What Really Keeps a Marriage Together?

This is a guest post by John Marshall, LMFT. He is my own therapist and coach. He just started blogging, and his first post was so powerful, I asked for his permission to re-post it here as a guest post. You can read his follow-up post here. I think he has a great future as a blogger! If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

For the last eight months I’ve been seeing a thirty-something male client who is a month away from his divorce being final. He is relieved that this painful experience is almost over, but he is also very sad. He’s grieving the marriage that he wanted to have—the one that he wishes they would have had together.

A Couple Holding Hands - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Bryngelzon, Image #6332570

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Bryngelzon

By the way, this tells me he is dealing with his divorce in a healthy manner. I never trust anyone if they tell me they have no sadness about their marriage ending and that they are simply glad that it is over. Marriages are investments and we are always sad when an investment goes belly up.

So he sits down a couple of weeks ago and right off the bat tells me that he has a question that he desperately needs answered. He tells me that his future depends on it, and that he is afraid because he isn’t able to answer this question.

He asks me what “type” of love keeps a marriage together since their kind obviously didn’t do the trick. I remember sitting for a couple of minutes before answering.

In that time I considered my own marriage of almost thirty-three years, the countless couples I have seen as a therapist, what messages the Church and my upbringing taught, and the dozens of books I’ve read on the subject over the years. I surprised myself by sharing with him the following ideas.

First, I told him that I used to think that agape was the most important kind of love for a marriage. But no longer. This Greek word suggests that a spiritual love is the number one priority—a love that is sacrificial and focused on commitment more than feelings or your own needs. After all, haven’t we all heard more sermons than we could count where this was the bottom line?

Don’t get me wrong, I told him, agape is very important in keeping a marriage together. But not the “most” important kind of love. Many couples have intact marriages but no relationship at all and are living under the stoic belief that happiness isn’t even a possibility.

Secondly, I said that eros is really wonderful but that it doesn’t “keep” a marriage together either. We all love passion. We all want there to be chemistry. We all dream about great sex that will keep us interested over the years.

Our culture is so sex-obsessed that we are easily convinced (especially early in a marriage) that the lucky ones can’t stay out of the bedroom. This is the secret to a long relationship.

Don’t get me wrong, “feeling” in love with your partner is very critical. Too many accept a relationship that is boring and no longer has any passion. Eros can be restored and must be worked at over the life of a marriage.

By this time he knew where I was going. I found myself telling him that based on my marriage and the successful ones I’ve seen over the years that philia was most important. Committment and chemistry are ingredients you don’t want to leave out of the recipe but without friendship you can’t bake the cake!

To be friends with your mate means:

  • You respect her.
  • You treat her like your equal when your upbringing and your own selfish ways try to convince you otherwise.
  • You talk about how you feel and think about the good and bad of your life together.
  • You even risk conflict by being more honest than you are comfortable with because it builds intimacy into your marriage.
  • You plan and dream together because life is too complicated to just wing it.

In other words, you treat your partner like your “best” friend.

Sadly, like so many people, what my client never had with his former wife was friendship. He said nobody ever told him it was the most important thing! In fact they even had the other two ingredients the majority of the time.

As our session continued, a big smile came over his face as we continued to talk about how exciting it could be to have a best friend in your wife. He said he was growing hopeful as he sat there thinking about this new possibility for the future.

I hope what I told him is realistic and not too pie in the sky. All I know is that next month I will have been married thirty-three years to my best friend. Thank God for friendship!

Question: What kind of love best characterizes your relationship with your spouse. You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://gracehlewis.com Grace Lewis

    This is such a wonderful post. I love how you mention the importance of each type of love, and then come to the one that will hold you together when the others are floundering. This is really encouraging to a person who has grown up around people who only focus on the agape part. Yes, they’re married, but that’s about it. No fun, no connection, no enjoyment in each other. It’s encouraging because a year ago tomorrow I married my best friend. I’m happy to know that we are on the right track toward staying together AND actually enjoying it for the rest of our lives. Thank you.

  • http://www.freelancewriter.co/ Harleena Singh

    A beautiful post! I love the honesty with which you shared the post. Yes, first and foremost is the trust and commitment you develop with your spouse, by making them your best friend. Everything else comes in later!

    Thanks for sharing!

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  • Iulia V

    I agree 100% that being friends with your husband keeps the marriage going. My husband and I, we also have the love (I miss him when he’s at work!!) and the passion (can’t wait for our intimate moments!!) in our relationship, we have the responsibility (our kids, our home, etc) but most of all, we have a strong friendship that keeps us united.
    Great post!

  • Feliciaterrybrown

    Your posts are always so great! I will be married for 10 years in September but I just experienced this this week. My husband suffered the loss of his best friend of over 20 years two years ago. I have seen him struggle with that loss. He is a people person but does not allow many in his inner circle. He contacted me at work and said he had been praying for someone else to be his best friend, someone he could trust, share his dreams and fears, to be able to let his hair down with. He said during my quiet time I realized a best friend had been right by my side all this time. That conversation has taken our marriage to a new level. I will always remember the day my husband said I love you as my wife, but thank you for being my best friend.

  • guest

    Even “best friends” have rough spots and you need agape love to overcome those rough spots. So I still think agape love rules and that “eros” and “friendship love” are subsets of agape(in a marriage context). Don’t get married unless you are willing to serve.

  • Marcia Richards

    We’re definitely best friends! We’re 58 and 62 and found each other 3 1/2 yrs ago. For the first time in our lives we have a great friendship and common interests as well as a deep love and intimacy. Too bad we didn’t know the best way to choose a mate when we were in our 20s. 

  • Cam

    Some good points here but I believe off base. Friendship love is very important. So is Eros. Both of those won’t make for a complete marriage. Agape is what binds them together. You can have an empty marriage without friendship. A marriage devoid of romantic fire will also be empty. It takes all three to have a healthy, successful marriage.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      Cam, I think you’re right about the necessity of having all three types of love in a marriage. However, I don’t know that you could say that agape love is more important than the other two. I think that, at the beginning of a marriage, there is the foundation for all three types of love, and as you nurture your philia love and your eros love, agape love grows. I think that your love rooted in commitment compels you to pursue both philia love and eros love. It’s a complex entanglement of all three types of love that develops over time.

      Also, each type of love can spur someone to act out their love for their spouse, which is what builds their overall love.

      I think the overall thrust of this post is good: pursue your spouse as a friend, not just as a lover or because you made a commitment.

  • Bishop_gemma

    wish it worked for me :(

  • http://www.CFinancialFreedom.com Dr. Jason Cabler

    Absolutely I think you are right.  Philia means you have respect for your mate and you’re actually sharing your life with each other.  The dreams and sorrow, the ups and downs, and the sometimes brutal honesty that only those closest to you can give you.

  • Troy Spencer

    Tonight my wife and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. We dated for 10 years prior, off and on (she was 11 on our 1st date, rafting down the Chattahoochee with my parents). The reason we kept getting back together and eventually getting married was because we enjoyed each other so much as friends. I’ve said that we had all of our divorces and separations before we got married, and got married because we were best friends. Twenty three years later I feel the same way!

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      Congratulations, Troy!

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    That a good kind of advice to people like me who are single. (who could prepare themselves well for a future life)

  • http://twitter.com/hmgullett Helen Gullett

    We started our relationship as best friends and we are still best friends! Keep it that way because we know that being a best friend to each other will help us to get to know each other closer each day, sharing everything, and supporting each other in any circumstance. As best friend, we be honest to each other… I totally agree with your post!

    Thanks for sharing and it’s a good reminder for me personally.

  • http://twitter.com/hmgullett Helen Gullett

    I totally agree with what you say here:To be friends with your mate means:You respect her.
    You treat her like your equal when your upbringing and your own selfish ways try to convince you otherwise.
    You talk about how you feel and think about the good and bad of your life together.
    You even risk conflict by being more honest than you are comfortable with because it builds intimacy into your marriage.
    You plan and dream together because life is too complicated to just wing it.In other words, you treat your partner like your “best” friend.My husband and I started our relationship as best friends and we are still best friends and we will be… :)

  • http://neuropoet3.wordpress.com Nonna

    This is brilliant… I wish more people went into marriage understanding the importance of friendship. My hubby and I have been married 15 years… we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs (others could say the “downs” have outnumbered the ups!)… We have two sons on the autistic spectrum, I have developed serious health issues we never dreamed of dealing with when I walked down the aisle at 17 years old, and due to these realities financial stability has always seemed just out of reach. But, we’ve been through it all together. We are best friends. I know that he’s always there for me, and he knows I always have his back. While agape and eros are big parts of marriage, I can’t imagine trying to live a common life without the solid ground of true friendship. 

  • http://twitter.com/stephsday stephsday

    I love this! I’ve been married to my best friend for almost 10 years. We really, genuinely like each other. We respect each other. We laugh with other. We have so much fun together. If you asked me who I would most want to spend a day with, I’d answer in under a second, “Tim!”

  • Toddsandel

    Great post.  As a marriage therapist (LMFT) myself, I like to help guide couples toward falling in “like” with each other as opposed to falling in “love”.  They already love each other but when they find me, they do not like each other at all and haven’t in quite some time.  I appreciate John’s candid post and bravery to help couples fully realize the power of marital friendship as God designed it.

  • Carla

    I have to agree with you that Friendship is the best kind of love.  I was friends with my husband of nearly 25 years before we started dating and eventually got married. 

  • Arielle Ford

    Tonight my best friend/husband/soulmate and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary — we had a delicious, romantic dinner al fresco at our favorite restaurant and talked about how blessed we have been and continue to be to share such a delightful loving marriage.  We practice what we call “Wabi Sabi Love.”  Wabi Sabi is an ancient Japanese art form that honors things old, weathered, worn, impermanent and imperfect.  It finds beauty and perfection in imperfection…..and that is what we do….we find beauty and perfection in our own and each other’s imperfections.

  • http://RenovationMalaysiaHq.com Renovationmalaysiahq

    This is a great article. One of my criteria when I wanted in my wife was that she & I be friends first, then lovers. Well my wife had that criteria too in a mate. We’ve been married 8 years so far, God willing till death do us part.

    I think being best friends with your spouse is very important since you are going to spend so much time together. I want to spend as much time as possible with my best friend, my wife, and not anyone else.

  • Jan Drake

    We attended a Marriage Encounter weekend in 1980 because our marriage was at it’s lowest.  All feelings of love were gone.  We didn’t want to divorce yet we didn’t know how to mend it.  My husband wouldn’t seek counseling.  BUT, after a series of circumstances took place, he consented to attend the ME weekend.  Well, we gained tools on that weekend to help mend our marriage…and much of what you share about Phileo love is what we gained.  Our love for each other was rekindled.  And we used the tools to where we are now best friends.  We share our feelings and share our dreams.  I ask God for help often to serve, support and hear my husband.  He does really well at serving, cherishing and hearing me.  Want to take your marriage to the next level, rekindle love or just take your marriage from good to GREAT?  Attend a Marriage Encounter weekend. 

    Jan Drake

  • Juliaanderson1987

    That’s the great article. I love your blog. you said correctly. hope my spouse think as is.Irvine individual therapist

  • Jaraker

    I would call our love compromising love. It’s more important to love than to be right. We have found the need to be right causes all kinds of unhealthy conflict.

  • Kcolclesser

    Completely agree with the thought process. I had all 3 in my marriage for most of eleven years. Unfortunately, when one or both turn away from the other even those three things can fall apart. I’ve turned to God and faith to get me through and hope for the best. What we all forget is regardless of those three things we are all broken people on some level. We don’t realize that and when its exposed we are shocked! Gods planned to join me (in my broken glory) with my “perfect” broken man. I’m banking on the fact that a. He will guide me and b. He doesn’t like divorce.

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  • Jim Hamlett

    My wife and I celebrated 35 years in August, and I’d say the type of love that best characterizes our marriage is not in the list. I’d call it “reliable.” It’s probably a close cousin to philia/phileo, but the average person doesn’t think of their love in NT Greek terms. They want something that will come when they holler for help. The best friends are the ones who show up. She’s always been there for me. I can count on her. (And it goes both ways!)

  • Squarepeach

    We have been married for 47 years.  We have the agape, we have the eros, but the phileo is what holds it all together.  Marriage take work and dedication, it needs the understanding that there is really not much to argue about, and that grace and forgiveness are strong elements of forgiveness.  I am human, and my husband is gracious enough to accept that.  He is human, and I respect that.  Two is better than one, stronger, more fun, and God has blessed us in so many ways.  Thanks for the article.  You are right on the money.

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    This is one of the most informative information I’ve read. It really helps a lot. Thanks for sharing this and teaching some of your Idea’s.
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  • grateful

    I couldn’t agree more.  After 45 years (ups and downs, frustrations and joys,) our marriage has evolved to a friendship level unlike any I have with anyone else.  This must be the filter through which our culture’s view of marriage is viewed.  I once heard a marriage counselor say that if couples on the brink of breaking up would spend time together “going through the attic” of memories, experiences they’ve shared, they might change their mind.  It takes a long time to build deep healthy friendships.  As I move into the “winter” season of life, honestly there are regrets, things I wish I would have done differently….but one regret I will NOT have, is the continuing decision to build this special friendship.

  • Anonymous

    I agree 100%. And marriage takes work, anything worth having does!

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  • Formehden

    thanks for the post. I wonder where spiritual discernment  enters within the bounds of marriage.  I was asked to share about this and I was just thinking of…hmmmn, discernment on infidelity or will it be much more on knowing how you will be a blessing to  your spouse and together you build each other?

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  • Splinter John

    Words reflect concepts.  Greek words (eros, philia, agape) reflect three concepts.  The only reason these three words have any presence in our culture is because they are used in scripture.  Otherwise they’d have gone the way of Atlantis.  The most critical piece in understanding love, is a commitment to serving, centered upon absolute values.  This is an “other-focused” exercise (as observed in Mother Theresa and the lepers of Calcutta) , as contrasted with self-focused (i.e., immature) attachment.

    At its highest pinnacle, love is not earned.  It is not given because of feelings.  It is given simply because the giver wishes the highest and best for the receiver.  It is capsulized in the statement, “It was while we were yet sinners, that Christ died for us.”  In one marital example, it involved my wife fixing my favorite meal and serving it to me out on the deck, surrounded by flowers, after I’d been a crap-head all day.  Not because I earned it.  Not because she felt soft and gooey, and not because she wanted to make me feel like the jerk I had been.  But because she was committed to my highest and best in spite of myself.

    At its pinnacle, love takes us out of ourselves, to a higher plane of behavior than we would normally even seek.  Anything less than that may have one of the many words (Greek or otherwise) that are associated with the English word, “love,” but at its pinnacle, love is best defined by behavior aimed at the other person’s highest and best, in spite of themselves.  (See 1 Cor. 13:4-7 for a behavioral definition of love.)

    John Splinter

  • Splinter John

    In my previous comment I failed to mention another source of reflection on the subject of love.  http://www.family-legacy-institute.com, click on the “Pre-marrying” dropdown, and then on, “So You Think You May Be In Love.” 

    John Splinter

  • Ginascamp74

    Well… I need a lot of prayer then. My husband and i were best friends in high school – after we each had a failed marriage, we married 17 years later – - after we have given the best of ourselves to our previous spouse. we are no longer best friends, and I, in fact, feel like i am losing my mind. i cannot talk to him without him freakin gout because i should just ‘get over it’, and ignore anything….
    i need help. i am so lost. i am beginning to think that i am losing my mind.
    my first husband left me and married  someone that was just barely legal (he was 40), she is not pretty, doesnt cook, clean, work, and is on verge of suicide every week….
    My relationship with my husband now can be really good, as long as i don’t ‘talk’ about how i feel about things, or say i want to do something different than he does. it didn’t start this way…..it has just become this way.

    i am starting to think maybe i should go find a hole and hide there.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Gina, I so sorry for your pain. I’m sure you feel alone and completely overwhelmed.  Is there someone you can talk to? Are you connected with a local church or counselor? I’ve discovered both of those resources have been huge for me when dealing with significant struggle and disappointment. Gave me hope when I didn’t think there was any. Praying for you.

  • Lehlagare Masemola

    the most important thing before we get into marriage is asking ourselves the question? is it our will or God’s will? I think there are permisive will of God marriages, perfect will of God marriages so before everything we should ask God firt. 

  • Drindu_aiims

    brilliant! what an honest,genuine and marriage(life) saving message!

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  • Dorothy

    Thank you for this article and I totally agree with you that you never loose the love of your life as your best friend next to Jesus. Another thing that I would like to add is a commitment never to go to bed angry or upset with each other over a circumstance that appeared between the two of you. Sometimes it is you at fault and sometimes it is your partner. Forgive each other and in the morning you won’t even remember the circumstance and you are free once again to walk in perfect love. I talk from 51 years with the love of my life who has gone to be with the Lord Jesus and I am filled with wonderful memories and that was the key that filled our marriage with His love. Now I am still married for 57 years and still loving him as my very best friend. I pray that this will help even one person to fall in love so commited that you will find out that it is all about Jesus and really not about you. It is a wonderful place in life to be. Thank you for listening and may the Lord Jesus bless your marriage and help you to really focus on the things that cause you to stick together like glue.  Dorothy

  • Neo Menwe

    Godly wives (A capable wife – Proverbs 31)
    ·        Have an intimate relationship with God (you need God’s strength and love to be able to be a capable wife). This applies to husbands as well.
    Ø  Ask God to help you understand your husband (remember God is our creator – he knows everything about our husbands that we don’t know)
    Ø  Ask God to help you love your husband His way
    ·        Respect your husband unconditionally – irrespective of what he does. Play your part and be obedient to God (if you love God, you will obey His command). God blessed you with a husband (order = God > husband > you); he then commands us (wives) to be humble and respect our husbands. This is the trick that will make your husband love you more.
    ·        LOVE WITHOUT EXPECTATIONS: Love your husband unconditionally without expecting anything in return – true love is when you love the person without expecting; your feelings do not matter. When you love is not for you but for the person that you love. This applies to husbands as well.
    Ø  It is a painful exercise to go through in the beginning, however you get used to loving without expecting. When Christ was crucified; it was not for Him but for us and He went through pain – because He truly loves us unconditionally.
    Ø  We are also empowered to love unconditionally – for we can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens us. Christ lives in us and in union with Him we can do more than we can imagine / think. If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes. Nothing is impossible with God RIGHT>.
    Ø  BIGGER PICTURE: Please remember that you are doing this to be obedient to our Heavenly father. Do you love God? Then OBEY him?
    ·        Be committed to make your marriage what you want it to be: (both husbands and wives)
    a)     Where are you now in your marriage? What is happening NOW?
    b)     What is it that you want out of your marriage? Be clear
    c)     What are you going to do to get to where you want to be? (actions – be clear)
    d)     What are the 10 consequences of not achieving (b); write down 10 reasons why you should achieve (b)
    e)     How are you going to feel if you achieve (b); what would be happening in your life when you are at (b).
    ·        Just like in the beginning when you started dating – go all out every day to impress one another. This is what you were doing right – then do it.
    ·        Do not be a person who falls apart if things don’t go his/her way (James 1:2-4) – remember God is in control and He won’t let you be tempted beyond what you can handle.

  • Hurt


  • hurt

    those principles dont work in second marriages when there is an ex wife and a child in a previous relationship. commitment? he will commit to his kid. not to his second wife. better exit that situation and find someone single. no kids. no ex wife. then I would happily apply those principles.

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