I was sitting in the end carriage on the Piccadilly tube line, with my coat zipped up around my chin on a mild May evening, praying that no one would recognise me.
Because my fiance was also on that tube ? in a different carriage, and, I’m sure at that moment, was wishing he could put even more distance between himself and his future wife.
We’d just done the ‘money week’ at the Marriage Preparation Course at Holy Trinity Brompton and it hadn’t gone well. On the table next to ours, two perfect-looking whippersnappers who couldn’t have been more than 23 had hung off the leaders’ every word (and each other). I remember feeling utterly hopeless as I looked at them. Not for the first time in that six-week period, I found myself asking what on earth we had got ourselves into.
Our ideas about budgeting, it turned out, were quite different and our ‘discussion’ descended into the only sort of row ? hissing, lack of eye contact ? that you can have in the company of 200 others. It lasted for the rest of the session, the walk to thetube, and the ten stops home.
So why was I praying not to be spotted on the tube (other than not being in the mood for small talk)? I was terrified of bumping into someone from the course and them working out that we weren’t speaking. I was terrified of what they might think.
We resolved that particular argument eventually, but the first four months of marriage have seen many other conflicts as we’ve navigated setting up a home together, communication, how we spend our time, who gets custody of the TV remote...
And, for a natural oversharer, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to confess any of this to anyone. It’s partly out of a sense of wanting to protect my husband’s privacy. But I think it’s also because everyone has assumed that, as newlyweds, we’d be nothing other than deliriously happy.
I’ve felt that if I corrected that assumption at all, I’d somehow be letting everyone down.
It’s total nonsense of course, which is why I’ve decided to write this piece. Marriage, it turns out, is great ? but it’s hard. And we’re not always that honest about that.
The scourge of the ‘I’m fine’ culture
We live in a culture where we are almost compelled to present a slightly better-than-reality version of ourselves. A polished ‘Sunday best’ version of how we really are. We do it with our jobs, our holidays, with how happy we are. And yes, we do itin churches too.
‘It’s difficult for couples to admit to problems, and sometimes that can be exacerbated in the church community. Everyone tries to put on the perfect front,’ says Nicky Lee, founder with his wife Sila of the Marriage Preparation Course and The Marriage Course at HTB.
‘In churches we don’t always foster an environment of vulnerability,’ agrees Sarah Abell, author of Inside Out: How to have authentic relationships with everyone in your life (Hodder & Stoughton). ‘We can suffer from what I call the “Colgate Kid Syndrome” ? too many bright white smiles which mask what is really going on inside. We bump into people after the service and even though we’ve had the worst week ever, we still reply “I’m fine” to the question, “How are you?”’
And the trouble with this strange culture is that we say we’re fine, and so everyone else feels they have to say it too. ‘Other people who are hurting or struggling start to believe that they are the only ones with issues, and they can feel reluctant to ask for help or support,’ says Abell.
‘We all bring our Sunday best to church,’ says Mark Molden, CEO of Marriage Care. ‘That plays into a wider issue…What we see in front of us is that people might have a fantastic marriage. Behind closed doors, nobody knows.’
The reality: marriage is hard
Perhaps once we recognise the need for this vulnerability, people will find it easier to say ‘my marriage is hard work’. Because it is. I can guarantee that every single married couple you know will have had some struggles, but the trouble is this very often goes unacknowledged.
‘Every marriage is going to face tough times,’ says Nicky Lee. ‘These are the great challenges ? miscarriage, inability tohave children, unemployment, bereavement, work pressures…’ ‘A big, big one is when a child comes along,’ adds Sila. ‘This is the time when most people [struggle]. It’s the shock, especially for husbands, of having this new person who’s utterly dependent; suddenly their wife has been taken away from them. Men can feel very isolated and left out. There’s a sort of Hollywood, unrealistic “it will all be wonderful” view to having children. The reality is a lot harder.’
Even if couples aren’t facing a particular ‘issue’, it is much more realistic to say that marriage is both a joy and a struggle.
‘If you are to believe the media, of course your sex life is going to be fantastic and fireworks all the time ? perfect family, perfect kids. The reality is a bit more gritty than that,’ says Molden. ‘There are seasons in marriage ? some are long and cold. You have to hang in there through winter. I think we forget about that. We’re in a culture that says if it’s not summer all the time, it’s not real. That’s nonsense.
‘Some churches even have a theology which says it should be summer all the time,’ he adds. ‘My reading of the Bible tells me that there are seasons. There are some very depressing seasons in the Bible.’
The consequences of cover-up
This reality check is not just about making everyone feel better. It’s about making sure that marriages last. The disappointment with reality, coupled perhaps with the belief that all other married people are blissfully happy, treads a well-worn path to communication breakdown, temptation and affairs.
People think, 'I've married the wrong person, we're incompatible'
No marriage is bulletproof. We all know couples with what seemed like rock-solid relationships who have split up. ‘Them?’ we say. ‘I actually can’t believe it. They were the pillars of the church. Has she really left him?’
Divorce and separation are issues on an epidemic scale. Statistics tell us that 48% of children under five will see the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. The most common reason for marriage breakdown is an affair.
‘We live in a disposable society. If your phone breaks, you go to Carphone Warehouse and get a new one. That has crept into our relationships as well,’ says Katharine Hill, UK director of Care for the Family. ‘There’s this whole idea that you swap your relationship for another one without working at it.’
In the Lees’ experience, one of the most common reasons for marriage breakdown is that couples hit conflict and believe they can’t resolve it. ‘They think, “I’ve married the wrong person, we’re incompatible”, and it’s so unnecessary,’ says Sila. ‘Lots of people come on the Marriage Course to invest, but lots of others come who are really struggling ? couples who are very close to separating. They’ve started to argue, lead separate lives and didn’t know what to do about it. They haven’t realised it’s ok to be different, that conflict is inevitable; it’s having the tools to resolve the conflict. Instead of our differences being problematic, they can complement each other. It’s really exciting when people realise they can change.’
Breaking the silence
So how do we start to break through the ‘I’m fine’ culture? There is an argument to suggest that accountability for single people is a bit more straightforward. You can be as confessional as you like when it’s just you and you don’t have to consider the consequences your disclosure might have on anyone else.
But there is a line to be drawn between battening down the hatches once married, never telling anyone anything that’s going on, and daily passive aggressive Facebook posts implying trouble at home.
Different approaches work for different people, but everyone I spoke to for this piece recommends married people find one or two trusted confidantes, with whom the real issues can be shared, and doing so on a regular basis.
Marriage, it turns out, is great - but it's hard
‘We have a couple who we meet once a fortnight,’ says Hill. ‘I don’t want to sound like we have this whole marriage thing sussed ? we haven’t ? but doing this has been a lifeline for us. The deal is we are accountable to each other. We have a meal together, pray together, and they are allowed to ask questions…Over the meal, if one of us is a bit scratchy, you can pick it up when you know people well. They are allowed to ask, “What’s going on? Have you been too busy? Are you spending enough time together?” I would really recommend it to people. As we model that to others we can start to change the culture.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the message from the marriage experts was to get support, get it regularly and get it early, rather than waiting for a crisis to strike.
‘Counselling is seen as something you do in a crisis, says Molden. ‘We’re encouraging couples to see you don’t have to be on the edge; it’s a way of enhancing your relationship.’
‘I think when it comes to talking about struggles in marriage there is a balance to be struck,’ adds Abell. ‘We need discernment to know who to talk to and when. Ideally, it helps to agree with our partner who we are going to ask for help, support and prayer, whether that is on our own or as a couple. Choose people who can be trusted and who are “for” your relationship. If your partner won’t discuss the issues with you, seek one or two wise people who you can trust and who will support you and help you think clearly through your options rather than give you advice or tell you what to do. Tell your partner that you need help and suggest these people as the ones that you want to approach.
‘I think the important thing is to decide as a couple what you are going to tell people who aren’t in your immediate group of confidantes. Some couples might be comfortable saying, “We are going through a tricky time at the moment. We are getting help and support but we would value your prayers”, but others might not. You need to decide what is ok for you both.’
The practice of a marriage preparation, mandatory if you get married in a Catholic church, is becoming more common across other denominations too. There is a very positive role which all churches can play here, in directing people to the services available, and also in de-stigmatising the idea of going on a course or seeking guidance.
‘Marriage preparation is growing,’ says Molden. ‘But there is a reticence. Most people don’t know what marriage prep means. Thoughts turn to counselling and then difficulty. There’s a barrier because couples think “We’re not in difficulty, so why would we need to do it?”, worrying about admitting there’s failure.’
‘In our culture, it’s still not a normal thing to do to go on a relationship course,’ agrees Hill. ‘But actually we are beginning to see some culture change.’
‘The key is to get a message out that it’s normal for every couple to invest in their relationship, and not to have the situation where people stay isolated and not get help until it’s so bad,’ agrees Sila Lee. ‘We believe we as a Church can do so much to change the culture. That’s why we’re creating a culture where everyone comes and does it.’
A more honest future
There are hundreds of books and courses available, not to mention lots of married people, who will be willing to bestow advice on how to preserve marriage. Couples can learn their spouse’s love language, they can do Myers-Briggs and work out their personality types. They can pray together every day. They can make time for a date night each week, and learn how to argue effectively. Courses and books and accountability partners are certainly not the stuff of great Hollywood romances. But they are the things which help in real life.
‘When my husband and I teach on relationships or marriage, we find that people respond most when we share our weaknesses and failures,’ says Abell. ‘It gives them a sense of “me too” and helps them to see that not everyone has the perfect relationship. I think it helps everyone in church, whether single or married, to see that relationships go through ups and downs, that we need to work at them, and as a church we need to support and pray for them.
‘If we can share something [of our struggles], even if it is after things have improved, we give other people permission to be vulnerable too and that is a great gift. It is particularly powerful when church leaders talk about struggles they have been through in their own family life, or how they have sought support, help, or overcome [issues] in their own marriage.’
So let’s be honest. And no, that doesn’t mean we should be telling anyone who will listen over coffee after church about the intimate details of bank balances, sex lives or differences of opinion about whether or when to have children. But we do need to find a way of presenting a more true-to-life version of ourselves. It might just save our marriages.