How to Take Any Marriage to the Next Level (With One Good Story)

Marriage is the realization that living two perfect stories separately isn’t nearly as beautiful as living one messy story together


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Several years ago, my wife and I were in the process of buying a new house. I kept gravitating toward homes with small rooms and close quarters. She was drawn to homes with open floor plans and expansive rooms. I secretly wondered if she was being shallow and greedy. She thought I was trying to give her claustrophobia. No matter how well we communicated and tried to compromise, we couldn’t get on the same page.

We were stuck.

And it wasn’t just about a house…

Why Stuck Happens

When I was in graduate school, I assumed every marital therapy was a boxing match. I figured every session would be like a dramatic weekend marriage retreat where couples pick up big, red, foam bats and beat the stuffing out of things in order to release their anger.

The reality is far less dramatic and far more tender and beautiful. For most couples I see, life is actually pretty good—there isn’t a whole lot to complain about. But they share a mutual frustration about some unnamable thing that feels somehow…missing. They say they feel “stuck.”

In 2004, a soon-to-be-retired psychologist told me the secret to un-stucking a marriage. I was telling him how I felt stagnated with several of my clients when he looked at me and said, “Kelly, when a therapy is stuck, it’s because you and your client don’t share the same goals. In fact, that probably goes for any relationship.”

If a relationship is stuck, it’s because you don’t share the same goals. 

Quiet Hopes and Untold Stories

In his book, Love Does, Bob Goff describes a family discussion immediately after 9/11, in which he asked his kids how they would solve the big problems in the world:

“Richard was next. He said he would ask each of the world leaders what they were hoping for. The idea was that if world leaders knew what each other were hoping for, then perhaps they could start hoping for the same things. Rich reasoned that the problem was no one knew what other people were quietly hoping for.”

The problem is no one knows what other people are quietly hoping for.

Several years ago, as my wife and I were in our floor-plan stalemate, we discovered we were quietly hoping for very different things from our marriage, our family, and our life. I wanted a house with tiny gathering spaces to encourage coming together as a family, hunkering down with each other by the fireplace or in front of a family movie. My story—and thus the home I desired—didn’t leave a lot of room for people outside of our immediate family.

My wife on the other hand was quietly hoping our story would be one of welcoming many people into our home, creating an inviting space for gathering and hospitality and community. She wasn’t being shallow or greedy. In fact, the opposite was true—she wanted to tell a beautiful story with our new home. It just wasn’t the story my introverted self wanted to tell.

No matter how well we communicate in a marriage, we can’t get unstuck and take our marriage to the next level if we have different goals, if we have undefined or uncoordinated visions of where life is headed, if we have desires unlived and hopes unspoken.

Every marriage needs one good story.

Discovering a Story to Share

Don Miller defines a story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” He says when the main character in a story doesn’t know what he wants out of life, the story becomes confusing and directionless. The story gets stuck. But if the main character knows what he wants and decides to climb over any obstacle to get it, then the story explodes with purpose and redemption.

What if our marriage is the main character in the story of our lives? But what if it’s a character with two hearts—two sets of hopes and dreams and desires? What would happen if those two hearts discovered one shared story and decided to tell it together on every page of this one-chance life?

When this kind of clarity and direction is discovered in a marriage, partners start speaking the same language, families are freed up to eliminate the clutter distracting them from the one story they want to tell, children are given a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the next video game release, quiet hopes get lived, sacred desires are realized, and the world becomes more beautiful—one marriage and one family at a time.

One Good Story Waiting to be Told

My wife and I bought the house with the small rooms. But then we also bought a trampoline—a magnet for a neighborhood full of kids. And then we bought a screen door, so our door will always be open in the summer months. And we decided to sit on our front steps instead of our back deck. We decided the story we want to tell is a story of togetherness and belonging, first nurtured within our four walls and then extended to the rest of the world.

She’s in charge of expanding me when I get too small, and I’m in charge of focusing her when she gets too sprawling.

Are we always true to the story we want to tell? No. Do we sometimes lose the plot? Absolutely. We make plenty of typos, and we have a lot of editing to do, and the conclusion of our story is still a long way off. But you start to realize telling two perfect stories isn’t nearly as gratifying as telling one messy story together.

Every marriage is one good story waiting to be told by two people whose hearts have begun to pound to the beat of the same drum. 

Two becoming one. One good story at a time.

Questions: What do you think about this way of taking marriage to the next level? What other ways have you discovered? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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Next Post: “Why the Best Gift for Any Kid is a Messy Christmas”

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

10 thoughts on “How to Take Any Marriage to the Next Level (With One Good Story)

  1. I love this, ‘The problem is no one knows what other people are quietly hoping for.’

    My fiance and I run into this, where we’ll have this plan/idea in mind. But we won’t communicate it, and then if we both have a plan and don’t communicate it, we run into issues. Then we realize we weren’t talking about things, finally let each other in on our plans, and we’re fine.

    A story with someone by your side seems so much more fulfilling.

    • Kari, it sounds like you and your fiancee are learning an important lesson some couples don’t learn until it’s too late! Sharing plans, ideas, expectations. It seems so simple, but it actually can be really hard to get used to the idea that this other person may have an entirely different agenda!

  2. I think this post really highlights the way couples are endlessly negotiating the dance between intimacy and autonomy – that as individuals we need space to express who we are in the deepest part of our self, yet we also need to exist in relation to others and find a place where who we are is affirmed and loved. It is the difficult balance of creating a joint story while also remaining true to yourself.

    The other ideas I find crucial to taking marriage to that level of joyful wonder is having deep empathy with each other (and sometimes this means putting your own views aside and really sinking into your partners perspective warts and all in context of their early life experiences) and realising that fights and disagreements can also relate to unresolved baggage from earlier in life that each partner brings to the relationship. Having the courage to own that internally and then taking it one step further and sharing it to me creates amazing things when that experience can be accepted and received with love and empathy.

    • Natalie, this is beautiful. I’d like to read an expanded blog post on it. : ) Your thoughts on the autonomy/interdependent dance of marriage made me think of Henri Nouwen’s image. He envisioned a healthy marriage two hands touching each other at the fingertips and at the heel of the palm, with all this space in between. He said the space between the individuals created the room for dancing. : )

      • Thanks Kelly 🙂 I love the visual image you described. Much of my philosophy comes from imago theory and my own experiences with a formidable therapist and the daily marriage grind for the past 7 years. I am about to start a PhD so you may have to wait a bit for the expanded blog post! In relation to the discussion on raising kids, is it going to be recorded? I won’t get to listen in due to a big time difference. Thanks!

        • Good for you, Natalie, and good luck with your program! The radio show was recorded. I should have a link to it by sometime tomorrow and will share it on Facebook, etc.

  3. Kelly…this is another great post and I love the comments below that expand on it. Monique and I are using a relational tool called the Community Temperature Reading (CTR) which helps us look inside and then share openly…and as a result we sometimes discover goals that have been hidden or buried for one reason or another. The (CTR) can be found in Emotionally Healthy Skills 2.0, Thanks again and Merry Christmas!

    • Vic, thank you for this resource! My wife and I are leading a marriage retreat in February and I’d like to take a look at this as we’re planning for it. Thanks again, and Happy New Year!

  4. Excellent! You just put the words into “our story,” my husband and mine. She expands you; you focus her. Alas! Appreciate all of your insights!

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