Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How "The Marriage Course" Saved My Marriage

Try clicking HERE to find one near you (link is at the bottom too but I know most won't read that far - but know that most courses don't register with the main site, so your best bet is to ask in your local parenting Facebook group if anyone knows where it's going on, or google your town and "the marriage course."  Also, Amazon sometimes carries the DVDs and workbooks ("guest manuals") but I definitely recommend doing the course somewhere offering it; it makes it a lot more real and forces you to be more dedicated.

We've all heard it before, right?

"Marriage is work."

Everybody says this - speakers at weddings, little old ladies, your mom.  Your dad.  But nobody ever explains what the heck it actually means.  Is it just a vague FYI that marriage isn't all fun and games... at least it wasn't for the speaker?  Or is the speaker advising you to full-on adopt a grin-and-bear-it attitude, lest your marriage fail for your own naivetĂ©?  Do all marriages take "work"?  What type of "work"?  How much "work" is too much work?  And what if you're the only one doing any work??

Last February my husband and I did something that literally changed our lives.  And by changed our lives, I mean to tell you that the life it enabled us to have is literally *infinitely* more rewarding as the life we were otherwise living - a night and day difference.  It's quite likely the single most important thing either of us have ever done:  We took "The Marriage Course."

I really didn't expect a "course" to help; I thought at best it would be a band-aid to get us through to when my husband had the flexibility in his schedule to allow for real therapy.  My mom is a PhD family therapist, so the idea that family dynamics could improve through a "class" was something I truly doubted.  Plus, the class was offered through our church.  I love our church; women can be pastors (and elders) and sermons sometimes extoll the virtues of gender equality.  But I had no idea what to expect and past experiences in other religious settings had me fearing we'd be hearing some trite, sexist, hopelessly simplistic message about "men needing respect and women needing love."  I was practically rolling my eyes as we walked through the door; we needed something that would actually work.

***You do NOT need to be Christian to take this course - my atheist friend and her atheist husband LOVED it.  Gay couples could also benefit from it, IMO.  It is often offered via churches and the couple who started it is clearly Christian but the web description says that the course is for couples "with or without a Christian faith."  Gender roles are not mentioned (other than a bit on the lesson on sex).  It's all about individual personalities - as anything that actually works would have to be.***  

Our history...

We had dated for five happy years (all through college) and then been married for a few more before things really started unraveling.  Back then, the thoughts keeping me up at night included "Oh my gosh, someday we actually will have to say goodbye to each other... as in for real, for the last time... and what if, God forbid, it's tragically early?!"

Happier times, 2003

But then along came some really rough times for us.  And I'm not too proud to tell you that they didn't involve terminal illness, or paralysis, or (complete) economic ruin.  In the interests brevity and universality, I'll try to keep this as simple as I can:  By the time my husband had finished medical school and all 4.5 years of his post-medical school clinical training (residency and clinical fellowship), our relationship had devolved into a tension-filled, adversarial dynamic in which affection (if not love) was all but gone - really, truly all but gone.  The thought keeping me up had become this: "I'm not giving my children the happy, secure family life that my parents gave me, and there seems no possible way to change this - what am I going to do???"  I was completely miserable.  I remember crying on the treadmill at the gym (not recommended; far from practical) when "Runaways" would come on my playlist:

At night I come home after they go to sleep
Like a stumbling ghost I haunt these halls
There's a picture of us on our wedding day
I recognize the girl but I can't settle in these walls.

My husband seemed like he was a ghost to me.  The sweet, loving young man I'd married a decade earlier had been stolen from me slowly, year by year, for many years at that point; it seemed pretty irreversible.  Part of it was prolonged sleep deprivation, part of it was depression (triggered by sleep deprivation), part of it was family history, and part of it was an intense passion and idealism turned just just as intensely into cynicism as revisions to residency regulations fell largely on the backs of my husband and his classmates, young patients couldn't be saved, coworkers weren't always competent, and sometimes the system(s) failed people.  Our college friends would marvel at how much he had changed from the sweet, crazily hardworking, always ethical perfectionist who had been elected co-captian of the track team in college.  "A completely different person," they'd say.  "So jaded!"  "So cynical!"  So you can see why I thought this "marriage course" was just going to be a band-aid.  I told a friend that I felt like maybe there was one tiny glowing ember left, but that that ember was about to go out - forever.  "Real" marital therapy seemed my last remaining hope.

And yet, to my complete shock, the course did fix everything.  It somehow broke down all our walls - even walls we didn't know we had - and found that ember.  It sheltered and nurtured the ember and allowed it to grow again into a healthy, vibrant, dynamic fire.  The thought that keeps me up at night now is this:  "I have two amazing kids and an amazing marriage, this is too much, something terrible must be about to happen, what could it be??"  Hey - I never said "real" therapy doesn't still have its place!!

I've wanted to blog about this for awhile now because the course we took is national and it's probably offered near you.  I have a lot of medical-spouse readers (and plenty of medical readers), and I know from feedback that my experience and struggles, while not universal, are far from uncommon.  But even if you're not in a medical marriage and even if your marriage is already good, I would still recommend this course to anyone!  It's fun and enjoyable and the bottom line is this:  There's no possible way it won't make your marriage even better - and that means your entire life will be better, every single day.

It's hard for me to explain why or how the class worked for us; each of the seven sessions was filled with so many different "Aha!" moments, I can't capture it in a blog entry.  Instead, I'll briefly explain the structure of the class, and then I'll relate to you some of the biggest and most notable ways it helped us.

The Course
The course is a series of seven "date nights."  It's very private; the only person you ever talk to is your spouse.  You show up and grab a table for two.  A host or host-couple introduces that week's topic and plays a two-hour video.  The video consists of information and illustrative anecdotes from the main video couple (and other diverse couples the videos follow), and mini-breaks during which you and your spouse are instructed to discuss a certain topic, or rank certain values, etc.  It was actually fun!

Examples Of How It Worked For Us
Each marriage is different and the particular things in the course that worked wonders for our marriage are probably different from those that would work similar magic for others.  Money, for example, is a major issue for many couples and an entire session was devoted just to money.  But all we got out of that session was a confidence boost; it turns out we already see eye-to-eye on spending and saving.  Here's what was really beneficial for us:

(1)  The couple leading the video served as a compelling example of a good and functional marriage, and they made such a marriage seem both desirable and attainable.  So too did the host couple from our church and many of the other couples followed in the videos.  Because my husband and I are both idealistic perfectionists, we really needed to see that having struggles in a marriage is normal, and does not preclude you from having a happy, fulfilling marriage - it's still worth fighting for, with the right "work."

(2)  The very last session, "Love Languages," was key for us; it literally unlocked our communication.  We learned that my love language is words (could you tell?) and that means that I have a hard time feeling loved unless I actually hear or read it.  Gifts, for example, don't have any emotional significance to me at all.  It also means that I'm extra sensitive to critical words - I can accept criticism but it has to be gentle and couched in love or I feel completely rejected.  Alas, the medical school and residency years were a time (a loooooong time totaling 8.5 years) during which my husband was too mentally distant and too emotionally drained for positive verbalization, and logistical stresses too frequently made for mutual criticisms.  Now my husband verbalizes his appreciation for a good dinner, for my parenting, or even for a cute outfit, etc., and approaches criticism gently.  And he wrote a lengthy ditty in my birthday card.  For me, this is night and day.

Also included in that birthday card was a very generous spa gift certificate; one that, when I received similar last year, I was unable to enjoy because we really couldn't afford it.  This year though, I understand that my husband's love language for giving love is gifts.  So rather than feeling like "this is an impractical gift we cannot afford, I wish he hadn't done this," I now see it as "My husband really loves me!  I'll enjoy this love!!"  As with me and critical words, my husband is extra sensitive to times (in the past) when I haven't fallen in love with a gift.  And now I know why:  He processes my hesitation with or rejection of a gift as hesitation or rejection of his love.

Last, my husband's love language for receiving love is practical help.  He feels most loved when I make a tasty, healthy dinner or when the house is organized (pretty sure he doesn't care and can't even tell whether it's actually clean, thankfully!).  I had no idea he felt that way until we took this class, because like I said, he's not a naturally verbal person.  So now both of our daily lives are better - I enjoy my work at home much more knowing that someone other than me appreciates it, and our house is less of a disaster, which we actually both enjoy!

(3)  On breaking down walls, I would recommend one of the first session's activities to anyone.  Each of us had to make a list of six things that we appreciated about the other.  At the time, our marriage was in such a bad spot that I seriously doubted either of us could do it (really, really sad to look back on).  But when I read what he had written, I was shocked and moved to tears:

  1. I appreciate that you make everything work in our family and at home when in difficult circumstances.
  2. Our children couldn't have a better mother.
  3. I appreciate that you frequently have pleasant surprises at home like new dinners or baked goods.
  4. I enjoy your spirit when you advocate for your opinion on your blog.
  5. I am impressed by your adoptability/versatility with all the changes in our life.
  6. Thank you for making me invest more and have higher standards for our marriage and family life.

I had no clue that he thought any of that; like I said, he wasn't verbal and I didn't gather all this from the spa certificate!!  Meanwhile I'm sure he was pretty surprised to hear some of what I had to say about him, too.  I don't have his list but for example, even with all his career successes (and there have been many) I had never once told him that I found any of it impressive and really admirable.  That might sound crazy but in my mind, my role was to downplay the importance of career success in an ever-present bid to remind him that career success is not of ultimate importance; I was protecting my children because in my book, they are of ultimate importance, and I knew he'd always be trying to balance and juggle family with a mega-career.  Ironically, my strategy could only have backfired.  An unwillingness to speak appreciatively of things one's spouse has worked hard on doesn't do much to entice them back into the home.  That's not to say that there's no room to remind a driven spouse that family is important too.  There's room for both - in fact, the reminders will actually be better received if appreciation for the work is also expressed.  Plus, it's the truth!  I'm so glad my husband got to hear that I'm impressed with him (and I think he's hot - another thing I listed) while we're still sort of young!

(4) As I mentioned above, we learned we see eye to eye on money; where to spend, and where to save.  This wasn't surprising but it was surprising to learn that the only financial sticking point we've ever had isn't even a sticking point at all.  Because our dynamic had devolved into "preparing for battle," each of us had taken an extreme side of the college savings issue.  It turns out we both really value sending our kids to good schools, and we're willing to sacrifice to make it happen - but neither of us is willing to sacrifice everything to make it happen.  (Before the course, I thought he basically didn't want to save for college since college has so outrageously out-priced itself, and he thought I'd be happy with nothing less than sending our kids back to our now-$$$ alma mater).

(5) Finally, if you and/or your husband does well or tends to be competitive in "class" settings, well, the class setting is actually really helpful.  It was perfect for us.

Whew!  Sorry for such a lengthy entry but this course really changed our lives and I both want to document it to look back on someday and I want to encourage you to go take this course!  Click here to find one near you.

Do it for your kids, if not for yourselves.
For $340 ($40 + babysitters) we gave our kids a far better present than a pricey college:
We gave them a happy family.

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    1. Mel, I'm so sorry things have been rough. External pressures *definitely* play a major role in martial dynamics, as my husband and I learned the hard way.

      This course was started by a British couple, in London. It's not affiliated with any one denomination. The videos could be watched anywhere, any time, in any church (or not in a church at all). The church may or may not also have a host or a host couple introducing the videos. Ours did and the tone was about as religious as the videos; the focus was marriage and marital dynamics. I can't speak for other potential hosts or churches but certainly at our church, which is non-denominational, it all worked out really well and I even encouraged my atheist friend to take the class; she plans to this winter. The website says that the feedback they've received from non-religious people is that they were not at all uncomfortable with it. So yes, I'd say it doesn't matter which church.

    2. Update: My atheist friend just had her first of the 7 sessions and LOVED it. The course is purposefully written so that anyone of any faith (or no faith) can take it :)