Jeannette and I are spending the better part of a day in a seminar intended to strengthen couples in the Chattanooga area. The course takes place in a church, sponsored by a group with a great interest in the fruit of Christianity — but without the messy soul work that seems essential for a long-lasting reformation in a hurting relationship.
The course “Maximize your Marriage” by First Things First is offered free. That is a grace to financially strapped men and women seeking to enrich — or save — their marriages. First Things’ job is “strengthening families *** through education, collaboration and mobilization.”
By virtue of what might be called general revelation or common grace, the Maximize program offers much wisdom. It does so on two fronts.
For individuals. For husband and wife. If you sketch a pathway toward domestic contentment and peace, you also have a rough roadmap for local economy, particularly in entrepreneurial efforts where “listening” is crucial and where you generate your first sales not by being interesting, but interested.‡
As the blessings of rain fall on the just and the unjust, it’s fair to say Christian and nonbeliever share in the goodness of marriage and make their marriages work under principles Christ set forth, even though He is denied any glory in the transaction.
Love of the other, grace, forbearance and self-sacrifice are keys to improving my marriage to Jeannette, and your union with your husband or wife.
Diluting effects of bad childhood
“Conflict is inevitable, and necessary” says Pam Johnson, our First Things instructor, a practicing therapist. What counts is how you deal with conflict, and whether partners respond to their spouses, or merely react. He holds forth an empty glass. She drops clear crystals into it. Then red ones. A good marriage reduces the ”red crystals” that represent bad experiences, evil habits of mind or faulty expectations.
Relationship guru John Gottman, whose predictions of a marriage survivability are said to be 95 percent accurate, offers six ingredients in a happy marriage, Mrs. Johnson says:
1. Friendship, respect, humor
2. A ratio of 5 to 1 of favorable to unfavorable interactions
3. Successful “bids for attention.” A bid for attention is a term describing how marital partners gain each other’s notice in an effort to deal with a pressing problem.
4. “Soft starts” in disagreements rather than rants or unstoppable rages
5. The husband accepts the influence of his wife
6. Respect for the other’s needs, likes and dislikes
Mrs. Johnson’s material and conversation gives me to suppose she believes in determinism or what might be termed environmentalism, where one’s surroundings and past control who one is today. The prospect of any sort of new birth or new marriage seems elusive from a therapist who is able to speak of a chimpanzee has having a mind. (A mind can only belong to a creature made in the image of God, and is part of the seat of personality that belongs to every soul.)
Determinism — or God’s grace
Just how much are we controlled by secret, hidden personal forces locked into the Freudian id? Mrs. Johnson has a perspective that is evolutionary. The control of the psyche, a person’s “deeper mind” and his old “reptilian brain” in our “research-based” course are strong. Jeannette and I get a strong sense of Mrs. Johnson’s social determinism by a rundown of controlling factors that wreck a marriage. By age 18 core beliefs are set; “that leaves 5 percent for the rest of your life,” she avers. But she is confident that the 5 percent can influence the 95 percent that seems fixed. One’s “poor life choices” rise from the 95 percent that’s your history. A good marriage seminar can supercharge the 5 percent and “change your behavior permanently,” she says. I get the feeling that for many comers to the seminar, 5 percent is clawing for air. The odds seem hopeless.
The sense of inevitability aside, Mrs. Johnson offers much good about regaining the joy of marriage, the intimate oneness of joy and community. A helpful mantra:
Replace expectations with acceptance.
In view here is circumspection. A good man trying hard to love his wife will accept her as she is, and love her as the one God made. If the general tenor of his being is acceptance, he will avoid the temptation to be disappointed at her failing to do what he expects. The scriptures teach in Ephesians 5, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.” A husband’s love is intended to imitative of Christ’s, with each his own bride.
Thinking of the other — a great idea in a broader context
A principle idea of God’s grace taught by the Christian church is thinking of the other, of placing the other before oneself, of caring for the needs of other people ahead of ourselves. The marketplace created by global capitalism rests on the same assumption. More importantly, this dying to oneself is a crucial fruit of the Christian gospel, and derives from innumerable passages and scenes — Christ washing his disciples’ feet, Christ’s death on the cross, the book of James that focuses on good works and their necessity as an evidence of salvation.
The sum of marital counseling seems to rest on the idea that is the basis of capitalism and the free market — the imaginative act of thinking of the other. To restate a comment Mrs. Johnson attributes to an expert in her field, “Understand what your spouse needs and strive to meet those needs, and stop doing what hinders those needs from being met.” Mrs. Johnson restates the point.
“There’s a way to talk so that people will listen, and there’s a way to listen so that people will talk.” The seminar does not broach the subject of sex. But a lover who is a good husband will cherish his wife sexually by making lovemaking focus first on her, confident that his own pleasure will follow in its own course after hers. ‡‡
Perhaps Mrs. Johnson’s statement is among professionals a trite phrase, and since no one can find a way to improve on it, every therapist giving a federally funded pep talk to marrieds repeats it. I find her restatement delightful, not only as regards being a married man, but being a commoner in love with the idea of local economy.
My rating: B-
Mrs. Johnson has her hands full today, and provides much of what she says in a 65-page document she indicates is a fulsome compilation of handouts. “Maximize your Marriage” puts us into some cheesy situations. These skits and tests make the point that perceptions of an object differ and that their reports vary greatly.
The program is distinctly secular on account of First Things First’s having received funding from the U.S. government under the Champions for Children Initiative, which imposes curriculum requirements on Mrs. Johnson. Among the duties required by Uncle: Tell us about finances’ role in marital discord, and amplify on an outlier concept — that of abusive relationships (beatings by the husband).
Clergypersons are a remarkable source of abuse, sexual and emotional, Mrs. Johnson says. But she doubles back: Ministers of the gospel serve God and have care of souls. “I am not going to go out of my bounds with what I can do federally,” Mrs. Johnson says. She doesn’t want to say too much about the gospel, out of fear.
Aware of the behavioristic tack of much of her material (adult “time out”), Mrs. Johnson is very open to a Christian-oriented suggestion from a member of the audience. That is a recommendation for the book of Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, Love and Respect[;] the Love She Most Desires, the Respect He Desperately Needs. Mrs. Johnson is glad to hear my comment about the book, and writes name and title on the marker board.
‡ This distinction is from Mark Jones, who discusses entrepreneurship and starting a business on the Nooganomics.com talk show.
‡‡ One of the best treatments of this point is C..S. Lewis’ book The Four Loves. A more recent treatment is Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage[;] Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, which we have mentioned elsewhere at Nooganomics.com. A good treatment of the faulty premises of modern psychology is William Kirk Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction[;] The Failure of Modern Psychology (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 239 pp.