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Marriage, Saint Valentine, and the Truth About “True Love”

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, everywhere we look there are chocolates, red roses, and romantic gestures. While this is the “heart” of Valentine’s Day (pun intended), these types of things are not the sole foundation of healthy and thriving relationships.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes marriage coach and author of the blog Marriage Fun 101, Peter McFadden, to discuss how to build and maintain a healthy marriage. They cover everything from Saint Valentine all the way to the truth about “true love.” Be sure to tune in! 

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Headshot of Peter McFadden

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Marriage, Saint Valentine, and the Truth About “True Love”

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:   Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters.  With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it might be a good time to remember the reason that special day got its name.  St. Valentine is actually one of the early martyrs, beaten and beheaded for his faith on February 14th, 269 AD.  So how did this saint and the anniversary of his death become synonymous with chocolates, flowers, cards, and fancy dinners? 

Well, Peter McFadden, a New York-based marriage coach joins us to explain what we can learn from this martyr about true love and the reality of building and maintaining loving marriages.  McFadden has worked with more than 5,000 couples over the past 20 years and has a blog called “Marriage Fun 101”. 

Peter McFadden, welcome to Family Policy Matters. 

PETER MCFADDEN:     It’s great to be here.  Thanks for having me on.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:    All right.  So, first of all, what should we as Christians internalize from the martyrs both from long ago and today that can help us love better in our romantic relationships? 

PETER MCFADDEN:    So, actually, I love this question.  For me it’s been a surprise how much this has positively impacted my marriage. So just to give an example from early in our marriage, my wife used to ask me let’s go to the beach, and I would tell her it’s not my thing and I wouldn’t go with her.  And then one day I was thinking of the example of the martyrs of Jesus on the cross, how we’re supposed to be ready to die for each other, and I realized here I was not even willing to go to the beach with my wife.

So marriage is filled with so many small sacrifices compared to what Saint Valentine did to spend some time at the beach with my wife is really a very small sacrifice, so the examples of the martyrs, the examples of Christ on the cross actually taught me to be cheerful about the many sacrifices involved in married life.  So ever since that realization I’ve been cheerfully going to the beach with my wife every summer.  It’s actually one of the main messages I teach couples is if they’re going to do something, do it cheerfully.  So that’s one way, the example of these fine martyrs have lifted up our marriage.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:   We hear the term often, “true love.”  Is there such a thing then, or is it all about kind of self-sacrifice?

PETER MCFADDEN:   I do believe in true love, but my understanding of true love has definitely changed over the years.  So growing up, I thought the key to marriage was just finding the right person, finding that true love.  I even have couples argue with me that love should be easy, but I’ve really come to believe that love is not easy.  In fact, it shouldn’t even be easy.  I’ve come to believe that I want love to challenge me.  So here’s my current understanding of true love, and just to share, it’s a beautiful story.  It’s a painful story, but just a beautiful story from our marriage.  My wife and I struggled with one of the most difficult things a couple can struggle with, which was infertility.  It was just such a profound disappointment, so on our wedding day my wife and I certainly felt a great love for each other, but shortly after our wedding we began to really struggle with infertility.  It’s hard to love someone when you’re profoundly disappointed.  For me as a husband, I was dealing with my own disappointment, but to know you’re coming home to a wife who is just depressed day after day, that was challenging.  So what is true love?  For me, true love was lifting my wife up every day, so we did make a commitment in our marriage to dance with each other every single day when we reunited, but we made that commitment before we realized we would be struggling with infertility.  And before I approached that front door of our home, I would remind myself of my wedding vow.  “Peter, you made a promise to love your wife in good times and in bad.  This is a bad time.  You made a commitment to dance with her when you walked in the door.  Now is the time to keep your promise.”   Four years of dancing with my wife through a very dark time, but it was that daily lifting each other up.  After four years my wife said to me, Peter, that was hard those four years, but you were there for me every step of the way.  And to me that’s true love.  True love is not this amazing feeling, I found the right person.  True love is expressing love every single day in good times and in bad, and I, frankly, had to learn to do that.  I wasn’t that good naturally, so for me I had to learn to give my life true love.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:   So whether couples are unhappy because of a circumstance like this or some other reason, do you give hope to them even if maybe they feel like they’re in a bad marriage? 

PETER MCFADDEN:    There are marriages with emotional abuse, even physical abuse that’s happen, and, obviously, that’s really bad.  But let’s put that aside.  I find most often when couples tell me they have a bad marriage, it’s, frankly, because they have been arguing ineffectively for so long.  And they just get tired of the arguments, and they kind of lose hope that they can have a happy marriage.

In fact, I just this last Friday had a husband ask me, “Should I divorce my wife?  We’ve been arguing about spending time with each other’s families.”  And I even laughed at him.  I was like, no, this is a common argument, you can learn to manage it, here’s what you need to do.  That was on Friday.  Monday I got an email from him, “Thank you so much.  We had a great weekend together.  We still have to work through, you know, these issues,” but I find ineffective communication is a really big problem in marriage and then couples just get tired of talking with each other and they lose hope.  But couples can learn to effectively communicate.  They can learn to have a happy marriage.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:    All right.  So in this particular instance, you helped intervene, right, with a fresh perspective.  What do couples do if they find themselves in this place and need help?

PETER MCFADDEN:     I have three essential bits of marriage advice, but one of them is this is the most common couple communication error is talking at the wrong time.  This particular couple had an argument late at night after their child’s first birthday party, so they’re stressed out, they’re tired, and then they bring up this issue late at night.  So I think for your listeners, one of the most important bits of marriage advice to share is don’t talk at the wrong time.  It’s better to call a time out, take a break, calm down, think things through.  My wife and I made a commitment to always be cheerful, to always be constructive when we talk, which means we’re not going to talk late at night when we’re tired.  So I think if couples can just develop the practice of not pushing conversations at the wrong time, they may discover that their ability to solve problems just goes way up just from that one thing.

Now, I do recommend — there’s two great books that have helped us in marriage, both by Dr. John Gottman, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail,” and “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” and we learn from Dr. Gottman kind of the tools of effective couple communication.  So I really urge couples to read those books.  That will be very helpful.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:    I find that interesting what you were saying about not talking at the wrong time, and I think some people feel like the Bible where it says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” means don’t go to bed angry.  But sometimes when we’re angry the sun has already gone down, so you’ve got what, 18 hours or so, to deal with it.  Very good point.

You also talk about intentional rhythms.  What do you mean by that, and why is that important in marriage?

PETER MCFADDEN:  So we tend to love when times are easy but not when times are difficult.  There is no way my wife and I would have survived four years of infertility if we only loved each other when we felt like loving each other.  So my single best marriage advice is couples should develop good marriage habits.  As I tell couples all the time, beginning tomorrow, if you haven’t already been doing it, start every day of your married life together with a positive marriage connection.  Dr. Gottman advises a two-minute connection.  Couples who connect for two minutes in the morning feel closer the whole day, feel more positive about their marriage the whole day.  Connect more frequently throughout the whole day.  My most important advice is to always, always, always greet each other well whether you feel like it or not, whether you like each other or not.  But end the day on a positive note.  Those three moments are really crucial, and by focusing on those three moments, developing intentional habits for those three moments, I soon enough learn to love my wife in good times and in bad.  And when we hit infertility, we were able to get through those four very difficult years by loving every single day thanks to those rituals.  So in my opinion rituals are really the key to a happy marriage.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  There are probably some single people out there, and they’re like, yeah, that sounds great, if I had somebody I could start putting some of these things into practice.  But we don’t necessarily have to wait until we’re engaged or married, do we, to begin kind of setting the stage in our lives for a happy marriage? 

PETER MCFADDEN:  That’s actually a timely question.  So this coming Monday with a friend of mine, we’re actually co-teaching a marriage preparation course for high school seniors, and one of the — actually, the first homework assignment we’re going to give them is to develop a greeting ritual to greet their parents well, so start practicing now these rituals with your family and even friends, so that when you do meet your future husband or wife you’re already in the habit of greeting each other well.  But greeting each other well is not just about a quick kiss.  It’s about stopping, looking at each other, asking how was your day.  I used to greet my wife so quickly, I never noticed that she was stressed about something.  So learning to slow down a little bit and genuinely connect, so the kids are going to be asked to do three things:  show your parents you’re happy to see them, ask your parents how their day went, and volunteer to do something.  What can I do for you tonight, Mom?

So singles can start developing these habits now.  By the way, my wife and I adopted the rule zero criticism.  We learned from Dr. Gottman that any thought that is negative can be said in a positive way.  Take a moment to find a constructive way to make your point.  If I had learned constructive communication in high school, my life would have been a lot better a lot sooner, so these are lessons you can learn when you’re young.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Let’s talk a little bit about the myths that we might be getting from our culture regarding love and marriage.  Do we set ourselves up for failure sometimes?  I guess I’m talking, specifically, about people that are looking toward marriage, and they have these humongous weddings and then they get into marriage and they’re like, um, not what I expected. 

PETER MCFADDEN:  So I do think we grow up with myths.  I just read there was some study, and a shocking percentage of us get our ideas about marriage from Disney movies.  And I think I was even impacted by that.  So I did believe in this concept of true love, just find that right person and everything will automatically fall into place.  So I actually thought I made a mistake after marriage, and, happily, I had a friend who was a psychologist, a marriage counselor, and he shared with me some of this research by Dr. Gottman and I read Dr. Gottman’s books.  And that was just a real turning point in our marriage and by the way embracing the wedding vows, I will love you in good times and in bad realizing that when we hit a bad time, it’s not a time to leave, it’s not a time to complain, it’s a time to learn how to love.  And so that’s been a new approach I’ve had since marriage.  So my former approach:  it’s going to be love, a romantic walk through a beautiful garden.  My new approach is it is love, it’s true love, but it’s a love that you have to actually work out.  I like to say work smart at your marriage, make it fun.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:    That’s your blog name, right, Marriage Fun 101.  Yeah.


TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:   Now, what I’ve been hearing so much from couples lately, especially in Christian families is there is no longer in their minds a taboo against living together before you get married.  I mean some Christian parents are saying, you know, you absolutely need to live together, you cannot know each other unless you do.  What kind of words of advice would you have for them?

PETER MCFADDEN:   Well, first, I really do recommend that single young people read the book, “How Not to Marry a Jerk.”  I think there is some real wisdom in that book, but I do think and I heard that, too, by the way, so people are getting that message from their parents — by the way there is some positives to be gained.  You know, you do learn some things about each other, but what I tell couples, like from the research compatibility is overrated.  It’s not the key to a happy marriage.  So couples tell me, well, we need to find out if we’re compatible.  Well, it turns out compatibility is not the key to a happy marriage.  Dealing with incompatibility, learning how to work through incompatibility, that’s a key to marriage.  But, really, the key to marriage is commitment, having that commitment to work through the inevitable difficult times, and that’s the key to marriage.  And so that’s what I tell couples, the wedding is not just a piece of paper.  This is an actual sacred promise you’re making, and if you believe it’s a sacred promise, it’s just going to set you up for success for the many decades to come.

So living together provides, I think some false hope, a false understanding for couples, that that’s the key to marriage is figuring out if we’re compatible.  No, like having that commitment.  So my wife and I moved in on our wedding night, and we did discover we had incompatibilities, but we had that commitment to work through them and to learn and grow.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Okay.  Well, we’re just about out of time for this week.  Before we go, Peter McFadden, where can we go to follow your blog, Marriage Fun 101, and to find some of these great resources that you’ve been mentioning throughout our time together? 

PETER MCFADDEN:  I recently started my blog, and the blog is really focused on short, practical, even inspiring advice for marriage, and I do generously refer people, hey, this is where I learned this, this is where I learned that.  And I’m a big believer in giving credit to the people who have helped me get to where I am.  And so I hope that will be a growing resource for couples over the years to come.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:   All right.  Peter McFadden, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters. 

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