Given that Valentine’s Day is coming up, this week is a natural time to focus on appreciating our spouses.  But sometimes we don’t feel very appreciative, particularly during the difficult journey of parenting a blended or foster family. One of my closest friends once confided, “I need a Valentine’s card this year that says, ‘I love you, even though you are absolutely completely wrong about our last argument.’”  Many married couples can sympathize with that sentiment.  So, how do we actually learn to appreciate our spouses even in a hard time of parenting stress and disagreement?

As I’ve said many times, I’m not a marriage counselor.  I’m a lawyer and, in fact, most attorney skill sets are exactly the opposite of what strong marriages need.  Fortunately, I’ve learned to drop that skill set (most of the time) and have learned (mostly) several other important lessons that have helped us keep a strong and healthy marriage.

1.    Every Flaw Is the Flip Side of a Virtue

One of the biggest revelations I ever had was listening to a speaker talking about some topic I’ve now forgotten say, almost as a throwaway line, that every character fault is the flip side of a virtue.  Since then, I’ve seen that truth play out more times than I can count.  More importantly, I realized that if we try to change someone’s faults, we risk changing their virtues as well.  That penny-pinching that we hate is a distorted version of good money management.  Do we get upset that our spouse can never say no to a request?  We probably can’t change that habit without also losing the generous nature that we fell in love with.

The point here is not that people don’t have faults, but that if we look behind the faults, we’ll almost always find a virtue that we appreciate.  More importantly, even if it were our job to change our spouse, we couldn’t do it, at least not without losing traits that we value.  We’re much better off spending our time concentrating on their virtues — like we want them to do with us — and giving grace for the faults that bug us.  It's much easier to get through the different trials of raising other people's children when you recognize your spouse's virtues.

2.    I’m Not Always Right

I mention this lesson often because it’s a difficult truth that I have to learn and relearn many times.  Part of a lawyer’s skill set is to admit you’re wrong only when all of your other defenses fail.  And, if I’m honest, that training feeds into my tendency to assume that all reasonable people agree with me.  Always being right, however much it feeds my ego, is toxic to a relationship.  

I have learned that I have to affirmatively stop myself and consider the possibility that I’m wr—. . . er, overlooking important facts.  It’s not easy, and I’m really bad at considering alternatives when I’m in the middle of . . . a frank and vigorous discussion.  But it’s important that I keep that reality in mind.  I need the humility of knowing that my husband’s ideas are many times better than mine if I’ll just stop long enough to pay attention to them.

Each of us is an imperfect man or woman, and we will have to recognize that fact numerous times in our lives.  If we want to enjoy many years of marriage and strong relationships, we must be willing to respect our spouse's right to have a different point of view and admit more often than we want that ours is the wrong way to deal with a family problem.

3.    Accept the Reality of Imperfection

We flippantly say, “Nobody’s perfect,” but we rarely recognize the reality of that statement.  Every person will find different ways to stumble and disappoint someone at some point.  In relationships, it’s inevitable that our spouse — and we — will make mistakes.  No one has a perfect marriage, and everyone (including our spouses) has an imperfect mate.  If we expect anything else, those are unrealistic expectations and we are setting ourselves up for certain disappointment.

Before my marriage, I was venting to my brother about a miscommunication with my husband that I was certain was not my fault.  My brother shrugged and said, “Yeah, he didn’t communicate well.  He’s a guy.  Get used to it.”

I laughed, but hidden in the joke was an important truth.  When our spouse stumbles and disappoints us, it's simply part of the reality of being human.  Perfection is our ideal, but our baseline is the flawed and imperfect human condition. Realizing that truth will help you change the focus of your expectations to a more realistic attitude.  That attitude teaches us to be grateful for the good things in our marriage, rather than taking them for granted.  

4.    Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It’s very important to keep our disagreements and the occasional disappointment in perspective.  Everyone does different things in different ways.  My husband’s logic for how to store pots and pans in our kitchen still eludes me. Turning that slight disagreement into a marital problem would be silly.  It also would be counterproductive, as it’s much more important that he’s willing to cook dinner most nights while I’m finishing up my work day or a side gig or another project.  I value my husband's strengths in other areas much more than not having to look for a particular skillet.  We have to let go of our preferences in a happy marriage and concentrate on issues that are worth our time and energy.

Letting go of the little things is a conscious choice and an important one.  Otherwise, we are just building up complaints and an inevitable resentful mood.  The best way to let go of issues is to learn how to give each other grace.  Whether it’s an actual bad habit or just one that annoys us, we learn to accept and forgive each other’s missteps.

Of course, there are some big problems that we can’t accept.  We should never enable a spouse’s serious character flaws, and we should never tolerate an unsafe relationship.  But most of us are in safe relationships dealing with ordinary character flaws. We are not dealing with safety issues, but the simple reality of human relationships in an imperfect world.

Sometimes, we see a flaw that, while not actually unsafe, is still outside normal bounds.  Those issues are dangerous to our relationships, our family, and our spouse.  For example, generosity is a virtue, but squandering money can cause serious issues for everyone in the family.  Similarly, hard work is a virtue, but it can rob a parent of important time actually parenting children and building a marriage.  Lack of respect within a family is always toxic.  Those problems are not “the small stuff,” but we still need to deal with such things in an understanding way with a large measure of grace.   Truth spoken with grace is a difficult skill, but it’s one that we need to learn as part of appreciating our spouses.

I admit that the “truth” part of the last statement comes to me more naturally than the “grace” part.  But as I’ve learned that I’m not always right and that it’s inevitable that people will make mistakes, I’ve learned to make a conscious effort to approach people the same way I want them to deal with my own faults.  Don’t sweat the small issues, and approach all of them with humility and forgiveness.

5.    We’re All in This Together

Each person in a marriage has to deal with an imperfect spouse.  We have different temptations and bad habits, but I am no more perfect than my husband.  We are both imperfect people learning to appreciate and be thankful for each other.  We both face the same challenges in parenting children in a blended family and trying to serve our foster children.   Even when we disagree, we have the same goal; we are simply at odds about the best way to get there.  Our shared goal is the most important single issue we need to focus on.

Recognizing that we are on the same team also helps us express gratitude to each other and find creative ways to show our appreciation.  It's not enough to just appreciate our spouse, after all.  They need to know that we appreciate them.  Whether we use words in a love letter or spending time on common interests or showing positive acts of love, we need to let our spouses know that we are glad to be on the same parenting team.  Communicating our appreciation will help take our marriages to a deeper level of love and strength.


Raising other people's children is never an easy journey, not least because each of us is an imperfect human being struggling in different ways.  This Valentine’s Day, spend some time strengthening your marriage by concentrating on the things you appreciate in your spouse.  Look for the virtues that lurk behind every flaw, admit that you also have flaws, adjust your expectations, and let go of small issues.  Most of all, remember that you and your spouse are on the same team, both with the goal of raising happy, emotionally healthy kids.  Learning to appreciate your spouse is a good first step to reaching that goal.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.