Marriage 1 –
They lead the Marriage Preparation Course in the Hallam Diocese. Here is an outline of what the course involves.
The diocesan Marriage Preparation programme, which is unique to Hallam, is built around two major themes. One is focussed on communication which is the lifeblood of any relationship. The second is built around what it means to live out the promises that the couple make on their wedding day.
Experience has shown that couples who marry in a Catholic Church are no less likely to run into difficulties later in their marriage than any other couple, so part of what we are trying to do is to provide the couples with some skills which will help them in their future life together. Research has shown that those pre-marriage courses which do not provide couples with some skills have no impact in terms of reducing marital breakdown.
Under the theme of communication we help couples to realise the part feelings or emotions play in their relationship and we help them to be able to recognise and name the feelings, even those they are uncomfortable with. The second most important virtue in a marriage relationship, we believe, is listening. So we look at what gets in the way of real listening. Listening is not just about hearing words but its about allowing ourselves to be affected by the words that we hear and being willing to respond lovingly to what we hear.
These two streams lead into helping the couples to handle conflict well. All couples have conflict. It’s normal. We are different people with differing hopes, fears, dreams, needs and wants. We help couples to learn to handle conflict by breaking down the process of conflict resolution. First we have to make sure that we really understand what our spouse thinks, feels and believes about any particular issue before we try to find a solution. About 70% of potential conflicts are resolved by ensuring that we haven’t made any assumptions which turn out to be unfounded. In the course we teach a specific technique to help couples handle conflict.
In terms of communication we try to help couples identify areas where they do not at present see eye to eye. On the first evening of the course we ask them to fill in an inventory which consists of around 160 statements. Individually they are asked to indicate whether they strongly agree, agree not sure disagree or strongly disagree with the statements. From this we get a profile of the couple which indicates under 11 headings their strengths and where they need to do more work. Over the years we have found this inventory to be extraordinarily accurate, so long as the couple fills it in honestly and we have only ever seen two couples who didn’t!
These are some of the areas that the inventory picks up; roles in the relationship; attitude to each other’s family and friends; leisure activities; attitudes to their sexual relationship; attitudes to children and parenting; financial management; communication; conflict resolution; marital expectations. This inventory is not a predictor of how good a marriage they will have. It does provide a snapshot of what the relationship is like and indicates where they need to build.
The second big theme is around how the couples will live out the promises they will be making on their wedding day. This is really about how we explain the significance of the sacrament of marriage. When we started running the marriage preparation course some 30 years ago we found that most Catholics had at least a passing understanding of a sacrament. Today, unless they are regularly practicing Catholics, “sacrament” is almost a foreign word.
Marriage is a covenant, freely entered into, unbounded and is long on promises and short on guarantees. It requires free consent and fidelity. We talk about fidelity in terms of what strengthens the bond between them and what weakens it. It is permanent, which enables the couple to take the long view and build trust. We then talk about love and make the distinction between being “in love” and “loving”. Loving is about doing loving things, even when we may not feel like – maybe sometimes through gritted teeth.
Here we bring in what we think is the greatest marital virtue – forgiveness. As the old song says, “We always hurt the one we love”. No marriage is so perfect that the spouses do not hurt one another. Mostly it is not deliberate but when hurt has been caused, if it is not healed it will fester. There is a world of difference between saying “I’m sorry” and asking “Will you forgive me?” The latter puts power into our spouse’s hands. He or she could say “No!” It could be if they are hurting badly they may not be able to forgive there and then.
In marriage, the couple becomes the sign of God’s loving presence in the world. The sacrament is not the wedding, or the promises or any of the trappings surrounding the wedding. The couple is the sacrament. The couple is a sign of God’s continuing loving presence among us. The vocation of marriage is the call from the community to the couple to be that loving sign to the world. If married couples live together in a relationship that is open, secure, joyful and forgiving then the world may believe that this kind of faithful fully alive love is possible.
So not only do we provide skills and insight for the engaged couples in the pre-marriage course but we hold out a vision of Christian marriage and a challenge to live out their vocation.
Marriage 2 – Please and Thank You
Consider two short scenes.
“Dinner will be on the table in two minutes” said Amy as Brian charged through the back door. He was forty minutes behind his schedule and the concert was due to start in three quarters of an hour. Brian rushed past her without even an acknowledgement or comment. She had been looking forward to the concert with Brian – she knew all about the tight schedule and had made a special effort to be ready. There was still time to be there without a mad dash.
David put down his paintbrush and looked round the room with quiet satisfaction. He had not relished taking on completely re-decorating the study, but Celia had begged him to get it done as she would need it as the work base for her new job. David had spent the whole of his day off working steadily to finish as the carpet was due in two days’ time. He was clearing all the paint pots, brushes, dust covers and ladders away when Celia arrived home. “I’ve just finished” he said expectantly as she came up the stairs. “Oh good”, she said, not even pausing at the door. “I’ll be able to move my things in on Tuesday!”
What must it have been like for Amy and David in these two short stories? Both had responded to and expressed or anticipated need of their spouse. They had worked to make life smoother for them. They had carefully identified what was needed and set about and completed the tasks which they expected would be pleasing, and their efforts were not even noticed! It is easy to imagine that they would feel disappointed, uncared for and even insignificant. They may be thinking that they don’t count.
Married couples’ relationships thrive on appreciation and wither in the face of indifference and being taken for granted. We all need to know that we really matter to our spouse. We need to hear that we are special; that our spouse needs us and wants us. Marriages grow and flourish when each partner knows that the other will be there to provide support and encouragement when it is needed.
This is a theme that Pope Francis has made his own when he talks to and about married couples and families. When speaking to those who had come to the Pilgrimage of Families for the closing of the year of Faith in Rome in October, last year he said, “In order to have a healthy family, three words need to be used….. these three words (are): please, thank you, sorry.”
He reinforced the message when addressing engaged couples on Valentine’s Day this year.
“Living together is an art, a patient, beautiful, fascinating journey. It does not end once you have won each other’s love… Rather, it is precisely there where it begins! This journey of every day has a few rules that can be summed up in three phrases which you already said, phrases which I have already repeated many times to families, and which you have already learned to use among yourselves: May I — that is, “can I”, you said — thank you, and I’m sorry.”
We will write about “I’m sorry” on another occasion, but appreciation, the “please” and “thank you” of our daily living together aren’t just optional extras. They constitute an essential element of the yeast that binds couple relationships together and enables them to grow. Polite requests for help and support are more likely to bring forward a loving response rather than angry or off hand demands. When we become angry or indifferent with our spouses, we push them away and build barriers to our intimacy.
As Pope Francis said a bit later in his talk to engaged couples, “A marriage is not successful just because it endures; quality is important. To stay together and to know how to love one another forever is the challenge for Christian couples”.