Chapter 3. Making Good Marriages Better
There is genuine dialogue -- no matter whether spoken or silent -- where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation. 1. -- Martin Buber
Loving perception, whether as between sweethearts or as between parents and children, produced kinds of knowledge that were not available to nonlovers. 2. -- Abraham Maslow
In most marriages there’s a hidden marriage waiting to be discovered and liberated. This latent marriage is a better marriage -- more fulfilling, more intimate, more alive -- than the here-and-now relationship. The latent marriage may be well hidden -- buried under many layers of anger, mutual neglect, and hurting. Many couples aren’t aware of their latent marriage. They’re unaware that they’re using only a small part -- 15 to 25 percent perhaps -- of their capacities for satisfying communication, sexual pleasure, and mutually fulfilling love. It’s the unlived life in our marriages that makes them so vulnerable in crises we otherwise could take in stride.
The growth perspective sees marriage as a changing, developing process -- a co-creation which the two partners continue to enrich (or gradually starve) by the ways they communicate and care for each other. A couple has the power to develop their latent marriage by nurturing each other’s heart hungers -- the hungers for affirming communication, warm caring, mutual esteem and trust, closeness and companionship, sexual and other enjoyment.
If couples have been deeply alienated or strangling each other’s creativity for years, their latent marriage can probably be developed -- if at all -- only by a process of marriage therapy or long-term marriage counseling. But for the vast majority of us whose marriages are a mixture of pain and joy, frustration and satisfaction, distance and closeness -- for us enrichment methods and short-term crisis methods can be effective in improving our relationships by developing our hidden marriage assets. To help couples learn to do this is one of the rich opportunities of any minister, counselor, or lay befriender.
The Crisis in Marriage
The institution of marriage is being challenged today in unprecedented ways. For every three couples that marry, one couple gets a divorce. Many youth and young adults are rejecting the validity or necessity of marriage in its traditional forms. The widespread changes in attitudes and practices, taken together, constitute a profound and accelerating social "revolution" in marriage. This fact calls for rethinking our approaches to marriage and redesigning our strategy to meet the new needs.
A survey of a cross-section of the U.S. adult population revealed these significant facts: 3.
1) Marriage is still very much "in"; 80 percent rank "a happy home life" at the top of their list of goals.
2) Marriage itself, rather than parenting, is central; three out of four persons felt it was all right for married couples to decide to have no children.
3) The majority approved changes in life-style such as leaving the work force temporarily, joining a new religion, moving to the country.
4) A slight majority of women (51 percent) and a somewhat larger majority of men (58 percent) support "woman’s liberation," and this support is rising rapidly.
Since this survey covered all adult ages, let’s look now at just the young adults. A study by Arlo Compaan of young adult couples in California reported: 4.
1) The husband-wife relationships tended to be emotionally intense and this relationship, rather than children, dominated the marriages.
2) Marriage was understood and valued mainly in terms of communication, personal growth, and satisfaction.
3) The couples preferred small families.
4) Play, including playful sex, was a stronger motif in marriage than production, the work ethic, or marriage as an aid to "success."
5) Religion was highly valued but the couples generally lacked interest in the church even though they were nominally "church related."
Let me add my observations concerning recent changes in marriage which affect all ages but are most prominent among young adults:
1) There’s a growing search for more flexible, creative marriage styles.
2) The strongest single trend is a rejection of rigidly defined sex roles and a movement toward increasingly egalitarian man-woman relationships.
3) There’s increasing willingness to consider options other than marriage and to be in much less hurry to marry.
4) "Just living together" without a marriage is becoming more common among couples who aren’t ready for marriage or don’t want legal commitments.
5) There’s increased openness to the possibility of terminating a marriage if it proves not to be mutually fulfilling, and less of the "'til death do us part" attitude.
6) There’s more divorce and more remarriage.
7) The pill, equality, and freedom of women have narrowed dramatically and may eliminate the male-female dual standards on sex; there is generally more sexual freedom and variety before and within marriage.
8) There is a continuing decrease in the nurture and emotional support available to couples from their extended family and neighborhoods, and increased searching for substitute support systems -- for example, in communes, family networks, and group marriages.
A New Strategy for a New Day
It’s obvious that it’s a whole new day for marriage -- particularly among many young adults! What should be the response of the church to this challenge? The deep changes in marriage practices and attitudes make it imperative to develop a more effective methodology and program to help couples find what they want and need. Any new approach must help couples learn how to keep on enriching their marriage, so they can create flexible, growing, intensified monogamy, with a more enjoyable and soul-satisfying bond of creative closeness. It is precisely at the point of developing such a program that the use of growth counseling is most helpful.
Such a program needs two complementary parts: (1) enrichment groups, including seminars, workshops, retreats, and classes for all couples who want them, and (2) growth-centered crisis counseling for couples going through periods of special stress. The goal of both parts is to make good marriages better. Couples with acutely and chronically disturbed marriages should of course be helped to find specialists in longer-term marriage therapy.
I suggest that you read the following list to get a grasp of the immense variety and range of possibilities for marriage enrichment groups. Don’t let the length of the list scare you. I’m not suggesting that your church should develop all or even most of these groups! That’s probably neither necessary nor feasible. But churches that are using a growth model of ministry do devote major leadership energies to developing a variety of time-limited groups, retreats, and training seminars to meet major concentrations of needs. The goal is to gradually create a smorgasbord of enrichment and counseling opportunities to meet the needs of the maximum number of persons at all stages of marriage. Read the list with your particular situation in mind. Ask yourself whether or not there are unmet needs to which you could address yourself in one or more of these areas.
Types of Marriage Enrichment and Growth Counseling Groups and Programs
Youth identity-formation or self-discovery groups; long-range preparation for marriage
Preparation-for-marriage retreats or growth groups several times a year
Growth-oriented pre-wedding preparation sessions with each couple
Newly-married's enrichment workshop or retreat or growth group
Post-wedding marriage enrichment sessions with each couple (at least two or three sessions)
Young parents enrichment group
Annual marriage enrichment retreats for couples clubs and classes
Preparation for baptism (or infant dedication) group for parents
Regular marriage enrichment retreats (for various ages and stages)
A creative sexuality seminar
A workshop on "Handling Conflict Creatively"
A Bible study -- marriage enrichment workshop or class
A couples spiritual-discovery group
Meaning-of-life groups for couples
A middle-married's enrichment retreat
A parents-teens communication workshop
An emptying nest marriage enrichment group
Women’s (or men’s or mixed) consciousness-raising retreat
Family clusters or networks as a context for family enrichment
A creative values group or retreat
Healthy family growth celebrations, to make good families better
Divorce growth groups
Creative singlehood groups
Single parents enrichment groups
Creative retirement couples group
Grief recovery groups (for widows and widowers)
Growth group leadership training workshop
Growth training for teachers, and for leaders of youth and adult groups
A growth-oriented program of crisis counseling for couples A growth group for couples after marriage counseling
What is the goal of growth marriage counseling/ enrichment? It’s to provide the opportunity for each couple to create their own best marriage, a growing relationship that meets their needs. I’ll call this kind of relationship -- the kind that stimulates growth -- an intimate, open marriage with equality and positive fidelity. The goal is a liberating marriage, one which frees couples to use their maximum gifts as individuals in mutually enhancing ways. Each couple develops its own variations on this theme.
The characteristics of a liberating marriage (described in The Intimate Marriage 5. and The Open Marriage 6. include:
responsiveness to meeting each other’s needs; open and caring communication; closeness and respect for individual privacy needs; autonomy (each a person in his/her own right) and interdependence; genuine fairness and equality; commitment to each other’s growth; no rigid or satellite roles; continued change and growth through the years; the ability to use conflict to deepen intimacy and resolve differences by negotiation (rather than deadlocking or distancing); deepening sexual pleasure integrated with love; increasing intimacy in the areas of meanings and faith; strengthening of the marriage identity (the "two becoming one").
In contrast to the position expressed in The Open Marriage, it is my conviction that, for most couples, positive fidelity is essential if they are to achieve "deepening sexual pleasure integrated with love." This is the integration which makes possible the most satisfying sex. Negative fidelity is a sexual faithfulness based mainly on guilt and fear of consequences. This is the control and punishment effected by one’s internal "Parent," to use the PAC terms of Transactional Analysis.7. Positive fidelity, in contrast, flows from mutual respect and caring and from prizing what the couple already have "going for them" and what they expect to build together. Sexual fidelity stems from a more inclusive "Adult" fidelity -- from a valuing of, and commitment to, the relationship and from not wanting to damage what is experienced as precious. Negative fidelity, which feels like a moral straight jacket, is less and less prevalent or motivating, particularly among young adult couples.
Positive fidelity doesn’t preclude the possibility of having close friends of the opposite sex. As we learn to relate to each other first as persons and then as sex objects, rather than vice versa, this becomes increasingly possible. Positive fidelity doesn’t rule out the wandering eye or imagination, both of which seem to be normal, enjoyable aspects of our human sexuality. Positive fidelity is based on respecting a psychological reality -- namely, that the most body and soul satisfying sex isn’t possible apart from a quality of relationship which includes mutual respect, trust, tender caring, and continuity. It takes time and trust and commitment for love to flower. Affairs, rather than enhancing the quality of marriages, usually hurt them, often in irreparable ways. I’m all for an "open marriage" in terms of communication, equality, growth, and outside friendships. But if "open" means sexual affairs, the results are usually not openness or growth -- or really liberating sex!
The deepest intimacy and the best sex of which most couples are capable are not possible psychologically apart from genuine equality. The distance and anger (whether hot or frozen) that build up in a one-up/one-down marriage in which one or both persons feel "used," block depth communication and therefore impede liberated sex. The awareness that we men also are exploited -- by the present "success" system -- and that we’re also depriving ourselves of much of our person-hood (by the male rat race) makes it obvious that the basic issue is human liberation. The goal is to create relationships and institutions in which both women and men will have the greatest freedom and encouragement to use their full intelligence, creativity, and productive energies. We who are married can help to overcome sexism, the prejudice and discrimination against women most obviously, but also against men, which blocks human becoming on a massive scale. We can do this by struggling, and by bearing the pain it often requires, to create an equal and mutually-liberating relationship. In liberating our marriages we give our children a precious gift, the model of a mutually-fulfilling man-woman relationship, which is one of the best preparations for their future. The accelerating trend toward female-male equality opens up all sorts of new possibilities for both conflict and intimacy.
Sexism is a central cause of both diminished marriages and destructive marriages. Therefore, a church cannot fully nurture the growth of married persons until it actively encourages liberating, equal, intimate marriages. This will require deep changes in the institutional male chauvinism of most churches and religions. Until this happens, our effectiveness in marriage enrichment will be limited because of the spiritual destructiveness of the mutual exploitation which results from inequality. And not until this happens will we take seriously the insight of Paul that in Christ there is no male or female (Gal. 3:28), that one’s humanity, not one’s gender, is what matters most. The most important implication of all this is that marriage counselors and enrichers, whether ministers or lay persons, need to have increased awareness -- a raised consciousness in the area of women’s and men’s liberation!
The Widening Impact of Marriage Enrichment
A minister asked during a workshop: "With the moral morass of our society, the stinking injustice at home, and the poverty and hunger all over the world, how can we spend time enriching marriages?" Anyone with a sensitive social conscience must find an answer. Let’s face it -- the human family may not make it. It may do itself in, sooner than most of us think, by massive environmental pollution, and/or a nuclear holocaust. And even if we make it, the quality of life may be reduced severely. Is it ethically responsible then to spend time enriching marriages -- mainly among the affluent -- when millions live in dehumanizing squalor, hunger, and disease?
For me, the answer is no -- not if enrichment ends with individual marriages in a kind of mutual marital narcissism. Privatized, self-serving marriage enrichment, like privatized, self-serving religion and counseling, is immoral in our kind of world. It is an opiate which helps us ignore the massive social injustices and economic inequalities which block the fulfillment of the God-given potentialities of millions of our brothers and sisters on Spaceship Earth.
But, as pointed out earlier, to be genuinely liberating and person-creating, marriage enrichment should produce commitment to outreach beyond the marriage! Enrichment of individual marriages is potentially a powerful resource for enriching life in society. The impact can be like a pebble dropped in a pond. The first circle beyond the marriage pair is the immediate family. Parents are the architects and builders of a family; whatever makes their marriage better will strengthen the personality health of their children. The outreach of enriched couples can help build a network of mutual support among families. This gradually strengthens the wholeness-sustaining fabric of a congregation and community. Couples who have mutually-satisfying marriages have the inner resources to reach out to even wider circles. They can be challenged to work in projects to improve their community through political and social action, to help eradicate sexism, racism, ageism (discrimination against aging persons), and poverty, all of which damage marriages and families. As responsible members of the human family, we all should support governmental, United Nations, and church-sponsored efforts to help families in poor nations acquire the food, shelter, medical help, and education which will allow them to use their full God-given potentialities.
Leaders of marriage enrichment events need to hold up outreach as indispensable to personal growth. The life-style of "generativity" (Erik Erikson) -- investing self in others and the ongoingness of humankind -- is essential to having the best marriages at any stage.8.
All this has deep roots in the Christian heritage. As John Snow, a professor of pastoral theology, points out, the Christian family was seen in the New Testament as an agent of the coming community of love and justice, a new kind of "kingdom": "Its goal was not to make a house a home for a family but to make the world a home for humankind." 9.
The family was not simply a way for two people of different sexes to meet each other’s needs and the needs of their children. It was part of a community committed to meeting the deprivation of the world, spiritual and physical. As such, marriage had the rich spiritual and emotional support of the community in which it existed. 10.
Today, Snow declares, the local church should provide the community of caring which is essential for healthy marriages and families. The ultimate goal of Christian marriage enrichment is to liberate couples to claim and share the fruits of the spirit for which the human family longs -- love, faithfulness, integrity, reconciliation, healing, joy, and peace. When this happens, people discover the growth that comes only when one is captured by a commitment to helping others grow, and to creating a growth-supporting world community!
1. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955 p. 19.
2. Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1971), p. 17.
3. Psychology Today, May 1974, p. 102
4. Arlo D. Compaan, A Study of Contemporary Young Adult Marital Styles (Th.D. diss., School of Theology, Claremont, Calif., 1973).
5. Clinebell and Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage
6. Nena and George O’Neill, The Open Marriage (New York: Lippincott, 1972).
7. For a succinct overview of Transactional Analysis theory see: Leonard Campos and Paul McCormick, Introduce Your Marriage to Transactional Analysis, and Introduce Yourself to Transactional Analysis (Berkeley, Calif.: Transactional Publications, 1972).
8. See Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society 2d. ed. rev. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), pp. 266 -- 68.
9. John Snow, "Christian Marriage and Family Life," Christianity and Crisis, 7 January 1974, p. 281.