Preparing Our Children for Marriage
Kerry Pappas, MA, MA, AMFT
Given the divorce rate in the United States that has been hovering at about fifty per cent for the last twenty years, many communities of faith are offering and even requiring couples preparing for marriage to participate in a comprehensive premarital program. Presently, Orthodox churches across America use various means of premarital preparation, which range from one or two informal meetings with the parish priest to a required systematic program of preparation. While research has shown that premarital preparation is a helpful tool in preparing couples for marriage, especially for the first few years, it is vital for parents to recognize that the process of preparing for marriage begins at a very young age.
The purpose of this, the first of three articles, is to explore a vision for marriage: what and how our children learn from us about marriage, and how we, as parents, can better nurture our children to become healthy, holy men and women who are prepared to enter into the sacred covenant of marriage, if that is the path they choose. This article will then be followed by two others in the coming year, which will focus on the actual, intentional preparation for marriage, and finally, on marriage itself.
A wise person once told me that women learn how to be women and wives from their mothers, men learn how to be men and husbands from their fathers, and both men and women learn what marriage is like from their parents. A cousin of mine once commented to his father that he had responded to a situation exactly as his father would have reacted. My uncle’s sarcastic but accurate response was, “Who do you expect me to respond like, Henry Fonda?” Many of us have read the poem, “Children learn what they live,” and all of us know that “actions speak louder than words.” Let us now take the opportunity to look more closely at a model for marriage and the tremendous opportunity and responsibility we have to model a godly marriage to our children every day.
The church has given us the most perfect image of marriage in our Lord Jesus Christ. This image is most vividly offered to us in the first few days of Holy Week, in which we celebrate the Bridegroom services that convey to us in striking ways the relationship of the groom, Jesus Christ, to His bride, the Church. In the icon of the “Bridegroom,” we see Christ depicted holding the rod he was beaten with and a crown of thorns around his head. This icon conveys to us the heart and soul of Orthodox Christian marriage--Jesus Christ, willingly laying down his life for us in perfect, unconditional love, a love he both preached and lived, which culminated with His passion and resurrection. From this image of the Bridegroom being wedded to His wife, the Church, we can learn much about marriage. When Jesus married us, the Church, he freely gave himself to us by laying down his life for us in the most generous act of love.
Alongside this image of Christ the Bridegroom, let us also consider Jesus’ teaching to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Two points are most salient in this teaching for marriage, first, love of self. This can be a difficult concept for Orthodox Christians to embrace, but it is the Gospel teaching. If we are gracious and merciful toward ourselves, we are gracious and loving toward our spouse. If we are critical toward ourselves, we are critical toward our spouse. If we take care of ourselves—physically, mentally, and spiritually—we will have more resources from which to love our spouse. If our inner resources are depleted, we will have little to give to our spouse. Those who are or have been parents with young children know that our tendency is to give so much of our energy and effort to our children that we deplete our inner resources and have little to give to our spouse, our closest neighbor with whom we live day in and day out. So, healthy, holy self-care that is grounded in prayer and worship and relies on the grace of God is essential for a loving marriage relationship. Secondly, we are taught to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Who is your closest neighbor if you are married? I have come to understand that my closest neighbor is my husband, then my children. From the love that is learned and practiced in the home, spouse for spouse, parents for children, and children for parents, flows the love that is extended beyond the home.
Henry Nouwen, a prolific Roman Catholic writer, once wrote that the greatest gift parents can give to their children is their love for one another. He did not say that the greatest gift we give to our children is opportunity, a good education, material security, or love for them, though we do try to provide all of these and more for our children. However, if we love our spouse with a love that is graced and infused with the love of God, that love is more important for the well-being of our children than anything we do for or with our children.
What does this love look like? It is patient. When our spouse is late getting home from work again, we are not accusatory but rather seek to understand why and try to work out a plan that is acceptable to both of us. It is kind. We remember those things our spouse enjoys receiving, and we offer them generously; a kind word, that special flower, a favorite meal, a cup of tea together, etc. It is slow to anger. We try to understand our spouse’s actions before becoming angry, and if we are justified in our anger, we let it subside before dealing with the action that provoked the anger. We do not react in the moment and let our anger get the best of us. It is merciful. We keep on giving the second chance and do not throw down the gauntlet by accusingly using words such as always and never.
Love is forgiving. We are regularly saying I am sorry, and please forgive me; and our spouse responds by forgiving us “seventy times seven.” We do not allow resentments and bitterness to develop. Rather, we work to resolve anything that might breed bitterness and resentment. It is gracious. We keep the surprise and delight of our love alive through “extravagant” acts of grace toward our spouse, like offering a genuine loving response to an outburst of anger or planning a surprise date to our spouse’s favorite restaurant.
This love is also tender, affectionate, and sensual. We drop everything to greet one another after a long day with a warm hug and kiss. We are considerate of the other in our lovemaking and not consumed with getting our own needs met. It covers sin; it does not expose it in the presence of others. We do not point out our spouse’s weaknesses to anyone, even jokingly. It is not taken for granted or assumed. Taking our spouse’s love for granted is a great danger, especially for Christians who take the covenant of marriage seriously, just assuming that no matter what, our spouse will always be there.
This love is mutual. One spouse does not lord over the other; both submit to each other. Thus, decisions are made mutually by agreement. It has its peaks and valleys, but it endures. We work through the difficulties and seek help when needed. It sometimes feels good; at other times it feels terrible or it doesn’t feel at all. When it feels good, we rejoice. When it feels terrible or doesn’t feel at all, we dig in, and with God’s grace we act through our will to love our spouse. So, we take out the smelly garbage at midnight even if it is the last thing we want to do. For, love, in the end is more a matter of will than feeling. It is not “until death do us part.” It is an eternal commitment with eternal consequences.
All of these ways of expressing love sound great, don’t they? Daily, however, we fail at loving our spouse. We are quick to anger and say hurtful things to our spouse. We become sarcastic. We take our spouse for granted and do not even realize we are doing so. Instead of forgiving, we become bitter and sometimes even hold grudges against our spouse. We try to control our spouse and get our own way. We simply stop showing affection.
What do we do with our daily failures and the unresolved issues that can build over the years? We keep getting up after we fall down and seek forgiveness from our spouse. If we don’t, we may allow resentments to build to the point where the relationship dies. As we all know relationships do sometimes die, even the ones with the best intentions in the life of the Church. Let us guard with our lives the most precious human relationship God has given us and not succumb to the temptation of simply letting things go and allowing them to build. Let us vigilantly attend to our marriages. This is probably one of the most important lessons we offer our children in modeling marriage to them in a culture in which many enter marriage with the attitude that if it doesn’t work, they have an easy out—divorce. Let us teach our children through our example that when things get difficult, we do our best to work through them, seeking and offering forgiveness and invoking the grace and mercy of God to move forward.
In Jesus’ marriage to us, the Bridegroom to the Church, He willingly and freely laid down His life, as each of us is called to do for our spouse. We can only offer this kind of love, however, if we have the appropriate inner resources from which to do so. That comes from daily growth in Christ and the transformation of all of who we are: mind, soul, heart, and body. If our children live with two parents who love God and whose lives are being transformed by the grace of God, they will have parents who genuinely love one another. And that is the greatest gift we can offer to them so that when the time comes for them to be married, they will know what a genuine, Christ-centered marriage is.