I hear these phrases quite often, “Marriage is a lot of work,” and “marriage is hard.” I actually hate those phrases. Who wants that? They sound kind of hopeless, don’t you think?

I understand what is meant by those phrases. They are meant to warn people that good marriages don’t happen by accident. Good marriages happen on purpose, by making good choices over a long period of time. Great marriages are not as much work as they are decisions.

Usually, marriages start out with two people feeling really in love with each other. They feel optimistic about their prospects even if everyone around them sees a train wreck waiting to happen. That is because many marriages occur as a result of chemistry and attraction. Your partner elicited an emotional and, or a physical response that felt good. Giddiness ensued. Likely, so did sex. Sex releases even more chemicals that can cloud reality. If the sex was good, it can make two people feel like “soul mates.” (This, by the way, is a really good argument for postponing sex until marriage, especially if you are a Christian. If you aren’t it’s still a good argument for postponing sex until you have spent a good deal of time getting to know someone.)

I once heard a pastor of mine say that you should date someone for two years. That way you can see them during all four seasons of the year at least twice. Anybody can hide their true colors through one set of seasons, but usually not two. That’s not scientific or anything, but it makes sense to have an opportunity to get to know and observe whether or not you are compatible with someone without sex getting in the way. But I digress.

The bottom line is this: we fall in love, we feel really good, we get married. The trouble with this is that we got married because of what the other person made us feel. Don’t get me wrong. Of course you want to feel good in your marriage, but what happens is that you develop an expectation that your marriage partner can and should continue to make you feel that same level of good, every day, all the time…forever. Your spouse is literally not capable of that. Your spouse is a human being with faults and foibles that has bad days. Understanding that your spouse is not responsible for making you constantly feel good will go a long way in making you a happier person and a better marriage partner.

Aside from that, the very best way to stay in love for a life time is to move out of your own way and instead of focusing on what your partner is doing (or not doing) that makes you unhappy, focus on what you can do to make your spouse happy. This is where the “work” comes in. You can’t choose to do things for your spouse because you’d like those things done for you. No, you must study your spouse and figure out what he or she would want. Suppose you are the wife and you just want your husband to bring you flowers for no reason once in a while. This might make you think your husband wants a present too. So you save up and buy him a watch or something. But perhaps he does not care about presents at all. He wants to come home to an orderly house. Or, husband, you really want an orderly house so you surprise the wife by washing her car for her. She knows the kids are going to thrash it again in about ten minutes. She really just wanted some flowers to brighten her day and make her think of you with a smile while you were at work. These are acts of love, and that’s great, but they are communicating love the way you perceive it rather than the way your partner perceives it. If you get caught in the cycle of trying to perform visible, tangible acts of love for your spouse but they are all based on your own perception of what love looks like, you will find yourself frustrated and unhappy. You will feel like nothing you try is good enough and you will quit trying.

And if your partner asks you, “What can I do to make you feel more loved?” you cannot answer “If you really loved me you’d already know.” What a silly lie that is! Maybe there are some rare people out there with instincts so great they can understand your needs by just looking deep in your eyes, but I doubt it.

We all need answers. Real, concrete answers. Especially men. They aren’t being dense to your feelings on purpose (usually). I remember once, feeling really stressed out and weepy. I was crying and venting and worried and my husband, who was trying to listen to me had no clue what to do with me and all my lady tears. I just looked him in the eye and said, “I need you to come give me a hug and tell me everything will be alright.” Guess what? He did. So if you really need flowers, or a surprise once in a while, say so. But more importantly, ask your partner what he or she needs. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” has a lyric that goes like this: “Imagine all the people, living for today.” I say, instead, “Imagine all the people, living for each other.”

Suppose each party of a married couple decided to live this way? What would that look like? I’ll tell you, it would be beautiful. You would be friends and lovers. You would do things each of you like. Both partners would find themselves in a marriage relationship where their needs were getting met. And because each would be so focused on caring for the other, when a few things got missed, it would be easy to forgive or overlook those imperfections because both would feel very well cared for.

But suppose you are the first spouse deciding to live this way. Our “me” centered culture will try to tell you are stupid or naïve for making this choice. Yet, there is something about living for the happiness of others, even when it is not reciprocated, that brings a certain kind of contentment and peace. I often think of a person like Mother Teresa when considering an “other” centered life. Mother Teresa poured herself out for those that could never reciprocate the care she gave to them, yet she was such a lovely, happy, contented person. That is because her own comfort and happiness were not the center of her universe, Christ was, followed closely by the poor. I’d never, ever advocate for a person to continue living in a place where he or she is abused or in any physical danger. But what I do advocate is that it often takes one person deciding to improve the situation to improve it. It may take a long while for the other person to come on board and “get it.”

Yet, I do believe that you can make your own situation better and be happier when you stop making your own happiness the center of your world. Consider these verses about love, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10, ESV) and “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” (Hebrews 10:24, ESV). I cannot promise what your partner will do if you decide to start practicing these Biblical principles. I cannot promise he or she will have an epiphany, but I can promise that making the choice to value your spouse above yourself will create an environment where those outcomes are more likely. There is no magical formula to get your spouse to love you better or make you happier. The only “magical formula” I have ever observed in creating happiness in your own life is “other-centered” living. While both making the choice to love one another well is ideal, it really only takes one to start growing love! Be the one. No matter the outcome, you’ll never regret being a more, rather than less, loving person!