In his homily for St Valentine’s Day Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury spoke up in defence of marriage. Among other things he urged his listeners to “speak uninhibitedly of the good of marriage”, emphasising that “we need to rebuild a culture of the family founded on marriage…We need to take marriage seriously as a great social good, and recognise that children flourish best when they have the gift of a father and mother in their lives.”
The bishop reminded his congregation of the consequences of the breakdown in stable, two-parent families. No-fault divorce and the welfare state make it so easy to walk away from a relationship that doesn’t seem to be working. Today we have a situation where young people have impossible expectations of marriage, but with little or no understanding of what it means to work at a relationship over the long haul when the honeymoon period is over.
Yet it is in everybody’s interest to make marriage work better: the state which has to pay the bill when it breaks down, society which is further destabilised, the couple caught up in mutual recriminations and the children affected whose happiness suffers long-term jeopardy. I make these remarks because I have been reading a short book that, if it were better known and understood, might help to prevent so much unnecessary heartbreak. Titled “101 Tips for a Happier Marriage”, written by Jennifer Roback Morse and Betsy Kerekes and distributed by Alban Books, it is full of sage advice that would have been obvious to previous generations but, like the art of home cooking, seems to have fallen by the wayside in modern society.
The authors make it clear that their advice is not for those in abusive or addictive marriages who need professional help; it is for ordinary couples, for example those who want to make their marriage work despite the problems, for those who want to improve their relationships and for those who have hit a difficult patch and need help to change the situation. Although the book is written from a Christian perspective, much of the advice is entirely suitable to couples of goodwill but without religious belief.
Its message is one of hope: “You can improve your marriage, even if your spouse doesn’t change a bit” is a good start. “Give the relationship time for reciprocity to develop” emphasises the patience necessary in all marriages. The good news is that you can start to change your own marriage today, simply by making a decision to be more generous: by being the first to forgive; by making allowances; by admitting you were wrong. These are an antidote to self-righteousness, the belief that “it’s not my fault”. There are other strategies, such as never using phrases such as “You always” or “You never” in disputes; being prepared to give way on unimportant issues; persevering in keeping the peace whenever possible.
The authors also warn that couples should never criticise their spouse in front of others, use sarcasm or attack the other person’s character during an argument. Consideration, respect and the capacity to listen can become good habits if practised daily. You must also recognise that there will be disappointments and disputes from time to time: you are not God and neither is your spouse. The book advises, always keep in mind the qualities that you first admired in your spouse, and – most important of all in our society – “take the d-word [divorce] out of your vocabulary.”