Relationship MOT (Updated for 2017)

Today we met with couples who have booked a wedding at Christ Church in 2017. We helped them think through some of their preparations for the day, but a significant part of the morning was spent helping them to think about how to strengthen their relationships.

What follows is a revised version of the Relationship MOT I shared last year. It arises out of the conversations we’ve shared today as we’ve helped our engaged couples think about building healthy relationships.

***But this is not just for married or engaged couples***

I hope it will be helpful for anyone involved in a committed, long term relationship: Married, civil-partnered, or living together; gay or straight; newly committed or celebrating milestone anniversaries.

This list isn’t exhaustive. There may be other things that are more important for a couple to think through. And some things here may be irrelevant or unhelpful.

If you’ve got a partner, then grab a bottle of wine one night or a coffee one afternoon, and look at some of these questions together. Make sure your time is uninterrupted, and that there is enough privacy to do this well. Ten minutes before bed probably isn’t going to cut it. Nor is Saturday morning on the Metrolink (we’ve tried).

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The Questions: Relationship MOT

Communication
How are our differences in personality affecting the way we communicate with one another?
How is our work and home life affecting the way we communicate with one another?
Are we making time and space for meaningful conversation?
Are we finding it easy to talk to one another about our innermost thoughts and feelings?
If not, why?
Does each of us create a safe space for the other to be heard?
Are either of us holding onto past hurts and unforgiveness? What needs to happen to work this through?
Are both of us feeling understood by the other?
Are we both aware of one another’s love language?
Are we both investing energy in listening properly to one another?
What would make each of us feel more heard in the relationship?
Is there a recent example of us communicating well?

Commitment
Have we had fun together recently?
Do we both feel safe and secure in this relationship?
How are we making time for one another on a daily, weekly and monthly basis?
Are we getting enough time apart?
Have we planned fun things together to look forward to?
Are we making time for sex and intimacy?
(If you’re married, civil-partnered, or have celebrated some sort of commitment ceremony):
Which of our vows or promises of commitment are we finding easiest to live with at the moment?
Which are we finding hardest?

Conflict
Are we arguing well? (A good argument involves listening, seeing one another’s points of view, and finding resolution).
Are we aware of the differences in our approaches to everyday life?
Are we managing these differences well?
Is either of us intent on changing the other, or are we enabling one another to flourish as we are?
Are we arguing at the wrong times? Do we need to make space and time to talk properly?
When we argue, are we staying on topic or are we resorting to personal attack?
Does each of us have times when we back down and accept the other’s opinion?
Are we having the same argument over and over?

End thought: Love is not just about feelings.
Love is a choice that we go on making throughout a relationship. Sometimes it’s an easy choice to make. Sometimes, not so much. The relationships that are strongest are those where two people choose to continue loving, even through the rocky times.

When and where to get help?
Talking through some of these things may raise relationship problems that you either are or are not already aware of. No one has a perfect relationship, and every couple will go through bad times. If you need it, get help early and don’t be afraid to ask. It’s more common than you think. Many problems can be easily solved with some careful listening to one another, and a fresh perspective from outside.

Relate do wonderful work and seem to be accessible in a number of ways.

Your local parish clergy (that’s Jim, Suzie or I if you’re in Timperley) are usually really happy to sit with you and listen, and to offer pointers or suggestions for further support. If you live elsewhere, you can find your local parish church here.

If you want to do some reading on relationships, The Five Love Languages is a good place to start.

And if you are at all worried that you are trapped in an abusive relationship, you need to tell someone you trust or contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the Men’s Advice Line.

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Are you enjoying your baby? #timetotalk

Are you enjoying your baby?

How often do new mums hear that questions asked?
How often do we smile, through a lump in the throat and blinking away tears, and whimper “yes”, when we really mean “no”?

This week in the Church calendar we celebrated Candlemas: the moment when Mary took Jesus to the temple, 40 days after his birth, for her purification. And tomorrow is Time to Talk day, when we are encouraged to talk about mental health issues and end the stigma that surrounds them.

New mums know something about mental health. Mary would have been no different.

Forty days post-birth is significant: forty days is just shy of six weeks, and six weeks is the magic number.

At six weeks a mum’s body should be healing well after the trauma of birth.
She will see a doctor to be checked over and told she’s doing well.
She will start to feel reassured that her baby is gaining weight.
The baby might be starting to sleep for longer than an hour or two.
Feeding should be getting easier.
The baby has probably started to smile.
The shock of birth is wearing off, and life might be returning to normal.
And by six weeks a new mum is probably feeling more confident and less hormonal.

But sometimes, some of this stuff doesn’t happen. First time round and it wasn’t like this for us.

Our baby didn’t sleep unless we were holding him.
His screaming meant we had to sleep in shifts, and 3 hours of broken sleep was a good night.
He wasn’t gaining weight like he should have been.
Feeding was definitely not going well.
I was carrying the terrifying burden of caring for such a vulnerable and tiny person.
We were crumbling under the pressure.

By ten weeks things had improved, but it took me longer to recover from the emotional strain and the exhaustion.

I wonder how it was for Mary as she arrived at the temple six weeks after giving birth?
Was her baby sleeping well?
Was he thriving and gaining weight?
Were Mary’s nipples cracked and sore, or had breastfeeding been easy?
Had she healed well after the birth?
Was she riddled with anxiety, or playing it cool?
Was she obsessed with protecting this fragile baby with a fierce love that burned in every ounce of her being?

Bellini’s painting of the Presentation at the Temple is deeply moving. Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us much about how this young girl felt as she took on the task of caring for this baby. How much did this vulnerable, sleep deprived girl sweat or hold back tears as she handed her baby over to Simeon? How much did her heart plummet as Simeon spoke of a piercing sword? Luke says she was amazed. How much did her amazement overwhelm her? Thrill her? Frighten her?

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Bellini tells us what Luke does not. Here is young courageous Mary, flanked by women, hesitating as she passes her tiny bundle to Simeon. What is that hesitation? Is Mary beginning to understand the fullness of her vocation and the pain that it will cause her? Is she, like any new mother, finding it hard to trust a stranger with the wellbeing of her child, even for a moment?

Bellini paints the vulnerability and courage of every new mother. Revisiting the Candlemas narrative seems to be a good place to think about motherhood and mental health. The dangerous cocktail of major life change, anxiety and sleeplessness is enough to damage the mental health of any previously well person. It’s not easy to admit to struggling after having a baby. It’s almost impossible to say that you’re not “enjoying your baby”, because all your energy is going into just coping.

I hope that Mary had time to enjoy her baby. It wasn’t going to get easier for her, and there is endless comfort to be found in Mary’s story for any struggling mum. For the rest of us, it usually does get better. Or, at least, we become experts at dealing with our children at the stage they are in. New stages will always bring new challenges… and new opportunities for growth.

Graham Kendrick’s Thorns in the Straw is not an easy listen, but for me, it captures Mary’s bravery and commitment to her calling. If you click on the link you can watch Graham perform the song.

Since the day the angel came
It seemed that everything had changed
The only certain thing
Was the child that moved within
On the road that would not end
Winding down to Bethlehem
So far away from home.

Just a blanket on the floor
Of a vacant cattle-stall
But there the child was born
She held him in her arms
And as she laid him down to sleep
She wondered – will it always be
So bitter and so sweet.

And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky. 

Then the words of ancient seers
Tumbled down the centuries:
A virgin shall conceive,
God with us, Prince of Peace
Man of Sorrows – strangest name
Oh Joseph there it comes again
So bitter yet so sweet.

And as she watched him through the years
Her joy was mingled with her tears
And she’d feel it all again
The glory, and the shame
And when the miracles began
She wondered, who is this man
And where will this all end?

‘Til against a darkening sky
The son she loved was lifted high
And with his dying breath
She heard him say ‘Father forgive’
And to the criminal beside
“Today-with me in Paradise”
So bitter yet so sweet.

Relationship MOT

This weekend we met with couples who have booked a wedding at Christ Church in 2016. We helped them think through some of their preparations for the day, but a significant part of the morning was spent helping them to think about how to strengthen their relationships.

It wasn’t a particularly romantic morning. I don’t believe in soulmates. I don’t believe that the person we choose to spend our life with is “the one”. But I do think that the couples we are marrying in Timperley this year will have amazing relationships, because they are all committed to loving one another.

Love is not just about feelings. Love is a choice that we go on making throughout a relationship. Sometimes it’s an easy choice to make. Sometimes, not so much. The relationships that are strongest are those where two people choose to continue loving, even through the rocky times.

It’s not easy to love someone else. I recently came across this quote:

To choose to love is to open a wound from which we never recover.
Brother Roger of Taize.

One of the things that can be helpful in a relationship is to take a step back, now and again, and ask how things really are. What I’ve given below are some questions based on the material we used with our couples this weekend.

This list isn’t exhaustive. There may be other things that are more important for a couple to think through. And some things here may be irrelevant or unhelpful.

 If you’ve got a partner, then grab a bottle of wine one night or a coffee one afternoon (and either way, chocolate would help) and look at some of these questions together. Make sure your time is uninterrupted, and that there is enough privacy to do this well. Ten minutes before bed probably isn’t going to cut it. Nor is Saturday morning on the Metrolink.

Rings

Communication
How do our differences in personality affect the way we communicate with one another?
How is our work and home life affecting the way we communicate with one another?
Do we make time and space for meaningful conversation?
Do we find it easy to talk to one another about our innermost thoughts and feelings?
If not, why?
Does each of us create a safe space for the other to be heard?
Are either of us holding onto past hurts and unforgiveness? What needs to happen to work this through?
Do both of us feel understood by the other?
Are we both aware of one another’s love language?
Are we both investing energy in listening properly to one another?
What would make each of us feel more heard in the relationship?
Is there a recent example of us communicating well?

Commitment
Which of our wedding vows are we finding easiest to live with at the moment?
Which are we finding hardest?
Have we had fun together recently?
Do we both feel safe and secure in this relationship?
How are we making time for one another on a daily, weekly and monthly basis?
Are we getting enough time apart?
Have we planned fun things together to look forward to?
Are we making time for sex and intimacy?

Conflict
Are we arguing well at the moment? (A good argument involves listening, seeing one another’s points of view, and finding a resolution).
Are we aware of the differences in our approaches to life?
Are we managing these differences well?
Is either of us intent on changing the other, or are we enabling one another to flourish as we are?
Are we arguing at bad times? Do we need to make space and time to talk properly?
When we argue, do we stay on topic or do we resort to personal attack?
Does each of us have times when we back down and accept the other’s opinion?
Are we having the same argument over and over?

When and where to get help?
Talking through some of these things may raise relationship problems that you either are or are not already aware of. No one has a perfect relationship, and every couple will go through bad times. If you need it, get help early and don’t be afraid to ask. Many problems can be easily solved with some careful listening to one another, and a fresh perspective from outside.

Relate do wonderful work and seem to be accessible in a number of ways.

Your local parish clergy (that’s Jim or I if you’re in Timperley) are usually really happy to sit with you and listen, and to offer pointers or suggestions for further support. If you live elsewhere, you can find your local parish church here.

If you want to do some reading on relationships, The Marriage Book and The Five Love Languages are both good places to start.

And if you are at all worried that you are trapped in an abusive relationship, you need to tell someone or contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the Men’s Advice Line.

The milk of human kindness: A plea to the Women’s Institute

Another day. Another headline about a woman being asked not to breastfeed her baby. This time the lady in question was asked not to attend meetings of her local branch of the Women’s Institute until her child was weaned. Apparently “this is a common policy at WI meetings, as many WI members see the meetings as an escape from family life where they can concentrate on themselves and meeting other women”. The WI have since apologised and stated that this policy does not extend to breastfeeding mothers.

There is not much of a case to be made by anyone seeking to stop women breastfeeding freely pretty much wherever they like. The argument has been well rehearsed elsewhere and I won’t rehash it here. Opinion on this is strong, and the debate has been had.

But it seems to me that where clashes about breastfeeding occur, they are often not about breastfeeding at all.

However a new mother (or father) feeds her (or his) baby, the parent and child need time together to bond. Bonding is rarely instantaneous, but is a process that happens over weeks, months… perhaps years. Certainly the first few months of the child’s life are vitally formational in this respect. Bonding happens through physical contact and verbal and non-verbal communication, and the time this is most likely to happen is when the baby is being fed, by breast or bottle. Put simply, if a parent and their young child are to bond well in those first few months, they need to spend as much time together as possible.

A new mum is also at risk of becoming dangerously isolated very quickly. Looking after a baby is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually demanding. And it can be incredibly lonely, particularly if a partner returns to work soon after the birth. No wonder that one charity estimates that as many as 3 in 10 new mums suffer from postnatal depression. It seems clear that parents of babies, and mums especially, need support, love, company, kindness and community.

So…
Babies and parents need one another’s company.
And…
Parents of young children need community and support.

If parents and their babies are to have the best chance of flourishing, they need to be welcomed together into social circles, organisations, meetings and events. If a parent is told they are unable to enter a specific place with their baby, this is potentially damaging for both parent and child. Either the parent and child have to part company for a time, where they could otherwise spend time bonding with one another. Or the parent remains with the baby, but becomes even more isolated.

This is not about how a child is fed. In the case outlined above, the Women’s Institute acknowledges the “right and freedom of every woman to breastfeed”. But what about if a woman who bottle fed her baby was placed in the same situation? Would her baby not be allowed to attend meetings, where the breastfed baby was? Both babies, at that stage, need the physical contact and communication with mum that both breast and bottle supply. The development of both babies is important, and the wellbeing of both mums is important.

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This is not about breastfeeding. It’s probably not even about new parents and babies, exclusively. This is about how we become community. It’s about how we live in such a way as to provide hospitality to one another. It’s about pushing beyond our own comfort zones, overcoming fear of the unknown or “escape” from the uncomfortable, to advance our mutual flourishing.

We exclude those who makes us feel uncomfortable at great cost. So dear Women’s Institute, this Christmas time please think again about your “child free zone” policy, because you may find your meetings are enriched, bolstered and blessed by young mums and their babes and toddlers. Just as you enrich, bolster and bless those families in return.