Wineskins Archive

December 12, 2013

Book Review: Happily Ever After (Jan 2012)

Filed under: — @ 10:35 am and

By Phil Huber

We had just finished watching Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley on New Year’s Day and were preparing for bed. My wife was deeply moved by the noble and passionate love of Mr. Darcy that is revealed in the end. I was mildly suspicious that this was a set up to expose my lack of romanticism. “Because it’s unsustainable,” I stated, a bit too matter-of-factly. This launched a conversation that spanned two nights in which we explored my wife’s longing for and my own dismissal of this expression of love. It was a circuitous route, this conversation, but it arrived at a satisfying end. I discovered that I fear romanticism because I feel inept in expressing it. Sue realized that this longing is planted in her soul as something too big for marriage to fill – a longing only God can satisfy.

And this is our marriage – two people who love each other deeply but have much to learn about themselves and each other. Sometimes we stumble over each other’s feet, and sometimes into each other’s arms. Either way, this is a shared journey. In this case, the vulnerable and risky dialogue that paved the way for mutual insight was more than just dialogue – it was intimacy. One more log on the fire of love. A fire that sometimes blazes and other times smolders.

I have a marriage that most people would envy. It’s not perfect, but it is durable. Sixteen years of marriage have weathered this relationship. Through the years our love has been pressed and twisted until well worn. It survived crisis that brought the relationship to the brink and led to a period of brief separation about five years ago. We have fought hard to preserve this union. We have the scars to prove it. But the tattered complexion of our love has resulted in a bond that only shared struggle can account for. There is security in a relationship that has been tested and tried.

I just finished reading Happily Ever After: Six Secrets to a Successful Marriage by Gary Chapman. The book is a fairly typical example of the marriage enrichment genre, one of the best I have read. It is organized around six major areas of focus: solving conflicts, negotiating change, handling money, raising children, sex, and in-laws. Each section is then broken down into seven or eight chapters dealing with one component of that topic. The chapters are short and straightforward. There are nuggets of insight that are worthwhile. Examples abound from Chapman’s vast experience as a marriage counselor, putting flesh on otherwise theoretical abstracts. Each chapter closes with steps to put into practice what has been covered in the chapter. It’s a very good book for what it does.

But this is where my history may cloud my review. I react against the glut of marriage books that focus on techniques. With all the emphasis on techniques, marriage is reduced to a skill set, akin to playing chess. Learn the rules, get some strategy, and you can win. But the hardscrabble of life is more dynamic than a chess game. To make techniques the focal point of the relationship, “the secrets to a successful marriage,” is to cheapen the relationship.

Techniques are tools. Tools can be useful. But having the tools doesn’t hinder these issues from continuing to infiltrate my marriage. Most of these principles were not new to me. Many of them fall under the heading of common sense. When discussing finances, Chapman instructs the reader to live within their means. In handling conflict he focuses on the importance of listening. This is not novel advice. But even familiar, common sense principles still trip me up. Knowing does not always equate to practicing. What saved my marriage and carried us through was not a battery of techniques. If our fundamental need was for techniques, then Scripture would read more like a marriage enrichment book. Instead, it focuses elsewhere.

So maybe there’s just one secret to a successful marriage, though this is no more secret than the six Chapman covers. But indulge me for a moment. Grant me the leeway to unveil it with flourish, as if something new and novel. Gather round as I pull back the curtain on this profound insight. The secret (wink, wink) to a successful marriage is the ardent conviction that marriage is a sacred covenant. It is a holy relationship intended as a model and metaphor of another holy relationship – one even more intimate and hard won. It is a promise before God to be faithful to another. A promise not lightly entered and not lightly broken. As such, it is worth fighting for. This is what held us together. Even when the relationship itself was quite ugly, we fought to restore it. It was a sacred ugliness that we would not give up on until all options had been exhausted. God honored our perseverance. With that bedrock resolve, techniques were useful in fleshing out that commitment, but always secondary. <br><br>Relationships in crisis may find this book too formulaic. Chapman suggests, in a tight string of chapters, that conflict resolution requires listening, which leads to understanding, which leads to resolution, which leads to harmony. This is true, but tidy. Marriages in crisis may find this more frustrating than useful as they discover just how sloppy the marriage is. Generally speaking, marriages in crisis need assistance that is more dynamic than what a book can offer. In my own marriage, this was found primarily in a small group that came alongside us. They helped bring perspective and could respond to the particular mess at hand in the moment in ways that no book could.

But if a tune-up is what you are looking for, I would commend this book to you. Chapman’s insight can be significantly helpful in relationships with mild to moderate problems. Each section will have varying degrees of relevance, depending on the issue you are facing in your marriage. For myself, the most helpful section was on negotiating change. I was challenged with the notion that even if issues in my marriage are only fractionally my fault, I can improve my marriage immediately by addressing that fraction that is mine. From there Chapman offers helpful advice on how then to address those things you would like your spouse to change. His advice comes across as tactful, loving, and feasible.

Marriage suffers when we downgrade its holiness. Our rush to techniques feels to me like we are slipping toward this downgrade. Techniques are secondary. A devotion to covenant faithfulness is primary. Keep this in focus and Chapman’s book can help fill your tool box. Keep this in focus and you will have a successful marriage. Keep this in focus and even “successful” will seem like a cheap word to attach to marriage. Better, marriage will be holy and blessed; a sacred ugliness transformed into sacred beauty.

Happily Ever After is published by Tyndale and may be purchased at their online store.

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