Last weekend was the third marriage retreat organised by our Paris church, and the second retreat to be held in a nearby château. This year the château had removed the scaffolding from the façade so we were able to appreciate its beauty.
The theme this year was “A Garden to Cultivate”, and the couple that leads the Geneva church came and taught the classes. They, along with the elder’s wives in our congregation, have been following an extensive,three-year curriculum in Christian counselling. Through the curriculum, they’ve been learning how better to shepherd people in their various stages of life and challenges.
Nothing is better for boosting your marriage than a night away, right? You’re in different surroundings so you can’t fall into your usual habits. You’re away from the kids so you aren’t pulled by their needs. You dress up a little and eat delicious things in pretty places.
Retreats provide this element of elegance and romance, with no distractions to pull you away from what matters – and that is, drawing closer to one another in intimacy and understanding.
I have so many great pictures of our church family fellowshipping, talking, eating and dancing, but I didn’t want to include the photos without their permission. So you see here the room before it was filled with a chattering family.
And people did chatter. Someone came over to ask our table to keep it down because we were laughing so hard. (No, I wasn’t the worst culprit).
The classes covered the basic principles of a couple, the conflicts, the communication, and the sexuality of a couple. And here, I thought I might share a few of the takeaways from the retreat with you.
The Structure of a Couple
We share goals, ideals, values, passion, and romantic love. That’s what constitutes a couple. We’re also a unit designed by God.
Society’s view on marriage and its importance changes, but God doesn’t. In Matthew 10:4-6, Jesus said: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
We’re meant to leave our fathers and mothers, and join together with our spouse, and become one.
Leave. Join. Become.
We’re meant to become better together than we were before. Sometimes, conflict in our marriage comes because one of the spouses has not properly “left” their parents. Perhaps the mother is critical of the wife he has chosen. Or the father does not respect the husband she has chosen. The first priority should always be to protect the spouse, and not allow the parents to direct the relationship.
According to Jaques Poujol in the 10 Keys of Marriage, there are phases common to all marriages, and it’s good to know what they are. For the first two years you’re in the fusional stage. You’re getting accustomed to joining your lives together. Then 4-5 years in, you’re in the territorial phase – who will take on what role in the marriage. (For instance, who takes out the garbage. It may be mundane but it’s necessary.)
By this point you will likely have had kids and have entered into the cruising phase. This is the 15-20 year period and it is the most busy, hectic, refining part of the marriage because it’s easy to neglect your relationship in order to tend to the more pressing needs or your family. (This is also usually when people’s careers are at their height, and when midlife crisis hits). I’m sure it’s no surprise that Matthieu and I are fully in this phase and we wonder if there will ever be a time when we are less busy.
And finally, there is the mature phase, around 30-40 years of marriage. Hopefully by this stage you will have built something strong in your marriage and will have weathered that hectic cruising phase.
So that’s just a brief summary of what makes up the structure and foundation of a couple. Now let’s get on to the interactions in a couple. (This is me, translating for the English-speakers).
The Confict of a Couple
Conflict is simply an understanding that there’s a disagreement. In itself, it’s not a bad thing. For instance, look at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. They were all getting along fine! Who came and stirred things up? Or here, what Jesus said in Matthew 10:34-36
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn, “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
God does not shy away from conflict because it is not, in itself, a bad thing. Conflict is like gas. Used properly, it can propel a vehicle forward. But light a cigarette nearby and you have an explosion. Conflict should be our gas – it can help us grow. (Or grow up in some cases).
Here are the root things that cause conflict in marriage:
- A poor self-image. We under-estimate (or over-estimate) ourselves instead of looking at our true value through the eyes of God.
- A lack of love. 1 Corinthians 7:3 says, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.” I learned something really interesting about the word “duty”. In the retreat, they mentioned the Greek word eunoia – which is the word for duty – and explained what it meant. For your purposes, I think it’s best expressed directly from Albert Barnes commentary:
The word which he uses εὔνοιαν eunoianbenevolence”) denotes kindness, good-will, affection of mind. And by the use of the word “due” ὀφειλομένην opheilomenēnhe reminds them of the sacredness of their vow, and of the fact that in person, property, and in every respect, they belong to each other.
1 Cor 7:13 can be misused to force a sexual duty, supposedly backed by the Bible, when in this case it really means for the spouse to render good-will, kindness, and affection of mind to their counterpart. Isn’t that great? Conflict comes when this eunoia is not put into play.
- Submission and dominance. (Again, the Bible is often used improperly to force the women to subjugate herself to the man or to justify the man lording it over the woman. There is submission, but there is also biblical context (which I won’t elaborate on here, but which is very protective of women). And as for dominance, well, Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt 23:11) Any dominance in the marriage that is done outside of love and servitude is a dominance taken out of biblical context.
How did Jesus handle conflict? In three ways.
- For the things that didn’t matter, he didn’t make a big deal about it. He did what needed to be done. (Go catch a fish and take the drachma owed out of its mouth and give it for your tax and mine – ref Mt 17:27)
- For cultural things, he found a solution that did not compromise God’s holiness. (Healing the leper in Matthew 8, then telling him to give the offering Moses commanded).
- For things that touched the essence of God’s holiness and our sanctity, Jesus was radical and violently protective. (The clearing of the temple in Luke 19 and the adulterous woman in John 8, as two examples).
In our marriage we need to understand the roots of our conflict – what is the hidden part of the iceberg? And we need to be flexible to let some things go, find solutions for other things, and for the essence and sanctity of the marriage and God’s holiness, we need to be completely radical and violently protective.
The Communication of a Couple
We talked about Johari’s window, and I think it’s worth looking at what that’s all about here. There are some sides to us only we see, and there are other sides only others see. The goal for healthy communication and transparency (as a person and as a couple) is to reduce the blind and hidden parts of ourselves, and expand the public and open parts of ourselves. The key to this?
If you’re willing to be known you have to be humble enough to show more of yourself, and humble enough to let others reveal the things you can’t see in yourself. If you can grow in this, you will have more intimacy in your marriage. And God uses marriage to bring those hidden things to light and help us to approach the golden transparency we’ll all have as perfect souls in heaven.
Three things to strive for when communicating as a couple – the three things we need:
- to be listened to
- & acceptance.
Three things to avoid in communicating – the three things that threaten intimacy:
- orders (“you must do this”)
- & guilt.
Now, how does God handle communication? I mean, He knows everything, right? What’s the point of telling him, since he knows? Yet, God still tells us to “pray without ceasing”. He wants to hear from us and he wants to know what we think. If this is true of God, we can’t expect our spouses to know what we want without us telling them.
Even Jesus knows what we need, but he still asked people, “What do you want me to do for you?” Like the blind men in Matthew 20:31. Or the request of his disciples in Mark 10:36. God wants to hear from us, and he wants us to tell each other what we need. Communication and an open heart – these are characteristics that come from God.
The Sexuality of a Couple
There are just three things I want to say about this class that I found interesting.
- The first is that sexual love is almost completely internalised for a woman, and it’s almost completely externalised for a man. We couldn’t be more different in how we approach sex. You probably already know that, right? But that means that each partner needs to be conscious of what the other person needs because it won’t be natural to meet the need. And we need to communicate our own needs well since the other is not likely to guess.
- A more surprising difference (to me) is that sexual arousal ignites the parts of the brain that signal fear in a woman, whereas it extinguishes those parts of the brain in a man. Seriously. The roof could be caving in and he won’t even notice. What this means is that men need to give women time to talk through their fears in order for her to be in the mood. This is important if he wants her to be fully engaged.
- There is one thing both men and women have in common when it comes to sex. Sexual love can only exist through the desire of the other. That puts you in a situation of complete dependence on the other person. This is like our dependence on God, and is also like his vulnerability in opening himself up to us – to risking our rejection. This is part of the holiness of marital union.
The classes are helpful, but so, too, are all those conversations that happen when the men and women separate to talk about different issues, when couples get together with other couples over meals, and even when you and your spouse talk on the way home. You leave the retreat, ready to conquer the world.
We saw this clip with French subtitles, and I thought you might like it. It’s not only funny, but very insightful. Here is Mark Gungor’s website and he has tons of humorous (helpful) references there.
(Also, if you’d like to read what I wrote about last year’s retreat, you can find it here).