No matter how discouraged you may feel, it’s possible to experience love for your spouse again. That’s because love comes from God – who is always willing to give you a fresh supply of it – rather than from you. You don’t have the pressure of trying to generate love for your spouse when you don’t feel it. All you need to do is go to God in prayer each day and ask Him to fill your heart with His love.

When you open your heart to God daily, you’ll receive from Him all the love you need for both yourself and your spouse. The love in your heart will naturally overflow into your relationship with your spouse. So remember that God is the source of all love, and love is always available to you because it flows through you whenever you open your heart to God.

Open your heart. In your marriage, the issue isn’t love; it’s the state of your heart. Ask yourself daily: “Is my heart open or closed?” If your heart is closed, your marriage will start to shut down because you’re blocking the flow of God’s love into it. But if you open your heart to God and keep it open every day, you’ll be inviting God to pour out His love through you into your marriage.

Give your heart a voice. Become aware of the emotions you’re experiencing, and learn how to manage them in healthy ways. Keep in mind that God has designed your emotions to work together with your thoughts so you can make the best possible decisions. Your emotions give you valuable information that you can then process through your thoughts.

  • Ask God to help you accurately identify what you’re feeling each day in various situations.

Rather than judging your emotions, consider what they are trying to tell you. When you feel frustration, joy, sadness, hurt, fear, or any other type of emotion, what does that mean?

  • Once you’ve figured out what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it, start guiding your emotions toward what you want to feel in your marriage.

Identify your specific desires for your marriage. Then, instead of expecting your spouse to give you what you want (because he or she is bound to fall short), turn to God with your desires. Regularly pray about what you want your marriage to be like, and trust God to bring about the transformation for which you’re hoping, as long as you and your spouse cooperate with Him.

  • Bring your negative emotions to God and ask Him to replace them with positive emotions in your life.

Whenever your emotions get stirred up, rather than blaming your spouse, consider what you may be doing yourself to intensify your own feelings. Look at your thoughts and thought patterns, interpretations, judgments, perceptions, expectations, fears, past hurts, beliefs, family-of-origin issues, and anything else that may be affecting your emotions. Then consider how you can best respond to your emotions.

  • Avoid unhealthy actions like ignoring, suppressing, judging, or minimizing your feelings; viewing your feelings as facts; impulsively acting on them; or spewing them on others.

Figure out some healthy responses from which you could choose to manage any emotion that comes your way: taking deep breaths, praying, going for a walk, journaling, talking to a friend, cleaning your house, reading a book, etc.

Deal with a wounded heart. Life in this fallen world wounds you and your spouse’s hearts by attacking them with false messages (such as: “You’re not valuable”). The messages on your hearts affect how you see yourselves and how you interact with the world.

  • Ask God to help you identify the false messages that have attacked your hearts and wounded them.

Does your heart make you feel: rejected, abandoned, disconnected, a failure, helpless, powerless, inadequate, inferior, invalidated, unloved, undesirable, worthless, judged, ignored, unimportant, misunderstood, disrespected, defective, or some other harmful message?

Then replace those lies with biblical truth.

  • Search the Bible for specific verses that line up against the lies with which you’ve been struggling, and memorize those verses.
  • Pray for the Holy Spirit to renew your mind so you can see yourself from God’s perspective and think right thoughts about yourself.
  • Talk to some people you trust (such as friends, mentors, or a trained psychologist) for counsel and encouragement.
  • Care for your heart by nurturing yourself (such as by maintaining a close prayer connection to God, nurturing healthy friendships, setting healthy boundaries in your life, journaling your feelings, eating whenever you’re hungry, and sleeping whenever you’re tired).

Deal with a fearful heart. Create an emotionally safe environment for you and your spouse to relate to each other, so both of you feel safe to truly open up and be known at a deep, intimate level. Each of you should be able to open and reveal who you really are and know that your spouse will still love, understand, accept, and value you no matter what.

  • Avoid behaviors that erode trust, like:

criticism, angry reactions, threats, withdrawal, sarcasm, broken promises, nagging, judgment, harsh words, defensiveness, manipulation, teasing, deception, negative assumptions and jumping to conclusions, bringing up the past over and over, and refusing to forgive.

  • Recognize your spouse’s value.

Ask God to help you honor your spouse -- no matter what – because he or she is God’s priceless gift to you and has a position in your life that’s worthy of great respect. Treat your spouse in valuable ways, such as by: praying for and with your spouse, listening to your spouse with your full attention, validating your spouse’s feelings, considering your spouse’s point of view, notice your spouse’s good qualities, thank your spouse for what he or she does for you, serve your spouse in ways that are meaningful for him or her, honor your spouse’s boundaries, spend lots of time with your spouse, be honest and trustworthy with your spouse, forgive your spouse, and reassure your spouse of your unconditional love for him or her.

Deal with an exhausted heart. If you don’t intentionally plan regular time with your spouse and time to recharge yourself, the busyness of life will take over and your marriage will suffer.

  • Slow down the pace of your lifestyle and simplify your schedule.

Build in plenty of time for rest, reflection, and prayer. Learn when and how to say “no” to pursuits that don’t relate directly to your core values, so you’ll be free to focus on what’s most important and let the rest go.

  • Get rid of stuff that clutters your house and demands your time and energy to deal with it. Refuse to allow our culture’s standards to define your value by what you look like, what you do, or what you own.
  • Find your true value in the fact that God has made you and redeemed you, and He loves you.

Ask God to help you become whole and full emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically so you’ll have the energy and resources necessary to love your spouse fully and unconditionally.

Fight for your spouse’s heart. Conflict is inevitable in marriage. But it doesn’t have to harm your relationship; it can actually strengthen it. If you and your spouse respond to conflict in a healthy way, conflict will become the doorway to intimacy between you because it will deepen your understanding of each other.

  • Consider how both you and your spouse tend to react to conflict now.

Responding with “fight” behavior – defensiveness, anger, going into fix-it mode, escalation, criticism, sarcasm, blame, or belittling comments – won’t promote the intimate connections you want to make. Neither will responding with “flight” behavior: withdrawal, negative beliefs, shut-down mode, isolation, numbing out, over-functioning, stonewalling, or passive-aggressive behavior.

  • Instead of becoming your spouse’s adversary in conflict and causing your hearts to close to each other, open your hearts to God.

Pray for the ability to embrace, appreciate, and deal with you and your spouse’s differences in healthy ways. Ask God to show you what emotional buttons your spouse is pushing through the conflict and how that makes you feel. Also ask God to reveal how you’re pushing your spouse’s emotional buttons through the conflict. Then pray for the power you need to gain control over the conflict and use it to accomplish something constructive in your relationship.

Care for your spouse’s heart. Your spouse has an amazingly valuable and incredibly vulnerable heart, just as you do.

  • Keep the promise you made in your wedding vows to care for each other.
  • Communicate to understand by agreeing on when it’s a good time to talk, agreeing on the goal of each conversation (connecting emotionally, or trying to fix something), and checking during the conversation to make sure you’re still both staying on track and understanding each other.
  • Avoid communication pitfalls, such as trying to figure out: who is right or wrong, who is to blame or at fault, and what was said or what really happened.
  • Avoid destructive behaviors like: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. During difficult interactions, say to your spouse: “Help me understand” so he or she knows you truly care.
  • Ask God to open the eyes of your heart toward your spouse and give you compassion for him or her.
  • Respect how valuable and vulnerable your spouse’s heart is by treating it gently.
  • Set aside your temptation to blame your spouse and focus on simply caring for him or her instead.
  • Express empathy (“I feel what you’re feeling, and I want to share in your joy or pain.”) and validation (“What you’re feeling matters to me and you matter to me.”) toward your spouse.

Speak to your spouse’s heart. Give your spouse words of encouragement every day.

  • Honor, motivate, and call out your spouse’s spiritual gifts and natural talents.
  • Find out what wounds and fear your spouse is struggling with, and what you can say to encourage your spouse to pursue healing.
  • Consider people’s most common intimacy needs – acceptance, affection, appreciation, approval, attention, comfort, encouragement, respect, security, and support – and do what you can to help meet your spouse’s intimacy needs through your marriage.
  • Understand people’s love languages – words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch – and express your love for your spouse in ways that best speak his or her specific love language.

Celebrate with your spouse’s heart. Bring fun and laughter into your marriage often. Humor increases intimacy, reduces stress, and increases positive emotions. Intentionally turn toward your spouse each day to help prevent drifting apart. Spend as much time as you can together.

  • As much as possible, do your everyday chores and errands together rather than separately.
  • Pray with your spouse often. Share your dreams with each other regularly.
  • Schedule dates whenever you can.
  • Talk frequently about what God is doing in each of your lives.
  • Learn something new together, such as through trying a new activity or taking a class.
  • Serve others together by doing volunteer work side-by-side.
  • Surprise your spouse by doing something unexpected every now and then (such as by playing a loving practical joke on him or her or planning a romantic getaway trip).

Reminisce about the positive events that have happened over the course of your marriage, and recall what qualities about each other first attracted you to each other. Protect your fun activities from being ruined by conflict by agreeing to talk about issues at other times instead of while you’re trying to have fun together.

April 28, 2009.


Adapted from The Wholehearted Marriage: Fully Engaging Your Most Important Relationship by Dr. Greg Smalley and Dr. Shawn Stoever. Published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, West Monroe, La.,  http://christian.simonandschuster.com/.

Dr. Greg Smalley is the coauthor of eight books, including The DNA of Relationships for Couples and The Marriage You’ve Always Dreamed Of. He is the director of Church Relationship Ministries for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and is also the founder of the National Institute of Marriage.

Dr. Shawn Stoever currently serves as a senior director for a nonprofit ministry called the WinShape Foundation, and he previously served as director of training for the Smalley Relationship Center