The traditional vows of marriage, concluded by the phrase, “till death do you part” always seemed jarring to me. Why introduce the hardest reality of life, that is, our death, our looming finitude, into this most romantic, illusory notion of endless love. Why not play along with the fluffy proposition of romantic love, riding off into a horse-drawn carriage of eternal joy?
In my Episcopal tradition, we now say “until we are parted by death” but it does little to muffle the blare of the trumpeting reminder of our mortality. And maybe that is the Church’s wisdom in injecting a smidgen of reality into the fantasy of the fairy tale…and they lived happily ever after. My play on words in my title attempts to suggest this truth: marriage is work. As a couple, you better be ready to do your part, that is, the work of relationship.
Intrigued by the new Showtime show, Couples Therapy, I began to reflect on ten years of my life consumed by offering couples therapy for those at the Cathedral who were preparing for the marriage rite as well as those who had already “tied the knot” and were now in a full-tilt struggle with making it work.
But I have a more personal prompt on nuptials. I keep looking on my calendar to a day in November circled in red, the Saturday I will be officiating at the wedding of my niece, Gracie. Last year, I did the same for another niece, Annie, who married Kevin in the historic courthouse on the Square in Decatur. So weddings are on my mind.
In a few weeks, I will have the honor of officiating at my niece’s wedding at Christ Episcopal Church on St. Simons Island. I have watched Gracie grow up, watching the infamous “cousins” play together, as my brother’s and my family lived in close proximity, go to the same church and school together. In today’s dispersed world, this is a blessing that I cherish deeply.
I got the rare chance to watch these six Galloway kids enjoy the joys and pains of childhood, play in the emerald waters of the Gulf, walk the coastline of Maine, negotiate the vagaries of adolescence, move into the tentative identities of college,.and emerge into their life vocations. I got to see Gracie take on the mantle of “teacher”, a profession most noble, one shared by my mother and wife. To my amazement, Gracie’s work as teacher is in the very building in which I went to elementary school, located in South Atlanta, formerly Tull Waters, now a Knowledge is Power charter school. Gracie has emerged as a passionate teacher who loves the children she works with in a way that make me proud.
Gracie met Chase, her fiance, at our school, Holy Innocents, and have been connected for “a spell”, as we say in the South. I love them both and am confident in their decision to take these vows before God, their families, and the community. It will be a high point for me in that historic church to witness that union and pronounce them as partners in life. It will be treat to see these two I love move even more intentionally into their joined futures. So you see, marriage is on my feeble, old mind. Did I already mention that already? God, aging is a bitch.
Very rarely in my career did I have the gift of having that deep personal connection with the couples that I joined in Holy Matrimony. At the Cathedral where I served, one of THE popular places to be married, couples would stream in after Christmas engagements to claim their spot in the marriage schedule. It was a competitive, strategic, even vicious moment getting the “right” date, meaning no home football games.
The number of weddings was overwhelming. It resulted in three weddings a week, with a service at High Noon, four in the afternoon, and seven in the evening. This translates into three rehearsals on Friday night as well. This meant around one-hundred and fifty weddings a year. That is a daunting number in and of itself. But in the Episcopal Church, a priest is required to provide premarital counseling for each of these couples being married in the church. This translated into about 600 premarital counseling sessions during that year. God, I love math.
A lot of people think the Church requires the premarital sessions as a kind of a “test” to see if the couple is “worthy” for marriage. Some old priests (back before I was one) used to tell me that the premarital counseling requirement was instituted to make fevered couples pause and think it over before they make the proverbial mistake of a lifetime…..can you say Elvis Wedding Chapel? That makes some sense, but I had a deeper purpose for premarital counseling as a unique opportunity to prepare the couple for what was on down the road, beyond the glitz and excitement of the wedding day.
I pause to note that not all priests are trained in couples therapy. The fact that most Episcopal priests are married and have some experience with the overwhelming bliss of matrimony adds some positive aspects to the counseling, as opposed to celibate priests, although my experience with priests and marriage isn’t all that commendatory.
Some priests, like myself, received specific training in marriage therapy. I was trained as a marriage and family therapist before and after my ordination and had worked as a couples therapist for some time. Other priests had no formal training and basically cobbled together some folk wisdom and bad jokes about the vicissitudes of marriage. So, to address this lack of training, as well as the sheer numbers of weddings, I came up with the notion of doing a monthly workshop that would not only fulfill the requirement of the canon law, but would provide a higher quality of counseling and training.
We offered a Premarital Workshop that was held on one Saturday per month. The priest that was to officiate the wedding could have an initial meeting with the couple to get to know them. Then referring the couple to the workshop, the priest could see the couple after the workshop to see if there were any residual issues and to finalize the plans. This worked out well for the other priests on the staff of the Cathedral but was also extended to the wider diocese of Atlanta as a resource available to them. Smart priests took advantage of this offer. I understand that the workshop continues to happen some twenty five years later.
The workshop itself was comprised of didactic material focused on a wide variety of topics. Communication, basic conflict resolution skills, and the predictable issues in the development of relationships were covered. Unique to our program was an opportunity for a number of marriage and family therapists to spend time in groupings of couples to review their family of origins. The family that one comes from imprints a memory on the children who unconsciously try to repeat some of the same styles and behavior that they learned. Sometimes, persons express a desire NOT to be like their parent’s way of doing marriage, but the power of the unconscious is not to be minimized.
I has an entire lecture based on how my wife and I tried to recreate our respective family’s way of sitting at dinner table. My wife’s family employed a more hierarchical style, seated at a rectangular table, father at one end, mother at the other, closer to the kitchen. The time of the meal was precise, based on the physician father’s return home.The kids sat in birth order, and spoke only when spoken to by the parents, with a board meeting feel. I called it a 50’s family style.
My family sat at a round table, where people’s place was determined by the time one arrived, which tended to be pretty random. The conversation was more of a free-for-all with my extroverted mother orchestrating the festivities while my introverted dad looked on. It seemed to typify the 60’s spirit, sort of Woodstock at dinner. Needless to say, Mary and I had some work to do to get ready for our family. We wound up with a hybrid of the two, using an oval table.
All couples have a difficult piece of work when they first get together figuring out how they will make their particular relationship work for the long haul. It is negotiation of the highest order and the members of this duo have had little training. I know I was shocked at the statistics that point out a 50/50 chance of a marriage succeeding or ending up in divorce, regardless of it occurring within the context of a holy space or a civic office. What does make a difference is a time of preparation which prepares a couple to negotiate the transition from a informal relationship to that of a committed marriage.
By the way, one of my greatest victories in priesthood was a marriage that did NOT happen, thanks to the premarital counseling. The couple was clearly mismatched in terms of values and long-term goals. My office became a safe place for the couple to discuss that hard reality and make the difficult decision to call the wedding off! Then the hard work began: how do we break it to our parents? Recently, I saw the intended groom’s picture on Facebook, grinning, as he stood with his wife and four gorgeous kids. I love it when it works!
I instituted a practice when I was a young eager priest to have my assistant call and schedule an appointment for any couple I married for what I termed as a 12,000 mile check up at the end of a year of wedded bliss. In this interview, I “checked under the hood”, asking about how they have negotiated independence from their family of origin, how they were doing sexually, how they were handling finances, how they managed conflict, how they continued to have fun. This was a mere list to start the conversation which might surface hidden concerrns.
You see, every couple thinks they have the perfect marriage, particularly the younger they are. No one wants to be the first to admit it’s not perfect, that they married the image, or persona, presented by the other and now it was breaking into them it is not all as planned. I always try to warn couples of this reality before they sign on the line in blood, but they never believe me. THEY will be SPECIAL!….and they are not, trust me.
I found that my “check up” sometimes flushed out some good issues in time to correct before a deathly crash. Insight, cognitive skills, and emotional intelligence helps in this work but it’s still a bit of a crap shoot.
Once people make it beyond the first two years, there are other predictable times when marriages tend to founder. One of the first hurdles is the introduction of children into the equation. First, it tends to resurface family of origin issues as each member of the partnership assumes their family did it the right way OR they are reactive with a fervant vow that they ccrtainly would not repeat the grievous error thrust on them. Either way, there is some work to be done to form a parenting partnership.
This parenting will evolve through the developmental stages, so there is constant renegotiation. For my parenting partnership with my wife, her tendency to structure and provide care was perfect for the childhood phase. What a great job and firm foundation of present care she gave our two children. I found that I, in my comfortableness in ambiguity, was better suited for the rodeo known as adolescence. I was happy that we could tag-team this work and get them through this tough time of growth.
There are other seasons of change, signaled by the major shifts of the constellation of family. Empty nest presents a whole new set of issues for the couple, who must now refocus attention on the relationship. The death of the parents present another set of responsibilities as well as a psychic reality that may be troubling. Finally, retirement and aging present a new landscape of possibilities and challenges that confront the once carefree couple with some hard notes of reality.
A parting note in my journey through the course of coupling is to remind you that there is really no place we learn how to do this. There are very few courses that help us to negotiate this challenging course of our lives together. Using an “other” with no-agenda can give a couple an invaluable eye that brings some objectivity to the issues that arise. I have seen marriage therapy save marriages, and more importantly, assist the evolution of a relationship into a healthy couple, with happy partners.
You might take a look at the Showtime series I mentioned at the beginning to see how couples therapy can go. While your relationship may not be as exotic as they ones that hit prime time, it is an important part of your life if you are in relationship. Finding a good couple’s therapist or coach can help you invest the time and energy into your relationship and make for a healthy, joyful future. Marriage is intended for joy, “mutual joy” the marriage rite says, but if you look it in the fine print, it is also work. So as I cleverly put it is the title, do your part!