Happy Valentine's Day! It may be true love, but it's also hard work
First, don't make your spouse God.
Second, don't be Bob.
Women everywhere are thinking, "My husband only thinks he's God."
Men everywhere are thinking, "My name isn't Bob. Good thing, or else I'd have to read this article about happy marriages."
For once, both genders are equally wrong.
When we talked to local ministers about what makes a happy relationship, that's what they said.
Here's what they meant:
Let wise counsel prevail
At New Life Assembly of God in Janesville, preparing for happy marriages and preserving marriages is an important part of the church's mission.
Even if a couple wants to just use the building for a marriage ceremony, they must attend pre-marital counseling, said the Rev. Michael Jackson, New Life's senior pastor.
It doesn't have to be with the church's family life pastor, the Rev. Todd Pope, but it has to happen.
"It's been shown that the divorce rates plummet when couples have gone through premarital counseling," Pope said.
Pope uses the popular testing and counseling system called "Prepare/Enrich."
Couples begin by taking a survey that looks at communication skills, identifies what might be the major stressors, explores family of origin issues and establishes financial and family goals. Pope begins with the areas that need the most work.
"I think people probably think too positively about what marriage will be like," Pope said.
The Rev. John Swanson of River Hills Community Church agreed.
"There are five categories that describe a relationship, from 'harmonious' down to 'conflicted,'" said Swanson. "Most couples place their relationship on the upper end of the scale. A significant part of my job is to alert them to the shock they're about to experience."
Seriously? The "shock" of marriage?
Yes—engaged couples are often so besotted they can't imagine conflict.
"People say, 'Oh, we never fight,'" Pope said. "And I say, 'Oh, but you will.'"
The point is not to avoid conflict but to learn to communicate, listen and fight fairly.
Pre-martial counseling helps couples learn those skills and another, more important lesson.
"People think 'marriage is supposed to make me happy,'" Pope said. "But it isn't always going to make you happy. It can. It's what we put into it."
Which brings us to "Bob," a metaphorical man or woman who thinks his or her marriage didn't work because the other person wasn't "right" for them, Pope said.
But how much did Bob contribute to the marriage? How much did he or she work at it?
"Bob keeps thinking it was the other person's fault, that the other person wasn't making them happy," Pope said. "But it's Bob. He might need to make some changes."
Bob and God
Like New Life, River Hills requires couples who want to use the church for weddings to attend pre-marital counseling, Swanson said.
He's happy to meet with them himself.
"I tell people right at the beginning, 'I'm not in the wedding business. I'm in the Gospel business,'" Swanson said.
The purpose of marriage, Swanson believes, "is to learn more about the greatness of God's love for us in Christ."
God is God. Your spouse is not, Swanson said.
Translation for the secular world: You can't expect your spouse to meet all of your emotional needs.
"It's so hardwired into our relationships," Swanson said. "People think, 'My happiness depends upon how you treat me. When you don't treat me well, I'm not happy.' We want the other person to be God to us."
That's just what Bob thinks, but in reality, all marriages have their share of struggles and pain. And—brace yourself—often your spouse will be a source of that pain.
Husbands and wives need to work at loving each other as Christ loved, and that might mean emotionally extending themselves outside of their comfort zones, Swanson said.
Learning to listen, understanding the other person's needs and, perhaps most important, knowing whom to forgive will help couples find true happiness, he said.