As many of you who read this column know, in addition to being the executive director of Centre Safe, I am also an ordained Presbyterian minister. While I don’t pastor a church, as my children, nieces and nephews have become adults, I find that I have been asked to perform more and more of the weddings of my family members and the friends of my kids. It is an honor to be asked to participate in these joyous occasions.
However, as part of my responsibility to both the couples and to the church that ordained me, I always ask the couples I am marrying to meet with me for some pre-marital counseling. I am very clear with them that I am not a therapist, and that what we are doing is really less counseling than it is having intentional, structured conversations about the expectations, hopes and dreams that each partner is bringing to the days, weeks and years following the wedding (which sadly, seems to be where many couples focus their attention).
I usually start the conversations by asking each partner to identify three things they observed in their parents’ marriages that they would like to replicate in their own relationships and three things they observed that they want to avoid. As we become adults, we learn what it means to be married by observing and watching the married people around us — and the people we see the most, for good or ill, are our parents. Even those whose parents’ marriages have ended can reflect on these questions and it is a great place to begin a conversation about what you want your own marriage to be.
These conversations are almost always enlightening to the couple — and sometimes to the individual thinking about something they’d not thought about before. The responses are often deeply thoughtful and insightful, both for the individual reflecting and for their partner. Recently, as I was talking to a couple, one of the partners said they had not felt like their parents’ marriage was an emotionally safe space. As we explored that a bit, it became clear that while there was no physical violence in their parents’ relationship, the marriage and the family created around it didn’t feel like a safe place to be as a child and, watching their parents, it didn’t feel like it had been a safe space for their mother for many years.
I was so glad that we could have this conversation, the three of us. And it reminded me how important it is to talk about what safety in a healthy marriage means. Certainly, physical violence has no place in a marriage or adult romantic partnership. But for a marriage to be truly healthy, safety must mean more. A healthy marriage is one where each partner feels safe to be who they are, to say what they need, and knows deep down that they are respected by their partner.
Safety does not mean there will never be conflict in a relationship – there will be as we are all human and none of us are perfect. But a safe relationship means that when conflict occurs, it will occur within a context of safety – hurtful words and actions will be minimized, responsibility for wrongs will be acknowledged and forgiveness offered, and a commitment to repair the damage will be made. As it turns out, contrary to the 1970 film, love actually does mean having to say you’re sorry. The creation of a safe space in a relationship requires both accountability and forgiveness. And at the very heart of a healthy marriage must be safety.
Anne K. Ard is the executive director of Centre Safe, Centre County’s domestic violence/rape crisis center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.