Note: This is an update of a column I wrote 25 years ago. It still feels just as relevant and essential today.
One skill stands out above all others if you want the closest relationship possible. If you are a man, it would be wise for you to adopt the attitude that you will never be a husband—regardless of what the marriage certificate says, and regardless of the blessing you may have received from your church. The best you (or any man) can ever get is to become a really good “student” husband.
Normally people assume they know what’s asked of them when they become a husband or a wife. As a result, they often stop paying attention, and therefore cease learning how to be responsive to the other person. They behave in the marriage they way they always have, or the way they think they should, and they quit listening to feedback, requests and lessons that their partner inevitably offers. In truth, nobody knows how to be the best spouse to you. They have to be taught what you need and desire, and where your sensitivities are, so they can learn how to preform the role really well.
A student has the mindset of a beginner. A student does not act like he already knows what to do. His attitude is: “Teach me, I’m open to learning how to be better.” You become a student husband by being willing to take your spouse’s desires, feelings and responses seriously, by opening yourself to the idea that your partner’s voice is equal to your own, that kindness is golden, that making your spouse your top priority is vital and that continuing to be affectionate is one of the keys to having a happy life. There’s a bonus if you control your defensiveness and your impulse to criticize, and if you are honest, trustworthy and true to your word.
And did I mention that if you’re a woman, you can never become a full-fledged wife? But you could be an excellent life-long student wife, willing to learn what works well, and how to be the most effective you can be. That means you must commit to gaining control over your temper and not be disrespectful, and you must choose peace over irritation, resentment and anger. You must edit yourself before you speak, and make sure you are being wise about picking your battles. And don’t forget romance—it’s still important.
A good student thrives when he or she has an effective and patient teacher. You become an excellent teacher not by telling your spouse what s/he did wrong, but instead by attempting to explain how s/he might do better. A good teacher is encouraging (“Let’s do it together. I’ll teach you.”) instead of belittling someone for getting it wrong. We all need suggestions about what we could be doing better, and we need it presented in a gentle enough way that we will be able to actually hear it and take it to heart. Becoming a good student husband or wife is one of the keys of having a good marriage. Another key is being willing to be a really good teacher.
I am married to a wonderful woman, but I don’t expect that I will become a full-fledged husband—ever. The best that I can do is to become a life-long student husband, always attempting to learn how to be responsive, kind, communicative and romantic. I will never “graduate” from this job and become a husband; I just need to continue being the best student I can be.