In many of our courses, we teach couples strategies and skills for navigating relationships more effectively. As important as these frameworks are, research suggests that they are not the critical factor in avoiding divorce or building a successful marriage.
Rather, the key appears to lie elsewhere, in the practice of virtues. Virtues are personal characteristics that promote healthy living. The Positive Psychology movement calls them ‘spiritual strengths’ and noted that cultivating them was correlated with higher life satisfaction.
But here’s the thing about virtues: they cannot exist in abstraction. They must be practiced in order for them to be developed and accessible when needed.
It’s easy to be kind to likable people, generous when we have a plentiful supply and a grateful recipient, patient when people are co-operative, or hard-working when the work is fulfilling. Anybody can do this. It’s not taxing or challenging. And it’s not virtuous.
If we want to grow in the virtue of kindness, we need to practise being kind to people we dislike, to people who annoy or revolt us. Showing kindness only to those we like and enjoy is more likely to be enlightened self-interest than genuine virtue.
Similarly, there is no virtue in donating large sums from one’s substantial savings if it causes little inconvenience or impact on our standard of living. Our generosity can only be developed when it really cuts, when it entails a measure of sacrifice. And was this not what Jesus referred to when the poor widow donated her few coins to the temple? Unlike the wealthy Pharisee, she gave all she had.
When our children were younger and we were chronically exhausted we used to pray fervently for patience, until a mentor pointed out that we weren’t really wanting patience. What we really desired were different children – well-behaved ones that went to bed when asked and stayed asleep all night long. Who cheerfully obeyed us and never complained. Sigh…another prayer unanswered!
Truly, there is nothing like taking a toddler for a walk for practicing patience. Every trail of ants, crack in the path, flower or deposit of chewing gum must be examined with the intensity of the little mind which sees these mundane things for the very first time. At the World Meeting of Families in 2015, one of the speakers suggested that government bureaucracies were specially conceived to instruct the population on the virtue of patience! If you haven’t had to handle either an obsessive toddler, or masses of red tape, perhaps your patience is lacking the substance of being truly being tested!
In marriage, it’s easy to love in the good times, when life feels great and our spouse is easy-going. Really, it takes very little effort at all. It’s in the hard times, the poor times, the unwell times, the stressed times that our commitment to love is put to the test. The worst times in a marriage are when virtue is most needed and, at the same time, best honed.
Virtue is the practical expression of love.
St Paul’s great ode to love in his letter to the Corinthians translated love into the practice of virtue: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, or boast. It is not proud or self-seeking. It is not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs (see more at 1 Corinthians 13).
So, is there any point in learning communication skills or conflict resolution strategies? Actually yes, but not for the obvious reasons. When we teach these skills, we are not simply teaching couples a technique. We are training them in the virtues of honesty, self-restraint, charity, self-knowledge, and others. When couples practise these tools in the controlled workshop environment they are really practising virtue, which is precisely why they are effective in helping couples build strong and stable bonds.