I just finished reading Happily Ever After: Six Secrets to a Successful Marriage by Gary Chapman. The book is a fairly typical example of the marriage enrichment genre, one of the best I have read. It is organized around six major areas of focus: solving conflicts, negotiating change, handling money, raising children, sex, and in-laws. Each section is then broken down into seven or eight chapters dealing with one component of that topic. The chapters are short and straightforward. There are nuggets of insight that are worthwhile. Examples abound from Chapman’s vast experience as a marriage counselor, putting flesh on otherwise theoretical abstracts. Each chapter closes with steps to put into practice what has been covered in the chapter. It’s a very good book for what it does.
But this is where my history may cloud my review. I react against the glut of marriage books that focus on techniques. With all the emphasis on techniques, marriage is reduced to a skill set, akin to playing chess. Learn the rules, get some strategy, and you can win. But the hardscrabble of life is more dynamic than a chess game. To make techniques the focal point of the relationship, “the secrets to a successful marriage,” is to cheapen the relationship.
Techniques are tools. Tools can be useful. But having the tools doesn’t hinder these issues from continuing to infiltrate my marriage. Most of these principles were not new to me. Many of them fall under the heading of common sense. When discussing finances, Chapman instructs the reader to live within their means. In handling conflict he focuses on the importance of listening. This is not novel advice. But even familiar, common sense principles still trip me up. Knowing does not always equate to practicing. What saved my marriage and carried us through was not a battery of techniques. If our fundamental need was for techniques, then Scripture would read more like a marriage enrichment book. Instead, it focuses elsewhere.
So maybe there’s just one secret to a successful marriage, though this is no more secret than the six Chapman covers. But indulge me for a moment. Grant me the leeway to unveil it with flourish, as if something new and novel. Gather round as I pull back the curtain on this profound insight. The secret (wink, wink) to a successful marriage is the ardent conviction that marriage is a sacred covenant. It is a holy relationship intended as a model and metaphor of another holy relationship – one even more intimate and hard won. It is a promise before God to be faithful to another. A promise not lightly entered and not lightly broken. As such, it is worth fighting for. This is what held us together. Even when the relationship itself was quite ugly, we fought to restore it. It was a sacred ugliness that we would not give up on until all options had been exhausted. God honored our perseverance. With that bedrock resolve, techniques were useful in fleshing out that commitment, but always secondary.