Carrie's six-year marriage ended in an ugly divorce-not that it surprised
"I didn't have a chance," she told her best friend. "I grew up watching my parents fight constantly. I still remember Mom throwing a bag of flour at Dad. They divorced when I was 15."
On the other hand, Carrie's twin sister, Cheryl, is still happily married after 13 years. Carrie and Cheryl had the same parents, but they interpreted the turmoil in their childhood home differently. Carrie used her parents' angry, conflict-ridden relationship to explain the failure of her own marriage. But that can't be the whole picture, especially in light of her sister's healthy marriage.
A number of factors contribute to the success or failure of any marriage. And while the quality of your parents' relationship influences how you approach marriage, it's not the sole determinant of your future happiness. These guidelines will help you break any unhealthy patterns and show you how to make your marriage the close relationship you and your spouse desire.
Look to God for guidance and support. If your parents had a dysfunctional marriage, it will be difficult for you to develop a healthy relationship when you're not even sure what one looks like. But remember, God wants your marriage to thrive. Trust in him to direct you to the resources you need. Together with your mate, learn to rely on prayer to break through the roadblocks you encounter.
Learn from your parents' example. Seldom is a marriage so bad that a husband and wife could be mistaken for Darth Vader and the bride of Frankenstein. Even a bad marriage has some redeeming elements. Challenge yourself to look for the good in your parents' relationship and learn from what you find.
for example, Cheryl's husband, Doug, grew up with a father who didn't take his wife's concerns seriously. Whenever Doug's mom would try to talk about a problem, his dad would dismiss the issue with a "Yes, Dear." Yet Doug had to admit that his father loved his mother, because every year on their anniversary his father arranged for a special dinner out and ordered his wife's favorite flowers. Years later, Doug kept up that loving tradition with Cheryl.
At the same time, Doug vowed that in contrast to his dad's example, he would listen with respect to his wife and not brush off her comments with a pat answer. You can learn a lot about what you don't want to happen in your marriage by considering what your parents did poorly.
Study successful couples. Shortly after Cheryl and Doug got married, they became friends with an older couple Doug met at work. This couple served as a sounding board for Doug and Cheryl as they worked through the stressors common to newlyweds. In contrast, Carrie and her husband struggled alone-one possible reason their marriage failed.
Don't try to go it alone. Get to know a few happily married couples and ask them how they make their marriages work. In your search for good role models, think about couples who show uncommon courtesy to one another, who serve each other, and who are honest about their struggles-yet confident they can be worked through.
Pick up a good book. Hundreds of helpful marriage books are available, loaded with case studies and tips on what makes a marriage work. Read one of these books together and then put what you learn into practice. For a place to start, consider one of the following: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, by John Gray; His Needs, Her Needs, by Willard Harley, Jr.; Love Is Never Enough, by Aaron Beck; and Letters to Karen, by Charlie Shedd.
Expand your horizons. Even if your marriage is going well, consider attending a church-sponsored marriage seminar, a marriage retreat or a marriage-enrichment weekend. These programs provide an excellent opportunity to focus on your marriage and give you time to begin making some needed adjustments. If you're going through tough times, consider getting counseling from a pastor or therapist who values keeping marriages together.
Take the initiative in making improvements. It may sound overly simplistic, but you need to ask your partner what you could do differently to strengthen your marriage. Often your spouse can detect a bad habit you picked up from your parents without realizing it.
Listen to what your mate tells you. Better yet, repeat what he or she says in an effort to clearly understand his or her position. Resist the urge to become defensive. And remember that small changes can make a big difference.
Prepare for the inevitable times of stress. When tensions are high, couples are more likely to backslide into habits they developed from observing their parents. In my (Everett's) family, for example, we tended to manipulate each other by sulking. Now, when I get stressed out over work demands or other issues, I'm alert to this tendency. Rather than sulk, I try to work through my stress and keep the lines of communication open with Kirby.
Watch out for unspoken expectations. You may not be aware of it, but your parents' relationship communicated certain expectations about marriage. If both of you picked up the same expectations, it won't become a source of conflict. Likewise, expectations that you are aware of usually don't figure into marital conflict. Because Carrie's father drank heavily, she was determined not to marry a drinker. She and her husband had long talks about alcohol before marrying. True to their discussions, alcohol never played an important role in her failed marriage. But other factors, not as easily identified, did.
It's when you have hidden expectations-and they don't mesh with those of your mate-that problems can arise. Carrie never talked to her husband about how she expected him to talk to her or how she thought household duties would be divided up. Those unspoken, unrecognized expectations were grist for the argument mill throughout her marriage.
When conflicts erupt over hidden expectations, couples often dip back into their families of origin for strategies to deal with the situation. If your parents had poor conflict-resolution skills, you're likely to do just what they modeled.
Does your marriage have a strike against it if your parents divorced or had a less than ideal marriage? Possibly, but not necessarily. If you choose to take positive action rather than dream up excuses, you and your mate can work together to make your marriage what God intended it to be.
Everett and Kirby Worthington are co-authors of Helping Parents Make Disciples and Value Your Children (both published by Baker). They live in Richmond, Virginia, with their four teenagers.
Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/MARRIAGE PARTNERSHIP magazine.