March 4, 2006

Naikan As Preparation For Marriage in the Christian Tradition: A Case Study

by Rev. Denise Mosher

The supreme happiness of life is the conviction of being loved for yourself, or more correctly, being loved in spite of yourself.
~Victor Hugo~

The goal of marriage preparation within the Christian tradition is to help prepare a couple for marriage based on model of sacrificial love, grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Christian marriage, therefore, is not a contract, but a covenant. It is not based on getting our needs met or staying together as long as our spouse continues to make us happy, but of service to the other that stands the test of time, fleeting moods and ever-changing emotions.

Yet the way the majority of Western clergy have been trained to help prepare couples for marriage does not model the Church's theology of marriage. For almost a decade I have been utilizing a highly regarded, accurate, and well implemented premarital inventory, which gives the couple and celebrant very accurate potential "red flags, and strengths of the relationship. Over these years I have asked couples to discuss, these points of disagreement, share relationship strengths and growth areas, practice active listening, assertiveness, and conflict resolution, share couple and relationship goals, and prepare a family budget.

Using this model I have helped perpetuate the notion that marriage is . . .

a contract, and that expressing feelings and good communication builds a strong marriage. I no longer believe this. If Jesus is the theological core of Christian marriage then I believe we need to be more like him in how we model marriage preparation.

In late 2004 I received a call from a former student whom I knew from my campus ministry days at Madison. Tracy had been a core member of this student group and still spoke fondly of its impact on her life. She and her fiancé, Robert, live in Milwaukee and asked me to officiate at the wedding in September, 2005. I joyously accepted and we agreed to do all premarital conversation over the phone. Robert, 26, was finishing his last year of law school and taking the Bar Exam in August. Tracy, also 26, works in marketing and is a Reservist in the Army National Guard. They began dating their freshman year of high school, attended separate colleges, conducted a long-distance relationship, and began living together the year they both graduated from college. Tracy was very active in campus ministry while in college. Robert was not. Neither attends church; Tracy's positive experience with campus ministry makes her more open to religion and spirituality. Robert is more of a skeptic and unsure of the role of faith in his life.

I met with them three times over the phone over a period of six weeks. My norm is to meet for six sessions but found this to be impossible due to their responsibilities and busy schedules. Both had a strong desire to build a happy and healthy marriage, deepen an already strong bond and avoid the mistake of their parents failed marriages, which ended in divorce. At the beginning of our work together both Robert and Tracy expressed an interest in finding out "what was on the bubble sheets"-their premarital inventory. I told them I had a new way of talking about marriage together, Naikan, which was working powerfully in my own marriage. Robert and Tracy agreed to give Naikan a try. That week I mailed them sheets to practice with and create a Naikan journal.

In our first session Tracy indicated that "the sheets were empty." I began sharing more about Naikan -- my experience of the power of self-reflection within the marriage relationship, helping to open our eyes to how things really are, not how we think or feel they are. The regular practice of Naikan in regard to our spouse helps put things in perspective; seeing the amazing care they provide and humbling us as to how we inconvenience them.

I asked Tracy and Robert if the day-to-day busyness of their life makes it difficult for them to see how things really are, especially in conflict. Both laughed and said, yes, busy lives plus conflict often lead to escalation of arguments. When I asked them if they'd ever thought or said "if you'd only" to their partner this really hit a chord: "Yeah, if he'd only do this or if he'd only do that then I'm sure all would be perfect" Tracy joked knowingly. Robert, too, stated that focusing on the seeming imperfections of the other and trying to "fix their faults" didn't resolve conflict, and often made matters worse.
I shared more of my experience of a Naikan retreat, my husband Paul's reaction ("you should have done this ten years're so...grateful"), and the three Naikan questions:

1. What have I received?
2. What have I given?
3. What troubles or difficulties have I caused?

After I concluded the session I asked Tracy and Robert to reflect on each other every evening using the journal sheets I had mailed them. In addition, by email, I gave Robert the assignment to do a Secret Service for Tracy and Tracy to say thank you to Robert ten times that week for specific things he did for her. (a secret service is something you do for the other without them knowing it.)

Before hanging up the phone Tracy requested to speak to me alone, without Robert on the line. I learned that her Guard Unit had been mobilized to Iraq. The day after they returned from their honeymoon she was leaving for Mississippi for training. Then she was to report to Baghdad for one and a half years of service. This news quickly changed the context of the wedding...and my deep love and care for them as a couple.

In our second session, a week later, Robert and Tracy shared their experience of doing daily Naikan on each other when I asked the question: "what have you learned about each other by practicing Naikan reflection?"

"It's confirmed even more so that I want to marry Tracy. She does so much for me. She is probably the sweetest person I've ever met..."

"Naikan helps me focus away from what I usually think about: what's going wrong, what he could do differently. I see what Robert does for me. The list is huge!"

Our third session was dedicated to planning the wedding service, talking more about the impact of the mobilization to Iraq on their marriage, and touching base about Naikan. Both Tracy and Robert reported that they very much enjoyed doing daily Naikan, "we like it so much, it makes us see the great things about the other and be so grateful that we want to take our sheets on the honeymoon and continue doing Naikan." They also both agreed that they benefited greatly from the style and ethos of sharing Naikan as a means to premarital counseling. According to Tracy: "We love the way you ask us what we experienced, what we thought when doing Naikan. It just felt so respectful rather than you telling led to some wonderful, sharing conversations."

The Naikan experience and sharing sessions together created a bridge of trust and care that would not have occurred based on my previous method of marriage preparation. At an emotional goodbye party, just before leaving for the airport, I asked the couple if I could say a blessing for them and for Tracy's safety in Iraq. Both warmly agreed. While blessing their foreheads in prayer I saw in their eyes deep love for each other and trust of me. In this, of course, I am the one blessed. My own marriage has been renewed in the presence of their love.


Naikan immediately helped create a space where Robert and Tracy could care for each other, seeing the amazing gifts and truth about their partner's love, even within conflicted situations. Additionally, Naikan helped each of them to shift their attention away from the "missing fourth question" of Naikan-what you do to cause trouble to me" (or as I said to them in our first session "how you drive me nuts!").
In the Christian tradition humility is a fundamental virtue. Sadly, much of the marriage preparation in which Western clergy are trained ignores humility altogether. Traditional Western premarital counseling often focuses on assertiveness skills (asking for what you want) and active listening (listening to ones partner asking for what they want) or self esteem. Additionally "being humble" is often stated as a virtue without specifics to what this means or tools to practice it in daily living.
Naikan reflection is also a gentle, yet effective tool to chip away at the reality we ascribe to, providing greater insight to how the world really is rather than how we think it is. We are greatly loved. Our mates do incredible things for us. We literally walk on grace and love every day. And to the Christian tradition this is essential: we are loved not because of what we do or who we are but because Christ has, like a medic in a field full of land mines, come to heal and wrap our wounds. This is a model for marriage the Church can aspire to.

Denise Mosher is a campus minister at Western Oregon University and Oblate at St. John's (Benedictine) Abbey in Collegeville, MN. She is currently a candidate for Certification in the ToDo Institute's Certification program. She and husband Paul have been a couple for twenty years-"over half my life."

Posted on March 4, 2006 7:37 AM | TrackBack
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