Andrew Hunter Interfaith Minister
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Back in our grandparents' day people were married for life, so how did they make it work? Were they just reluctant to get divorced, did their religion or culture oblige them to stay together, did they stay together “for the sake of the children”, or did they actually know the secrets to a long and happy marriage?
God established the marital union between a husband and wife, but just look at what humankind has done to it! Every couple tells me they want their marriage to last forever but the sad reality is that around 2 in 3 now end in divorce. So what’s going wrong?
Modern societies have unknowingly redefined the institution of marriage through the media. In the name of entertainment and profits, media have encouraged the incremental dissolution of the marriage union with impunity. Movies encourage infidelity and amorality while television sitcoms bathe our children in the notion that marriage is irrelevant. What matters most, they are essentially taught, is instant gratification and most soap operas are hardly role models of excellent communication between couples even friends.
Isn't it about time human beings re-established the integrity and sanctity of the marriage bond, the highest relationship that men and women can experience?
I invite all couples who ask me to marry them to consider a number of questions. These are designed to help them get clear on the nature and purpose of their marriage, to see past the just “being in love” phase, to consider more than just the wedding day and see marriage as a journey with its twists and turns, ups and downs.
1. What attracted you to each other when you first met?
2. How long is it since you met?
3. What qualities does the bride believe the groom brings to this relationship?
4. What qualities does the groom believe the bride brings to the relationship?
5. How did your relationship develop and strengthen into what it is now?
6. What is the most important aspect of the relationship to each of you?
7. What is it that you really love and appreciate about the other?
8. What do you see as the highest purpose of your relationship? What is your intention in being together?
9. How would you reply to, “Do you feel loved by me?” So often we ask, “Do you love me?”
10. Where and how would you like to become stronger in your relationship? Relationships wither if they stop growing.
11. Are you entering this marriage with the authentic intention of giving it your all – even when times get tough, as they can in all marriages?
12. Have you explored together how you would resolve possible conflict? Every relationship will have moments which challenge it and it is useful to have explored how you each respond to and deal with conflict.
13. Your religious – spiritual upbringing, if any – there is no need to have had one!
14. Your families – how they feel about the wedding, whether they will be present at the ceremony, how comfortable are they about your religious /spiritual/humanist views and expressions in the ceremony?
Many give these questions very serious concern, and it shows in the quality of their replies. Others give cursory monosyllabic answers and one can discern in the replies little that says this couple really know what love or marriage is about. The key thing for them seems to be “having a great day” with things looking good and people happy and celebrating. In fact the language now of some ceremonies is more about stage sets and performance.
Now I am not against the desire for a good time, indeed celebrating with a couple is a way of blessing them, but you can’t bless if you are not conscious. But if couples don’t take time to really dig deep into what marriage is about and will involve, then they have little foundation for making a marriage work. A house crumbles to the ground when built on poor foundations, so too will a marriage. Over time a house needs to be respected, renovated, refreshed, redesigned, revived, and so too does a marriage. It’s called by another “R” word – respect.
Like baking a cake, which can involve getting in a bit of a mess, so too will marriage – any couple that tells me they never disagree or argue is more than likely engaging in extreme compromising and suppressing individual needs which may have a health impact in later life. If you keep a lid on things for an easy life, sooner or later, the lid will fly.
But back to this article – designed to help people consider the marriage ahead, or help them whenever the marriage seems to come a little bit like the cake-making – messy. Here are some “tips”
love and Love
First, get used to the difference between Love with a capital L and love with a small l.
The word Love can mean many things, in fact the Christian Greek scriptures had 4 basic words for Love - storge' which means Platonic love; philia for tender loving affection between friends; eros for sexual affection and finally agape which is principled love or we could say godly love, the highest form of Love and therefore with a capital L.
It sounds so simple but talking to each other and opening up is one of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy relationship. It doesn’t matter how trivial you may think your emotions are, they are important. So talk about things. With each other. When you have a problem at home or at work who do you talk to - and who does he? Your friends, your mum? Or to each other? Don’t make it a habit to talk to others instead of each other. This creates a lack of trust and secrecy.
Remember how well you know each other. When something's on your mind he'll be able to tell and if you're not talking about it then he might just think you're being grumpy. He's much more likely to respond well if you share the problem, and the same goes for him as well.
It’s not just about what you say – it’s about how you say it. And we pick up on each other’s moods and body language – whether we care to admit we do or not! It’s like asking someone how they are and they say, “Fine” – and their whole tone of voice and body language tells you otherwise. FINE usually means – F***ed up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional -a bit extreme but you get the message!! And remember – your partner is not a mind reader so don’t expect them to guess how you are and be honest, if you’re not feeling fine, say so!
Active listening, understanding and empathy are all part of communication - not just talking. Speak openly and honestly with each other about your thoughts and feelings. Remember that men in general are not particularly good at expressing their emotions. Help him to develop the language to express his feelings.
Active listening means letting the other speak, not interrupting, seeking clarification, perhaps summarising what the other has said, and inviting them to say more. It is THEIR agenda!
Don’t give up easily
In this instant, quick fix, instant gratification society, where it is easy to take goods you don’t like, not necessarily faulty, back for a refund or replacement, the attitude around marriage can be the same. I have asked some why they gave up and split and sometimes, quite often actually, I got the answer, “I didn’t really like her any more. I liked someone better.” But note the choice of word – LIKE. Marriage is about the LOVE between two people, about love that is not based on conditions it is not about the lesser feeling of “like!”
It's so much easier to walk away from something and look for a new model than to try to make it work. Every relationship goes through rough patches but a lot of the time things, with love AND patience, can be worked on and you'll come out the other side a stronger couple. Some things can seem so big you can never get over them but isn't it worth at least a try – by listening, seeing each other’s point of view, forgiving if necessary and resetting the compass?
Marriage is not la la Land; happy ever after (without problems) exists in stories not marriages. Relationships need working on, like a car needs maintenance and regular attention; you need to learn to compromise, to know when to agree to disagree, when to co-operate and collaborate. So keep asking “Would I rather be right, or would I rather by at peace?” You need to know when to take a stand and when to back down gracefully. And ask to, when times are difficult – “What would LOVE have me do right now?”
The more you work at it, the stronger the relationship will be and the happier the ever after too. When we get it right, we learn and when we get it wrong, we also learn. Either way we learn. And if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always had. IE You can’t go on thinking and behaving in the same way and expect different results.
Nip it in the bud, learn to face, embrace, and replace problems
When there is the first sign of ill-health we often ignore it hoping it will go away. Often it doesn’t. When ignored, it makes matters worse.
How do YOU behave when things go wrong in your relationship? Do you adopt the position “I am right” or do you try to force your partner to change or see your point of view. When you push the other, you push them away. You need to draw or pull them towards you. Avoid words like, “You should” and “Yes but!”
It's often very hard not to do the foregoing, especially when emotions are aroused, and while arguing is a normal, healthy part of most relationships, it's important to make sure that it is constructive and you're not just yelling for the sake of it, to let off steam, or because the lid has blown.
Resolving arguments and solving the problem without letting it escalate is quite a skill and one you do really need to master for the sake of your relationship.
First, note what the argument or disagreement about. Is it based on fact or your perception or wild imagination? See the wider picture – lipstick on the collar does not an affair mean, necessarily! My dad once did not appear home at his usual time and my mum started to imagine all sorts of things. Then we got the news he had had a heart attack.
So, don't start throwing abuse around, stick to the issue and evidence in hand, state your case and feelings as calmly as possible, and never argue over trivia. Give each other time and space to put their argument forward. Again, don't interrupt. Listen when you partner speaks, with respect, and to what is said. Accept your mistakes and say sorry. Learn to forgive yourself as well as your partner. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Work towards a compromise and accept and celebrate difference.
Bearing grudges, resentments as well as anger – all lead to ill-health over time as well as diseases.
The sexual bit!
Often one of the biggest differences between a new couple and one that's been together for years is the lack of passion or exciting sex in their relationship. There's no reason that this should be the case.
You might have been there and done that loads of times but you are still two people who did and still do find each other sexually attractive. You might just need to remind each other of that sometimes by making a bit of extra effort.
Whether that's buying some new lingerie or him agreeing to a night off from watching football to make time for dinner out (or even make dinner for a cosy night in) small touches here and there will make a big difference.
But if problems become serious, do seek medical help. With the many pressures on lives these days, the sexual side of life can lose its sparkle.
Make quality time for each other. Touch regularly; remember that human touch has the power to soothe, support and encourage - whether it's a peck on the cheek, a hug or making love.
Tell each other what it is that you want and what works for you. And equally be honest if “now” is not the right time – but do not use that as the old “headache” excuse. Give yourselves permission to experiment and explore new things and spend time to be sensual, not just sexual, with each other.
Two together as one
When I address couples at their marriage ceremony, I remind them that although this ceremony is about their union, their coming together, they are also two individuals, each with their own talents and gifts, desires and wishes, and each with their own potential to achieve. Marriage can help them achieve that potential through the encouragement and inspiration of their partner.
When you become a couple it's easy to lose a bit of your own individual identity and let everything become about 'we' and 'us' and become totally lost “in the other!”. This is mainly what relationships are about - considering someone else's feelings as well as your own, but you don't need it to take over and become all you're concerned about. Mothering can become smothering. It can be suffocating and when we don’t aspire to our own potential, we can feel depressed, lost, and lacking … and sometimes blame this on the marriage, which is not the case.
Make time for your friends; take an evening out a week to do something that interests you. It's too easy to make excuses as to why you shouldn't do that evening class or set up a regular trip to the cinema with a friend - but just do it. What's a few hours out of your week and I bet it'll make you come back to hubby or wife feeling that much happier.
Make time to be alone and to pursue your hobbies and interests (though not to the point of being obsessive.) Being a couple doesn't mean that you're no longer an individual. You deserve time to yourself. This will also give you the opportunity to contribute something new and fresh to the relationship
Respect, recognise and remember
When you've been with someone for a long time, it’s easy to take them for granted, almost see them as part of the furniture. We all do it and it takes an honest person to keep themselves in check.
We often end up speaking to our partners in a way we would never dream of speaking to anyone else. Of course, this is partly because you're not as close with other people but just imagine if your friends or family could hear you speaking to your partner like that, or making unreasonable demands. Would you be embarrassed? If the answer's yes, then don't do it.
Treat your partner the way you wish to be treated, lovingly and respectfully. Remember we all want to be loved and respected for who we are not the way the other would like us to be. Take time to appreciate and remember the qualities that attracted you to your partner in the first place and let him / her know how much you love him / her.
Make time for yourself and to go out and do things with friends, but that shouldn't mean you don't have fun with your partner as well. When you're living with someone, you see them at home, watch the telly with them and talk about the kids and the bills and all the practicalities of life and you go out and get your fun and interesting conversation elsewhere. Things don't need to be like that.
It can be hard to make quality time together because we all have busy lives but you don't need to go out to have a laugh. Stay in and chat rather than watching the TV. Play stupid games with each other - do things you used to do when you were dating.
Do things that make you laugh together and spend quality time with each other. Share your funny stories and moments. A good laugh can dispel all the cobwebs and strengthen that bond you have. Learn to relax in each other's company and don't rely on your partner for ideas of where to go and what to do – they are not Mystic Meg or Mystic Malc!
The first point in building a happy marriage is to recognise that every marriage evolves over time. Age, experience, culture, friends and family impact married life significantly over a lifetime.
Automatic and unavoidable stages of change occur within the marriage union. When a young couple first wed, they enjoy a honeymoon period. Different couples experience marital bliss differently. Inevitably the honeymoon wears off. Then reality sets in.
After the honeymoon wears off and children begin to enter the family unit, fathers and mothers begin to adjust to a new and different set of responsibilities. Some husbands disclose that they were afraid of marriage, worried about the responsibility of taking care of a wife. Later, the new father and mother realize another, even greater, responsibility of taking care of a new baby.
Time passes, and the couple's children enter elementary school, then the teen years, and finally they graduate from high school and either go to college or enter the workforce. All of these times are different marital stages and bring about an evolution of perspective.
But it doesn't stop there. The kids grow older and marry, and the cycle continues. All of the little birds have flown the nest. With an empty nest, the parents may become grandparents and enter the autumn of their lives.
Throughout the marital stages—as newlyweds, parents and then grandparents— couples mature and find that struggling over cultural and gender differences is not worth the time and effort. They settle together, serve and love one another, smell the flowers along the way and enjoy the more important things in life: each other, their families and perhaps even God.
Used wisely, these marital stages teach us to appreciate one another, our children, our grandchildren and life itself. Rather than resist these changes life brings, savour the stages God gives in a marriage and take good advantage of them.
Above all be honest – the truth will always out. Perhaps the two most important phrases in a marriage relationship are "I'm sorry" and "Thank you." Said meaningfully and purposefully. When you use these phrases easily, legitimately and realistically, things naturally go more smoothly.
If you already have a happy marriage, you likely are already doing some or all of these things. If you don't, you can still have a happy, fulfilling marriage if you and your spouse are willing to work at it, sacrifice for it, give and take for it, and truly serve each other in LOVE.
The time to begin building a happy marriage is now. May your marriage be filled with perpetual bliss. May Your God (however you understand that term even if not in a religious sense) bless you with a happy family and may you share marital happiness with many others!
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If i have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowedge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.