The challenge of living in our society is learning how to live in relationship with other people in ways that are life giving. Developing, nurturing and sustaining healthy relationships is probably one of the most important things we embrace on our journey.
Unfortunately, we are more effective at creating disasters than we are at sustaining healthy relationships. This is illustrated by the fact that fifty percent of American marriages end in divorce and sixty percent of second marriages end in divorce. These statistics are taken from social science research literature on this issue.
In our culture, anything that is important and/or worthwhile demands a license and some training. Marriage and relationships are among our most valued institutions, but objectively, we demand little or nothing in the way of preparation.
In New York State, to be married civilly all you have to do is purchase a license. To purchase that license, you only have to prove who you are. Relationships demand no formal preparation, no license and are the foundation of most people's lives. So, why are relationships and marriages such a disaster?
Take a moment to think about what you know about marriage and what you know about relationships. Where did you learn what you know? Did you learn at home, at school or in the neighborhood? Or maybe you learned it as you went along.
School was the training ground that shaped so much of who we have become. Few schools have any courses throughout the grades dealing with building, nurturing and sustaining relationships, never mind courses that deal with the meaning of marriage and the family.
Since the divorce rate has been so high, most religious traditions have tried to develop various programs to prepare people for marriage and long-term relationships. Unfortunately, much of the public has resisted those efforts. The average couple preparing for marriage is very resistant and even antagonistic toward anything that might help prepare them for a long-term commitment. Too often people really believe that they are prepared and that their interpersonal skills are well developed.
MJ and KT met in college. They dated during the four years they were away at school. They both loved education and became teachers. After graduation, they came home and both found jobs not far from where they lived.
As teachers, they continued to date and spend their every waking moment together. Their relationship moved to the next level and they became engaged. Against their parents' wishes, they moved in together. They were married the following year.
Both were Catholic, but not really practicing. To appease their parents, they were married in a church with a priest presiding. Part of their marriage preparation was to participate in "Pre Cana," a marriage preparation program required by their faith tradition.
Twenty years ago, many of those programs left much to be desired. However, MJ and KT lucked out. They actually valued the experience and indicated that it was too short. The five-week experience focused mainly on their relationship and trying to help them strengthen their mutual communication skills.
After they were married, they agreed to wait a few years before starting a family. They were both absorbed in their work and loved their careers. In the fifth year of their marriage, they decided to have children. A year later, twin boys were born. They agreed that KT would be a stay at home Mom.
As the years passed, MJ and KT drifted apart. Communication between them broke down. The twins were a handful, a great distraction and an excuse for not nurturing their marriage. Before long, this passionately in love couple was merely cohabitating together.
Parenting twin boys was more than a full time job. Both parents accepted that life between them had to be different. They did not have any family or close friends to help them.
So, life went on. On the outside they looked like the perfect, little happy family. They had a beautiful home with a white picket fence. MJ had an excellent teaching job. KT was an exceptional mother who seemed to love her role as a mother. They seemed to have it all.
After the two boys were settled in high school and KT had returned to teaching, life in their home was unraveling. It became apparent to both parents that they had grown apart and were not happy. KT became concerned that MJ was having an affair. She asked him if he would go to see a counselor with her. Initially, he said no. After additional pressure was put on him, he reluctantly agreed to go with her.
A mutual friend recommended a highly regarded marriage therapist. They went to see him. By the second session, MJ admitted he had emotionally left the relationship during the twins' elementary school days. He said that it had become very hard to communicate and he had just pulled back. Now, almost twenty years later, he acknowledged that even though he was an excellent teacher and relied on his ability to communicate to be effective, when they were dating he had no real communication skills around marriage and relationships. She echoed the same sentiment.
MJ and KT are still in treatment. They admit it is not about perfection, but about progress. Using the skills of a professional to work on communicating and dealing with each other's feelings has transformed their relationship and given them hope that they will make it. Time will tell.
We need assistance with our relationships. We need to seek opportunities to strengthen what we have and/or possibly discover what is weak and in need of transformation.
There are many resources out there that can help. Our Churches and Synagogues are invaluable resources. Many of us know local mental health professionals who are excellent. However, why wait until you are in trouble? Why not utilize opportunities that can enrich and strengthen what you have?
"The Couples Connection" is a local program that attempts to help people deal with life's challenges. It is a three-step program that focuses on gratitude, communication and building common interests. The program will meet three times during March and once a month after that as a follow up. It is an opportunity to take a good relationship and make it better or prevent a struggling relationship from ending in disaster. For registration and/or information, call 631-928-4114.
It could be the greatest gift you give yourself, the one that makes all the difference.