Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages

Social researcher and best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn conducted an eight-year study to learn why some couples are able to achieve “highly happy” marriages. She identified 12 powerful habits that the happiest couples have in common. One key component she discovered was that highly happy couples look to someone higher than themselves:

Why Looking to Marriage for Happiness Means You’re Looking in the Wrong Place

In this current project, I have been finding a fascinating parallel among the happiest couples. You might think that the happiest spouses placed their marriages or each other above everything else. But—counterintuitive as it might seem—that often was not the case at all. They, too, looked higher—ordering their homes and relationships around a transcendent priority. And as a result they, too, were more secure and happy.

What Could Matter More than the Marriage?

Even though I interviewed hundreds of people outside of church-related venues—many of whom, statistically speaking, I expected to not believe in God—the randomly encountered happy couples I spoke to kept bringing Him up. It didn’t matter whether I was in an urban subway station in Newark or an upscale coffee shop in Omaha; whether I was talking to an elderly white pair or a young African American couple. Although it didn’t happen with everyone, more often than not, the happiest spouses mentioned that faith in God was vitally important to their marriages.

Relying on Him gave them the security of knowing that Someone higher than themselves was in control—Someone on whom they each could rely on for the selflessness needed to put the other person first and create a great marriage. Not only that, but the knowledge that their spouses were looking to God for fulfillment—rather than to them—took the pressure off trying to provide something that, in the end, only God can really provide.

What Looking Higher Looks Like

1. They Worship Together

Overwhelmingly, those Yes! couples who brought up reliance on God said they attended church together. Instead of a belief in God being the key factor, the commitment to do something about it—starting with going to church together—seems to be the key component in a happy marriage.

2. They Are Plugged Into a Faith Community

One very clear habit of the Yes! couples was a mutual friendship with other positive, supportive couples, including mentors. So it makes sense that churchgoing Yes! couples were highly likely to mention the need not just to go to church but also to be plugged in and active in their faith community. These couples mentioned being in home groups together, doing group Bible studies, engaging in service projects together, and so on—all of which are venues that provide opportunities to befriend, get support from, and share life with others.

3. They Share Key Values

Although I certainly spoke to some Yes! couples where the two partners identified with two different faiths, I found that to be a less common situation. One of the reasons that many committed churchgoing Yes! couples were happy is that both spouses were trying to adhere to a higher, external standard (the Bible) that they both agreed on, and thus they weren’t as likely to have a severe clash of values about important life topics such as parenting, sex, and money.

4. They Focus on Serving Their Spouses, Rather Than on Being Served

The importance of a focus on serving rather than being served received multiple mentions regardless of whether or not the person I was talking to was a person of faith. But the vast majority of Christian couples I interviewed brought it up.

5. They Look to God for That Power to Be Selfless— Because It Doesn’t Come Naturally!

The Yes! couples mentioned the deepdown struggle [to be selfless]. But they also frequently mentioned the answer— and it wasn’t simple willpower. Because if selfishness is indeed (as the Bible says) deep down in our natures, it would be pretty hard to generate enough willpower to consistently do the selfless, loving, giving thing. Every. Single. Time. Now, obviously, none of us can truly be perfectly selfless! But the Bible does give hope that a higher power is available to help. For example, in one of his letters, the apostle Paul wrote, “See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to everyone else.” He then promises, “God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.” I’m sure that is why many of the Yes! couples) emphasized the need to rely on God’s power—not our own.

6. Ultimately, They Trust God for the Outcome

I have spoken to enough couples on both ends of the happiness spectrum to know that it can be scary to commit to meeting your spouse’s needs regardless of whether you expect to get your own needs met. But a powerful paradox can be hiding in that exchange. In fact, trusting God instead of another to meet your needs might be the most enduring security-producing choice you ever make.

How About Door Number Three?

Ultimately, it was clear that looking higher allowed the happiest marriages to flourish because each partner was looking to God for fulfillment and security and was not looking to marriage for something it was not designed to deliver. A large number of Yes! couples emphasized that although it is wonderful to want and to work for happy marriages, expecting marriage (or our spouses) to make us happy is a trap, since there is no human relationship that holds the key to happiness. Only God can provide that ultimate fulfillment we are all longing for.

Excerpted from The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages by Shaunti Feldhahn Copyright