The DVD has finished, the guests have all gone, the candles blown out, the pens and spare manuals put away, the background music switched off, and most of the washing up and clearing away done. Another Marriage Course is complete.
Someone asked, "Can the Marriage Course change my marriage for the better?" The answer is that that is actually not a very good question! It's like asking, "Can a recipie book cook my dinner?" or "Can a Haynes Manual fix my car?" - the question contains such a major category error that it is virtually unanswerable.
The truth is that The Marriage Course is about equipping people with the skills needed to negotiate the changes and challenges of married life, in which marriage is seen as the life-long, joyous partnership of 'best-friends' doing life together. However, tools which remain in the tool box achieve nothing, and only fulfil their designed purpose if brought out and actually used! Likewise, if a couple complete The Marriage Course but don't do things such prioritise time with each other, don't learn to listen effectively, don't forgive each other, or any of the other essentials taught on the course, them it will do them little good. Likewise, if despite what they have learnt they bear grudges, are rude to each other in public, allow wider-family to negatively impact the marriage, are sexually unresponsive to one another, or refuse to learn to express love in the ways most profound for their spouse; then mere attendance at the course will be of little help.
However, our experience over several years, first as participants and then of hosts of The Marriage Course has been that the course has not just equipped people with the tools required for healthy marriage-building, but also been instrumental in inspiring them to do it. In our marriage, for example, we long ago identified that our relationship was 'time-starved', but it was only when we did The Marriage Course that we actually practically addressed the issue properly and began to schedule 'marriage time' into our diaries.
Part of the reason The Marriage Course inspires people to put these tools into action is that the DVDs are full of stories of real couples talking about the positive changes that have come into their lives as a result of applying what is being discussed. Many people seem to have given up hope that their relationships can be anything more than 'disappointing', and these stories re-awaken hope.
Another reason is the fact that The Marriage Course mirrors the public-yet-private nature of marriage in the way that it is run. What I mean by that is that marriage is a public-relationship in that it is a relationship declared in front of family, friends and witnesses, recognised in law, and in church weddings with vows made consciously before God. Marriage is not a secret relationship. On the other hand the content of each marriage relationship is intensely private, as every marriage is different. We know that every couple on these courses comes with different life-pressures, different issues, and different perceptions. The Marriage Course, rather neatly reflects this public-yet-private nature of marriage. On one hand there is the 'all-together' element of all being in the same place at the same time to do the same thing: build better marriages, and we all watch the DVDs together. In this we get a sense that we are part of building a community around such shared values as commitment, loyalty, love, patience, forgiveness and a shared view of the value of marriage. Yet, because the discussion times are all 100% private and personal between spouses, the private and unique nature of those individual marriages is nurtured too. This is obviously and apparently important on week six when couples are asked to think through their sexual relationship, but is actually also really important when it comes to other issues such as learning to listen, and to forgive; where we have been made aware that couples have been processing very deep and serious issues in their lives.
Another reason that the course has helped to inspire people to put the tools taught into practice is because of the atmosphere that the course generates, which is of course stimulated by being part of a wider group of married couples all seeking the same end. Everything that is done is designed to try and create a 'safe-place' for searching and real conversations to take place. I remember someone telling us that in almost two decades of marriage the communication problems between him and his wife were caused by his inability to listen, and his propensity to shout, slam doors and leave the house if she said anything which he disliked. On The Marriage Course, in a house with couples talking quietly in every room this option was not available to him, and so he began to really listen to her. The more he listened the more he began to grasp her perspective and the more he understood, the less angered he was when they disagreed. This 'safe-place' for discussion was crucial for them, and is I believe, immeasurably enhanced by the fact that many people pray for the course.
All the courses we have done have been different. Different guests, different combinations of personalities, the old materials, the new DVD-set, different combinations of people from the church, and folks from outside, people of strong Christian convictions, loose connections to church, or no faith at all. This last course has been a really enjoyable one, with a really great atmosphere, and some particularly entertaining guests we've enjoyed getting to know, and chuckling through the DVDs with. I think we'll always remember this one as 'the back-pain course', as at one stage almost three-quarters of the male guests (and me!) were struggling in and out of chairs with back-ache.
The week-after a Marriage Course finishes is always a bit strange for me. There's one sense in which it is just lovely to have a week off. The amount of shopping, cleaning, clearing, tidying, cooking, washing-up and so forth is a huge (yet joyous) commitment. Next Monday, we won't have to have every room in the house clean, cosy and candle-lit, and it will certainly be more restful. However, I know that I will also really miss the sight of these folks climbing the steps to our front door at half-past seven, of the banter over the dinner table, of food that takes more time and costs more money than our regular Monday night fare, of watching the DVDs and quietly praying for folks as they go off around the house to talk through the issues of life. Next Monday the house will be strangely quiet, and empty (and probably messy), and we'll probably at this point wish that The Marriage Course was 8 weeks long, not just 7.