Guest Post: A Dysfunctional Marriage
by Margaret OH
My husband and I have been listening to a marriage therapy course with the fabulous Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. We have found that meeting with a marriage therapist every few years for a “check-up” is great for heading off potential problems and for gaining skills that strengthen our relationship. At this moment in our lives we don’t have the time to physically meet with someone in an office, but Dr. Finlayson-Fife (my husband and I refer to her as JFF) has been an excellent fit for us and conveniently comes to our house via the internet while our children sleep.
One of the skills that JFF emphasizes is effective speaking and listening in conflict. I consider myself pretty good at listening but have learned a lot from the class. JFF lays out strategies for productive speaking: state the facts, give a personal interpretation, make a manageable request. The listener also has a responsibility: to listen with honest self-examination while holding the valued relationship close in his/her heart. Both roles require vulnerability and a commitment to the relationship. In my experience both roles, if done right, are difficult to perform. It takes a faith in the relationship to be that humble and exposed.
In one video of a case study of a couple acting out a conflict, JFF lays out basic grading for the listener: An F grade for denying that there’s a problem; D for acknowledging there’s a problem; C for acknowledging and apologizing; a B for acknowledging, apologizing, and committing to change. An A grade is more difficult: it requires seeing oneself through the eyes of your partner and taking ownership of the problem. It is not just saying, “You’re right, I’ll change”, it is saying, “You’re right. I see that in myself and I don’t like that about myself. I am trying to be different.”
I have often throughout my adult life felt like I was in a marriage with the Church. I am devoted to it. I love it. It is a complicated relationship but a commitment which I feel is worth sticking with. The times I have felt most despairing of that marriage is when I feel like the Church loves me less than I love it or when the Church is telling me that it would love me more if I were different. There have been times when the Church seems to value our relationship not at all. Those are painful, dark moments, when I wonder about our future together.
When the Church Public Affairs Department met with Mormon Women Stand (while refusing to even acknowledge other groups), it felt to me like a deliberate escalation of the conflict between Mormon feminists and the Church. It felt like a denial of the importance of the relationship. Mormon feminists are speaking. They are stating facts, giving their interpretation, and asking for a variety of requests (some more manageable than others). I have made myself vulnerable because I love this Church so much and I desperately want to preserve the relationship. The response, in this case, was a resounding, “There isn’t a problem.” That, to me, is a failure. Failure to listen, failure to engage in dialogue. Failure to hold the relationship close to the heart.
There have been slightly better statements recently. In a private meeting with local leadership in my area, Elder Ballard recently said that the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency recognize that “some women feel marginalized” and they are pondering what can be done for those women. But for me, this is still a D grade: there is an acknowledgement, but no ownership. There is no vulnerability. “Some women” are still different and separate. There is an emotional barrier between the groups inherent in framing the conflict in these terms.
So what is there to do? I have lots of mediation theory about creating a space for dialogue. I think it’s worth sharing and I plan to post it here soon. But today I am too tired to speak and too angry to listen. I am despairing about whether I will ever be heard and valued. In this case, I again return to JFF: if your spouse refuses to respond to a request for change and you want to preserve the relationship, you have to rely on boundaries. My self-worth does not depend on Church leadership. I cannot change them; they can change themselves and I can change myself.
That is what is getting me through this one hard day. Tomorrow I will probably be able to once again feel hopeful that someday the Church will be willing to listen and say, “We see this and we don’t like this about ourselves. We want to change. We are committed to this relationship.”