Making Marriage Work

By Rev Mary Ellen Summerville and Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury UMC, Yonkers, NY

SCOTT:
You may have been surprised to see both Mary Ellen and I listed as the preachers for today. We will both be speaking this morning on the subject of marriage. Mary Ellen and I used to work together professionally. We were a clergy couple. In two different churches we actually split one job. Eventually we decided that working that closely together was not good for our marriage. So we quit doing that. Mary Ellen is an ordained elder in the UMC, as I am, but her paid job is as a director of pastoral care for a Hospice.

We had two children together when we were young and foolish and then we decided that if we kept doing that it would not be good for our marriage, so we quit doing that. We used to give sermons together as well. We have not done that for 25 years. We decided that was not good for our marriage either. You get the idea. Marriage is an experiment that requires a continual process of learning and adaptation. It requires paying attention to what works and what does not.

A survey was done with children, asking them questions about marriage. Here are some of the results:

HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHOM TO MARRY?

Alan, age 10 answered: “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming.”

Kristen, age 10 answered: “No person really decides before they grow up who they’re going to marry. God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.”

HOW CAN A STRANGER TELL IF TWO PEOPLE ARE MARRIED?

Derrick, age 8 says: “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.”

When we think of marriage we picture two human beings. Because society is becoming more open we may picture a woman and a man, two women or two men. We may picture people who are young or who are not young. We can imagine that people who are married, but we cannot actually see their marriage. The most crucial part of the marriage is completely invisible to anyone on the outside. It is something that occurs in the intimate spasce between two human beings. All of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of being startled by a couple that we thought we knew well who announce that they are in marital crisis or separation. Only individuals who are in a marriage really know the nature of the marriage. Only those two people know the feeling, the mood, the texture, the fullness or the emptiness of the space connecting between them.

In the part of the world in which we live, we place a lot of importance on what a house looks like from the outside. But there places in the world where the exterior of house is not nearly as important; the exterior of a house may be quite plain, and the beauty of the house is only known once you enter. If you have traveled for instance in Italy, you can walk down city streets where the homes have very plain exteriors, but every now and then you catch a glimpse into a courtyard, and you see flowers, fountains, and warm and colorful interiors. The emphasis in such places is on creating a warm and embracing interior space, not on having an impressive exterior appearance.

One of the questions that I ask engaged couples when I interrogate them is: “Statistics suggest that more than half of marriages will end in divorce. Why do you think that your marriage will be the odds?” Some denominations and some individual clergy have become so concerned at the frequency of marital crisis and divorce that they have instituted very extensive premarital requirements. Couples must spend months in counseling, workshops, and preparation for marriage. It will be interesting to see whether over time these more strenuous requirements will have an effect on the success rate of marriages. Can anyone claim that they have the course that will do the trick – a course or workshop that will either help people to realize they are making a mistake or provide them with knowledge and insight that will make their marriage more successful?

This is one of the things that Mary Ellen is going to speak about, and it is one of the things that is being explored in the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which she will be using for her class. Is marriage just a matter of luck and chemistry and fate, or can one learn how to improve and strengthen one’s marriage?

If you buy a car and it has chronic mechanical problems, it can change your life. You can spend countless hours with great aggravation and expense trying to get where you need to go and keep your car on the road. Believe me, I have much experience in this realm. If you marry someone and give your heart to them and set your hopes on your life with them, and find your marriage has chronic troubles, it can change your life a lot more than buying a lemon. And while it may be hard to find a good mechanic, it is even harder to find someone who can fix broken relationships.

Is there anything that can be useful to people want to strengthen their happy marriages or revise marriages that are tired or hurting?

MARY ELLEN:
Scott said we used to give sermons together but that we realized it wasn’t good for our marriage. Last night I found out that he’d listed me in the bulletin today as co-preacher. So either he forgot the lesson he learned, or he thought that after 31 ½ yrs we could handle it. We’ll see.

One of the best wedding gifts that Scott and I received was a given to us by a Catholic brother, Brother John. Scott had worked for Brother John for a year after college in a group home for delinquent boys in Providence, and we invited him to our wedding. He gave us a subscription to a Catholic magazine, called Marriage and Family Living. We received it monthly for several years. It contained articles on how to communicate, solve problems, how to keep your marriage strong, and how to guide children. This magazine was important to us. It was as if we were allowed to look inside the walls of those houses Scott mentioned and see how other people did things.

Because, let’s face it, most of us only intimately know some things about the marriage of our own parents. We observed how they talked to one another treated one another, solved problems or avoided them or kept battling over them. With that limited perspective we’re then supposed to make our own marriage and family.

If we were fortunate and our parents had a happy marriage, we may have learned some things about how to do that. But still our sources of information are so limited, and maybe what worked for our parents doesn’t necessarily work for us. Some of us were raised in homes that weren’t happy and harmonious. How do we learn?

I’d like to see the church be a place where we can learn and prepare ourselves better for these most important relationships. So much depends on them: our happiness, our children’s happiness, their children’s happiness, the well-being of our churches and communities.

John Gottman is a psychologist and a leading expert in research on marriage. He and his wife, Julie, are co-founders of the Gottman Institute, which trains therapists in how to help people improve their marriages.

The statistics on marriage are pretty sobering:

67% of first marriages end in divorce over 40 yr period
Half of divorces occur in first 7 years
Rates of breakup for second marriages are 10% higher

He says that many of our ideas about what makes marriage work are simply ideas, theories. He and his team have conducted extensive research. Randomly selected couples volunteer to stay overnight in a fabricated apartment with cameras, and with sensors tracking signs of stress. Couples are asked to try to be as normal as possible and to discuss the things they’d discuss at home, bring their books, games, anything that would pass the time.

What they found may be surprising:

Loud arguments don’t necessarily harm a marriage.

People with personality problems can have happy marriages.

In fact, most of us have our “crazy buttons.”

Common interests aren’t the key.

Some happy couples avoid conflict, and other happy couples jump right in, discuss and resolve conflict.

What they did find was a simple truth: happy marriages are based on a deep friendship, an abiding mutual regard expressed in big and little ways, mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company.

Here is an example from the book (page 20):

Take the case of hardworking Nathaniel, who runs his own import business and works very long hours. In another marriage, his schedule might be a major liability. But he and his wife Olivia have found ways to stay connected. They talk frequently on the phone during the day. When she has a doctor’s appointment, he remembers to call to see how it went. When he has a meeting with an important client, she’ll check in to see how it fared. When they have chicken for dinner, she gives him both drumsticks, because she knows he likes them best. When he makes blueberry pancakes for the kids Saturday morning, he’ll leave the blueberries out of hers, because he knows she doesn’t like them. Although he’s not religious, he accompanies her to church each Sunday, because it’s important to her. And although she’s not crazy about spending a lot of time with their relatives, she has pursued a friendship with Nathaniel’s mother and sisters because family matters so much to him.

In simplest terms the Gottman program teaches us how to nurture a deep friendship.

In his research Gottman found that there were seven principles or types of behaviors that happy couples engaged in to nurture a deep friendship. They didn’t always realize what they were doing. They’d stumbled into these behaviors. Maybe they’d observed someone, even their parents, doing it. Or maybe someone gave them good advice. Or, maybe it was the trial and error Scott mentioned.

Principle 1 is “Enhance your lovemap.”
By lovemap he means the knowledge you have in your brain about your spouse:

what she or he likes and dislikes
what has happened in their childhood, life
what they hope for in the future
what they’re afraid of, worried about
what happened at the job today, this week
what’s coming up in the future.

There are exercises, suggestions about things to talk about. The more you know and respect one another’s individuality, the deeper your friendship and love will grow.

So, that’s one of the things you can do to nurture your deep friendship – make time to get to know one another well, and keep making time to update that knowledge over the years.

He also teaches us how to avoid behaviors that will cause irritation and anger to accumulate, and wear away positive feeling and friendship. For example, he says we will always have complaints about the person we live with. A complaint addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. That’s okay. But the problem is when we move from complaint to criticism. A criticism is more global, adding on negative words about your mate’s character or personality.

Complaint: “I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it.”

Criticism: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care.”

This is a little taste of what we’ll discuss and explore together. And if you can’t make the course on these three Wednesday nights, please indicate your interest, and we’ll contact you to try to come up with another format or time to meet.

Scott:

Well, dear, you did not look too happy when you came to bed at half past midnight, after finishing your part, but we have made it through our first sermon together in 25 years. You did very well. We’ll have to do this again sometime — maybe in the year 2034.

Whether you’re married, divorced, hoping to be married for the first time or hoping to be married again, whether you’re taking a course or not, it is lasting relationships grounded in friendship and love that are the most important factors in our happiness and perhaps also our health.

In times such as these, when the world seems to be falling apart much of the time, it is even more important to remember this and to take every opportunity to strengthen the bonds of love that are the foundation of our lives.

Shalom.

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