HOW TO TIE A KNOT
We value training for our jobs yet learning about private relationships is considered an optional extra we can safely ignore. Why so?
Jilting the groom at the altar is the kind of worn cliché that jaded soap opera script writers employ to boost flagging viewer numbers, yet a recent survey of couples has shown that fifteen percent of husbands and wives had last minute doubts about marriage even as they stood before the registrar. The same poll by OnePoll.com also revealed that more than a third of married people didn’t marry for love but so they could have children, buy a house or (depressingly) to receive lots of presents and attention.
Both findings indicate the complexity of emotions surrounding the defining day of a relationship. The myth of marrying for romantic love which prevails in western culture is here displaced by one where other calculations may have precedence (despite the distaste often expressed over arranged marriages). The statistic on those who had doubts might be written off merely as PMT (pre-marital tension) but it may also reveal an inherent brittleness in marrying for romantic love: if the field is as large as the world itself, isn’t there the possibility that someone more suitable can still be found, especially with a laptop to hand?
These findings reinforce the importance of structured marriage preparation. In the months leading up to a wedding, a couple can become so preoccupied with detail that they lose sight of the meaning behind the day (the product of a culture which privileges image over substance). There is surprisingly little public conversation over what makes a good marriage either. Fictional media find relationship failure a more fertile ground for scripting than the routines of a successful marriage, while the fad for self-disclosure in real life is limited to celebrities giving insights on their wonderful marriages in exchange for large sums of money before separating some time later (what has been dubbed ‘The Hello curse’).
The paucity of accessible research into what makes a good marriage is disappointing, given its value to the society. The best book I have read in this area is ‘The Good Marriage’ by Judy Wallerstein, a Californian woman whose previous research into divorce added hard evidence to the belief that divorce disadvantages children in many ways. Wallerstein became disheartened by the analysis of marriage failure and decided instead to look closely at the marriages of fifty people where both partners considered themselves to have made a success of it. She came up with nine tasks of marriage, which emphasise the need for marriages to evolve to meet the changing circumstances of life lest they become a shell of themselves. These are: to detach emotionally from the families of childhood and build new connections with the extended family; to build togetherness through intimacy; to include children while keeping the emotional richness of the marriage; to confront adversity in ways that enhance the relationship; to make safe space for anger and conflict; to establish a pleasurable sex life; to share laughter; to provide encouragement; to recall memories of courtship and early marriage as a way of resourcing the marriage as it evolves.
Despite the importance of training in public life, learning about private human relationships is still considered an optional extra which can safely be ignored if we haven’t got the time. And so our understanding of what constitutes a good marriage is often drawn from looking at bad marriages and deducing it must be the opposite. Seizing the initiative and describing the graceful contours of a loving marriage should be one of the most valuable contributions that church can make to society. But it can also learn much from society in the process, as Judy Wallerstein has shown us.
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