You want a great marriage. We all do. How does it happen? Is it just luck, hard work, or both? I understand trying to make a marriage work can be confusing. When I first married, I, too, understood very little. However, after talking with thousands of couples over the past twenty years, it has become clear: There is a way to make a great marriage.

When I was studying Family Therapy in graduate school, I learned techniques. I learned specialized terminology to describe everyday behavior between people. I learned how to behave professionally. But I didn't learn what makes a marriage successful. Why? Because universities do not teach people how they should behave. They only teach techniques, not values. Torah teaches people (you, me, and everyone else) how to behave. And if we want to know how to make a great marriage, we need to look inside.

Love for a fellow Jew is the essence of Torah. The reason? It emphasizes the soul over the body1, and that is the essence of—"the secret" to—a great marriage. Let me explain…

When you decided to marry your partner, how did you expect him or her to treat you? Before continuing to read, take a moment to remember: What was the one thing that was absolutely necessary for you to agree to marriage? Answer: You wanted to be loved by by the person you were going to marry. And if you thought he or she would treat you that way, you said "yes"—yes to marriage. To break it down into components: You wanted to be cherished, respected, treated kindly, understood, and valued. And your partner expected the same from you! If you each thought you would get this, you then went on to the chuppah, the marital canopy. If not, no matter how many common interests you had or how attracted you were to each other, you would not have agreed to marry one another.

Your job and your partner's job, after the wedding, was to make your partner feel loved and thereby fulfill the expectations that existed prior to marriage. You do this by making your spouse feel cherished, respected, well-treated, understood, and valued. You achieve this by making your partner the #1 person in your life—even before yourself. This is easy when you focus on their soul. Why? Because no husband or wife will get everything that they want and expect from his or her spouse and no one is perfect. When you prioritize the spiritual, you allow yourself to focus on what really matters; you are not disappointed and you can give to your partner with a generous and loving heart.

This does not mean you have to agree to or comply with everything your partner wants. It means what they want is more important than what you want. From your point of view, your spouse's needs are spiritual compared to your own material self-focused desires. Living according to Torah means valuing the spiritual (using the material so it becomes spiritual) over the physical (selfish, base desires). A great marriage between a man and a woman means actualizing this value within the relationship—always. When you make your spouse the #1 person in your life, this is the very act of loving a fellow Jew. Their needs and wellbeing come first, before your own.

What you don't want to do to your spouse:

  • Dismiss what he or she wants.
  • Make him or her feel devalued, as though his or her feelings are unimportant.
  • Get angry/criticize/argue. This is the ultimate expression of selfishness. It's all about me, me, and me. When you get angry, it's because your partner is not doing what you want. You are saying loud and clear: "I, not you, come first." This is why the Talmud compares anger to idol worship—worship of self and not G‑d.
  • Reject or neglect. Your partner married you to be in a relationship. When you deny this to him or her, you are abandoning your commitment. This is especially true when the husband does this. The ketubah, marriage contract, obligates him to be close with his wife.

What you want to do:

  • Behave kindly.
  • Behave respectfully.
  • Try to understand your partner, especially his or her feelings (this is separate from agreeing or disagreeing).
  • Communicate how you value having your partner in your life.
  • Give your partner as much as you can. When you become aware that he or she wants something, carefully evaluate if it's appropriate and possible. If yes, do it. If not, seek a kind way to say "no."

Each person needs something different. For one person, feeling valued (typically men) is most important, and for another it is feeling cherished (typically women). A detailed list of what you and your partner need would likely be very long. Being aware of what your partner needs and helping him or her find fulfillment establishes marital peace and harmony. To say it another way: This is why your husband or wife married you. He or she was certain you would make him or her feel good, that you would add value to his or her life

A conflicted marriage is one of the saddest things in the world. The disappointment and heartbreak is great. The belief, the hope, the prayers one had when standing under the canopy are crushed. The promised kindness has turned to hostility. However, it need not be that way. If this applies to you, start treating your husband or wife as the #1 person in your life and gradually watch peace and love establish itself.

When Sarah expressed to Alex her unhappiness, he was, at first, very defensive. He wanted his wife to be happy and couldn't handle hearing her describe her loneliness and sadness. A close friend got him to confide his dejection. He told Alex to be strong and go back to his wife and ask her what she wanted. What was missing in their relationship that was making her unhappy? Alex went to his wife and asked. She explained she wanted to spend more time talking to him. She wanted him to show more interest in her. Alex decided to make changes. When he came home at night, instead of immediately going to do "his things," he spent time with Sarah. He asked her how her day was, how she was feeling, what he could do to make her feel cared for. Sarah felt a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Not only was Alex spending more time with her, which is what she had asked for, but he also proved he cared by being sensitive to her needs. Alex demonstrated to his wife that she is the #1 person in his life. He had a little less time for "his things," but knowing his wife was happy was of far greater importance. And in return, Alex felt valued. This made him feel good…. very good.

Now it's your turn (and mine). Make your partner feel he or she is the most important person in your life.