Relief Society Lesson 16: Marriage — An Eternal Partnership

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.

Also, a note on teaching strategy: I’ve found that it often helps to build up to a question and give people time to think. One thing I do that has worked for me is ask a question, tell them to think about it, and immediately tell a story that relates or answers the question in my own way, and then repeat the question and ask the class again for their perspectives. That way, while they listen to you, they can formulate their own responses.

Part 1: Marriage is Ordained of God

 It is not good for man nor for woman to be alone. Man is not complete without woman. Neither can fill the measure of their creation without the other (see 1 Cor. 11:11Moses 3:18). Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God (see D&C 49:15–17). Only through the new and everlasting covenant of marriage can they realize the fulness of eternal blessings (seeD&C 131:1–4132:15–19).

Just as baptism is a commandment of the Lord, so is temple marriage. As baptism is essential to admittance to the Church, so temple marriage is essential to our exaltation in the presence of God. It is part of our destiny. We cannot fulfill our ultimate aims without it. Do not be satisfied with anything less.

This is a distinctive teaching among Christians — that marriage is an essential ordinance for progression and exaltation. What do you like about this idea? What about this idea resonates with you? And on the flip side, why might this be a difficult teaching for some people?

Personally, I’d mention this in answer to my own question: there are a lot of things I like about the church’s emphasis on marriage – particularly that couples don’t easily give up on each other and 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 as for the flip side, there are some disadvantages to this emphasis on marriage. 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.  A related question to this point would be: 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 and learn kindness and consideration in our relationships with others, no matter our marital status.   Hunter himself later makes the point that the gospel is for everyone, single or married. In Part 3 he says, “This is the church of Jesus Christ, not the church of marrieds or singles or any other group or individual. The gospel we preach is the gospel of Jesus Christ, which encompasses all the saving ordinances and covenants necessary to save and exalt every individual who is willing to accept Christ.”)

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 Hunter makes later in part 2 regarding being single and living one’s life to the fullest was good. “If you worry too much about marriage, it can canker the very possibility of it. Live fully and faithfully as one person before having undue anxiety about living as two. While waiting for promised blessings, one should not mark time, for to fail to move forward is to some degree a retrogression. Be anxiously engaged in good causes, including your own development.” I think 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.

 

Part 2 Deciding to Marry

“I think the greatest decision you must make … is the decision that’s going to shape your life for eternity, and that is your marriage. I’m sure that you would agree with me that this is going to be far more important than anything else you do in life, because your work and your profession or whatever you’re going to do is not nearly as important as eternal values. … [The decision about marriage is] going to affect you through eternity; it’s going to affect you while you live here upon the earth too.

Do not … rush into a relationship without proper forethought and inspiration. Prayerfully seek the Lord’s guidance on this matter. Stay worthy of receiving that divine assistance.”

 

This is a softball question, but it could get some fun discussion. Ask the women to share their experiences with deciding to marry their husbands. Was it fast, easy? Difficult? Did they feel guided by God? How did they decide this person was right for them?

 

And in the interest of making this question inclusive to non-married women, perhaps you can ask:  What helps with making life-changing decisions in general? What does your process look like?

 

Part 3: No Blessing Denied to Unmarried People

(See part 1 where I talk about the issue of single people and give a quote from this section. You may want to open up space, either here or earlier on, for people to react to the idea that no blessings are denied to unmarried people. I can see some women finding a lot of comfort in this idea, and others finding not so much comfort in it.)

 

Part 4: Successful Marriage

“Marriage] … is a learned behavior. Our conscious effort, not instinct, determines the success. The motivating force stems from kindness, true affection, and consideration for each other’s happiness and welfare.”

This is the section I would focus on. I really like this. Marriage (like all close relationships) takes constant effort and kindness. A few years ago I heard about the work of psychologist John Gottman, who after observing the patterns of interaction between newlyweds, 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.

So Gottman has some good basic ideas about positive interactions which keep relationships healthy and alive. And President Hunter echoes much of what Gottman says about healthy relationships when he talks about the importance of listening:

“Many problems could be quickly answered, and many difficult situations resolved, if we could understand that there are times when we need to listen. In school we learned the lesson when we listened, but failed when we refused to give attention. In marriage there is a complete lack of understanding unless we are willing to listen. … Of course, we need to talk, but we must listen to the other view in order to increase our understanding sufficiently to make an intelligent decision. A listening ear can oftentimes make the difference.”

What other tips or suggestions do you have that have led to positive, affectionate relationships? This could be from your own relationships or from couples you have observed.

Part 5: Husbands and Wives Should Work Together to Strengthen Marriage

“Most partners have imperfections. … Richard L. Evans once said, “Perhaps any of us could get along with perfect people, but our task is to get along with imperfect people” [Richard Evans’ Quote Book (1971), 165]. We understand in marriage that we are not dealing with perfect people; we are seeking perfection and we are traveling the course in which we hope to find perfection, but we must have understanding, give our best, and make life beautiful. …”

We are all imperfect people and many of us are married to imperfect people. Which means that we need to practice charity. Hunter says this about charity and love: “The Bible tells us: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind” (see 1 Corinthians 13:4). That kind of love, the kind that is not taken lightly, not terminated at pleasure and thrown away like disposable plastic, but which faces all of life’s little difficulties hand in hand entwining the souls, is the ultimate expression of human happiness.

What moments of charity have you experienced or witnessed in marriage?

I would talk here about my own spouse being an example of charity to me. One memory I’ve really treasured is the way he was so respectful to me when I was having a really hard time with church during Prop 8. He showed utter respect for my conscience and where it led me, even though my conscience led me in a different direction than his own did.  I can imagine other spouses being really unhappy or manipulative in the same situation, and he never was. He gave me kindness and space to deal with things in my own way.

I really liked President Hunter’s statement on empathy and unity in marriage: “Surely the happiest marriages are those where your hurt is my hurt, my pain is your pain, my victory, your victory, my concerns, your concerns.”

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?

What ideas do you have for teaching this lesson? Please share.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women’s Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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3 Responses

  1. Megan Buhler says:

    Love this! I’m in primary and it’s nice to read through and feel slightly connected to Relief Society.

  2. Annette Gregory says:

    This was really helpful. As a woman who has been divorced 3 times, I can imagine the reaction when I have to teach this lesson. Plus my views on marriage, and temple marriage do not exactly conform to the church norm. I was afraid of teaching this. Your lesson plan has helped enormously. Thank you

  3. LW says:

    No words for how helpful this was. I was determined to help my RS sisters look at this topic through a different lens, and be more inclusive, and think a bit broader about this topic. I had 5 different women (including my sister and mother!) state that they were dreading hearing this lesson, but were relieved when I basically taught your lesson word for word. It was EXACTLY what they needed. You are amazing!

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