Resolve to have a happy marriage for 2011

Marriage group meets monthly to laugh, eat, study and grow

December 30, 2010|BY CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Dan and Bonnie Elgin, right, hosted a married couples meeting at their home with Margaret and David Swacina, left, and Linda and Bill Showalter.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

In this season of resolutions and goal-setting for the new year, Margaret Swacina has advice for couples: Work on your marriage.

Marriage is hard work, she said. It takes attention and nurturing. Accept that, and you have the foundation of a good, loving marriage.

Bonnie Elgin added wistfully, "It would be nice for younger couples to realize this."

Working together

Swacina and Elgin are part of a group of four married couples — Dan and Bonnie Elgin, David and Margaret Swacina, Bill and Linda Showalter and Fred and Norma Craver, all Hagerstown residents who get together monthly to work on their relationships.

The group started 20 years ago when two of the women expressed a longing for more intimate, richer relationships with their husbands. From that conversation came an idea to get couples together regularly and help each other's marriages grow stronger. They called their group a married couples' group.

What could be a tedious or confrontational session is anything but. The couples share a meal, laugh together and talk about their appreciation for their spouse and the friendship among group members.

The Elgins, Swacinas and Showalters gathered recently to talk about how the married couples' group has strengthened their lives.

"Actually, at the beginning, all our group intended to do was study one book," Bonnie said. "We said 'Let's try this for six months or a year.'"

Five couples formed the group, all members of TriState Fellowship Church of Hagerstown. The group's monthly meetings fell into a low-key format — start with prayer and a meal, then discuss a book, one chapter per month, and see how it applied to the couples' relationships.

Start simply

Everyone agreed upon a set of simple guidelines: Couples must be open to learning; everyone participates (i.e., talk and share their point of view); everyone attends every month; keep the conversation light and nonconfrontational; and nothing shared in the group was to be shared outside the group.

And above all, stay positive and informal. "This is not a housekeeping or cooking contest," Linda said.

The group worked. The five couples enjoyed the process and enjoyed each other so much, that the first book led to a second and a third. They have read more than a dozen books, mostly Christian-based, including "Building Your Marriage" by Dennis Rainey, "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage" by Mark Gungor and "His Needs, Her Needs" by Willard F. Harley Jr.

As years passed, group members occasionally changed as couples moved away and new couples joined. But the group remained vital to members. The Cravers, Elgins, Swacinas and Showalters have been members for two decades.

"When we got started, we had no expectation we would still be together after 20 years," Margaret said. "We love these people. We share in all kinds of ways."

"Any one of us (couples) struggles at any given time," Linda said. "More important to me is that we're all at the same level."

Something for men

A marriage group based on talking and reading books might not be a man's idea of a good time, but Dan, Dave and Bill agreed their lives are better because of the married couples' group.

"Some of the books have been very good at showing the differences between men and women," Dave said. He cited "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" by John Gray as a helpful book.

"I saw it wasn't between me and her," Bill added, pointing to wife Linda. "We all (the men) agree. The women —  they all agree. So it's not between me and her."

"That was a real relief for me to realize," Linda said.

Bonnie laughed in agreement. "I was convinced Dan woke up each day thinking of ways to make me angry," she said.

Lessons learned

Dan shared an example of men and women having different values. Dan is a car guy. Bonnie has no interest in cars. But she once agreed to go with him to Carlisle, Pa., to a sports car show.

"How'd that work for you?" Bill said with a grin.

Bonnie rolled her eyes. "All those motor parts. But there was one good thing. I realized he must feel the same when I take him shopping at the mall."

Another key relationship lesson: Your spouse is trying as much as you are to make things work. Believe that, Dave said, even if it doesn't always look that way.

"It's important to believe that your spouse is good-willed," Dave said. "We learned that in (Emerson Eggerichs' book) ‘Love and Respect.'"

Respect is a foundation. Margaret said group members learned to check with their spouse before they bring up a disagreement or problem in front of the group. "It's very important that you never put down your spouse in the group," she said.

Bonnie noted that these are good ground rules for any relationship. "If only you could tell this to young couples before they get married," she said.

 Passing on the legacy

The marriage group was so useful and fun, each couple decided to start a second group.

"As we went through this and found out how much we enjoy this, we wanted to share," Bill said.

"The idea is that all couples would be put into a marriage cluster," Dave said. "Even just to get together. You wouldn't have to study a book."

Dan and Bonnie's second marriage group has four couples and has been meeting for six years. Recently, they decided to take dancing lessons together. This, Bonnie said, has been enormous fun.

"Dan had no interest in it, but we laughed so much, and had so much fun, we stayed with it," she said.

And that, for Bonnie, is the purpose of working on a marriage: to help couples work on a relationship.

"We've had moments when we weren't happy with our mates. But we've shared so much together," she said. "One thing you get from this is to remember what made you fall in love with this person in the first place."

Tips for organizing a marriage group

  •  Have a total of four or five couple. No more.
  •  Make a commitment to attend every month.
  •  Look for couples that have integrity, because couples must maintain absolute confidentiality about what is said in the group.  
  •  Members must be open to learning and growing.
  •  Members must check with their spouse before sharing something sensitive with the group.
  •  Find and read a good book to look for helpful ideas.
  •  It's helpful to have a shared values system, such as a common religious or demographic background.

Tips for strengthening a marriage

  •  Seek perspective from a professional outside the marriage. Talk to a pastor or to a couple whose marriage seems to be working well. Or several couples can form a group to learn and help each other grow.
  •  Pick up a good book. "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage" by Mark Gungor is a good first book, according to Bonnie Elgin.
  •  Show tenderness. Look for ways to make physical contact — an occasional touch, a hug or a kiss. When leaving, don't just walk out the door. Give your spouse a hug and tell them where you're going.
  •  Laugh at yourself.
  •  Be someone who's fun to be with.
  •  If you're upset about something, don't talk about it when you're really emotional. Acknowledge your feelings and tell your spouse you'll talk later. Follow through.  
  •  When arguing, use "I" statements. "I felt this way when you did that" (not "You made me feel such-and-such a way).
  •  If you are angry at something your spouse did or said, ask for help. Say, "Help me understand why you did that or said that."
  •  Be a good example. One reason to have a good relationship is to teach children what a good relationship is.
  •  Accept that men tend to avoid talking about emotional conflict. Women are typically more comfortable discussing emotions. Seek compromise.
  •  Show love and respect to your mate. Approach conflict in a healthy way, not judging or condemning.

Courtesy of Bonnie Elgin, 20-year member of a married couples group in Hagerstown

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