Twenty years ago this summer, my wife and I left church together as a newly married couple. This picture of us walking into bright sunlight is my favourite photo from that day.
In the months before the wedding, to help us get ready for life together, we enrolled on a Marriage Preparation Course. Two aspects of the course made a big impact on me.
Firstly, the importance of talking honestly about expectations.
The best thing about the course was not some clever teaching or magic formula, but how it got us to talk straight-forwardly about our assumptions about life together. It encouraged us to talk about issues such as money, home-life, in-laws, sex and having children.
It helped us share our thoughts and intentions about these vital areas. Where we thought the same and (more importantly) where we differed.
Secondly, the course introduced me to the concept of the different love languages that we prefer to communicate with. This idea was developed by Gary Chapman in his book The Five Love Languages where he identified five key preferred styles of showing and receiving love. These are: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service and receiving gifts.
It is easy to assume other’s preferences are the same as ours. That the way we feel love is the way that others feel loved. The metaphor of a language works well because we are often fluent in a love language that our partner doesn’t appreciate or value.
This principle has proved to be the single most helpful reference point for me to understand my wife better and navigate the dynamics of our marriage.
Seven years later
Looking back, my memories of that preparatory course are very positive. The sessions were enjoyable and fun and we were both bubbling with enthusiasm and confidence about our shared life ahead.
Seven years later, we enrolled on a similar course for married couples. It was described as ‘an MOT for your relationship’. For us, this course had a very different tone than the one we had done 7½ years before.
Again, the most important aspect of the course was the conversations they encouraged. But, rather than talking hypothetically, we were now discussing these issues after 7 years of real-life experience.
It meant the conversations were not bubbly or easy in the way they had been. Some of them were difficult and some were upsetting.
But I now look back on that second course as one of the most significant things we did as a couple. It was not easy but it made us talk honestly about the difficult things.
It would have been easy to nod at the teaching, laugh at the anecdotes and half-engage in the discussions. We could have settled for accommodating each other and ducking some of the real challenges.
This would have meant a more enjoyable time. It would have been easy to pretend this was the gracious, or even the more Christian, thing to do.
But his route would not have helped us. I know for me, it would have deepened my frustrations and my passive-aggressive tendencies. It could have been disastrous for our marriage.
Problems between couples are like weeds growing under a pavement. They can be hidden for a time but if not addressed they have a warping and destructive effect.
The conversations on that course were painful, but they led us to taking steps in response. Separately, and together, we had counselling which had a significant effect for both of us.
Reality was dragged into the light. Truths were confronted. From there we made plans and took steps which addressed the tendencies that were undermining our relationship.
These steps have made a significant difference. Reality has been liberating.
We need to be honest: all relationships have difficulties. We all have issues and insecurities which threaten what we hold most dear. We are not helped by maintaining overly romanticised, or spiritualised, myths about marriage.
The reason I am sharing this is because I have found that being open about such challenges and difficulties is helpful to others. Couples need encouragement to talk things through openly and honestly.
Obviously, some problems are insurmountable. But often, the earlier issues are aired and confronted the better. Open, assertive communication is the medicine which keeps relationships healthy.
Grace and truth
I am deeply grateful for my marriage. The committed love of another person is an incredible and un-earnable gift: a powerful expression of grace.
But this grace must always contain big dollops of truth. Healthy relationships need honesty and reality. When they don’t, the grace of commitment is easily tarnished. It can become a cover for frustration, collusion, manipulation, anger and even abuse.
True romance is not found in some fairy-tale of endless bliss. True romance is maintaining love through the reality of life: a marriage of grace and truth.