20 years ago 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.
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 formula, but how it got us to talk about our assumptions about life together. It encouraged us to talk about issues such as money, roles in the home, in-laws, sex and having children.
It helped us be more honest and more intentional about these important issues.
Secondly, the course introduced me to the concept of the different love languages that people prefer: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service and receiving gifts.
The metaphor of a language works well because we can assume other’s preferences are the same as ours. We may be fluent in a love language they don’t appreciate or understand.
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.
Looking back, my memories of that preparatory course are golden. The sessions were enjoyable and fun and we were both bubbling with enthusiasm and confidence about our shared life ahead.
If that period of our relationship was a Depeche Mode song, it would have been the bouncy and boppy Just Can’t Get Enough.
Seven years and 2 children 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. The conversations we had were not bubbly, enthusiastic or easy. Many of them were difficult, challenging and sometimes upsetting.
The vibe was not bouncy or boppy. If this period was a Depeche Mode song, it would have been more like Blasphemous Rumours.
But, despite these difficulties, completing this course has turned out to be one of the most significant things we did as a couple. 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 the real challenges.
It would have meant a more enjoyable time. We could easily have pretended this was the gracious, or even the Christian, thing to do.
But it would have heightened the sense of frustration and deepened our passive-aggressive tendencies. This route could have been death to 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 kicking and screaming into the light and confronted. From there we made plans which addressed the tendencies that were undermining our relationship.
We need to be honest: all relationships have difficulties. No one is helped by some overly romanticised, or spiritualised, myth.
And despite progress, I still struggle with our differences and the tensions these create. The last thing I want to suggest is that everything is perfect.
The reason I am sharing this is because couples need encouragement to be intentional about talking things through openly and honestly. Good communication is the medicine which keeps relationships healthy.
More than ever, I believe that having problems is not the problem. It’s not dealing with problems that is the real problem.
Grace and truth
The committed love of another person is an incredible, un-earnable gift. Nothing is more precious or valuable. Marriage is one of the most powerful expression of grace we have.
But this grace must always contains big dollops of truth. Healthy relationships need honesty and reality. When they don’t, the grace of commitment is cheapened and 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.