Perhaps you’ve heard of Thomas Lynch, a writer who is gaining a lot of notoriety lately. He recently published a book of his poetry entitled Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Like all poets, Lynch is inspired and mystified by death. But unlike other poets, he also is hired to bury the dead and tend to their families in his small Michigan hometown. There he serves as the local undertaker.
In his new book, Lynch (who has been called “a poet to the dying”) names the hurts and whispers the condolences and shapes the questions posed by the familiar mystery known as death. His unique observations and comments shed great light on the lives (and deaths) of friends, relatives and acquaintances. His reflections give us new insights into the nature of life and living.
Conceivably a similar irony exists when a couple of divorce counselors-family mediators delve into the realms of “healthy families.” Most of our work together in our lay-ministry “Positive Solutions” has dealt with divorce and work with post-divorce families. Through this ministry, we have come to know hundreds of divorced adults and their children. We have heard their stories and shared their pain about the deaths of their marriages. We have joined them in reflecting on what might have been.
We’ve never met a soul who got married and planned to get divorced (though some exceptions can be found in the movies or in a few notorious get-rich-quick-schemes). Every divorcing couple we’ve ever known admits this was not a planned event at the time they fell in love and married. And as a result of the divorce, the couple is left with the debris – shattered dreams, pain, shame, guilt, and broken relationships.
Marriage is a bridge held upright by 2 piers on each side of the span. If one pier collapses, the span can’t stay upright. It takes 2 people to get married, one to get divorced.
State of the American Family
Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and former writer for “Time Magazine,” wrote a book several years ago entitled Marriage Savers. Listen to his staggering introduction: “The American family is splintering. The breakup of the family is the central domestic problem of our time, yet the issue has hardly been recognized. We are living through a massive galloping tragedy that our country has not fully grasped, the scale of which almost defies comprehension.” McManus cites these trends in support of this thesis:
- Six out of ten new marriages are failing.
- Cohabitation has soared sixfold since 1970. Now the majority of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation, with the likelihood that these eventual marriages will fail more than twice as often as non-cohabiting relations.
- Fewer young people are getting married at all. In ’91, there were 41 million American adults who had never married, twice the number just 20 years ago
- Only 55% of adults are married today, the lowest figure ever.
- Each year a million kids are born to unmarried parents and each year over a million and half kids will see their parents divorce.
He closes his analysis with these chilling words: “Growing up in a broken home with a single parent – or no parent at all – is sadly the majority U.S. experience.”
At a recent Conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors, Norm Wright hosted a workshop. Norm is a well-known Christian Counselor and prolific author on the subject of marriage and families. In his presentation, he detailed the last eight couples with whom he had personally provided “marriage preparation education.” He described their backgrounds and characteristics couple-by-couple. Of those eight couples, there was only one which could be characterized as what we used to call the traditional “engaged couple,” (e.g., no previous marriages, not currently living together, no children from previous relationships, etc.) He went on to say that it’s because so many today have had previous relationship disasters, that we need to make available relationship education, marriage preparation and marriage enrichment programs.
Traits of Healthy Families
Several years ago syndicated columnist Dolores Curran wrote “Traits of A Healthy Family.” She conducted an extensive survey of over 500 family professionals which included teachers, doctors, pastors, youth leaders, and social workers. From this study she came up with a list of 15 traits most often found in healthy families. Below are these traits in the order of their importance from this study:
TRAIT 1: The healthy family communicates and listens.
TRAIT 2: The healthy family affirms and supports one another.
TRAIT 3: The healthy family teaches respect for others.
TRAIT 4: The healthy family develops a sense of trust.
TRAIT 5: The healthy family has a sense of play and humor.
TRAIT 6: The healthy family exhibits a sense of shared responsibility.It helps reinforce personal responsibility.
TRAIT 7: The healthy family teaches a sense of right and wrong.
TRAIT 8: The healthy family is rich with rituals and traditions that act as a family glue.
TRAIT 9: The healthy family has a balance of interaction and shows respect for each other.
TRAIT 10: The healthy family has a shared religious core, shared values and a Spiritual dimension of life that is tied to “good and evil.”
TRAIT 11: The healthy family respects the privacy of one another.
TRAIT 12: The healthy family values service to others. “Giving and serving instead of getting and keeping.”
TRAIT 13: The healthy family fosters family table time and conversation.
TRAIT 14: The healthy family shares leisure time.
TRAIT 15: The healthy family admits to and seeks help with problems. If you think about these traits, they reflect a lifestyle that focuses on “being more than having more.” This focus embraces principles of acceptance, communication, love, commitment, compromise, and forgiveness. It also helps keep us grounded as we go through the changes and stages of life. We are sharing with you some ideas today but these are by no means exhaustive. These reflections come from our work over the past decade with families affected by divorce. We highly support and recommend these approaches to building and supporting healthy families:
- First, more relationship education;
- Second, providing premarital preparation;
- Third, forming alliances between churches and community organizations to help families in crisis;
- Fourth, assuring that our churches provide spiritual and worship experiences to all families.
We recommend more “relationship education.” We think there should be more emphasis given on what constitutes “healthy relationships.” We all spent most of our early school years learning the “3 R’s.” Yet little attention is paid to the “R” of relationships.
There is a wealth of information on “relationships” in the Bible as well as in Christian literature. From these sources, we should offer education and assistance to people wanting to build healthy relationships. We know that healthy relationships usually include such traits such as these:
- Realistic expectations
- A realistic outlook on love
- Positive attitudes and life outlook
- The ability to communicate feelings
- Understanding and acceptance of gender differences
- The ability to make decisions and settle conflict [Not compatibility but how couples work out differences.]
- Spiritual foundations and goals
We believe relationship education should start before a couple is poised to walk down the aisle. It should begin at or near the time when kids are forming relationships with the opposite sex and addressing the myriad of questions that form their relationship vocabulary and skills-bank.
We support more “premarital preparation” and highly recommend that pre-marital counseling should be available. We’re not so naive to believe that every couple will actively participate. Some will not, even if it’s made conditional for the local church to perform the wedding. But sadly, some of our churches today have become “wedding mills” and spend little or no time working with a couple as they plan for a future life together or afterward to help hold the couple together. We have had ministers tell us they felt the marriage was doomed before it had even started, even as they were performing the ceremony!
There are some excellent programs that help couples address areas of their lives that are often problematic. We know from extensive research on marital conflict that married couples most often fight about four things, namely money, communication, sex, and kids. These are among the many topics that can be addressed in a premarital program. Cinderella complex. Come into the marriage with a script and are disappointed when the fantasy is not the reality. There are several excellent “premarital tools” available to help couples address a life together. In our opinion, among the best are the relationship inventories produced by Life Innovations, Inc. Examples are Prepare [premarital] (identifies strengths and growth areas), Prepare MC [previously married with children], Enrich [marital inventory], and Mate [people after 50 going through major life changes]. These inventories can predict divorce at 86%. We’ve brought several of the Life Innovation brochures and also have some other information about these excellent programs.
We also like the idea of doing group education and support with engaged couples. One local church we’ve worked with has a weekend marriage enrichment program in the spring and the Senior Pastor personally invites the engaged couples who have scheduled a wedding at that Church. They are usually among the most curious and active participants at their marriage enrichment workshops! And by the way, we’ve heard from a number of marriage and family experts that the number of couples who drop wedding plans ranges between 20-30% when participation in premarital counseling or programming occurs. We would like to think that here we have a great example of “divorce prevention work.” For married couples, these programs can be extremely valuable. Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Courtship After Marriage by Zig Zigler.
We recommend churches and community organizations join forces to build and support healthy families. Vertical relationship with God has a horizontal impact. We personally believe that families in our country today are under attack from all sides. Divorce is rampant in our State and so many children are affected by the unraveling of their families.
We see the church as a critical “triage station” for families who are struggling in their relationships. Some of these couples take a great deal of time because they are dealing with so many difficult issues. Certainly pastors and lay leaders in the church can be a very important resource for many of these families. But then, in many cases, the complexity of the issues may warrant referral to outside resources for assistance.
We believe that marriage and family education are important in strengthening “healthy families.” One pastor we work with always calls such programs for couples “marriage tune-up’s.” Most marriages today are “high maintenance.” In fact, Les Parrot, a nationally known Christian Psychologist, has written a book entitled High Maintenance Relationships and much of this easy-to-read little book captures many of the problems couples face in marriage. (I confess to you that Beverly, my partner and best-friend, inherited a “high maintenance husband!”)
We live in stressful times where most families need strengthening, encouragement, hope and help from time to time. There are financial issues, problems with children, communication issues, sexual problems, addictions, compulsions, and on and on. Some of these issues really cry out for professional attention but even in Sunday school classes or marriage enrichment programs couples can learn, develop and grow. Some churches have developed “marriage mentors” where older couples come beside younger couples to help them face and weather the storms of life that will inevitably come. This is a powerful way that churches can help grow and strengthen healthy families.
Today, 40% of all marriages involve one or both partners having been previously married and divorced. Remarriages are almost as common as first marriages. For this reason, we believe that divorce recovery programs and activities that reach out to single-parent and blended families are very important. Divorced people have told us they feel ostracized and excluded by some churches. Reaching out to this searching group can be a real lifeline.
The church is confronted today with families that look different and have different needs. We see more single-parent families, children in single parent families and those affected by the death of a spouse. The church offers spiritual and worship experiences that help people grow to be more Christ-like. We need to be attentive to all the different types of families who make up our communities of faith today.
The scripture gives us guidance for building and supporting healthy families in these words:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)
Today we have great opportunities to form partnerships between churches and community organizations to strengthen and support healthy families.
“There’s not anything, God, that you and I can’t do together.” Can we join hands and work together to build rock-solid families?
Copyright © 2005 by Charlie & Beverly Turnbo, Used with Permission
Charlie and Beverly Turnbo are original board members of Positive Solutions for Marriage. Positive Solutions for Marriage encourages couples to create beauty, develop intimacy, and experience joy in the most significant adult relationship they will ever have – their marriage.