For a talky-mctalkson like myself, going to premarital counseling was heaps of fun. What could be better than hours and hours of talking about us, understanding us, building us-skills, and all under the watchful and loving eye of a mentor?
A few weeks into it, a friend asked how premarital counseling was going. “Aren’t you afraid?” she wanted to know. I didn’t understand the question. She clarified: “Aren’t you afraid that while you’re talking about all those difficult topics that something huge will come up and you can’t get over it?” I effusively assured her that, if anything, premarital counseling was making me LESS afraid. “I’d rather those issues come up now and know that we can talk our way through them. That’s better than be blind-sided later in our marriage,” I assured her.
Buoyed with optimism about our fearless-and-awesome-marriage-preparation, I returned to work after lunch. The phone rang shortly afterwards, and a wise old pastor was on the line, looking for my boss. He had heard I was engaged, and asked how our premarital counseling was going. In answer to his question, I excitedly recounted the conversation I had just had. “Premarital counseling has been great,” I bubbled. “It has given me great confidence that we will be able to work our way through any of the problems we might face.”
He paused before answering: “That’s great, Bronwyn. But just remember that there are some problems in marriage you can’t solve. There are some things where you just have to bear with each other.”
Ten years later, his advice has been more precious to us than any of the other, well-thought-out and well-intentioned things we learned in premarital counseling. For even though the classic passages on marriage (Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5 in particular) have been instructive, again and again we have needed those words spoken to all believers for our day-to-day relationships in Colossians 3:13-15:
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
A killer set of communication skills cannot cure or adequately compensate for the fact that we have weaknesses, and our weaknesses will remain weaknesses throughout our lives. We cannot talk our way, solve our way, cure our way out of having weaknesses which will invariably disappoint and hurt our spouses.
The notion that “there will be problems in marriage that we can’t solve or talk our way through” seemed very threatening at first. However, marriage research in recent years indicates that perhaps our modern fixation on “good communication as the panacea of all marital ills” is misguided. After thousands of hours spent researching hundreds of couples over a series of years, John Gottman wrote this:
One of the most surprising truths about marriage is this: most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done.” (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: Three Rivers Press)
However, Gottman still found great hope for couples to remain happily married. “The key to divorce-proofing a relationship is not in how you handle disagreements, but in how you are with each other when you’re not fighting,” he writes. Those who kept a deep, close friendship where they allow the positive things about their spouse and marriage to outweigh the negative ones were the couples who could go the distance. Or, in other words, those who bore one anothers weaknesses, forgiving along the way, choosing to love in the little details, and remembering to be thankful. Those were the ones who had set their relationship thermostat to ‘healthy.’
Ten years in, my husband and I are not much better at communicating than the day we got married. But we are far, far better at bearing with one another in love. And we are so much the happier for it.