Servant Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2011; $14.99
(Reviewed by David Gibson, former, now-retired editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service)
A powerful chapter titled “Dump the D Word” might on its own make reading “Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards” worthwhile for more than a few husbands and wives. The “D” word, of course, is “divorce.” Using the word “for desired effect causes undesirable effects,” says Ray Guarendi, the clinical psychologist who authored this book.
Words possess a hidden power – the power to give rise to unintended actions and unexpected consequences, Guarendi suggests. “Nasty words give the most minor of disagreements the potential to become major trouble,” he says.
That is why he so strongly cautions spouses not to spew threats of divorce in moments of anger or frustration. He writes:
“At first the D word may be a probing for reaction or a threat to prod a partner toward a little more cooperation. Once introduced into the marital discourse, however, divorce can evolve from the possible to the probable to the preferred.”
A basic problem here is that “talking and thinking divorce deadens the desire to talk and think better marriage.” And Guarendi’s basic thesis is that the future will bode rather well for most couples if they are willing to take a few small, but important, steps on behalf of their relationship.
In his experience, Guarendi explains, most marriages, “no matter how near the point of no return they may seem to be,” retain the potential to “dramatically heal and grow in intimacy.”
The author acknowledges that divorce is “pressed upon” some husbands and wives – “by an uncommitted spouse,” for example. Others, he notes, “have to separate for reasons of safety or critical threats to the family’s well-being.” But he insists that “more often than not, one or both partners are simply dissatisfied with aspects of the relationship. And here is where healing is still quite possible.”
One of Guarendi’s observations leapt off the page for me, capturing my attention because I do not recall hearing it said before and found it thought-provoking. The observation has to do with apologies or, more to the point, the reason for the frequent lack thereof in marriage.
One of the 10 small steps Guarendi presents to spouses for improving a marriage involves saying “I’m sorry” when those powerful words are needed. But sometimes a husband or wife holds back from uttering these words. Why? The reason may be connected to a person’s self-image, Guarendi says. In the back of his or her mind, a spouse may be wondering:
“If I admit ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong,’ what else am I admitting? Am I saying I’m a loser? A mean person? Hard to get along with? Am I acknowledging I’m as bad as you accuse me of being?”
Naturally, the answer to these questions is no. “‘I’m sorry’ is not intended to say anything more about you than that you acted wrongly, and for that you apologize,” Guarendi writes.
The small steps that yield big rewards in this book range from according good manners a place in marriage to practicing some silence during moments of tension. Couples also are encouraged to work cooperatively in the discipline of children and even to learn to disagree in more agreeable ways.
“Disagreements in marriage, especially intense verbal ones, can be lessened by an honest effort to accept, for the moment, the other’s position or reasoning,” Guarendi advises couples. Defending one’s own position to the bitter end during an argument results in burying the very issue that started it all, he comments.
Thus, a little acceptance of the other’s point of view goes a long way. Guarendi explains that “one reality governs most disagreements: If even one contestant replaces arguing with the unspoken ‘I’ll acknowledge your side, and though I think it’s pretty weak I’ll try to understand it,’ the contest loses momentum.”