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The Boomerang Effect

Befriending another couple might be the best thing you can do for your marriage, say experts Les & Leslie Parrott

Les and Leslie Parrott don't sit still for long. There's just too much to do.

The Parrotts met when they were teenagers and got married between college and graduate school. Les earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and Leslie an Ed.D. in marriage and family therapy. With their advanced degrees in hand, the Parrotts accepted teaching positions at Seattle Pacific University. But would they be satisfied with the settled life of academia?


They realized colleges and universities weren't doing much to help students prepare for the most demanding responsibility most people ever face—that of being a wife or husband. So they created an elective called "Relationships" and listed it in the course catalogue. When registration closed, they had to hunt up a larger classroom. They expected 25 students, and ended up with 250.

After the overwhelming success of that initial course, the Parrotts were convinced their students needed more. So they created a two-day seminar for engaged couples and those seriously considering marriage. Hence, the Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts program was born. Les and Leslie travel around the country presenting the seminar, which is also available on video.

Then there's the Center for Relationship Development, which the Parrotts co-direct and which serves as their base of operation for teaching, counseling and developing educational programs. It's also where they do some of the research for their books. Writing together, and individually, they have more than ten titles to their credit, including Becoming Soul Mates; Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts; Questions Couples Ask; High-Maintenance Relationships; and their latest project, Mentoring Engaged and Newlywed Couples, a curriculum to help couples become marriage mentors.

The Parrotts would like to see a national network of marriage mentors develop. They envision colleges, churches and concerned couples across the country pairing newlyweds with couples who have been married ten years or longer. Newly married couples benefit by having access to couples who have already been through many of the things the newlyweds are just now encountering. But young couples aren't the only ones who benefit: The mentors get a lot out of it as well.

Les and Leslie call this the "boomerang effect," and here's how it works.

When you two were newlyweds, you got to know an older couple who became a big part of your lives. How have mentors improved your marriage?
Les: Actually, two different couples have served as our mentors. The first, Dennis and Lucy Guernsey, we met while we were in grad school. Sadly, Dennis died last fall, and losing him has left a big hole in our lives. He and Lucy were teachers and writers, so they were more tuned in to what Leslie and I do professionally. That was a great help to us. And then there is our pastor and his wife, Tharon and Barbara Daniels, who have helped us more in the area of our spiritual lives.

Leslie: The Guernseys did share a lot of practical reality with us on writing and working together. But it wasn't just professional mentoring—it was a comprehensive and earthy relationship. Lucy is the kind of person who is willing to help me learn anything.

You didn't mention your parents as mentors. Is it better to look outside your family when seeking a mentor?

Les: Parents can provide valuable insight. But there's something different about spending time with couples who are not related to you. They can shoot straight with you and not feel they have anything to gain or lose, like your parents might.

How do your mentors approach the task of mentoring?

Les: It has never been a structured thing where we get together to work on specific issues. Instead, we go out to dinner and have a good time.

Leslie: But it's not all celebration, either. They let us be with them when they're down, and sometimes they come wanting to learn something from us. It's a two-way relationship.

Les: They are vulnerable with us, which is part of effective mentoring. They don't pretend to be a perfect couple. There have been many times when we've sat together in a car and prayed for a half hour about our marriages and everything else in our lives.

You mentioned that your own mentoring experience has been a two-way proposition. The mentors learn something from spending time with a younger couple.

Les: Absolutely. It's what we call the "boomerang effect." The mentors benefit greatly from the mentoring relationship. Last year, when Dennis was diagnosed with brain cancer, Leslie and I were one of the first couples he and Lucy contacted. That night we went to their home, and we talked for a long time and prayed together. They knew we would be available to support them when they were struggling.

Have there been times when you two hit a brick wall and went to your mentors for specific guidance?

Leslie: There was one really big one. A few years ago, I got a devastating phone call from my parents saying they were going to get a divorce. I had no idea they were even considering such a thing.

The day I got the call, Les and I were on vacation with Tharon and Barbara Daniels, our other mentor couple. Looking back on it, I realize it was God's greatest sustaining gift to me that they were with us in that moment. They ministered to us that week, and they've done a lot since then to keep us spiritually whole. They don't give us advice unless we ask for it, but they do ask good questions, and then just listen.

Les: There have been other times when we needed help in our professional lives. At one point, we realized our schedules were out of control because we didn't know how to turn down invitations to speak. During some meals with Dennis and Lucy, they gently taught us how to say no. In fact, Dennis talked about the "ministry of saying no." You almost have to experience this yourself to really learn the lesson. But somebody else who has already learned the lesson can help speed your learning curve.

Leslie: The Guernseys had an uncanny ability to bring up issues that we were struggling with. Sometimes we didn't even realize how tender a particular issue was until they put their finger on it.

Les: A little over a year ago, they asked us, "What are you doing to nurture your marriage?" And we didn't have an answer. Here we are, marriage experts, but we weren't doing anything intentional to nurture our own relationship. So we set a goal for the year, and it was one of the wisest things we've ever done.

Have there been other big issues you've wrestled with, and felt like you needed specific guidance on?

Leslie: Sometimes you discuss overwhelming emotional issues with your spouse, but still feel like you're at a loss. Those are the times when mentors have been a real gift to me.

A recent example is my concern about my mom's health problems and her long-term care. Les and I live half a continent away from my mom, which makes me feel really helpless. It's also scary, because we don't know how to balance the needs of our marriage with my mom's needs. And Les and I don't always agree on the best course to follow. So I needed some outside perspective.

Whenever you transcend the borders of your own marriage to give something to somebody else, it cultivates the sense of being soul mates.

I was talking with Lucy, and I realized that our way of life at this phase of our marriage—with full-time work at the university and travel almost every weekend—was barely consistent enough, or "homey" enough, to even care for our cat, much less my mom. Lucy helped me see that I was afraid of how my mom's increased need for care, combined with our ministry commitments, might impact our marriage. But it didn't feel loving for me to say that.

Les: We still don't have all the answers, but we have made a commitment to travel frequently to the Midwest to be with Leslie's mom. And we are actively seeking solutions for the future. The most important change is that we are working on discovering the answers together, instead of Leslie working on it independently. And our mentors have helped us do that.

You have talked in the past about your interest in seeing a nationwide network of mentor couples develop. However, you said that when you invite people to become mentors, many are reluctant to get involved. What are some of the main reasons?

Les: Let me say at the outset that not everybody is cut out to be a marriage mentor. For example, some couples might want to be mentors for the wrong reason—to salvage what little marriage they have left. Or one spouse might be really motivated, but the other mate isn't. That's not going to work. It has to be a team effort.

Leslie: But it's true that people are reluctant to become mentors. The biggest reason is that they don't feel qualified, because their marriages aren't perfect. They wonder what they have to offer newly married couples.

But mentors don't have to be experts. In fact, we try to help couples see that their story is what really does the teaching. The young couple being mentored won't have the exact same relational issues, but they still gain insight from hearing the mentors' story.

I remember the first time Dennis and Lucy told us about a huge argument they had when Lucy threw her ring down and drove away and didn't come back for a week. As I listened, I thought, "Okay, so it took them a long time to learn how to resolve their anger." It was comforting to hear about their experience.

What's the primary benefit of hearing the mentor couple's story?

Les: It instills hope in the younger couple when they realize that everyone has problems; and their mentors are proof that problems can be overcome.

Leslie: It also gets the young couple out of isolation. For example, the young marrieds tend to be in a separate Sunday school class—so they're not often in community with anyone from another generation. They don't experience the richness of older couples who have walked these roads ahead of them.

What kinds of things happen in the lives of the mentor couples that they didn't expect?

Leslie: A lot of times, wives and husbands don't have a chance to work together in any role other than as parents, so it's a refreshing change for them to work on something as a team. Sometimes they're surprised at how well they work together, and how much they enjoy it. Also, they're surprised as they hear their spouse answering the young couple's questions—how much meaning their spouse has gained from their marriage.

Mentors don't have to be marriage experts. In fact, it's their story that really does the teaching.

It's almost like when you overhear someone paying you a compliment. That can feel even better than getting direct affirmation.

What are some other benefits?

Les: Whenever you transcend the borders of your own marriage to give something to somebody else, it cultivates the sense of being soul mates.

Leslie: And it restores optimism in the mentor couple. We kind of get cynical over time, and we forget what it's like to dream. It's interesting how mentoring ignites a new optimism in the mentor couple. It also rekindles a sense of romance to see this young couple—so deeply in love, and with all their idealism still intact.

Much of your work is devoted to pre-marital counseling. What's more important: pre-marital preparation or mentoring young couples after they get married?

Les: Pre-marriage counseling is vital to increase a couple's chances for success. But it's after couples cross the threshold that they start to realize they really do need some help. It's kind of like learning to use a computer. Someone might show you how to set up a spread sheet. But if you don't have a need for spread sheets, you'll just tune out. But pretty soon, you're in a new job and you really do need spread sheets. That's when you're ready to learn. Marriage mentoring comes along when the needs have become obvious to the young couples.

To receive additional information about marriage mentoring, contact Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott at the Center for Relationship Development, Seattle Pacific University, 3307 Third Avenue West, Seattle, Washington 98119.

Hey, Big Spenders! (And not-so-big spenders)

We're curious to know the answer to this question: "What's the best $200 (or less) you've ever invested in your marriage?"

Maybe it was an engagement ring. Or perhaps it was an extra-fabulous night on the town or a trip to Disney World for a spouse who never got to go there as a child. It might have been a motorized weed-whacker or an automatic dishwasher.

In 150 words or less, let us know why you consider that particular $200 to be money well spent on your relationship. Then look for the most touching and humorous stories in a future issue of Marriage Partnership. Send your stories to:

Big Spenders
Marriage Partnership
465 Gundersen Drive
Carol Stream, Illinois 60188

FAX: 630/260-0114

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Friendship; Marriage; Mentoring; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 1997
Posted September 12, 2008

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