A Conversation with Dr. Steve Stephens

Steve Stephens is a licensed psychologist, marriage and family therapist, seminar speaker, and author of seven books, including 20 Rules and Tools for a Great Marriage.

Dr. Stephens, you list twenty simple and practiced rules that can help make a great marriage, can you please share some of those with us?

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Each one of these rules is so simple, that many of you are going to really recognize these, but let me hit a couple. One of them is, “watch less TV”. I know that, especially as a guy, I kind of turn on that television and even when it’s something that I think, this isn’t that great a show, I get hypnotized by it.

It’s hard to have a relationship when you’ve got that television on. I encourage people to watch less TV or I give another option to “create television date times”. There are some simple rules to doing this. First of all, you need to sit next to each other on the couch when you’re watching a show.

Secondly, it’s got to be a show that you both enjoy. Thirdly, you’ve got to talk about the show during the commercials. What you do is you create a connecting point when you do watch television. But way too often what I see in couples is, he’s watching television or she’s watching television, the other one is in the other room doing something else and television really becomes a block to the relationship.

Another very simple rule is to compliment each other. Come up with some things that you really appreciate. There are four different types of compliments. There are compliments of possession, where you compliment your spouse on something they have, there are compliments of appearance, where you just tell them how great they look, how their eyes match their outfit, how they just look so handsome and rugged, whatever it is.

Then there are compliments of behavior, where you really let them know that you appreciate all those little things that they do every day to make your relationship and your life better. And lastly and the most complicated, yet powerful compliment, is a compliment of character.

When you talk of compliments of character, what types of compliments might that include?

It includes things like them being honest, them having a great heart, them really caring for other people, them really walking with God, all sorts of things that really have to do with who they are as a person.

I like in the book where you say, make a list of sincere personal compliments for your spouse and then every day offer at least one of those.

It’s amazing. What I find is that in a relationship, the husband and wife frequently get much more compliments from other people than they do from their spouse.

This is sad, because a compliment draws you closer to whoever is giving it to you. We have guys going to work and they get these wonderful compliments from co-workers and secretaries and they’re getting drawn to those individuals because everybody loves a great compliment. Yet they go home and what happens is they hear everything that’s gone wrong or all the frustration or the challenges with the kids or the fact that the finances are out of whack. So they get all these negatives.

We want to stick with those things that are positive. Unfortunately that sometimes pulls us away from the marriage into areas that we really shouldn’t be.

In chapter ten, you talk about celebrating the “top five” holidays and stress the importance of remembering important holidays. Why is that so important?

Every holiday is an opportunity to tell your spouse how special they are and how much you love them. We all know what the top five are, Valentine’s Day, your spouse’s birthday, your anniversary, Christmas and lastly there is Mothers or Fathers Day”.

Oftentimes with these holidays people will say to me, “You know, these are just systems to get us to go out and buy more cards. It’s a Hallmark conspiracy or something.” I say, “Well, even if it’s a Hallmark conspiracy, it’s a great conspiracy”.

Here’s an opportunity to remind you how much you love your spouse and in some ways maybe we should be celebrating our love every single day of the year. But we get hectic; we get wrapped up in the busyness and the craziness of life, so sometimes we need a holiday to remind us.

Now I realize that sometimes when finances get tough, we make certain deals. You know, for Christmas or anniversary or even birthdays we say, “I won’t get you anything if you don’t get me anything, because money’s tight”. I say, don’t ever make those sorts of deals, because you can go out and you can make something. In fact, my wife would much rather have me write a poem or write a letter than going out and getting her a gift.

So part of it is just being creative and saying, “I love you so much that I want this day to shine bright for you and I will do whatever it takes to remind you how deep and sincere and committed I am to our marriage.”

In chapter twelve, I read about the “three plus three” rule in fighting fair. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

The “three plus three” rule is where you get to be heard and you make sure that you hear your spouse. What I encourage a couple to do is to bring up an issue and say, “Okay, we’re stuck here, we have different perspectives” so they flip a coin to see who starts. Whoever gets heads, they get to start and they get three minutes to share their heart, share their hurt, share their perspective with absolutely no interruptions. At the end of those three minutes, they pass off to their partner and their partner gets to share for three minutes whatever their perspective is with absolutely no interruptions.

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Now, when the other person is talking, you can’t be figuring out what you’re going to say next. That’s against the rules. You have to truly listen to what they’re saying.

At the end of the “three plus three” you sit down and you try to solve the problem. If you’re still stuck and there’s still more to say, you can basically start all over again and do another “three plus three”. The challenge is to listen to each other, to not interrupt, to learn what’s going on in the heart of the other person and hear their concerns, hear beneath the words.

We’ve gone through some of those twenty rules, Doctor, is it necessary that we put all of these rules into practice everyday?

I’m not sure whether we can. In a perfect world, we would do all of these on a regular basis, but sometimes this is overwhelming to people.

What I encourage people to do is just to find one or two of these that they really need to work on and perfect those rules. When you’ve got that down, then you can add another rule. But as you go through these rules and tools, you’re going to find that some of these you already do very well.

You mentioned not only rules but also tools, and I know, obviously the book lists the twenty rules, but it also offers three tools at the end of each discussion.

In the first part of the chapter, we really define the rule and we give some examples and then we have a toolbox there, which involves, first of all, prayer. My feeling is that oftentimes, we don’t pray about our situation. We get so wrapped up in the way we want to do it and our rights and what’s comfortable for us that we really need to stop and pray. I suggest some ideas for a prayer and actually give a little prayer. You don’t need to pray it just the way it’s written, but it gives you an idea of the spirit of the issue.

Then we provide a passage of scripture, because what I want to do as a psychologist is to make sure that any truth that I share is really truth from God, not just truth from experience. So therefore I remind you of a passage of scripture that provides that underpinning of truth

Then I give practice — the third “p” here. In anything that we do, we need to implement. The book of James says, “Don’t be just hearers of the word, but be doers also”. In each chapter I give somewhere between three and five little exercises where you can say, “Okay, I’m going to practice this. I’m going to take the truth that I just read about, take the rule and I’m going to start it today and I’m going to do some of these things.” As you do these things — what is amazing to me — is your spouse will draw closer and closer to you and some of that love that maybe feels like has gotten lost, is going to start coming back.

But it takes work, it takes practice. It’s not always easy, but I’ll guarantee you it is worth it. One of the exciting things I have found is as I work on my marriage it gets better and better. I can honestly say I love my wife, Tammy, more every single year. But that only happened starting about the tenth year. Quite honestly, I thought, as a psychologist, I had it all together and I could find short cuts and I didn’t need to do some of the things. So we struggled during those first ten years. Now Tammy will also tell you that she’s more in love with me, but she’ll tell you different reasons. She’ll say, “The first year was so bad that it had to get better after that”. It was either get better or get divorced.

We started as two people who had very strong ideas on what we wanted a marriage to look like and those strong ideas were not always the same. But as I work on it, listening to the Holy Spirit and practicing these rules, it just makes marriage so exciting.

One of the other rules is to make sure that you’re having fun. So oftentimes, especially if you have children or if you have a job that requires a lot, or if you’re involved in ministry that is demanding, it is so easy to forget the fun in a marriage.

You need to laugh together, you need to go out and sometimes be silly and you need to just have a great time. That’s part of what drew you together. If you went on a date with someone and it was boring and there was no fun, you probably wouldn’t go out with them again. And yet when we get wrapped with all the financial stress, the parenting stress, all the challenges of life, we forget to have fun. Think of what you used to do that was so much fun and start doing it again.

Before we close, Dr. Stephens, is there anything else that you would like to say to our viewers?

Let me hit on two other rules. One of them is: do the little things. Sometimes we think we’ve got to do great big things to impact the heart of our spouse and sometimes it’s just putting your arm around them. Sometimes it’s just thanking them for being who they are. Sometimes it’s giving them a single rose or giving them a glass of water when they’re thirsty. The little things are so important and everybody can do those little things.

The other is: pray for your spouse — every single day. Find out what their needs are, what their hurts are. When I know that my wife, Tammy, is praying for me, I think better of her, I get drawn to her.

When she is praying for me, she is now looking beyond the foolish and the stupid things I do, but she’s looking at what my needs are. I encourage couples to pray for each other and in the book we provide some ideas of what you can pray for because that makes all the difference in the world, because prayer changes lives.

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One person said that prayer should be the key to awaken every morning and the bolt that locks up each night. If we could remember that and just send up prayers throughout the day for our spouse, we will find that we are drawn closer and all the dreams that we had for our marriage can start coming true. Ultimately, as you are connecting well with God you will start connecting better with your partner.

Copyright © 2004 Growthtrac.

Check out Steve’s book, 20 Rules and Tools for a Great Marriage

Steve Stephens is a licensed psychologist, marriage and family therapist, seminar speaker, and author of seven books. He lives with his wife, Tami, and three children in Clackamas, Oregon.

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