Relief Society Lesson 10: Nurturing the Eternal Partnership of Marriage
First, I want to acknowledge that this is a sensitive topic. For those who are married but unhappy, for those who aren’t married and want to be, and for so many others, these types of discussions may be difficult. I’d like to be mindful of that, and perhaps, as you teach, you can try to expand the discussion to include how we can be better people in all of our relationships.
I like to start out lessons with an easy personal experience/ personal opinion question that anyone can respond to. I think this signals to the class that this is not going to be a lecture – this is going to be a lesson in which their participation is vital. I also think that for this lesson, it would be good to just acknowledge from the beginning that marriage can be a tough subject. So I’d start off the lesson with this:
We get a lot of lessons in the church that center on the importance of marriage – how do you feel about these lessons? Do you like them? Not like them so much? Mixed feelings? Why?
I’d comment that there are reasons I like these lessons: they are often practical, with lots of good advice and tips for healthy relationality, and these tips can apply to other relationships as well. I also personally think that navigating marriage is just such an interesting topic – how to compromise, how to give and take, how to honor the spouse’s individuality and journey. I also appreciate that Mormon teachings emphasize that couples shouldn’t easily give up on each other and should work with each other through good times and bad. There’s a lot of growth that can happen when you are bound for life to someone who is changing and evolving, just as you are changing and evolving.
But on the flipside, I also worry that these lessons might make people who are not in great marriages feel excluded or sad. I’ll never forget the day I went to a discussion group with Mormon women, and a single woman tearfully talked about how much Chieko Okazaki meant to her as a leader, because rather than talking about women as wives and mothers, she talked about women as disciples of Christ. That felt ennobling and empowering to this woman, whereas constant references to the importance of marriage made her feel excluded and bad about herself.
Later in the lesson we’ll further address the issue of single women and how we can be more inclusive in our rhetoric.
From the Life of Gordon B. Hinckley
The first section of the lesson consists of reflections from President Hinckley and Sister Hinckley about their marriage. I’ve selected some of these reflections below. I’d print these out in very large font and tape them up to the chalkboard before the lesson starts. Or just write them on the board.
- “You have always given me wings to fly, and I have loved you for it.” Sister H to President H
- “I’ve tried to recognize [her] individuality, her personality, her desires, her background, her ambitions. Let her fly. Yes, let her fly! Let her develop her own talents. Let her do things her way. Get out of her way, and marvel at what she does.” President H about Sister H
- “Those early days were not all blissful…. We loved each other …. But we also had to get used to each other…. Early on I realized it would be better if we worked harder at getting accustomed to one another than constantly trying to change each other—which I discovered was impossible. … There must be a little give and take, and a great deal of flexibility, to make a happy home.” Sister H
- “We have had our struggles and our problems. But by and large, life has been good. We have been marvelously blessed. At this age, one begins to sense the meaning of eternity and the value of eternal companionship.” President H
- “As I held her hand and saw mortal life drain from her fingers, I confess I was overcome. Before I married her, she had been the girl of my dreams. … She was my dear companion for more than two-thirds of a century, my equal before the Lord, really my superior. And now in my old age, she has again become the girl of my dreams.” President H
To begin the lesson, I’d ask the class this question:
Which of these statements from President H or Sister H particularly resonates with you? Why? Are there any statements here that you appreciate but that you’d like to nuance a little?
To give them a bit of time to think, feel free to comment on one or two of these quotes yourself right after you ask your question. I’d talk about how I like how realistic both President H and Sister H were about the difficulties and joys of marriage (quotes 3 and 4). I particularly like how wise Sister H is about flexibility and give and take in a marriage, and about how difficult it is to change another person. I also appreciate the image of Sister H with wings to fly (quotes 1 and 2), but I personally would phrase it differently. Rather than President H giving Sister H wings to fly, I like to think of Sister H being born with wings to fly. And as President H says, his job was to recognize her ambitions and desires and get out of her way.
If I were to sum up their marital advice in this section in just a few words it would be to a) compromise and b) give your spouse space to develop him or herself and pursue his or her own things. What other advice would you add? What has been helpful for you personally or what bits of marital wisdom have you seen to be effective in couples you have observed?
Here I might mention the research done by psychologist John Gottman. After observing the patterns of interaction between newlyweds, Gottman could tell with 94% accuracy whether they would be divorced in six years. How could he do this? He was looking at the ways couples responded to each other. In short, interactions between spouses are filled with constant bids for attention. (“Look at that bird!… I spoke with my sister today…. It was a hard day at work…. Sammy did something so funny today!” etc.) Couples that stayed together responded positively and kindly to these bids 87% of the time. Partners that responded minimally or unkindly the majority of the time were not meeting their partner’s emotional needs, and the marriage would likely fail. This is an Atlantic article that explains the study with more details.
(I’d skip to Section 5 here, since it connects so well to ideas about kindness in marriage)
Section 5: Happiness in marriage comes from a loving concern for one’s companion
President Hinckley likewise emphasizes the importance of kindness, patience, and concern when interacting with a spouse. Here are some of my favorite quotes from this section:
If every husband and every wife would constantly do whatever might be possible to ensure the comfort and happiness of his or her companion, there would be very little, if any, divorce. Argument would never be heard. Accusations would never be leveled. Angry explosions would not occur. Rather, love and concern would replace abuse and meanness.
We can look for and recognize the divine nature in one another, which comes to us as children of our Father in Heaven. We can live together in the God-given pattern of marriage in accomplishing that of which we are capable if we will exercise discipline of self and refrain from trying to discipline our companion.
Every marriage is subject to occasional stormy weather. But with patience, mutual respect, and a spirit of forbearance, we can weather these storms. Where mistakes have been made, there can be apology, repentance, and forgiveness. But there must be willingness to do so on the part of both parties.
This is all great advice, I think. I love that he acknowledges the occasional stormy weather in a lifetime of marriage. Let’s talk about that. [If you can, mention a moment from your own life where you and your spouse, or a couple you know well, had a disagreement. How did you or they deal with it? Was your method effective? ] Then ask: How do you disagree without being hurtful to one another? What are your best tips for healthy, respectful disagreement or difficult conversations?
Section1: God Designed Marriage from the Beginning
President Hinckley’s statements in this section emphasize the importance of marriage within our faith and quote scriptures that likewise describe the importance of marriage.
In modern revelation, the Lord has said, “And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.” (D&C 49:15.) …
Surely no one reading the scriptures, both ancient and modern, can doubt the divine concept of marriage. The sweetest feelings of life, the most generous and satisfying impulses of the human heart, find expression in a marriage that stands pure and unsullied above the evil of the world.
I’ve heard some Mormons talk about marriage as being supremely important because of the way it refines a person – learning to love and compromise alongside real differences, etc. I think there’s something to that. But this is a question that I’ve been wrestling with:
How do you balance out the idea that marriage does refine people in important ways, with the fact that not all people will be married and it’s pretty clear that non-married people grow and develop and lead immensely meaningful and important lives?
To answer my own question: I would mention Mother Teresa and other non-married women and men who have grown and accomplished wonderful things in this life. If anyone is ready for glory in the kingdom of God, it would be Mother Teresa, I believe. Why? Because she embodies discipleship of Christ. While the marriage sealing no doubt is important and leads to growth in important ways, we can all be disciples of Christ, learn kindness in our relationships with others, and develop personally, no matter our marital status. Hinckley himself later makes the point that the gospel is for everyone, single or married and that we should acknowledge the humanity of every member of the church. In Section 4 he says:
Somehow we have put a badge on a very important group in the Church. It reads “Singles.” I wish we would not do that. You are individuals, men and women, sons and daughters of God, not a mass of “look-alikes” or “do-alikes.” Because you do not happen to be married does not make you essentially different from others. All of us are very much alike in appearance and emotional responses, in our capacity to think, to reason, to be miserable, to be happy, to love and be loved. You are just as important as any others in the scheme of our Father in Heaven.
… This season of your lives can be wonderful. You have maturity. You have judgment. Most of you have training and experience. You have the physical, mental, and spiritual strength to lift and help and encourage.
There are so many out there who need you. … Keep your spiritual batteries at full charge and light the lamps of others.
Chieko Okazaki had wonderful, inclusive things to say about diversity of all types, including single and married. She said, “We need diversity. We need differences. We need both grasshoppers and ants. Remember, the way of love is to draw a circle that includes, not one that excludes. Differences are okay.” Cats Cradle, p. 58
In my experience, not only are differences okay, but they are vital for opening up my eyes to different experiences, realities, joys, and suffering.
I thought the point that President H makes later in Section 4 regarding being single and living one’s life to the fullest was good:
To you who have not married, … God has given you talents of one kind or another. He has given you the capacity to serve the needs of others and bless their lives with your kindness and concern. Reach out to someone in need. …
Add knowledge to knowledge. Refine your mind and skills in a chosen field of discipline. There are tremendous opportunities for you if you are prepared to take advantage of them. … Do not feel that because you are single, God has forsaken you. The world needs you. The Church needs you. So very many people and causes need your strength and wisdom and talents.
I like this because it’s about personal progression and development. Every human, single or married, has multiple opportunities in life to grow, love, and show charity and learn. Every human can have a profoundly meaningful life.
Section 2: In the temple, a husband and wife can be sealed together for all eternity
Can anyone believing in eternal life doubt that the God of heaven would grant His sons and daughters that most precious attribute of life, the love that finds its most meaningful expression in family relationships? No, reason demands that the family relationship shall continue after death. The human heart longs for it, and the God of heaven has revealed a way whereby it may be secured. The sacred ordinances of the house of the Lord provide for it.”
Because of time, I’d skip this section. But the above is a nice quote. If you have time, perhaps you can ask how knowledge of eternal relationships has affected people’s day to day interactions with one another. Also what experiences have given you greater appreciation for eternal relationships?
Section 3: Husbands and Wives Walk Side by Side
This is a great section — classic President Hinckley. I love the following quote.
In the marriage companionship there is neither inferiority nor superiority. The woman does not walk ahead of the man; neither does the man walk ahead of the woman. They walk side by side as a son and daughter of God on an eternal journey.
Marriage, in its truest sense, is a partnership of equals, with neither exercising dominion over the other, but, rather, with each encouraging and assisting the other in whatever responsibilities and aspirations he or she might have.
How have you and your spouse developed a partnership of equals? Or if you have seen couples that have developed this partnership and equality, what did it look like? What did they do to develop it?
I’d talk personally here about how my husband and I have very consciously tried to be equitable in our marriage, even though he is the primary wage earner and I am the primary care taker. One thing we do is take turns putting the kids to bed at night (something neither of us loves to do). Another thing that I’ve really appreciated is that my spouse often takes the kids away for a full day on the weekend so that I can have that time to pursue my own interests or responsibilities. (This has been really important for me, because even though I’m the primary care taker to the kids, I’m also a graduate student – so those days without kids are utterly vital to me to get work done and to just be psychologically healthy. I need space from the kids sometimes.) On the flipside, when I know he is feeling slammed at work, I tell him to feel free to stay late at work and not worry about getting home for dinner.
On the subject of partnership and equality, I know that one thing that often drives an enormous wedge in between spouses is differences in how to deal with money. I’ve heard of some marriages where the wife has to ask the husband for money every week so she can run the household or buy whatever for herself and the kids, and he then does or doesn’t dole it out. From speaking to the grown children of such marriages, I’ve learned that this kind of setup often does not lead the wife to feel like an equal partner. Rather, she feels humiliated because she doesn’t have equal access to the money.
What do you see as the best way to manage money in a marriage? How have you worked to provide equal say and equal financial access in the marriage, while still respecting each other’s individual priorities and wishes?
Some advice my mom gave me when I married – and I thought it was great – was for spouses to agree to a certain amount of money each month that each spouse gets and is not accountable to the other for. So if you’re a student, that might be a very small amount for each of you a month. If you are established and financially comfortable, maybe it’s significantly more. And then each spouse can do whatever he or she wants with it, without the other person giving any sort of input. That, she said, would honor the individual priorities of each spouse while still being respectful of the household expenses and long-term goals that the majority of money needs to go to. My spouse and I, it turns out, have never done this – mainly because my husband never spends money and isn’t really interested in what I do with it. But it still strikes me as really wise advice, especially if there is tension in the marriage over money.
I’ve also heard of some spouses having the agreement that any small purchase is fine, but if it’s a large one over a certain amount, they need to confer with each other first. My husband and I in practice tend to use this method.
Section 4: God will not withhold blessings from those who don’t marry
I cover the topic of single people in Section 1.
A good marriage relationship can be a wonderful part of life, no doubt. But I was wondering about the limitations inherent even in really terrific marriages. While I adore my husband, I’ve realized over time that we are like a Venn Diagram. There are places where we overlap and we can really resonate with each other, but there are other things outside those overlapping circles, parts of myself that he’s probably never going to really get and parts of him I probably won’t ever really get. Have any of you thought about this idea that maybe one person can’t really satisfy all our needs. Do you agree or disagree? What roles might good friends play?