As a kid, I adored my older sister. So much so that, while I’m not proud of this, I’d sometimes go through her closet, trying stuff on and looking at her cool-kid notes in shoeboxes. Once I found a notebook labelled “Marriage Class,” filled with heartfelt notes scribbled in my sister’s and her then boyfriend’s handwriting, about hopes and dreams for their life together. I was shocked at the on-paper proclamations, considering how shy my sister was. I didn’t recall ever having hugged her, and here she was expressing love on record. I was touched. And to my then high-school brain, marriage suddenly seemed like a powerful, transformative thing.
When I got engaged in October, I wanted to go to marriage class, even though neither my fiance or myself are particularly religious. According to The Book, marriage class, formerly called Pre Cana, is required if you want to get married in a church. We signed up, and we’re so glad we did. Here’s why:
Spiritual But Not Religious
While marriage class was something I wanted (the guidance, the support, the advice), neither my fiance nor I were religious. We had never attended a religious ceremony together, apart from weddings, despite having both attended Christian schools. What’s more, we were getting married in a garden, not a church or synagogue, and by my brother-in-law not a priest. Still, both of us consider ourselves that increasingly popular breed called “spiritual not religious” (yep, there are books about the cultural wave) and wanted to build a life full of compassion and caring and the kind of values that aren’t just political-speak. The class was a place we could explore these ideas.
Advice from a Non-Parent
Before signing up, I emailed the teacher, who was not a priest, but a married man of 12 years who was a father of two and a member of the church. “We would like to go to marriage class, but we do not consider ourselves religious. We don’t go to church or synagogue. Is this class for us?” When the teacher responded that the class was for everyone, and about building a strong and lasting marriage, we were in. Both of us were getting advice from caring loved ones, a lot of it, especially from parents. But in class, we received advice together, as a couple, from a person with marriage (and marriage-counseling) experience, who had a track record for keeping couples together. And that was a wonderful thing.
Our relationship up to that point had been purposefully kept easy–living separately, we never grappled over who took out the trash or made the bed; and both of us stayed busy working for our day-to-day bread and butter. We never needed to know how much money the other spent on rent, cable bills, haircuts and dinners, or how much the other saved. But suddenly, our lives would combine — incomes, living space, finances, laundry bins, everything. The class presented options on how to do this, which made us feel better equipped to establish a system that worked for us. Our teacher recommended a method where all funds go into a shared checking account, then each partner gets a certain amount of walk-around money per month they don’t have to explain. And that’s the technique we’re going with!
Supporting Each Other’s Goals
For a die-hard independent like me, who’d clawed out a living in the toughest of towns, and done it with pride, combining my everything with somebody else, and attaching our destinies together, felt scary at times. As much as I wanted to marry the man that I love, and as grateful as I was to have found him, I also wanted to keep going on my path, to get to the next finish line. As part of our “homework,” we each had to write what we wanted…for the other. I was touched when my fiance wrote that he also wanted me to continue my work and pursue my passions. It showed me that he deeply understood who I was, and what was important to me, and that he wasn’t going to try to take away the things that gave my life purpose and meaning. I can’t recall a time I loved him more than when I read those words in his handwriting.
As aforementioned, the class did not revolve around religion. What it did cover though, in-depth, was actual research, mostly from the marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman, whose book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How to Make Yours Last my fiance and I both are reading. We learned what his years of exhaustive research on couples found, and armed with these tips, we began to feel ready to be a good partner and spouse (or at least try to be). Among the many findings discussed? Only one in six married couples are truly happy — and those who made the cut have one negative interaction to every 20 positive reactions. Now that’s knowledge one can use — and a challenge we are willing to take on.
How to Argue
Another topic covered in class was how to have a fight successfully, meaning the two of you get over whatever topic ruffled feathers so you can get on with your happily ever after. One of the tools for productive disagreeing is called a “Stop Out” (a type of “time out” where you stop talking as soon as voice elevate by saying an agreed-upon word, like “Sushi!,” return to being caring and tender, and set a date and time to regroup that’s at least three hours later). We have already been using this and it works (our word–the recommended “Spaghetti!”). One tip: Whatever day and time you say you will talk about it, show up and be ready to talk about it. Cancelling from the get-go can make the whole strategy fall apart.
Our teacher shared with us a story of the shine his adopted daughter’s took to the theatre and his ritual of taking her to a new Broadway show every three months. He showed us photos of her acting out a living-room production of Lion King. As he talked, I felt a welling up inside. The idea and concept was so beautiful to me. Our teacher shared that at a time when he of his wife experienced a tortuous four years of infertility that weighed heavily on their married life, it was gaining an understanding of “spiritual growth” that got them through, and supporting budding passions and joys in the other. When it came time to pick out a two-year anniversary gift for my fiance, it came to me instantly. His gift would be a woodworking class. He’d taken a shine to putting furniture together. He could use his hands to work on making a piece of furniture that would fill our new home with meaning, joy and love. It was a gift of spiritual growth, and I am grateful to have had that lesson in marriage class.
When class ended, we earned our pre-marriage certificate. We both agree that this was the best thing we ever did for our relationship, and joked that we’d keep up the Tuesday night tradition until we ran out of marriage videos on the class website to watch. We framed the little paper certificate and it gave it a place on our bedroom wall. In the beginning, when just starting down this road, we committed to learning how to do this right. That fact that we both trudged to class, in the snow, after long days at work, to sit in a church basement with 10 other couples, meant something. And some day we may need to remember that.
So, is marriage class for suckers? That’s up for you to decide. But if you see marriage as a new way of living, and a new path, and you’re the sentimental type, give your relationship the attention and nurturing it needs to grow into a beautiful, thriving plant.