My mother was recently clearing out her collection of books. She passed on to me a few that she thought I might find interesting. Among them was Understanding marriage, (Deus books) by Charles and Audrey Riker. Published in 1963, this was apparently a book my mom read when she was preparing for her own marriage. My first impression was that this would be interesting only from a historical perspective. After all, marriage and the roles of men and women have changed a great deal in the last 45 years. After reading “Understanding Marriage,” however, I was forced to admit that marriage hasn't changed as much as I thought it had.
There are always some basic bones of contention: in-laws, money, division of household chores, how to raise the children, etc. There is always going to be some conflict whenever two people are attempting to share a life together. Many of these “everyday” conflicts can be dealt with using respectful communication and compromise. These types of conflicts wear on a marriage, but don't usually break it. Unfortunately, there will be times during a marriage when bigger crises will arise and the very foundation of a marriage is tested. Some of these crises will be truly sad events such as the death of parents, a child's serious illness, or the sudden loss of a job. Other crises can occur as a result of happier changes, such as adjusting to marriage during the first year, the birth of a child, or a relocation to a different part of the country. Any major change can cause a marriage to falter. Some couples are able to recover from crises better than others, to come out of the situation better and stronger for the experience.
What steps can couples take when life is going well to help crisis-proof a marriage? First, cultivate a strong faith in God. In a sacramental marriage, three are involved – the husband, the wife, and God. Prayer is essential to the success of a marriage. Trust that God will provide the strength needed for the marriage to survive the hardships that will come its way.
Second, practice with the small issues. As the Rikers rightfully state, “Success breeds success. Failure breeds failure. . . Favorable early experiences lead to co-operation and love. The couple begins to realize their strength as a unit and to face the occasional hazards of their life together.” The more times a couple successfully resolves a disagreement or learns to support each other as a team, the stronger their bond will be and the more likely they will be able to handle the more difficult situations that come along. They will know that even though life might be horrible at the moment, together they can get through it.
Third, cultivate each spouse's sense of worth. Husbands and wives come into marriage with all sorts of emotional baggage from their lives. While some have had happier childhoods than others, no one gets to adulthood completely unscathed. Spouses need to treat each other like capable, intelligent people and encourage each other's strengths. Each spouse has some strengths he or she brings to the marriage. Together, the two are stronger than one. Work on building each other up instead of focusing on each other's faults.
Fourth, be willing to seek and accept help when needed. It is so easy to get caught in the trap of thinking to have a successful marriage, the couple needs to do it all alone. There are times in life when couples really need to lean on the wider community to get through a difficult time. They may need the help of family or friends or doctors or counselors or spiritual directors. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help or accepting help when it is offered. A village may be needed to raise a child. It is sometimes also needed to support a marriage.
Crises will occur in every marriage, but as “Understanding Marriage” points out, “Couples can overcome the hazards of life and marriage, no matter the seriousness, if they continually work to keep their relationship healthy and growing and allow the grace of the sacrament to provide supernatural help. . . A rapid succession of unexpected crises can lead to temporary breakdown in any family. A program of prevention is like money in the bank: it maintains equilibrium even when temporary hazards threaten permanent chaos.” That was good advice in the 1960s and is still good advice today.