Making Marriage Work

I’ve quoted and recommended John Gottman for married couples and for folks interested in marriage.  Over my years as a newlywed, I’ve enjoyed learning about marriage from the scholar and marriage researcher.  He and his wife have built a more than thirty-year career answering the question, how do you make marriages work?

Margarita Tartakovsky wrote a piece summing up one of my favorite Gottman books, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work.  I imagine there is much that you’ll agree with in Gottman, even if you aren’t married.  If you’re interested in seeing Margarita’s article, click here.  From her summary:

1. “Enhance your love maps.” Love is in the details.

2. “Nurture your fondness and admiration.” Happy couples respect each other and have a general positive view of each other.

3. “Turn toward each other instead of away.” According to Gottman, “[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

4. “Let your partner influence you.” Happy couples are a team that considers each other’s perspective and feelings.

5. “Solve your solvable problems.” Gottman says that there are two types of marital problems: conflicts that can be resolved and perpetual problems that can’t. It’s important for couples to determine which ones are which.

6. “Overcome gridlock.” Gottman says that the goal with perpetual problems is for couples to “move from gridlock to dialogue.” What usually underlies gridlock is unfulfilled dreams.

7. “Create shared meaning.” “Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together…

Good Memories, Good Marriages

I’m rereading John Gottman’s Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work.  I started reading it again before going on holiday for a week and a half and I’ll be picking it back up now that I’m home.  To be honest, I’m biased to Dr. Gottman’s findings.  His career and research in couples work is grand and phenomenal.  He’s a trusted, clinical, scientific, and thoughtful voice in the area of marital relationships.  As he talks about in this and other books, he’s able to predict divorce with compelling accuracy, something like 93%.

In one part of the book he discusses the signs of marriage going bad.  One of them is the presence of bad memories.  He talks about how the persistent retelling of negative stories from before are an indicator of a relationship’s spiraling downward.  Having bad memories, and revisiting those memories, put a relationship at risk.

A couple quotes from the book capture what I mean.

But when a marriage is not going well, history gets rewritten–for the worse.

Another sad sign is when you find the past difficult to remember–it has become so unimportant or painful that you’ve let it fade away.

His language is helpful to me.  Helpful again, I should say.  I’m thinking a lot about how my long emotional memory impacts my life and work and relationships.  I can remember a lot of things.  Sometimes my memory is selective.  Well, of course, it’s always selective.  But that emotional portion leans toward the negative.  It’s hard work for me to relinquish bad memories and maybe just as hard to create good memories that have as much weight as the bad ones.  I think my proclivity is a posture that affects how well I do in my relationships.  It influences how much work is ahead of me in my marriage and in the other relationships I cherish.

In the next few posts, I’m going to shift from focusing on writing per se in order to look at the relationships dimension of the blog.  I’m going to reflect on a few memories, drawing from my “holiday” with Dawn.  It’s an effort to remember well, to capture memories, or, in the words from another blogger, to “catch days.”

Whether or not memory, good or bad, is something you think about, consider for a moment whether you can articulate a few positive memories from your significant relationships.  Do you “go to” the bad memories naturally?  Is your first impulse to remember something great about a relative?  With Gottman, I think that the ability to cultivate good memories is only helpful for a relationship.  Whether for a single mother who is recalling her last conversation with her child’s father; whether for a husband who’s tired of arguing about the same thing with his wife.

How do you make good memories in your relationships?  How do you balance the negative memories you actually have with the work of creating good, alternative memories?

Why Don’t Pastors Tell People Who To Marry

If you’ve read a few posts on this blog, you may know that I’m in the midst of wedding season.  I’m officiating weddings this summer.  A lot of them.  So many, in fact, that in my spare time, I’m giving my energies to the rest of what it means to be a staff pastor at a church, an adjunct faculty member at a seminary in an intensive class, and a cab driver and chief entertainer for my son.

When you look at my schedule, it almost looks like most of what I do is weddings.  Thus far I’ve had one in the chapel at NU, one on a boat, and one in a rose garden.  Later, this year I know I’m going back to Alice Milar, maybe twice.  I have three more in front of me.  I’m toying with the idea of learning to play the guitar and making a full-fledged business out of it.  I could sing, open the ceremony, charge the couple, and lead the vows in 30 minutes or less!  I could offer a package.  I know a great photographer.  I could ask some capable videographers to go in on the work, too.

Uh, I’m kidding.  I don’t officiate everybody’s wedding, despite my schedule.  I’ve pointed to my thoughts behind my pastoral practice in this post here.

The other day I met with one of the couples for whom I’ll officiate in August.  The groom-to-be asked me an interesting question.  We were talking about discernment, my word for decision-making.  I had asked my two questions for the first premarital session.  He was answering the first question.  And in his answer he asked, in other words, why pastors weren’t forthcoming with helpful feedback or wisdom when it came to a guy deciding to marry.  When a guy wanted to know if this girl was the right one to marry, would a pastor be helpful?  I loved the question.

My response to him was only slightly satisfying to me.  It was even less satisfying to him, I think.  And I’d be interested to know if you had any feedback.  I told him that the decision to marry was a narrow decision inside a larger–what word did I say? I can’t remember, so I’ll make another up–world of decisions.   Pastors are concerned with helping people develop the overall ability to pay attention to scripture (since that is our primary text), more appropriately to attend to the God of the scripture, and to connect the story of scripture with the stories of our lives (since the lives of people are our secondary texts, if you will).

I told him that our roles in people’s ears was to say over and over, “Are you submitted to God?  If you are, your decisions will reflect that, including the decisions about who to marry.”  I told him that when we’re submitted to God, it doesn’t matter, the particular question.  I told him that pastors do our best work when we stay a little distant from the questions about this job or that job, about this relationship or that relationship.

Of course there are flags to respect.  Wisdom and experience leave pastors and ministers with some tools and abilities that we must honor and offer when obvious.  But offering my experience is a slippery slope if someone could mistake what Pastor Michael said with what God said.  That happens.  And it’s a slight move, in some people’s lives, to go from “I had my doubts about this person and when the pastor said to stay or leave them, that’s what I did” and “Since the pastor thinks this, it must be what God wants.”  So here are a few reasons why pastors don’t tell people who to marry.

  1. People are grown.  A friend of mine asked me if I took the weight of marriages on my shoulders.  I told him no.  I told him that I didn’t for the same reasons that I didn’t take the decision for a couple to marry on my shoulders: those people are grown.  Sure, I told him, I have a responsibility to care, to offer biblical and theological tools, to connect dots, to point out potential concerns.  But the couple is grown.  And, in the words of a seasoned pastor, grown people do what grown people do.
  2. We respect the decisions couples make.  We should.  Yes, we should “check” those decisions when needed, but we should still respect the agency of the men and women in our churches.  We are pastors, not police officers.  Well, there is an example or two where a pastor (one of my mentors) will look at a guy’s credit report and say to his intended, “Don’t you dare marry this guy.”  Indeed, we are shepherds and spiritual leaders, and our role, in part, is to ensure that our couples have a sense of what marriage will bring, an understanding of the covenant of marriage, language for what scripture and tradition says of the relationship, and community to challenge, support and love them through their transition as a couple.  That means that it is a couple’s solemn responsibility to choose, to decide, and to do so every day after a marriage ceremony.  We don’t just choose when we pop the question.  We choose when we wake up every morning next to the same person, when we come home daily, when we’re present and committed.
  3. Pastors aren’t that smart.  One of my favorite researchers in marital literature is John Gottman.  I first made his acquaintance through the text in James Cordova’s psychology of couples and intimacy course at Illinois.  Dr. Gottman can predict divorce.  He’s a 30-year veteran of marriage, relationships, and psychology, and he can predict divorce after watching an interaction with a couple.  But pastors are pastors.  We aren’t John Gottman.  We aren’t psychics, not that Gottman is.  We aren’t future tellers.  Most aren’t at least.  So why would we set ourselves up to be someone we aren’t?  To misrepresent ourselves and our work?  Our work is not to identify the couples that will last or to only marry the good ones.  Our assumption and approach is that every couple will honor their vows, living together in faithfulness to those sacred words, for life.  And there are no good ones if the Gospel is true.  All of us are incompatible, and that’s how grace becomes essential to life.  But we can’t predict tomorrow.  That’s why we are professional people of faith.
  4. Pastors aren’t supposed to make matches.  We get in trouble when we do.  People break up, before the altar and after the altar.  It’s a sad truth, but it is real.  And if a pastor steps in the business of suggesting who is a good fit for you, that pastor is inviting a problem.  He or she is doing something that is best done by the people who watch your life closely.  In most churches, that’s a small group of people, a circle of friends, a ministry group, not the pastoral leader.  As a rule, introduce your pastor to the person after you’ve come to some sense of determination.  That’ll relieve us.  We don’t want to decide for you.  Now, we might not mind taking the credit for your relationship 20 years down the road.  And even then, we’re telling ourselves that your relationship was not in our hands.  Our lives as leaders should be daily reminders to ourselves and to our congregations that our lives and our relationships are in Someone else’s hands.  That doesn’t mean, though, that pastors can’t be in the business of weddings after the couples have matched.  We can sing at weddings.  So if you hear that I’ve started guitar…