Chapter 7: Enriching a New Marriage
One of the deepest satisfactions coming from the healthy love relationship reported by my subjects is that such a relationship permits the greatest spontaneity, the greatest naturalness, the greatest dropping of defenses. . . . In such a relationship it is not necessary to be guarded, to conceal, to try to impress, to feel tense, to watch one’s words or actions. . . . They can feel psychologically (as well as physically) naked and still feel loved and wanted and secure. 1. -- Abraham Maslow
This fragile life between birth and death can nevertheless be a fulfillment -- if it is a dialogue. In our life and experience we are addressed by thought and speech and action. . . . For the most part we do not listen. 2. -- Martin Buber
Marriage Enrichment in the First Five Years
They are so precious -- those early years of marriage! When our love is so young and our children so small! What a pity that so much of those years’ potential is lost amidst unpaid bills and diaper pails, too little time together and too much scrambling for success. Helping couples during these years of learning-to-be-married is a critically important, but largely neglected, opportunity for churches.
Couples who have had optimal preparation, as described in chapter 6, can continue their growth in vigorous, imaginative programs for newly-marrieds. For the vast majority who have not been adequately prepared, such programs are even more vital. The aim is to help couples make the most of the early formative years and thus build strong foundations for lifelong patterns of creative relating.
A man in his middle years described his hopes for a weekend couples retreat: "I hope we can achieve that good, close feeling and learn to help others do better than we’ve done -- we’ve wasted so much time in our marriage!" Life is so short, and it becomes very important to learn, in the early years, to use wel1 the precious time we have in intimate relationships. Here are six interrelated ways in which, through church counseling and enrichment programs, couples can strengthen their own new marriages. I present these models in the hope that they will stimulate your creativity, encouraging you to experiment until you discover the one or two models which work best in your situation.
Model I. Healthy Marriage Growth Intervews
The purposes and method of setting up a series of post-wedding growth sessions were presented in chapter 6. If a couple is moving after the wedding, the pastor who performed the ceremony should phone a minister in the new community asking him or her to take responsibility for the follow-up sessions. Newlyweds who move into your community after being married elsewhere should be encouraged to participate in the entire early-marrieds’ program.
Healthy marriage interviews should be publicized as a regular important part of a church’s enrichment program, using an announcement such as this:
Marriage Enrichment Sessions with Minister
Our church cares about helping persons at each marital stage to have satisfying marriages. The early years of marriage are usually a time of struggle and adjustment. Therefore, our pastor wants to have several informal "enrichment sessions" with each couple who desire this enrichment during their first two years. These sessions are opportunities for couples to discuss their marriages and receive coaching in tested and proven ways of enriching their relationships. The sessions are a kind of "healthy marriage checkup." To take advantage of this service, whether or not you were married in our church, just phone the pastor to arrange for a convenient meeting in your home or at his office.
One West Coast pastor puts a major emphasis on having at least three sessions with each couple -- after the first three months, six months, and one year of marriage. With a touch of humor, he compares the sessions to the five-thousand-mile checkup on a new car. The first post-wedding appointment is set up during the pre-marriage counseling sessions; a high percentage of couples keep and make productive use of their appointments. Occasionally serious problems surface during the sessions, which lead to more extensive counseling. 3.
Pastoral counselor Claude Guldner reports on an illuminating approach which easily could be adapted by a parish minister. 4. Thirty couples who were getting premarital counseling were invited to follow this up with six post-wedding interviews. Only seven couples did not follow through, including four who had moved away and one who had already separated. The six sessions were structured loosely as follows: (1) establishing rapport -- discuss courtship and present relationship; (2) couple encouraged to explore attitudes toward love and marriage; (3) partners seen individually to increase counselor’s understanding of them; (4) joint session dealing with day-to-day living; (5) couple helped to explore the feeling dimensions of their marriage; (6) exploring goals, values, and any unfinished issues.
The seven couples who had been married only a month were still in a "state of marital bliss" and were not open to looking in depth at their marriage. In contrast, most of the couples married either three or six months when the sessions began were open and appreciative of the opportunity. Many of those married six months said they’d been waiting for a chance to resolve some issues. The responses of the twenty-three couples were generally positive; many indicated they had dealt with areas they could not have explored before the wedding.
Model 2. A Newly-Marrieds Enrichment Group
It’s important to encourage couples in the first five years to participate in a "growth booster," an enrichment group or retreat, at least once a year. Churches which have tried a variety of marriage enrichment retreats report that participation by couples in the first ten years is generally more enthusiastic than that of couples in any other marriage stage.
In a church where I was minister of counseling, we gathered a group of six couples for a series of four two-hour enrichment sessions by simply mailing invitations to all the couples who had been married during the previous two years. The group facilitator opened each session by a seven-to-ten-minute statement about some aspect of marriage-building in the early years. Couples then wrestled with the issues in terms of their own marriage experiences.
The basic formats, topics, and communication skills for newly-marrieds groups and retreats are essentially the same as for other marriage enrichment events. But, in addition, there are some special needs of many young couples which should be kept in mind in planning with them for enrichment events:
1) The persistent pressures and problems of too little money and too many bills. The ways in which money issues get intertwined with power, nurture, and love issues should be discussed, as should practical strategies for coping with money problems through sound budgeting. Retreats for newly-marrieds should be kept low-cost by using a lounge at a neighboring church, limiting them to one-day events, or sleeping at home to reduce baby-sitting and housing costs during weekend events.
2) The search for and fear of intimacy. Erik Erikson’s view that establishing a relationship of sexual and emotional intimacy is the central growth task of young adults 5. is confirmed by the struggles of many couples in enrichment groups. Persons who have been hurt in close childhood relationships often feel a painful inner conflict simultaneously pulling them toward intimacy, to get their basic needs met, and away from intimacy, because of the fear of repeating old hurts. Helping them learn to risk love-nurturing openness and communication is essential to deepening their marriages.
3) The inner shift from depending on parents and a group of peers, to depending on one’s mate as a primary need-satisfier. This is an anxiety-laden transition ,which many young adults do not make fully or successfully. In-law and parent problems are often symptoms of the fact that one or both partners have not cut the inner ties of emotional dependency on past relationships by taking the risk of depending on their spouse.
4) Coping creatively with changing women/men identities. Many young adults feel liberated but others feel caught in the crunch of this social revolution. The role models of their parents seem obsolete and irrelevant to the present scene. Many husbands and wives feel the pain of changing at a radically different rate. The most typical conflict is the wife who rejects or wants to reject traditional roles and a husband who feels deeply threatened by these changes in her. Couples who are committed to equality and a fair division of satisfying activities experience inevitable frustration in our society, which provides little flexibility regarding such things as part-time jobs for men or adequate day-care centers for children.
5) The huge adjustments of meshing two life-styles and simultaneously learning the skills of being a wife or a husband. The grinding of the gears as they try to mesh in the early years is often very painful! What’s involved is the difficult task of creating a workable synthesis of the legacies of the two childhoods which the partners bring into any marriage. These legacies include deep attitudes and behaviors which feel "right" to each individual because they were "caught" -- learned -- so early in life. Acquiring conflict-resolution methods for coping with these differences is essential if couples are to avoid deadlocking and learn instead to integrate their life-styles in mutually satisfying ways.
All these needs make it important that events for newly-marrieds be enrichment-oriented, thus helping couples become more aware of their positive strengths and resources. The growth approach provides a context of strength and hope within which couples can make the demanding adjustments of the first five years.
Model 3. A Pre-Marrieds/Early-Marrieds Group
One effective form of premarital training is to include in what is primarily a marriage enrichment group or workshop a couple or two who are planning marriage. These couples usually find it helpful to interact with married couples who are discovering new strengths and coping with problems.
One church has started a ten-couple continuing growth group; half the couples are pre-marrieds and half young marrieds. The 7:30-9:30 P.M. weekly meetings are led by a
trained lay couple. The general purposes are to enrich marriages and help couples discover how to implement the Christian life-style. Each individual and couple is encouraged to have their own growth goals. Occasionally, the pre-marrieds and the young marrieds meet separately to discuss the special concerns of each group. One of the co-leaders reports: "Some couples are really excited by this -- they wait all week to get here." 6. The minister states: "It has taken the load off me in premarital counseling. These couples already have ‘handles’ which they’ve learned from the couples who are already married." 7. The layman who is co-leader also serves as "coordinator of group ministries" for this church.
Model 4. Young Marrieds Classes and Fellowship Groups
Many young marrieds live long distances from their extended families and they haven’t lived in one place long enough to develop an alternative support group. Couples classes and groups with lively programs of study, recreation, and community outreach related to young adult interests help such couples put down roots quickly in meaningful relationships. Such groups can be enriched markedly by annual or semiannual growth retreats of even one day. Such events can gradually transform the climate of relationships of an ordinary class or couples group, infusing it with a richer sense of belonging and mutual growth support.
Model 5. A Young Parents Enrichment Group
Young parents training-enrichment groups allow churches to use their unique entree to families of preschool children -- during the years when the foundations of personhood are formed in the family! Helping parents enhance their understanding, competence, and confidence as parents and as marriage partners has a salutary effect on the growth of children.
The most effective growth group during my years in the parish ministry was a "child-study nursery group" which combined a support and learning group for parents, mainly mothers, and a nursery school experience for the preschool children. It helped us who were young parents learn the skills of parenting; it also helped our children.
Although helpful, the group could have been much more valuable. Parent growth groups which also emphasize the crucial role of fathers and stress the enrichment of marriage (which ours did not) are, in the long run, more helpful to both children and parents. By having only occasional meetings for dads, we unwittingly reinforced an unfortunate cultural stereotype, namely, that raising children, especially small children, is mainly the mother’s responsibility. Parent enrichment groups should also focus on the importance of mothers finding some of their satisfactions apart from the children, and fathers finding at least some of their satisfactions with the children.
Model 6. Family Networks for Mutual Ministry
An innovative approach to developing better family nurture groups is the "family cluster" program begun by the Reverend Margaret Sawin of Rochester, N.Y. 8. The program has spread to various parts of the country. A cluster consists of three or four families plus several single people who band together for a period beginning with ten weeks, extendable to the full school year. They share in weekly two-hour sessions of fellowship, learning, and fun. Set up as a family-centered way of doing experiential Christian education and value formation, the clusters also have provided mutual caring and support. They are a kind of alternative extended family or spiritual clan.
This approach is a significant answer to the dilemma of the isolated nuclear family -- a problem that’s particularly difficult during the early and most vulnerable years of a marriage. During these years couples need a supportive network of relationships most, and yet are least apt to have one. Family clusters are valuable for enriching marriages and families at all the life stages. For young families, they are ideal in that they offer opportunities to relate closely to families at other stages and learn from each other’s interactions.
Enrichment for Teen Marriages
Marriage enrichment and support are particularly needed by teen-agers who marry. Unfinished personal identity, low earning capacities, stresses derived from the fact that many are pregnant when they marry -- all combine to cause a high rate of teen-age marriage disintegration within the first few years. The approaches described above are all relevant to the needs of teen marriages; but churches should also devise other enrichment methods which are beamed specifically at ministering to these couples.
For example, a growth group composed of half teen couples and half young-adult couples is a workable model. Another is for the pastor to link stable young adult or middle adult couples with teen couples. The older couples’ function is to be available as consultant-friends and Adult Guarantors to relate to the teen couple in a supportive, caring, modeling way and thus help them over rough spots in their marital road.
The underlying assumption behind all the models in this chapter is that a congregation has an exciting possibility and responsibility to create a comprehensive marriage and family nurture program, beginning with remote preparation for marriage and extending through all the changing seasons of the life cycle of a family. Effective methods for enriching new marriages are vital parts of such a program of lifelong nurture.
1. Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), pp. 239 -- 40.
2. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955), p. 92.
3. Conversation with the Reverend Bill Loveless, University Church, Loma Linda, Calif.
4. Claude Guldner, "The Post-Marital: An Alternative to Pre-Marital Counseling," The Family Coordinator, April 1971, pp. 115 -- 19.
5. Erikson, pp. 263 -- 66.
6. Conversation with Art Stephenson, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Anaheim, Calif.
7. Conversation with Robert Deitz of the same church.
8. The Reverend Margaret M. Sawin, P. 0. Box 8452, Brighton Branch, Rochester, N. Y. 14618.