Parents Talk Back

A couple doesn’t get married in a vacuum.

They marry into a set of pre-existing relationships -- family and friends -- some intertwined, others separate. All these threads commingle with a couple, some pulling them closer together, while others threaten to tear them apart.

I thought about all this when I was asked to be a part of a friend’s wedding in a unique way. My friend said that she and her fiance wanted to incorporate “community vows” into their wedding festivities. At a party after the ceremony, a few selected guests would say how they believed loved ones could support or care for the couple. Another guest would then ask the whole room if they agreed to do those things, and everyone would respond, “We do.”

Their request prompted me to ask a wide cross section of people, from those who have been married for decades to those who have been divorced multiple times, about what community support for a marriage looks like. It also made me think about what people have done to support my marriage.

Here are ten ways to support a married couple:

1. Don’t take sides in a dispute. Even when complaining about their spouses, people are rarely asking for marriage advice. They often just want to vent when they are upset. It’s best to listen with empathy. Reassure them that certain disagreements and fights are normal, and be willing to share some of your own experiences as a couple and how you got past them. Don’t make it a session about how terrible marriage or spouses are.

2. Be positive about their partner. It’s not helpful to say negative things about a person’s partner, even if you don’t particularly like them. Pointing out a spouse’s positives can encourage understanding and gratitude, rather than playing into relationship drama. Couples tend to commiserate about their respective partners’ flaws (even in front of each other), and chiming in can make people focus on those flaws more.

Refrain from saying anything negative about the person’s partner unless you sense actual abuse. Emily Filmore, a relationship and spirituality writer, says, “We all have things we accept that others cannot. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We all have things we admire or dislike in others. Married or not.”

3. Foster real-life connections. Include the couple in your gatherings with other couples or families with kids the same age. Invite them over with other people you think would get along with each other. For close family members, invite them to dinner at least once a month to keep them rooted in family activities, but also give them the space to grow as a couple.

4. Nurture individual friendships. Help them grow together while not losing their sense of self. Marriage can lead to isolation from friends. It can be easy to let things you love doing with friends fall to the wayside, especially if your partner doesn’t share the same interests. A recently divorced friend said that she and her husband started to resent each other because they only did things with each other, neglecting their other friendships. So continue to reach out to the person individually, outside of just couples’ socializing.

5. Offer to watch their kids for an afternoon or evening. You can’t underestimate the impact a baby has on a marriage. Offering to help out with children so that couples can reconnect is a tremendous gift.

6. Find something nice to say about their kids. If you witness someone’s child in an act of kindness, let the parents know. It’s an indirect way of complimenting their parenting and a reminder of something good they’ve done together.

7. Accept that their choices can be different than yours, especially regarding forgiveness. Just because you wouldn’t have forgiven some act, doesn’t mean your friend can’t, either. All relationships are different, and what every couple needs varies. Don’t judge a couple’s relationship on what others are doing. You might not agree with how a couple lives their lives, but if they are happy and it’s working for them, give them the space to do what works.

8. Encourage professional help when needed. Those who love the new couple should not be afraid to encourage them to seek outside help, including counseling, if needed, to help get back on track. Offer any referrals, if asked. This can be especially important if you suspect the person isn’t comfortable being entirely honest with you or that they may be in an abusive situation.

9. Celebrate their successes. Take joy in their joy. Even if you can’t be physically present at a special event, you can call or send a card. These small acts of kindness reinforce that they have a team rooting for them.

10. Be available in moments of crisis and need. Life is marked with tragedies, large and small. People get sick, lose jobs or die unexpectedly. These moments can strain a marriage. Don’t abandon a couple going through a major life stressor. Continue to reach out, invite them over and offer specific, concrete ways to help in their moments of need.

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