A few days ago I gave a talk on marriage at my church. (Mormons are funny that way in that we have a lay ministry and no preacher, so somebody different speaks every week. My card was pulled, as it were.) Probably not-so-coincidentally, my wife, Erin, and I concluded three years of teaching a Strengthening Marriage class together the week previous. My talk took the form a Top Ten list and even though I basically blubbered my way through it, I think there’s some good stuff in here worth sharing and keeping. It’s mostly common sense, but good.
This is obviously gonna skew towards the religious in its presentation, but even if you’re not a goin’-to-church-on-Sunday kind of person, I think there might be a couple of things of worth in here anyway.
The list is in no particular order. I counted down just because Letterman.
10. Remembering How It All Started Can Help Through Difficult Periods.
Every relationship has a foundation. It is important to always remember that foundation because within it is the confirmation that two people should be together and that the relationship is worth fighting for.
Our foundation: I was a recently returned missionary. Erin was the president of Genesis Club at her high school—a Protestant club. If there were tracks, we were on opposite sides. So, we became friends instead of the other thing. We talked about religion, but I was so offensive in my approach she eventually told me that if we were going to continue being friends then I could never talk to her about religion ever again. I agreed.
We started dating more than a year later when she began college full-time. It was against both of our principles to date outside of our religion, but we felt the influence of our Heavenly Father drawing us together. We dated in secret because her parents would not allow me, a Mormon, into their home.
Erin made the difficult decision to begin taking the missionary discussions when who Mormons are did not match up with what she’d been told about what we believe. What she learned prompted her to be baptized and that’s when we told her parents a)we were dating and b)Erin was getting baptized in a week. They did not take it well and it was not a fun conversation. (Thankfully, our relationship with them is solid now because they’re awesome people.)
We prayed to know whether we should be married and received confirmation. Erin’s mom begged me not to propose, but I did it anyway. Erin had to convince her she wasn’t pregnant and that the short, 3-month engagement we had planned was typical of Mormon culture.
We were married on July 8, 2000. We passed through fire to get there and that experience has blessed us many times since as life has thrown even greater challenges at us. We’re in all of this together.
9. Successful Marriage and Family Relationships are Built on Gospel Principles.
From the Proclamation to the World on the Family as written by the leaders of the LDS Church: “Successful marriages are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”
(Wholesome Recreational Activities always made Erin laugh whenever we’d mention this list in class. What would an “un”wholesome recreational activity be? Robbing banks?)
8. The Magic Ratio is 5 to 1.
Psychologist John Gottman found through studies he did with married couples four destructive patterns of communication: CRITICISM – CONTEMPT – DEFENSIVENESS –STONEWALLING. We are all human and indulge our stupid, dark sides from time to time. But is there a bad behavior we make a particular habit of?
The Magic Ratio is 5 to 1: Gottman said his studies showed him that, “When positive feelings and interactions occur five times more often than negative interactions, the marriage is likely to be stable.”
Whenever I’m being particularly belligerent with her, or rough with the kids, Erin will often kindly ask me, “How’s your 5?” And then I know I probably need to stop being such a jerk.
7. Conflict is Not the Same as Contention.
From the Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 11:29 – “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.”
A little background. The Nephites—the righteous people who had just been spared great destruction, mind you—had been fighting about issues concerning baptism and doctrine, angrily, with no resolution.
The Savior comes to visit them and what’s the first thing he does? He resolves this conflict for them. He knew he couldn’t do anything for them until they worked past these issues and their anger.
Contention is the escalation of conflict and does not seek resolution. Given that, if you think about it, even silence can be contention if it contributes to escalation. This is poison to a marriage. So, conflict is not to be avoided, but taken care of. In the right way. Without contention.
6. Good Communication Requires Sacrifice.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelves Apostles said: “I pray our Heavenly Father will help us to communicate more effectively in the home through a willingness to sacrifice, a willingness to listen, a willingness to vocalize feelings, a willingness to avoid judgment, a willingness to maintain confidences, and a willingness to practice patience… May our gracious and kind Heavenly Father help us in our needs and desires for more effective family communication. Communication can help build family unity if we will work at it and sacrifice for it.”
He mentions sacrifice twice and that’s kind of an odd word to associate with communication. Ultimately, what do we sacrifice if we want to really, truly communicate with someone, especially those we care most about?
We sacrifice the “I” in favor of the “We.” If two people are more concerned about what they have together than what they want for themselves, then real communication and resolution can occur.
5. The Bishop Does Not Eat Peeled Grapes.
Imagine the Bishop, the leader of our congregation, sitting up in front with Deacons on either side of him, one of them using a palm frond as a fan and the other peeling his grapes. That is an image that does not fit. It’s laughable.
That is because the Bishop does not rule, he presides. Presiding is a service position and he is equal to all of us, not above us. So it is with husbands and wives.
There is no Lord or Lady of the Castle, husbands and wives serve each other and their families.
I once saw a documentary on Chimpanzees (called—wait for it—Chimpanzee) and in it the mother of a baby chimpanzee was killed. A baby in that situation is either adopted by another female chimp in the tribe or is left to die. No female chimp would adopt this baby, but, incredibly, the male chimp leader of the tribe stepped up and took care of the baby chimpanzee as a mother would.
This put the male leader in a vulnerable position. Because he was performing duties outside of his office, his position in the tribe was suddenly in flux and the perception of him as a leader was on the wane. To assert his leadership, instead of beating his chest, he systematically went around to every chimp in the tribe and groomed them. He served them. And so they recognized his leadership.
4. Differences Allow for Unity.
Unity is not everyone being the same—it is not conformity to a standard but rather separate, well-functioning contributions to a single whole.
Sheri L. Dew said: “Our Father knew exactly what He was doing when He created us. He made us enough alike to love each other but enough different that we would need to unite our strengths and stewardships to create a whole. Neither man nor woman is perfect or complete without the other. Thus, no marriage… is likely to reach its full potential until husbands and wives… work together in unity of purpose, respecting each other’s struggles.”
Differences should be complimentary—we should fill in each other’s gaps. I am not a complete person. I need Erin to make me complete, and she was put on this Earth to do that. I was put on this Earth to do that for her.
Our first fight: It was the day after the Honeymoon and we were back to the real world. We both had work and school, and needed to be up at 7am. Erin set the alarm for 6am.
It goes off, she hits snooze. 7 minutes later, it goes off again and she hits snooze again. 7 minutes later, the same thing. And again. And again. Until I finally got up on the bed on all fours and pounded the mattress like a gorilla and screamed, “TURN OFF THE SNOOZE! TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!”
Erin burst into tears. She wondered who this person was she had married and why. We had a long talk and it turned out that while once I was awake I was awake, Erin loved snooze because it was a little reminder she was sleeping and could get more. And then more and then more.
I was not a morning person. I had some real anger issues with the morning time and hated the world and all things pleasant and wonderful about it for the first half hour after getting up. Erin helped me see that if I was going to live with anyone besides myself then I had to work through that.
I helped her to not hit the snooze a million times like a crazy person. Our differences made us stronger and brought us together.
3. Whatever You’re Mad About, That’s Probably Not It.
We all deal with anger, but often our anger hides our underlying feelings that may or may not have anything to do with the topic at hand. These feelings must be discovered if real resolution is going to occur.
It requires great strength to be vulnerable, and it requires great compassion to handle vulnerability properly. We need to and should be able to be vulnerable with our spouse.
Erin is great at pulling underlying feelings out of me—even when I’m not aware of them myself. Just because you’re not aware of the underlying feelings doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
2. My Spouse is Not My Enemy.
We’re on the same team. Contention can make even those we love most seem like our enemy in the moment. When trust and love exists, confidence in your spouse’s intentions exists as well and remembering that can quell anger.
Erin and I will often say to each when things are heated, “I’m on your team.” It has a demonstrable calming effect.
1. Our Marriage Can Survive Teaching the Marriage Class Together.
During these three years of teaching the Strengthening Marriage class there were difficult weeks of disagreements about the topics and how to teach them. (As our class well knew because we were not exactly shy about sharing our struggles.) But we worked through it and we achieved greater unity and understanding.
That’s what’s great about a marriage class—it encourages us to have those important conversations that might not happen so much anymore with all the places to be and all of the things we have to do every day. Checking in with our spouse on neverendingly important but easily forgotten or dismissed issues is no bad thing.
Marriage is the most important relationship we have outside of the one we have with Heavenly Father—even more important than what we have with our kids. The kids will leave, but our spouse is forever. Marriage is part of the Eternal Plan. I’m grateful to take part in it, and I’m especially grateful to be married to as good a partner as Erin. I pray every day to be worthy of her.
My marriage is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I absolutely know the truth of President James E. Faust’s words when he said, “Happiness in marriage and parenthood (and I would add “family”) can exceed a thousand times any other happiness.”