The secret of a happy marriage: accepting there are no perfect relationships

Pope Francis blesses new spouses this month (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

When Pope Francis spoke to the 20 couples he had married earlier this month he reminded them that marriage is never easy. Daily life, he told them, can become “burdensome” and often even “nauseating”. He added that “it is normal for husband and wife to argue. It always happens. But my advice is this: never let the day end without having first made peace. Never!”

His words of advice reminded me of an elderly couple who I interviewed many years ago. They were bulwarks of the parish, always present for daily Mass, always involved in any parish activities that were going on. The husband had worked as a chauffeur and gardener for the local big house; his wife had been the cook. When they retired they lived in a council bungalow opposite the church. When they died, the pew they had always sat in looked very empty.

They told me that the secret of their long and happy marriage, despite its “ups and downs”, had been never to go to bed on a quarrel. The advice sounds so simple, almost a cliché; but it reflects a depth of homely wisdom, self-restraint, forgiveness and common sense – indeed, the ingredients necessary to make a marriage work. Then I read the depressing statistics that Britain is regarded as “the divorce capital of Europe” and that the financial cost of family breakdown is £46 billion a year. The human and emotional cost on those involved in such breakdown, especially on the children, is incalculable.

The couples married by the Holy Father will remember his words to them in St Peter’s all their lives. But what about the young people in our country who dream of a fulfilling and lifelong marriage but who might not have any understanding of how to bring this about? For them a charity was set up in 2000 called “Explore” (its website is here). It is designed specifically to link those aged 14-17 with volunteer married couples in schools, so that they can learn about the realities of married life at first-hand from those who already have long experience of it.

The young people learn about what makes a successful relationship work and how to cope with arguments and differences of opinion. In the presence of a trained facilitator and usually a teacher, they can ask the couple frank questions about their marriage and learn to appreciate the dynamics of a real relationship, rather than clinging to a romantic aspiration with its impossible demands on two ordinary human beings.

A friend whom I had not seen for many years told me recently that the secret of her own long and happy marriage was that she and her husband had become friends first. They had learnt yo enjoy each other’s company before making the decision to spend their lives together. Hearing it said makes it sound so obvious – and yet how many teenagers know it?

“Explore” is meant to give hope to modern youth that staying together is possible and fulfilling – but without making judgements over those who have failed. The message couples give is that the most serious difficulties you can get into can almost always be overcome and that “perfect” relationships do not exist. So far the organisation has held class sessions for over 45,000 young people and visited over 180 schools, as well as 18 prisons. Most prisoners, not surprisingly, come from the care system and from broken homes, and they themselves are in fraught and difficult relationships.

Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark is the Catholic patron of the organisation. Although not a specifically Christian charity, the workforce, trustees and volunteers are in the main Christians and their work is permeated with a Christian ethos regarding lifelong faithful and fruitful marriage. The diocese of Westminster also happens to be looking for more volunteer couples. The commitment is not very great: usually two or three sessions a year. Those interested should contact Edmund Adamus at the Office for Marriage and Family Life in the Westminster diocese, on 020 7798 9363.

Just now the Catholic media is full of speculations about the forthcoming October synod on marriage and the family. Whatever its outcome, the fact remains that most young people still aspire to a happy marriage and we need to do all we can to help them. After all, they and the families they raise are the future of our country.