Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Marriage Therapies Don't Work. Do They?

SCRIPTURE: Song of Songs 4:1
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 15 August 2012

"How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead." (Song of Solomon 4:1)

"In happy marriages partners incorporate each other's goals
into their concept of what their marriage is about. (John Gottman)
Two things struck me last week. As I was preparing for my weekly sermon, I came across this statement by Dr John Gottman, author of the bestselling book on marriage. He decries the ineffectiveness of many marriage manuals by saying, "most marriage therapy fails." He calls the diagnostic of "communications" as the biggest myth in marriage counseling. He even disses the role of conflict management, saying that techniques such as "active listening" are useless.

I find myself rolling my eyes somewhat. Great.

Just because you think your technique works, does not mean you can downplay other types of marital counsel. Then, after my sermon, I hear a comment from a wise individual, who also says something quite similar to Gottman. I start to wonder why. Are marriage books useless?

A) The Efficacies of Marital Therapy

Admittedly, advice about marriage is everywhere. Go to any library, you can find whole sections devoted to marriage, love, and relationships. Seminars on marriages are well attended. Talks are frequent. Every year, books about marriage roll off the press. Newspapers and the mass media continue to garner high readership just by talking about all things marriage. People blog about it. Authors write it. Publishers print it. Readers lap it all up. Marriage gurus are also everywhere. As a pastor, I can say that marriage remains the single most popular topic one can ever talk about. People never seem to get tired of hearing it. Just within the span of 12 months, I have reviewed three new books on marriage, written from a Christian perspective. You can read about them here.

After studying more than 650 couples, many of them having gone through marital therapy sessions, John Gottman is convinced that couples are too imperfect, making them unable to execute the marital advice well enough. He believes that "successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed." Say it all you want, for if it only addresses the symptoms, one can never resolve anything, at least for the long term.

I concur. Relationships are more often slow growth types rather than quick fix therapies. That is why I like the  use of the garden as a marriage metaphor. Dr H. Wallace Goddard and James P. Marshall sees a marriage relationships as a garden that needs to be cultivated. There is no point trying to get rid of weeds well. One needs to learn to follow through with good planting and growing good fruit. That is, to cultivate the positive parts of each other more. More importantly, the two gardeners have to be both husband and wife.

B) In Defense of Marriage Resources

I am for one, unwilling to cast aside marriage manuals without first understanding what we are throwing away. While I agree with John Gottman about the lack of effectiveness in many marriage therapy, and the statement by my church member about how "useless" self-help marriage books are, I have three reasons why we need to remain open. Firstly, I think the key issue lies not in the therapies or the books. It lies with understanding one's own contexts first. A good marriage resource will always aim to help us understand ourselves. Without understanding the various nuances of our own marriages, or our spouses, it is hard to know what resources work best for us. It is like going to a doctor, and without much investigation or diagnosis, we ask the doctor to tell us what is wrong with us. We insist that the doctor, being a doctor, tell us exactly what is wrong with us, what prescription we need, and how soon can we be cured. If we apply such an attitude toward any marriage resource, we are bound to be disappointed.

The second reason why I want to defend marriage books and therapies is because they open up avenues for learning. Having something is better than nothing. If a marriage is crumbling, at least, a therapy session can give each other a sense of hope. Whether the therapy cures the relationship or not is besides the point. At least, couples can start agreeing on something. Maybe, they may even be united in their opinions about the marriage counselling. Thirdly, for people who have come all the way to the point of saying that "self-help marriage books do not work," do not forget the road they have travelled to get to where they are. Will they have come to the same conclusion without having gone through 'failed programs' in the first place? I am reminded of the great inventor, Thomas Edison, who failed 1000 times before inventing the light bulb. When asked about how he feels about the 1000 failures, his reply is simply:
"I have learned 1000 ways how NOT to do it."

I think it can apply to marriage counselling as well.

C) Good Marriage Resources

Good marriage resources have three core elements. It needs to be practical. It needs to be proven sound and theologically grounded. It needs to be life giving and hope generating.

In my theological training, marriage counselling is one of the key areas students have to be equipped in. I went through many hours of tests, research, and training. One such training is the PREPARE/ENRICH program. This requires a facilitator to guide and to accurately diagnose the conditions of the marriage. It is practical because of its clear and guided questionnaire for couples. There are different categories of needs according to the phase of marriage, young or old. Backed by scientific research and real life data, it gives couples an objective look at their marital condition. For those of us with a scientific mind, we will be assured that the test questions and scores are based on real life references and data.

Another resource that we can look at will be either pastoral counselling or couple mentoring. For many couples, one of the best resources is to talk with their pastors who know them. Pastors see their members every week. They are not in the ministry for the money, unlike some well paid marriage therapists. Moreover, pastors do get to see the ups and downs that couples go through. Couple counselling is also increasingly popular as it enables couples to mentor one another from both male and female perspectives. I know of respected elderly couple who makes excellent hearers and advisers to struggling marriages.

Finally, good marriage books are many. We just need to know where to look. I have four recommendations for now. The first is John Gottman's "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." It is based on two premises. The first is that couples must see each other as best friends. The second is to create strong shared meaning in their marriages, through seven principles. The second book is Matthew Kelly's "The Seven Levels of Intimacy." Highly practical, it maps out seven levels for couples to know where to begin, and to understand the process in moving from one level to the next. The third book is Tim Keller's excellent "The Meaning of Marriage." It is strong in recognizing present limitations and enlarging future aspirations. The fourth book is a recent publication called, "Renovating Your Marriage Room by Room." This book shows couples the need to look at all aspects of their marriage through regular renovation. I like the metaphor of rooms within a house. It helps keep a marriage relationship fresh, and is a good reminder of how easy it is for couples to take each other for granted.

D) Love and Romance: Solomon's Style

One of the nicest things couples can ever say to each other is: "If I were to go back in time, I will choose to marry you again, and again, and again." This is romantic steroid that lasts. Just make sure that is really what you truly feel. One of the most beautiful books of the Bible is the Song of Songs. Written by Solomon in poetry form, we read pages and pages of sensuous and erotic language that can make the modern reader feel uncomfortable. Very few preachers preach on this text. In all the weddings I have attended, I can only remember one sermon that is based on this book.

Looking at the way the man shows his love to the woman, I see not only intimacy but the attention to details. There are lots of images used to describe how one feels for the other. In Song of Songs 4:1, the phrase "How beautiful!" gets repeated. The man then goes on to describe the eyes, the hair, followed by teeth, lips, mouth, the neck, the temple. Lovers leave no stones unturned in their admiration for the other. With such romantic gestures, how can women not be attracted to Solomon! Solomon is able to connect what he knows from the world, and describes his beloved.

The key point is this. When we are in love, we are more mindful of the beautiful parts of the person we love. Imperfections are nothing, when we see with eyes of perfection.

Let me close with this great piece of advice from Arielle Ford.

"Early on in our relationship we decided that our union would be our number one priority. We promised each other that our choices would be based not on what Arielle wanted, or on what Brian wanted, but on what was ultimately best for our relationship." (Arielle Ford, Wabi Sabi Love, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012, p14)

Indeed. Many of us tend to forget that marriage is not about us. It is about the union. It is about letting God help us invest in a joint marriage account. Both husbands and wives make constant deposits to this joint account all the time. Even when either makes a withdrawal, there is a constant desire to want to put back into the account lovingly and sacrificially.

THOUGHT: "There's a good reason we compare marriage to a garden. A good marriage is as lush, rich, and satisfying as a great garden. But neither the good marriage nor the great garden happens without wise and consistent effort. Marriage, like a garden, can be renewing and life sustaining. Yet, neither will happen by accident." (H. Wallace Goddard and James P. Marshall, The Marriage Garden, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010, 2)


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