As we approach St Valentine’s Day it is natural that our hearts and wallets turn to the special one in our lives. But beyond the superficial, transient and commercial how serious are we in terms of planning our married lives?
I don’t mean planning our wedding, I mean for our marriage.
Each intimate couple relationship is unique. However, the pathway, from first meeting to the eventual decision to marry one another - in the presence of family and friends - and then to set out on the relationship journey stage and establish a family unit, is both joyful and challenging.
But if each marriage is envisioned as life-long, while offering to society a basic and stable unit, what level of help is offered in return to couples to help make their marriages sustainable?
For starters, the lead up to getting married is a time of huge excitement, expectation and busy-ness - but never without the adjoining stress and anxiety.
It is also true that, while not at the same level as before, nearly half of all marriages this year will involve couples who have participated in a Sacrament of Marriage Preparation Course.
Owing to the causal link between stable marriages and the common good of society, it seems counter-intuitive that, in 2020, the State does not invest resources in the provision of marriage preparation courses.
In contrast, the Catholic Church’s agency Accord has focused on supporting marriage and family, at every stage, for over 50 years. Why is this?
From experience we know that marriage preparation courses are an important source of support for couples at this landmark point in their journey together.
The course affords couples time out from the hustle and bustle of the lead up to their wedding and provides an opportunity for them to step back and look at their commitment to one another and to marriage itself.
During the marriage preparation course, typically involving a Friday evening and a Saturday, each person can reflect on and discuss a range of key issues including: the quality of the closeness of the relationship; the influence of the family of origin; faith matters; handling conflict; views on parenting; and communication, trust and commitment.
As couples spend time reflecting together and on their relationship, their course can often identify problem areas which can be addressed prior to marriage. In such cases, couples can benefit by attending specialist couple and relationship counselling to address the specific issues.
Couples are advised that there can be an expectation in the early stages of relationships that everything will run smoothly. However, as we move along the marriage and relationship journey, relationships can encounter difficulties at every stage.
For example, Accord counsellors have offered support to couples as young as 21 years old as well as couples aged over 80.
American husband and wife researchers Drs John and Julie Gottman have carried out research with couples over a period of more than 40 years. They have found that 69 per cent of problems in relationships are not resolvable but are most definitely negotiable.
In the early years, as couples continue to get to know one another, difficulties linked to finances, fertility, communication, intimacy, ill-health, problem behaviours and conflict can surface.
It is always best if these difficulties are dealt with quickly. Difficulties not addressed can fester; cause damage to the individuals; the relationship; and children. The more difficult the issues, the more likely children will be negatively impacted.
Where parents address relationship problems, this offers the potential to greatly improve the atmosphere at home and the quality of family life - and most especially the quality of children’s experience.
Conversely, when children leave home a couple may experience difficulties as their time may have been taken up with employment and child-rearing with little focus on their relationship.
This can be common at retirement as couples adjust to the new situation and a changed relationship dynamic.
So while Shakespeare’s proverb “the course of true love never did run smooth” might be accurate, it doesn’t have to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Marriage and relationships based on love, and supported by real investment and honesty, are more often about “happy ever after”. And thank God for that.
Mary Johnston is a specialist in counselling (marriage and relationships) with Accord Catholic Marriage Care Service.