In Search of the Good Marriage: in the Community - 9/04

Smart Marriages ® cmfce
Sat Sep 4 11:56:56 EDT 2004


subject: In Search of the Good Marriage: in the Community - 9/04


Here is a GREAT article to save and quote. It's from Christianity Today but
its perspective also supports the many secular efforts across the country to
anchor marriage in the community. It recognizes that it takes many solid
marriages to create a strong village - and a village to support & sustain
strong marriages. Does anyone know Lauren Winner? - diane

- IN SEARCH OF THE GOOD MARRIAGE
It's not just couple-centered.
Christianity Today
By Lauren F. Winner

> (Why bother with marriage if the romance of dating is all you're after?)
> Surely what married people should aspire to is, well, living as husband and
> wife.
>
> Enjoy the occasional weekend getaway at a B&B, sure, but create an eros
> situated squarely in the household. . . . Our task,
> then, may not be to "work harder" at romance and desire, but rather to
> reconceptualize eros. Our task may be to move away from the logic that tells
> us that erotic love is the thing that married couples try to approximate at
> the end of their date nights, and to adopt instead a robustly domestic and
> household sexuality. Our task may not be to cultivate moments when eros can
> whisk us away from our ordinary routines, but rather to love each other as
> eros becomes imbedded in, and transformed by, the daily warp and woof of
> married life.
>
> Lurking underneath the romanticized eros is a certain individualism, and,
> indeed, almost all of today's marriage guides frame marriage strictly as an
> individual project.

> Even Judith Wallerstein, who aims to shore up good marriages and prevent
> divorce, seems to assume that marriage begins and ends with the couple. None
> of the nine tasks she lays out for married couples put husbands and wives in
> relation TO A LARGER COMMUNITY. Her married people don't even seem to have
> friends. They have each other, and some kids; that's where their community
> begins and ends.
>
> . . . . . At the most practical level, it is our friends,
> our brothers and sisters in the church, our aunts and uncles and colleagues,
> who can remind us why we got married in the first place. It is this community
> that, when we lay our marriages bare before them, are able to hold us
> accountable, and also celebrate with us. This is what the Book of Common
> Prayer's Order of Marriage is getting at when it prompts the celebrant to ask
> the congregation if "all of you witnessing these promises [will] do all in
> your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?" The congregation's
> response is a hearty "We will."

A few days after I got engaged, my mother presented me with a Barnes & Noble
gift card, which a colleague had given to her. "You can have this gift
card," she said, "but you must promise to buy that book that was just on
Oprah, the one with the list of questions engaged couples should discuss." I
knew just what book she meant?The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to
Ask Before You Say "I Do" had become a minor sensation. So I took the gift
card. Mom said I could use the change for a mystery or a magazine or a
cappuccino, whatever I wanted, so long as I didn't leave the bookstore
without The Hard Questions.

The Hard Questions?ranging from "Who prepares the meals?" to "What if one of
us is attracted to someone else? Superficially? Deeply?"?is just one of a
truckload of books designed to help couples get married well, be married
well, and stay married well. Many of these marriage books, like other
staples of the self-help genre, codify their wisdom into a simple program
comprising seven (or nine, or 100) easily digestible (and often
alliterative) rules. To wit, The Good Marriage, by Judith Wallerstein and
Sandra Blakeslee. Wallerstein, who is best known for her studies on the
impact of divorce on kids, optimistically asserts that good marriages are
possible, and suggests nine steps couples should take to protect their
nuptials. "The first task in any marriage x is to separate psychologically
from the family of origin" (don't give your mom a key to your new marital
home). Step two is "building togetherness and autonomy, x [that is,] putting
together a shared vision of how you want to spend your lives together." Good
marriages have a strong sense of "we," but, following Kahil Gibran, good
marriages also have space in their togetherness. Then comes having children,
coping with crises, and "build[ing] a relationship that is safe for the
expression of difference, conflict, and anger." Tasks six and seven are to
"create a loving sexual relationship and to guard it so that it will
endure," and to laugh and ward off boredom and ennui. Finally, in good
marriages, partners nurture each other emotionally, and they "hold onto x
idealized images of courtship and early history along with a realistic view
of the present."

In a similar vein, psychotherapists Linda and Charlie Bloom sketch out 101
Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last.
Their lessons are indeed a little simpler than Wallerstein's. The Blooms
urge couples to remember that "there's a difference between judging and
being judgmental." They call for good communication (this sounds like
presidential candidates saying they're pro-education?is there a marriage
counselor anywhere who celebrates bad communication?), and suggest that
spouses refrain from issuing ultimatums.

All those singletons who successfully followed Ellen Fein and Sherrie
Schneider's The Rules?a blockbuster that coached women in "how to captur[e]
the heart of Mr. Right"?can now avail themselves of The Rules for Marriage.
Here Fein and Schneider lay out precisely 43 rules, including the seemingly
contradictory "Don't Use the D Word (Divorce)," but then "Divorce with
Dignity." (Fein is herself divorced. As she explained in one interview, "I
was very happily married for many, many years before the book came out. The
sudden rise to fame and overnight celebrity was just too much for me and I
filed for divorce when I just felt like it was all too much. I had stopped
going out on date night and was too tired to do all the things I used to do,
and it was so overnight! Rather than filing for divorce, a few weekends away
alone would have been better!")

In the main, The Rules for Marriage (and "Rules," by the way, is
trademarked) is consistent with the original dating rules, which are all
about manipulating the guy and appearing not to need or desire anything on
your own terms. Dating women are instructed, for example, to let their hair
grow, because men prefer long tresses. Husband-hunters are told "don't call
him and rarely return his calls," and advised not to accept invitations
issued at the last minute?you wouldn't want to appear to have anything other
than the fullest dance card. Once you are married, you should practice a
machiavellian submissiveness: Do not, for example, return the gifts hubby
gives you "unless you absolutely can't look at them and are positive that
you will never wear them." Calling him at the office is forbidden (but since
you didn't call him while you were dating, you probably won't even be
tempted). Oh, and also you're to "keep x to yourself x how not in the mood
you are to make love," and you're to have sex whenever he wants: "When it
comes to sex in a marriage, husbands rule the roost. Whether you like it or
not or think it's right or fair, your husband determines your sex life."

Animating all these tips, suggestions, rules, and questions is a vision of
what the good marriage is. So one might expect Christian marriage guides to
differ markedly from their secular counterparts. And in some respects they
do. Consider my three favorites.

Les and Leslie Parrott's helpful Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts
rehearses many solid and standard marriage basics?learn to fight well, learn
to communicate, cultivate intimacy and commitment. But the Parrotts also
insist that men and women can't make marriages work by themselves. "On our
own," write the Parrotts, " x We can't x look all the uncertainty of life
full in the face and say, 'I will make one thing certain: my faithfulness to
my partner.' " That proclamation relies on God's faithfulness, without which
"marriage would have no hope of enduring." Walter Wangerin's wonderful As
For Me and My House insists that sin has distorted God's ideals for
marriage, and hence Wangerin puts the practice of forgiveness at the center
of married life. And Mike Mason's The Mystery of Marriage, which has a cult
following in some corners of the kingdom, is shot through with the
understanding that marriage is not "in any sense separate from or
subordinate to the life of faith." Marriage is a "practicing x for Heaven,"
an institution in which God disciples us, "helping men and women to humble
themselves, to surrender their errant wills."

And yet, alongside these distinctives, there are some underlying assumptions
about marriage that are common to almost every marriage self-help book I've
read, secular or Christian, and these assumptions are, I think,
questionable.

The first has to do with eros?or, more plainly, sex and romance. It's no
surprise that many of the current marriage guides focus on sex: According to
The Sex-Starved Marriage (and according to a lot of shopworn jokes), married
couples are in an outright crisis of libido. Twenty percent of married
couples have sex less than once a month. Couples are harried, busy,
stressed, exhausted. They're clinically depressed, or their hormones are out
of whack, or they're dealing with childhood sexual abuse. Whatever the
cause, married folks don't seem to be having much sex.

So don't worry if your sex life has gotten a little humdrum?you're not
alone. What's more, these guides suggest, a solution is staring you in the
face. You need only "work hard" at creating a romantic atmosphere and
cultivating sexual desire.

As Marg Stark puts it in What No One Tells the Bride, "brides and grooms are
working, cleverly and secretly, at their sex lives. x Couples have to work
at it, especially today . x with the average couple marrying in their
mid-twenties, when the demands of burgeoning careers can overtake even the
raging hormones of youth." So if your libido is low, consider escaping for a
romantic weekend; going to a sex therapist; hiring a babysitter and checking
into a Motel 6 for the afternoon. To prevent sex from becoming routine,
alternate the time of day in which you make love. What No One Tells the
Bride suggests that couples "Buy some 'dirty dice.' Roll them on the sheets
of your bed and then do what they say to do" and tells women to "Wear the
thong even though it's lace and really scratches." The Rules for Marriage
warns that wives who "do not take date night x seriously" are likely to end
up in marriages where "the couple starts to act like roommates, not lovers."
A host of Christian sex guides (think Alex Comfort meets the Song of Songs)
echo the theme. Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus' Intimate Issues, for
example, lays out three different types of sex?hors d'oeuvre sex ("it
satisfies and whets the appetite for a good, regular meal"), home-cooked sex
("fifteen minutes to a half-hour of warmth, foreplay, and intercourse"), and
gourmet sex ("long, lazy, luxurious romance with no responsibility except
loving"); husbands and wives are encouraged to plan at least one round of
gourmet sex a month.

It is, of course, a salutary thing to suggest, as Stark does, that our
frantic jobs are less important than the fabric of our marriages. But is the
"solution" to America's married sex "crisis" really simply to work harder at
sex?an idiom that befits a society in thrall to advanced capitalism? Maybe
roommate-like status is not what we ought to be aspiring to in marriage?but
neither is the thrill and romance that one associates with one's fondly
remembered dating days. (Why bother with marriage if the romance of dating
is all you're after?) Surely what married people should aspire to is, well,
living as husband and wife.

Enjoy the occasional weekend getaway at a B&B, sure, but create an eros
situated squarely in the household. That means not just sex and candlelight,
but much more often sex and domesticity, sex and routine, sex that is part
of, rather than abstracted from, the day-to-day life that is marriage. Our
task, then, may not be to "work harder" at romance and desire, but rather to
reconceptualize eros. Our task may be to move away from the logic that tells
us that erotic love is the thing that married couples try to approximate at
the end of their date nights, and to adopt instead a robustly domestic and
household sexuality. Our task may not be to cultivate moments when eros can
whisk us away from our ordinary routines, but rather to love each other as
eros becomes imbedded in, and transformed by, the daily warp and woof of
married life.

Lurking underneath the romanticized eros is a certain individualism, and,
indeed, almost all of today's marriage guides frame marriage strictly as an
individual project. The marriages that emerge from the pages of these books
are marriages of two people who rarely engage their communities. Marriage is
figured as something that is undertaken by, and that serves, only the
husband and wife. None of the books' rules, guidelines, or suggestions urge
couples to understand marriage in the context of the communities to which
they are committed.

Consider, for example, the Blooms' endorsement of fidelity: Having enjoined
married couples, "If you chose monogamy, keep your agreement," the Blooms go
on to suggest that "Ultimately the question of monogamy x [is] a matter of
enlightened self-interest. Keeping the agreement to monogamy provides a
container within which we are able to experience greater depth and
fulfillment in our marriage and greater levels of self-awareness and
self-development." Fidelity, then, is not a social good; it is not a
discipline that fosters goodness; it neither draws on nor offers anything to
neighbors. It is merely good for the folks practicing it; it helps them
attain self-fulfillment.

Even Judith Wallerstein, who aims to shore up good marriages and prevent
divorce, seems to assume that marriage begins and ends with the couple. None
of the nine tasks she lays out for married couples put husbands and wives in
relation to a larger community. Her married people don't even seem to have
friends. They have each other, and some kids; that's where their community
begins and ends.

And, yet, marriage is meant to be communal as well as couple-centered both
in its means and its meanings. At the most practical level, it is our
friends, our brothers and sisters in the church, our aunts and uncles and
colleagues, who can remind us why we got married in the first place. It is
this community that, when we lay our marriages bare before them, are able to
hold us accountable, and also celebrate with us. This is what the Book of
Common Prayer's Order of Marriage is getting at when it prompts the
celebrant to ask the congregation if "all of you witnessing these promises
[will] do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?"
The congregation's response is a hearty "We will." If we Christians want to
get our divorce rates down below the national average, rendering our
marriages visible to our communities?opening ourselves up to our friends'
support, prayers, questions, and rebuke?would be a good place to start.

But recalling the communal dimension of marriage is not merely a strategy
for sticking it out and navigating the rough patches. It is rather an
assertion of God's purposes for marriage. Our surrounding society tells us
that marriage is a private endeavor, that what happens between husband and
wife behind closed doors is no one else's concern. But in the Christian
grammar, marriage is not only for the married couple. Insofar as marriage
tells the Christian community a particular story, marriage is for the
community. It reminds us of the communion and community that is possible
between and among people who have been made new creatures in Christ. And it
hints at the eschatological union between Christ and the Church. As Catholic
ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio has put it, "marriage consists not simply or
even primarily of a personal relationship. Rather, it crystallizes the love
of the larger church community. The couple is not just two-in-one, but two
together within the whole, with specific responsibility for the whole. x
They must persevere in love, because the community needs to see God's love
actualized among God's people."

The inflections of community are important because they get at the very
meanings of marriage. Marriage is a gift God gives the church. He does not
simply give it to the married people of the church, but to the whole church,
just as marriage is designed not only for the benefit of the married couple.
It is designed to tell a story to the entire church, a story about God's own
love and fidelity to us.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Random House).
Books discussed in this essay:
Intimate Issues: Conversations Woman to Woman : 21 Questions Christian Women
Ask About Sex, by Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus (Waterbrook).

The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do", by
Susan Piver (Tarcher).

The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido, a Couple's Guide,
by Michelle Weiner David (Simon & Schuster).

What No One Tells the Bride, by Marg Stark (Hyperion).

The Good Marriage: How & Why Love Lasts, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra
Blakeslee (Warner).

101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love
Last, by Charlie and Linda Bloom (New World Library).

The Rules (TM) for Marriage: Time-Tested Secrets for Making Your Marriage
Work, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (Warner).

As For Me And My House: Crafting Your Marriage To Last, by Walter Wangerin,
Jr. (Thomas Nelson).

The Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle, by Mike Mason
(Multnomah).

Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, by Les and Leslie Parrott
(Zondervan).

Copyright x 2004 Christianity Today

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