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Father Know Best: What’s the key to happy marriage?

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

Sometimes you mention Mrs. FKB. It seems you have a happy marriage. What is the key to keeping the spark in a relationship?


House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429132Dear Cleo:

What a thoroughly charming question. Twenty-one years and change after our first date (we went to see a collaboration between the Vancouver Chamber Choir and, oddly enough, a jazz band featuring a slapping bass player) my friendship and partnership with Mrs. FKB remains one of the great blessings of my life. I don’t take that for granted.

In order to wonder with you about what sustains a marriage across the changes of life, I contacted five couples – Glenys and Paul, Ben and Arthur, Jenny and David, Katie and Mary Anne, and Bill and Kay, all of whom have been together two decades or more – and asked them:

All these years later, what makes your marriage work? 

Here are some of the themes that emerged.

Trust. As Jenny puts it, “Dave and I trust each other not to tell lies of convenience, to be discreet with important confidences, to care about each other’s best interest, to watch out for each other’s ambition and leisure time and weak spots.” One of the gifts a vibrant marriage is that creates is a context in which both partners back one another up absolutely, in which they offer loving encouragement and criticism, and in which neither partner asks the other to wear a mask, to self-censor, or to pretend to be someone else. And that leads us to:

Vulnerability. When a deep trust exists between two people, it allows for radical honesty, for the freeing ability for each partner to name his or her deep fears and longings and griefs and joys, for a the creation of a context in which it is possible to seek forgiveness and to forgive. (As Kay succinctly and beautifully puts it, Bill is “so damned solid and so honest.”) At a wedding, when you and I get together with our friends and declare that matrimony is holy, this profound vulnerability is one of the things that we are talking about. And at a 50th or a 60th anniversary, when you and I toast a marriage that has survived the storms of the years, the wondrous persistence of this vulnerability is one of the things that we are celebrating.

Complementarity. When I visit with vital couples, I am struck at how often both partners invite something good and generative to grow in the other. Glenys and Paul, for instance, speak of the yearning that they experience to emulate one another’s best and most generous qualities. One of the wonders of a good marriage is that one and one add up to more than two. In a way that we can’t entirely name or measure, both partners are more than they were on their own.

Shared Life Strategies. Couples who last across the years have a common way of being in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean identical philosophies — I know some serious Christians who are happily married to serious atheists, some serious conservatives who are happily married to serious lefties — but it does mean that a given couple largely agrees about the details of daily life and, in turn, about what ultimately matters. A couple sets the stage to thrive when they share ideas about sexuality, money, raising children, housework, and so on, when they have a common vision for those things which add up to tell the story of their life together.

Deep Friendship. Katie and Mary Anne particularly emphasized this theme in their reflections. Sometimes you will hear a person say, “I love my uncle (or my cousin or my mom or whoever), but I don’t really like him.” All of the couples with whom I spoke shone with something like the opposite of that sentiment: they said, “Of course I love my spouse — but I really like her.” In spite of the familiarity the comes of all the years together – maybe because of that familiarity — a spouse becomes a partner in crime, someone who sits with you in your hurts and delights with you in your successes, someone with whom you share all of the wonder and the possibility and (as Ben and Arthur wisely emphasized) the fun of being alive.

I bet that we could keep on building this list, Cleo — perhaps you are thinking of your own additions to it right now. But these five are where I am inclined to leave things for today. Put together, these five elements are a big part of what adds up to the everyday miracle that we call marriage.

Martin Elfert

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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One comment

  1. Liv Larson Andrews

    This is gorgeous, FKB. Thanks for the contributions from many couples. And the honesty. May I have permission to use this in premarital counseling?
    Perhaps what I love most is the redefinition of complementary. Here, you note the complementary gifts each person brings to the unit of marriage. So many folk here “complementary” and go down the road of gifts assigned to genders, and from there to restrictive roles. But you affirm a complementary relationship in terms of gifts alone, not assigned to genders. That’s so important and good to recognize. Thanks.

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