Monday, July 30, 2012

What an Atheist Learned at a Christian Wedding

My second oldest paternal cousin got married yesterday. Most of my friends know that I'm a sucker for happy occasions like weddings. Most of these friends are also the ones who look at me skeptically when I tell them that, in my family, we don't believe in divorce. By this, I do not mean that my family members simply pay lip service to the idea of staying committed to their partners "'til death". I think most, if not all, married couples do this. In a very practical sense, my family members have consistently stayed married to their spouses and fostered good relationships with them. This is true of absolutely every living relative on my father's side of my family. 

It would be foolish of me to assume that this family tradition has nothing to do with religion. This is, after all, the Christian side of my family. Still, we know from polling data that being Christian doesn't improve the odds of one's marriage lasting. A 2008 survey found that the percentage of  non-evangelical Christians who have been divorced is the same as the national average. The percentage of divorced Evangelicals is slightly lower. This leads me to sometimes wonder how my relatives manage to make their relationships so successful.

The priest who officiated my cousin's wedding actually had some good answers to this question in his homily. It began with a "letter from Jesus" and contained many references to "Christ-centered" marriage, not exactly topics that resonate with the atheist. Among the religious proclamations, however, were practical lessons that made me stop and think about my own relationships. The advice he offered to my cousin and his bride made a lot of sense, even in  non-romantic context. Three points in particular stayed with me:

1. A relationship is not a competition

My cousin is an athlete and was a track star in college. The priest used this fact as a starting point for one of his lessons. He said to my cousin, "If you win and she loses, you both lose." He then turned to my cousin's bride and said, "If you win and he loses, you both lose". Counterproductive as it sounds, I have seen far too many relationships in which the people involved appear to be working against each other rather than with each other. Just click on any twitter trend involving romance and you'll find hundreds of messages about how their boyfriend or girlfriend "better not" cheat on them or even THINK about talking to "other females". Sometimes it seems as if we expect our loved one to hurt us. To some degree, I can understand this unconscious mentality. Most of us know what it feels like to have a broken heart or to have a relationship fail. To state the facts very bluntly, it sucks. Regardless, we cannot allow said suckiness to turn our loved ones and relations into a battle to be won or a rival to be conquered.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cites a study by Terri Orbuch of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research to echo this advice. "To engage in a healthy way with your partner you need to let go of the past". He goes on to explain that jealousy and bitterness from former relationships or even conflicts with other family members can translate into battles with our partners. I really think this advice is key in creating a partnership rather than a rival-ship. Even more important, it seems to me, is being conscious of this fact and the implications of our emotions and actions towards our loved ones. We need to learned to spend less time keeping score and more time appreciating each other.

2. It's important to respect our loved ones

"In a few minutes," said the priest halfway through his homily. "You will take a vow to honor each other. Now what does that mean?" He continued to answer his own rhetorical question. "We make negative jokes about each other. That isn't really "honoring", is it? I hear people say things about their spouses behind their backs that you would never say to them. That's not "honoring"." To "honor" seems like a rather archaic way of saying "respect each other". When we say it out loud, it seems obvious respect should be present in our relationships, but I was surprised at how much even I forget this. When I stop and think about it, there really is no reason for us talk negatively about our loved ones behind their backs. If we have a problem with someone, why not simply talk to the person with whom we have the conflict? This doesn't mean that we should shoot our mouths off and start a fight, but rather, we should go back to those classic "I" statements we learned in Kindergarten. The trick is to calm one's emotions and speak rationally about how we feel.

In a way, I think communication is a part of the "respect" piece of the relationship as well. When we can be honest with our partners, we send the message that we trust them and that we accept them as a part of our lives. The aforementioned article also has something to say on communication and respect. "Spouses need to speak in a calm and caring voice. They should learn to argue in a way that produces a solution, not just more anger."

3. We need to value our relationships and protect them

"There's a certain sweetness about you," said the priest to my cousin and his bride. "You need to build a wall up around that so nothing can come into [your relationship] to divide."  It's incredible sometimes just how much can divide us and building up walls against these divides often seems like a herculean task. The recent issue of Scientific American Mind actually has a suggestion. An article entitled "The Happy Couple" by Suzann Pawelski recommends positive emotions as a way of cementing emotional bonds. "An upbeat outlook[...] enables people to see the big picture and avoid getting hung up on small annoyances," she says, arguing that being able to see the big picture allows people, especially couples, to find more affective solutions in times of adversity. She continues, "It also tends to dismantle boundaries between "me" and "you" creating stronger emotional attachments"
The practical advice given in the article is very straightforward. It is essential to enthusiastically and positively support our partners and loved ones. In fact, even an apathetic response to our partners' announcements or accomplishments can strain a relationship. Dr. Orbuch from the Wall Street Journal article has similar advice and promotes what he calls "affective affirmation". By this, he means "compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying "I love you," and emotional support".

The priest at the wedding explained this in a rather poetic way with a story of his own. He spoke of a young man he knew who had been studying for the priesthood for several years. When asked when he decided to take up holy orders, the man said "yesterday". By this he meant that his decision to become a church leader was something that he reaffirmed everyday. The priest told my cousin to do the same with his relationship. He advised him to remind himself and his wife everyday of the love they have together.

This was one of those moments where I looked at my own life and recognized times when I had forgotten to remind myself and others of their importance in my life. That being said, I'm still an atheist and I don't plan on incorporating Jesus into any of my relationships anytime soon. But I think I learned some things from a priest the other day. I sincerely hope that my cousin and his new wife did as well.

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