Dos and don'ts after you say 'I do'
Experts share how to build a safe and strong marriage
Sarah and Keith Condie are just the sort of couple you’d expect to lead a marriage course. They first met at 17, then fell in love after joining the same Bible study group. Now, after over 40 years of marriage, they are still affectionate and attentive, and their conversation is peppered with praise for their spouse. They finish each other’s sentences and, at times, are unashamedly flirty.
“We were very disconnected from each other. I was very unhappy.” – Sarah Condie
The couple’s credentials also stack up on paper. Together, they are Co-Directors of the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute, a ministry of Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney. Keith is a trained Anglican minister and former lecturer at Moore Theological College. He has studied psychology and now teaches courses on pastoral care and mental health at Mary Andrews College, Sydney. Meanwhile, until recently, Sarah worked as women’s pastor and Director of Well-being and Care at Church by the Bridge in Kirribilli.
Yes, that’s quite the stack of experience and expertise in relationships. But you may be surprised to learn that the marriage of this seemingly perfect couple almost fell apart.
“We were at a point in our marriage where we were very disconnected from each other. I was very unhappy,” Sarah shares with Eternity.
“But God, in his kindness and mercy, gave me friends to help me and give me some tips on what to do, and we got some professional help. That helped us to start making some changes.”
Their own marriage difficulties prompted the Condies to develop resources to help other couples. Over the past 15 years, they have been running marriage courses in churches and small groups. This has helped them offer substantial advice to couples, such as the “Dos and Don’ts” list Eternity has assembled from the Condies (see below).
They have compiled all their insights into a new five-part video course, Building a Safe & Strong Marriage.
“That’s one of the passions for us behind this course,” says Keith. “We’ve seen wonderful changes in our marriage, and would like to think that others could benefit from this sort of wisdom.”
Being released this month, the course follows a similar format to the much-loved Alpha marriage course. Couples watch a video together and discuss prompted questions, with a facilitator on hand to host. Over five weeks, the topics covered include communication, sex (with commentary from Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon), spirituality, managing conflict and the biblical design for marriage.
Keith is quick to note a couple of points of difference between this marriage course and others: “Firstly, it’s Australian,” he says in an ocker drawl. “Secondly, we’ve tried to combine the wisdom of the Bible … with the insights from some very significant marriage research.”
He adds: “While our course is overtly Christian, we’ve tried to put it together in such a way that a sympathetic outsider, who didn’t share our faith, would still benefit from it.
“Whether you’ve been married for six months or 60 years, we think the course will be of help for everyone.”
“Little things count for a lot.” – Keith Condie
One of the key teachings in the course is “the importance of little things every day”.
“Every interaction you have shapes the emotional tone of a relationship and, therefore, little things count for a lot,” says Keith.
This humble piece of wisdom is the key to sticking together through hard times, according to Sarah. She has seen it mend marriages that had seemed too broken to fix.
“I think God has the capacity to help us change. When you are both prepared to put in the hard work … and look at those habits that are pulling you away from one another, by doing little things every day, you can actually change the emotional tone from one that’s very negative to one that’s very positive,” she says.
In an era where one in three Australian marriages end in divorce, according to McCrindle Research, the Condies stress the importance of staying connected to your spouse. This relates in particular to developing marriage-friendly habits in the way you spend your time and use technology.
“Everyone’s going to have hard times,” says Sarah. “I don’t think anyone lives the ‘happily ever after’. But when you remain connected to each other, it gives you a lot of strength to be able to ride through those difficult times together.”
Keith adds: “There’s a view that you’re trapped if you are committed in a marriage. But the marriage actually provides a security net and a sense of safety. You can relax because you know that the other person is not going to walk away if you have a fight or an argument, because you have made promises to each other and you intend to keep them.”
So what does a safe and strong marriage look like? According to the Condies, it looks a lot like the picture of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:25, where they “were both naked but felt no shame”.
“That is a lovely picture of intimacy, closeness, connection and incredible vulnerability,” says Keith.
“We think that picture is really what God wants marriage to be – where you can be completely open and completely safe; where you can reveal you heart to this person, and they know your flaws but they’re still on your side.”
DOs and DON’Ts
Sarah and Keith shared the following tips on the little things you can do today to improve your marriage. They also gave insight into some of the habits that damage the connection between spouses.
- Get to know your spouse better by asking questions
Ask how they are feeling about work, or about being a parent, or about something else going on in their life. Ask the sort of questions you used to ask each other before you got married.
- Express admiration for your spouse
Notice the positive things that your husband or wife does and tell them – try to do that once every day.
- Respond to your spouse’s attempts to connect
If your spouse sends a text or asks you a question, then make sure you respond. Or if you are at a party and you happen to catch the other person’s eye across the room, smile at each other.
- Find time to talk to your spouse
Even if it’s only 10-15 minutes each day, find that time to touch base and have a chat with each other. Commit to a longer time each week to have dinner or coffee together and talk.
- Enjoy each other’s company – have fun!
Find those things that you both enjoy, whether it’s reading a book, listening to music, going to a movie, or having a walk. (Marriages get dull if you don’t have fun.)
- Don’t let technology get in the way of your relationship
Don’t take your phone to bed. Put your phone away at meal times with your spouse. Even having a phone sitting on the table changes the way you relate.
- Don’t be afraid to disagree
It’s OK to disagree – in fact you need to have those conversations. But make sure you have them gently with each other and in a way that doesn’t pull you apart.
- Don’t start conversations harshly
Research shows that many couples whose marriages become disconnected start their conversations harshly. Soften how you start conversations, particularly difficult ones. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)
- Don’t assume your spouse knows what you are thinking and feeling
Your spouse is not a mind-reader. It’s important to learn to tell them how you are really feeling – are you angry, worried or hurt? You need to express this to your spouse.
- Don’t ignore the signs of pornography addiction or domestic violence
Pornography can significantly damage the connection between couples. It changes the way our brains are wired which affects the way couples relate to each other sexually (as well as in other ways). The Condies’ course raises awareness around the issue of domestic violence, but is not designed for couples in that situation. Seek professional support if you are experiencing domestic violence.
You can find out more about the Building a Safe & Strong Marriage course here.