Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Teaching Children About Marriage

August 11, 2008

In this age when popular culture sends out so many messages that actually work against a sound courtship and marriage, William J. Doherty, PhD, professor at the University of Minnesota, encourages parents to become more intentional and explicit in teaching children about how to have a good marriage.

One measure of our parenting is how well our children do at choosing a mate and, once married, how well do they work at their marriages. Yet on these matters so vital to happiness, parents fall strangely silent. We pin our hopes on how our good marriage will be a model for them and that our parenting will give our children the capacity for a good marriage.

Cultural myths about marriage. Unfortunately, in our modern society, this isn’t enough. Doherty believes the "conventional wisdom" of popular culture contains mis-truths and myths that weaken marriage rather than sustain it. Here are some of the cultural messages young people are actively taught.

1. Find the perfect person.

2. The perfect person will be your soulmate.

3. Marriage is about making me happy.

4. Conflict with the person you married is a sign you married the wrong person. This is a particularly deadly combination when combined with #2 - a soulmate shouldn’t be difficult.

5. In-laws are a pain and are to be avoided as much as possible.

6. Don’t get married until you are financially stable and secure.

7. Cohabitation is a step to help me make a better choice.

8. Divorce is the only alternative when you lose that loving feeling.

Doherty believes that a combination of these points represents what he calls a "consumer marriage", an offshoot of our powerful consumer oriented culture and perhaps the ultimate expression of it.

The expectations around getting or feeling entitled to having perfect mate is contrary to the actually formula for a successful marriage. That formula is to create and cultivate a good marriage by acceptance of differences, giving, serving, sacrificing, patience, kindness, forgiveness, compromise and negotiations. There is a difference between expecting a good marriage and working hard to make a good marriage.

Waiting for financial stability pushes marriage back to ages where marriage becomes more difficult. Individuals who wait and wait - until they are in their late 20s or early 30s before marrying - have a higher divorce rate that those who marry between 21-27.

Cohabitation before marriage has been found to create bad habits and attitudes that makes a sustainable marriage less likely.

So how does one become intentional and explicit about teaching marriage to children? According to Doherty we can:

- Explain why we do what we do for our marriage. We may think our actions are obvious but they are not always so transparent. An example would be explaining why a regular weekly date night keeps the focus on each other instead of other pressures and issues of life.

- Be clear about your own standards and values. Let them know what you expect in their own behavior as well as their friends. Encourage friendships with children who have similar high standards. Share your impressions on relationships when you see flaws and problems.

- Talk about what makes good and poor romantic partners. Make comments about the dating scene. Discuss the stupidity and mistakes you observe young people making. This may cause eye rolling and discomfort but the messages will be remembered and processed. Doherty cautions against overdoing it but being alert to opportunities when a lesson can be taught.

- Mention the positive qualities of your spouse and what he or she does that pleases you. Take advantage of moments from your own marriage when you can point out what makes a good relationship work. Be clear about the extra efforts and trials you went through as you learned valuable lessons about marriage.

- Talk about differences in family backgrounds and how they influence young people. Difficult family legacies tend to show up in behavior patterns that are red flags in courtship. Issues such as tempers, divorce, alienation or excessive conflict with a parent, substance abuse, etc. If these family problems are not understood and processed well, they will impact on how a dating partner handles relationships.

- Use opportunities during engagement and wedding planning to teach about relationships and family. This is a time when the engaged couples will be making decisions together, making money decisions, discussing values, working with the prospective in-laws, and learning about each other’s negotiations skills and problem-solving abilities. Each will be frustrating the other to some degree. This is a time when parents can do relationship coaching prior to marriage.

- Make comments about other people’s marriages, divorces, values and mistakes. Be pro-marriage and pro-family in your comments. Help your children understand how these couples need to try everything possible to resolve problems in their marriages and you will expect the same of them when they encounter some bumps in the road.

So let the eye-rolling begin. Don’t leave it to chance who will be sitting across from you at Thanksgiving dinner, visiting you in the nursing home or who will be the parent of your grandchildren. Spare yourself from listening to the heartache of a child who made a poor mate selection or a child who has to go through the trauma of divorce. With all the other things you teach, teach marriage.