For a Great Marriage: Mind Your Manners

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It all ended in the grocery store.

Joyce was waiting patiently beside Gary as the cashier rang up their purchases. But Gary couldn’t wait. He suddenly swore and pushed past her, accidentally knocking the checkbook from her hand and throwing her off balance. He looked back without a word and started bagging the groceries.

Joyce fumed.

Gary couldn’t even say, “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Are you okay?” and Joyce had had enough. For her, that single incident ended the relationship. It symbolized the accumulation of six years of rudeness. Although Gary had been polite while they dated, once the wedding was over he became a different person.

“He is more polite to strangers than he is to me,” Joyce said with a mixture of hurt and anger.

When Joyce demanded that Gary move out of the couple’s house, he quickly learned that even in our fast-paced world, concepts like manners and courtesy still have their place. But most of us have gotten lazy.

In the book of Ephesians it says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV). In the following book, the apostle Paul makes a similar appeal: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, NIV).

In recent years, our culture has become more casual in how we relate to one another, but in that casualness we seem to have forgotten our manners. We don’t say “please” and “thank you.” We interrupt. We don’t open doors for our spouse and we don’t let him or her go first. We get loud and pushy. We don’t ask or listen. We have become oblivious to the needs of others. And the worst problem of all is that we don’t even notice how offensive our lack of manners has become.

If you love your spouse, take a moment to consider your actions. Think about how you speak and act to him, and then ask yourself the following five questions:

  1. Are you respectful, or are you rude?
  2. Are you polite, or are you inappropriate?
  3. Are you mannerly, or are you crude?
  4. Are you patient, or are you demanding?
  5. Are you courteous, or are you selfish?

By asking these questions, you’ll be able to focus on the areas of your life that need some fine-tuning. Henry James, the nineteenth-century American novelist, said this: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” In 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter of the Bible, the apostle Paul agrees: “Love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4, NIV).

My mother always told me to mind my manners and be polite. If you are kind and polite to your spouse, she will be kind and polite to you. If you don’t mind your manners, the seeds of disrespect are being planted. And sooner or later, those seeds will contaminate even the best-kept field of marriage.

One marriage counselor I know has a unique approach to bringing couples closer together. He asks them to set their dinner table with candlesticks and fine china. He tells them both to dress in their very best. The husband is to shave, splash on cologne, and wear a suit and tie. The wife is to do her hair, put on make-up, and wear her most elegant dress. Then they are to light the candles and eat their meal.

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According to the counselor, this simple assignment improves almost every marriage.

Why?

When we’re dressed up, we tend to behave better. People are more polite when they look nice and are in a more formal setting. Candlesticks, fine china, and good grooming provide this setting.

When a husband and wife are rude, crude, insensitive, or inattentive toward each other, you know something is wrong. Yet when they treat each other well and show gentleness, patience, thoughtfulness, or caring toward one another, you know their marriage is probably very healthy. You say to yourself, “There is a couple in love.” You might even say, “I wish we could be more like that.”

Sometimes, in an attempt to improve our relationships, we create a list of all the things our spouse could and should do better. This strategy rarely works. The only thing it accomplishes is to make us more frustrated and discontented. I suggest that you start with yourself. As you become more polite and kindhearted, sooner or later your spouse will notice. (I promise she will.) In time, it will start to rub off on her — probably not as fast as you wish it would, but if you are patient and consistent, things will improve. Unfortunately, most of us get tired and give up too soon. We nag and demand and threaten and decide to give him a little of his own medicine. In doing so, we become just as rude as he is, and things get worse instead of better.

Make a commitment to start with yourself. Start today to be more polite and less demanding, more considerate and less obnoxious, more generous and less hurtful, more attentive and less distracted, more thankful and less selfish. As a psychologist, I call this “positive regard.” When you treat your spouse with positive regard, she soon begins to feel better about herself, about you, and about your marriage. Positive regard communicates acceptance, respect, and honor. Good manners do the same thing.

Another great way to mind your manners is to say, “I’m sorry.” For some reason this seems especially hard for guys. The words are so simple, but we don’t say them nearly as often as we should. Good manners demand that you say, “I’m sorry” whenever it is needed. Unfortunately, many couples don’t recognize when it is needed. So here are twelve times to say, “I’m sorry”:

  1. When you are wrong
  2. When you are rude
  3. When you are defensive
  4. When you are impatient
  5. When you are negative
  6. When you are hurtful
  7. When you are insensitive
  8. When you are forgetful
  9. When you are confused or confusing
  10. When you have neglected something important to the one you love
  11. When you have damaged something that was your partner’s
  12. When you have not said, “I’m sorry” as sincerely or quickly as you should have

These two words are not a cure-all for bad manners, but they certainly don’t hurt.

In the southern states they often call good manners “social graces.” Ann Platz and Susan Wales, two southern belles who have written a book on etiquette and charm, say that good manners are a way to show our love. When we truly love someone we act a certain way.

Being polite is simply an effort to be kind, show respect, and treat others in the way they most desire to be treated. Wales sums it up this way: “Where there is love, there are manners.” And let me add this: Where there are good manners, there is the potential for a great marriage.

Copyright © 2006, Dr. Steve Stephens, Used with permission.

Dr. Steve Stephens is a licensed psychogist, marriage and family counselor, radio host, seminar speaker and author of nine books. His best-selling Lists to Live By series, compiled with John Van Diest and Alice Gray, has sold more than 600,000 copies. He lives in Clackamas, Oregon, with his wife and their three children, where he also serves as president of Every Marriage Matters.

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