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Marriage Education

Feb 07 2014

And they lived happily ever after? ...Only if they attend several marriage education classes.

by Stephen Stacey from Laurea College, Finland

stephen staceyMany of us have grown up in families that sometimes didn’t work too well. Sadly, today’s researchers remind us that unless we actively set about trying to improve our relational skills then we are often going to make exactly the same mistakes that our parents did. Luckily for us, however, there’s a fast growing new field of education – education for us adults – education that helps us understand how we can keep our couple relationships as committed and as loving as possible over the course of 50 years or more. It’s education in the sense of learning, homework and practicing new relationship skills – education gained by reading extremely insightful books and attending dynamic weekend seminars.

I teach one such extended seminar course on building a strong couple relationship. I teach it in churches, in a community college, and to social workers. I also teach it as a course in college, and the students seem to thoroughly enjoy the fact that they have finally been given a chance to look at one of the most important issues in their life – love, romance, and building a strong caring relationship. Most of them, throughout their 15 years of education, received almost no education at all about something most of them believe is the most important issue in their life – the one that will determine whether they find deep happiness or loneliness. Now, at last, they have some time to think about this fascinating issue and, at the end of the course, they almost all give me the biggest ‘thank you’.

In order to help guide the course I teach I created a group study book entitled Understanding Marriage: Partners, Friends and Lovers. During the 30 or more hours we spend together, it’s evident that all kinds of learning and healing is going on. On one level the learning is intellectual and skills based. The book guides the students and participants through 12 different areas of the couple relationship – each of which might be improved with effort and practice – each of which can make a real difference to the quality of a lasting relationship.

We look at the important role of respect in the couple relationship (in communication and in actions). We consider the different relationship needs of men and women and how, in a strong relationship, both partners fulfill each other’s relationship needs (E.g. if she likes conversation, and he likes bowling – the couple has a nice meal out before the bowling so both get something they enjoy). We then look at how men and women can understand the common communication strategies of the opposite sex so they can start to communicate in ways that their partner can positively respond to (think Mars and Venus). We discuss how couple can hold regular couple meetings to plan and solve developing problems; how couples can develop enhanced communication skills so they can start to talk about sensitive issues without harming their relationship; and how they might solve an issue that continually causes conflict within their relationship. We then study how couples create a vision statement for the type of home they want to build, and discuss  the 10 main areas where couples typically have to find a common vision. The students reflect on the kind of ‘team player’ skills they have (e.g.; Can I praise my partner, do I know how to forgive quickly, do I know how to be playful with my partner, etc) and think about which other skills they might need to develop in order to become a good partner. And they then look at how they can strengthen their commitment muscle – how they can keep persevering during the temporary challenging growth times that almost all couple relationships go through. Lastly we look at friendship and romance – do I know the things that my partner really enjoys (their love buttons); do we date regularly and create really special anniversaries; and when the romancing starts, is it enjoyable, passionate and something both can continually enjoy?

As I watch the participants, however, I don’t just see a growth in knowledge and skills. I also see healing taking place. In college I meet many students who saw their parents go though a divorce and now they are afraid of getting into a deep relationship, frightened of commitment, worried that they too will divorce. They have, often for the first time in their life, a chance to talk out that fear and pain, a chance to gain hope that a successful committed relationship is possible. With older couple too I see them able to finally speak about and solve some sensitive issues, issues that have continually hurt their relationship, in a safe protected environment.

Lastly, though the book guides the course and initiates the discussion on each topic, the wisest words come from the participants themselves. The collective wisdom of the whole is profound. They wills hare the things that they are getting right, the healthy things their parents did do – and the young can learn form the old, and the old from the young. I am often surprised at the depth of the collective knowledge – and how one piece of advice is just what another couple is looking for to enable them to move forward in their relationship.

Having read so many books on this topic, I can now clearly see the amount of knowledge that we now know about how the couple relationship works. And it deeply saddens me how we, as a society, are not passing this knowledge on down to the next generation. Years ago, people stuck in poor marriages because of the social stigma of divorce or because of economic reasons. Now, with no barriers to divorce, people actually need to have good relationship skills if they are to succeed in this important area of their life. Society needs to adapt itself to this new reality. In this age when more than half the population goes through years of painful divorce or separation, when we know that in 10 years most children will not have both parents there to hug them when they go to bed at night, in some ways it seems completely immoral that we haven’t started to change the education system to help the next generation develop the level of relationship skills they actually need to live life well.

Study after study has shown that for most young people, a lasting couple relationship is their most important goal in life. And study after study has shown that most people find their deepest happiness through good relationships within their family and friendships. It’s time that we, as a society, respected these wishes and desires. Also, to help the adults do some catching up maybe the government can, for example, through the use of tax deductions, inspire many more couples to attend relationship education seminars.

If we start getting this right, we can hopefully look forward to a day when much of the £40 billion of taxpayers’ money that goes on dealing with family breakdown every year is used in more positive ways, and where the love that exists between men and women can more often pass on to the children. If we don’t, look forward to a world where disrespect is commonplace, where people live much of their life in loneliness, to a world where many drown that loneliness in alcohol, anti-depressants and drugs. I know which future I want. How about you?

Stephen Stacey has been married for 25 years and has 4 children. He is a college lecturer on committed long-term relationships, ethics, cross-cultural issues and communication.