Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage

How you can apply Sun Tzu's war strategies to your marriage

By Dr Greg Smalley
5 May, 2016

When Erin and I got married, I knew that I should "leave" my old life and "cleave" to my wife. But under pressure in the first months of our marriage, I was double-minded. Memories of my independent, Greg-only priorities would warm my thoughts, causing me to want to rekindle my single, self-centered way of life.

As I struggled with the difficult realities of marriage, I let discontent weigh down my soul. Erin struggled even more than I did. Depression and anxiety threatened to suffocate her. At that time in my life, immaturity and pride kept me from taking responsibility for our problems, so Erin sought counseling alone.

We were losing the war in our home.

Lessons from an ancient Chinese general

Ironically, concepts revealed in The Art of War, an ancient book written by the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, helped us resolve our battle against selfishness — and seek peace. The advice offered was useful in our “fight” to improve our marriage. As recorded in the book, Sun noted: "[War] is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected."

If you replace the word war with marriage, the message is profound for couples. Twenty-four years ago when I married Erin, I wanted a successful relationship. But our first few years together were not filled with nuptial bliss. Because we were neglecting to wage the war against self-centeredness, we were headed toward ruin.

The prospect of living out my marriage in misery frightened me. I could choose to either run away — or work to resolve the problems. I decided I had only one course of action: I chose to fight for Erin's love, even if it killed me.

Hankerings for home

The Art of War describes the shrewd strategy of eliminating the option of retreat so that your soldiers stick to the war no matter the cost: "When your army has crossed the border, you should burn the boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home."

The option of retreat, or "hankering after home," must be eliminated in your marriage. I call this the "burn the boats" marriage mentality. It's the ultimate show of commitment to each other.

If spouses perceive that conquering marriage issues is the only way forward — that divorce is not an option — their choices will be focused on improving their marriage. Husbands and wives choose wisely when they know that their life destinies are fused to another person's well-being. They talk about their feelings, even if it's painful, instead of pretending everything is fine. They refuse to dwell on the negatives when their spouse ruffles their emotional feathers.

To not "hanker after home" means a spouse has promised to stick out the battle, not just today but for as long as they both shall live. It's the first step toward eliminating a selfish attitude.

Rather than allowing discouragement to weigh you down or frustration to drive you apart, acknowledge your differences and enlist in the fight together. Developing your own art of war is a great plan for proactive engagement that keeps your hearts united.

Adapted from Marriage is a Battle but Not Against Each Other by Dr Greg Smalley © 2016 All rights reserved. Used by permission from Focus on the Family.

If you are struggling to keep your marriage alive, don’t give up – find out more at and let our professional counsellors help you and your spouse overcome this obstacle in your relationship together.

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