A Class That Changes Lives
January 1982

“A Class That Changes Lives,” Ensign, Jan. 1982, 14

A Class That Changes Lives

When I was called to teach the Family Relations course the first time, I remembered having attended the class before. It seemed to be the place you went if you were tired of a particular scripture class, or if you had small children who might cause a disturbance. It was a large group with many distractions, and the teacher reviewed lessons from the family home evening manual.

Right away, though, there were clues that things would now be different. The bishop explained that Family Relations was now a twelve-week course of study for couples only (nurseries had recently been organized in the ward to take care of all but the smallest infants). These couples would be called from the Gospel Doctrine course, and after the twelve weeks were over they would return to that class. It was the Church’s intention that every married couple take this course; therefore it would be repeated in the ward on a more or less continuous basis.

Furthermore, an entirely new curriculum had been developed for Family Relations, with the goal of strengthening marriage relationships.

So the following Sunday morning I faced a group of six couples, and together we began what was for me a memorable learning experience. We discovered something that has been reinforced many times as I have taught Family Relations in two different wards and in a student branch—that when there is happiness in the home and the strongest love between husband and wife, life is a joyful experience; but where these are missing, nothing can compensate.

Planning for the Future

Every new Family Relations course began with a review of certain basic doctrines to reinforce in our minds the eternal perspective of life that the gospel provides.

The Lord has said, “Behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39; italics added.) We are the Lord’s agents in both facets of his work. We help him bring immortality to mankind by letting others come to earth as our children, and by nurturing them continually. We help him bring eternal life to those who do come to earth by nourishing them spiritually. The ideal setting for these activities is, of course, family life—a setting that begins with marriage and extends into the future.

Young couples usually have definite, idealistic plans for the future when they get married. But goals need to be adjusted with changing circumstances—something that is very easy to neglect. Consequently, it’s not unusual for a couple to realize one day after several years of marriage that they are simply “drifting,” living day by day and month after month without a solid reference to the future.

Our consideration of the future began one Sunday with charts made on graph paper. Down the left-hand side of our graphs we would list the names of everyone in the family, and across the top we would fill in years—1980, 1985, and so on for seventy-five or eighty years. In this way, each person’s life could be plotted well into the next several decades.

Working with these charts is a strange and exciting experience. Suddenly the future is right there before you on paper, with much space to be filled in by the imagination. Automatically your mind goes to work: “If I live to be seventy-five, that will be the year 2026!—that means I’ll be working until … 2016 or so? Can that be? Let’s see, Mike will be twelve in 1986, and supposing he gets married when he’s twenty-one, that would be 1995; and if Lisa marries in, say, 1997, Karen and I will be alone …” And so on. The mental sum of all the individual futures on your chart becomes a picture of your family’s future.

On the following Sunday, one father said: “We took our chart home after church and really got absorbed in it. In fact, I stayed home from work Monday and we worked with it all day long.”

He said that they used their chart side-by-side with the “Personal and Family Preparedness Standards” worksheet they had received from their home teachers some months before. They got some surprises when they considered their future in terms of the six emphases listed on the worksheet: (1) literacy and education, (2) career development, (3) financial and resource management, (4) home production and storage, (5) physical health, and (6) social-emotional and spiritual strength.

For example, along the line that represented the husband’s future, they plotted estimates of what they thought their family income would be over the years. Then, looking down the chart to see what their six children’s ages would be at various intervals, they tried to estimate what their financial burdens would be year by year. Knowing that young ones cost more as they begin to get older, they felt that he would have to be making more money when the children began to enter high school—and that was only two years away for their oldest. They also noticed the possibility that they could be supporting two missionaries at a time for a period of four to five years. That would take some advance planning!

Thus it became clear to them that the husband’s “career development” needed some attention. They moved away the next fall so that he could go to graduate school full time in pursuit of a doctoral degree.

And so it goes with planning. In class he had said, “For us, looking into the future [and that’s all planning is, really] was a revelatory experience. We’ve never been through anything quite like it before.”

In fact, husbands and wives have a right to guidance and revelation in these things. And that, of course, is one of the important messages of the Family Relations course, reaffirming that “marriage is ordained of God unto man” (D&C 49:15); that the Church was founded and organized to sustain the family, which begins with and centers around a marriage; and that God will sustain us in that relationship by answering our prayers and giving us continual guidance if we seek it. Such knowledge strengthens us and motivates us to make a firm and lasting commitment to our marriage.

Fidelity—A Matter of Priority

Just as the future can be vague in terms of a family’s temporal well-being, so can it be vague in terms of the husband-wife relationship in its eternal aspects. How easy it is to drift into a loss of perspective, where the priority of the man-woman relationship is forgotten.

Elder Spencer W. Kimball wrote that in marriage, “the spouse … becomes pre-eminent in the life of the husband or wife and neither social life nor occupational life nor political life nor any other interest nor person nor thing shall ever take precedence over the companion spouse.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 250.)

One interesting thing we did in each class was to indulge in a minute or two of speculation about the future beyond this earth life. First, we agreed that the gospel was not given to prepare us for the telestial or terrestrial kingdoms, but for exaltation in the celestial kingdom. That being true, we tried to predict what that existence would be like.

Curiously, most class members had a mental picture of themselves standing in a place of glory with their wife or husband, surrounded by their little children. But right away we thought we recognized some confusion in our thinking: since the children themselves would be grown and sealed to husbands and wives of their own, how is it possible that in the celestial kingdom they would be gathered around us as tots? Ceasing our speculation at that point, we realized that we didn’t really know much about how things are organized in eternity; but we felt that in terms of the family, the husband-wife relationship must have an extraordinary importance. Family relationships are eternal, but the husband-wife relationship has priority.

In fact, that relationship has an even higher priority than the parent-child relationship, if those distinctions must be made. In the work just quoted, Elder Kimball said, “We sometimes find women who absorb and hover over the children at the expense of the husband, sometimes even estranging them from him.” (Ibid., pp. 250–51.)

Other times, of course, it’s the husband who falls into the trap of putting his job or some other pursuit ahead of his marital relationship.

One class member had a problem with divided loyalty in the form of sports. He loved all kinds of sports, but his most serious “habit” was golf. For golf he would drop anything at a moment’s notice—leaving his wife alone with the children, cancelling family outings, reneging on dates.

His weakness for golf was often the subject of light-hearted ribbing, and one Sunday someone in class made a typical remark: “Phil loves his wife, his children, and his custom golf clubs—I forget in which order!”

Naturally there were many chuckles all around, and Phil grinned, playing along good-naturedly.

The only one not laughing was his wife. She maintained an expression of pleasant seriousness, but was evidently not going to participate in the humor. We noticed it and felt slightly embarrassed. Without being sullen in any way, she was simply letting us know that her husband’s weakness for sports was a problem for their marriage and their family life. She went with him to games and cheered with the rest, and she was perfectly willing to see an occasional game of golf as a good thing; but when sports got to the point of addiction, it was no longer a laughing matter.

As weeks went by, the class could see what was happening and felt instinctively that she was handling the problem just right. We stopped making jokes about it.

As the lesson materials point out, when two people marry, they don’t cut themselves off from the rest of the world and from every other interest and responsibility. But the union of man and woman has priority, and their fidelity must be broad-based and sure. Their primary allegiance shifts from parents to each other.

This is a very important fact for married couples to remember. Financial matters, how to raise children, where to live, career decisions, time commitments—all are decisions that belong to the couple to deal with. If advice is to be sought from others, both should agree.

One husband had felt, for example, that it was a breach of trust when his wife discussed their finances with others—particularly with members of her parents’ family. At a family reunion they attended when they were struggling through college, he had been embarrassed when she chatted freely about unpaid bills, lack of decent furniture, and eating a lot of pancakes and beans because of their tight budget. She simply didn’t know that he regarded finances as a private matter that should be kept private.

The Need for Supportive Love

Love is a basic human need; without it, people (and marriages) suffer and even die.

A vital part of marriage is learning to love each other so unconditionally as to achieve a godly oneness. Sometimes that process goes awry. The purpose of the Family Relations class is to help each partner in the marriage make constructive efforts to meet the other’s needs.

Often this involves only a very subtle shift in actions and expressions. As President David O. McKay said, “There is no great thing the man or woman can do to keep love alive and healthy, but there are many little things given daily, and, if possible, hourly—a kind word, a courteous act, a smile, an endearing term, a sparkle in the eye, an unexpected service, a birthday greeting, a remembering of the wedding anniversary—these and a hundred other seemingly insignificant deeds and expressions are the food upon which love thrives.” (Secrets of a Happy Life, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960, p. 18.)

Such things are sometimes easy to forget. Before marriage, love is pure electricity. Then it begins to mature, and its expression becomes more complex. There is so much more to say, and so many ways to say it that it often goes unsaid, taken for granted.

I recall one Sunday when I read to the class a few paragraphs from a biography of Johannes Kepler, the seventeenth-century astronomer who, among other things, first discovered that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun. This single discovery, which came before the development of calculus, took literally years of long-hand calculation. It was an immense intellectual effort, undertaken in circumstances of poverty, illness, and loneliness. His first wife had died; and the second, who came from a rather well-to-do background, frequently took the children for extended visits to her family to avoid the straitened circumstances of her married life.

In a journal entry penned in his later years, Kepler summed up his arduous life of lone effort in these heartbreaking words: “Not much love came my way.”

When I read these lines to the class, I noticed that one sister was especially affected. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she stared ahead with the kind of despondency that signals a deep inward search.

After class, she waited until the others had left and then said to me, “I see that I haven’t done right …” She had great difficulty speaking, but went on:

“My family was never the kind to hug each other or say tender words. Dad was good to us, but the closest he ever came to telling us children ‘I love you’ was to call us ‘knothead’ in his kindly way. But with my husband it should be different.” Then, after some hesitation, she said, “I don’t honestly think I have told him I love him more than twice in fifteen years. We have children, and a home, and many things … he’s worked hard for many years, but not much love has come his way either.”

Later, in sacrament meeting, I noticed that she sat next to her husband rather than in her usual post at the other end of their row of five children. During the meeting, seeing her hand in his, I thought I saw a trace of breathlessness in his usual reserve. Here was a man who just a week earlier had written on a slip of paper I collected in class in response to the question “What is the one thing you need most from your wife or husband and aren’t getting?” (all such notes were turned in anonymously, but I confess that I knew his handwriting)—he had written, “To hear my wife say ‘I love you’ just once.”

One of the best parts of the Family Relations class is an exercise in which a couple is chosen to answer the following questions: (1) “What kinds of things does your wife or husband do that convey to you the feeling that you are loved?” and (2) “What things do you do to make your love for him or her known?”

We would compare the husband’s responses to the first question with the wife’s responses to the second question, and vice versa. The idea was to see how well the lists matched up.

There were many fun responses: “He oiled the car seat so that I can slide it forward when I drive.” Or, “I put a note that said ‘I love you’ inside his bologna sandwich. He didn’t find it!”

Other responses were more serious, of course. There were close match-ups: “He surprises me by calling from work to ask for a date,” compared with “I like to take her some place special every week.” And there were divergences. One husband said, “Whenever we sit together, she puts her hand over mine. I love that.” The wife was not even aware that that small token of warmth was so meaningful to her husband.

Dealing with Problems in Marriage

It seems to be true that wherever the possibility exists for great reward, there is a corresponding potential for disappointment. In the eternal perspective, the highest rewards and satisfactions are related to man and woman together. Thus in marriage there is the greatest possibility for joy, but also the possibility for the deepest despair.

Elder Richard L. Evans once said, “No marriage—no life—is free from problems. Always there are adjustments to make, things to work out, need for understanding.” (Improvement Era, Sept. 1961, p. 660.)

Reading this quote in class seemed to put most class members at ease, with the feeling that when problems are confronted honestly a marriage can take on a healthy momentum. Our lesson materials emphasized that marriage is an adventure into unfamiliar territory. Each partner in marriage is unique, with differences in character, habits, inclinations, and a thousand other qualifies. Some differences are complementary, some are disruptive. The important thing for a couple to have is the ability to make all differences work to the advantage of their marriage.

One husband and wife in a class I taught revealed that they weren’t accustomed to solving problems constructively, although they had been married for several years. Their habit had been to fix blame on each other and then stubbornly go their separate ways until one of them, out of sheer exhaustion, finally offered an apology. Compromise was unheard of in their marriage.

But another class member offered a comment that they seemed to take real interest in. He said, “I have found that it usually doesn’t matter if I’m the one who’s right in a quarrel. What really matters is that I love her no matter what. When we keep that in mind, it’s easier to stay cool whenever the clouds begin to darken over some particular problem. We can say, ‘We have something to solve’ instead of ‘You are the problem.’”

Other typical problems we dealt with in class included the “silent treatment,” which we concluded was one of the more serious symptoms of trouble in marriage, since it is a refusal to communicate and be co-responsible for solving marital problems.

We also dealt with the common inclination many of us have to jump to conclusions and make hasty judgments. There were many humorous examples of this: the wife who in disappointment threw away the unimaginative present she got for her birthday—a single teaspoon—and then ran down the street after the trash collector when she learned that it was real silver, one of a set her husband had bought her as a surprise; or the husband who brought home a duck for the children to play with, when his wife had actually wanted one from the market to cook for a special dinner.

Other incidents were not so humorous. One father related this touching story:

“We had been working hard to get our new home in good order—getting things out of boxes, putting up new drapes, finishing all the detail work that had been overlooked. It was one of those times when my temper was on edge, and I found myself snapping at my family.

“Well, one morning I went into the kitchen and found that our eighteen-month-old boy had written in ink all over one of the new kitchen chairs. There he stood with the pen in his hand. I reacted with anger and hustled him off to his room, with a real scolding.

“A couple of hours later, I went back into the kitchen. And what should I see?—another mess. There he was again, this time with a box of powdered soap dumped all over the chair and the floor! I came unglued. I grabbed him and ranted all the way back to his bedroom, and I left him there with a hard spanking.

“Then I walked back into the kitchen, still furious. But as I stood there surveying the mess, it suddenly dawned on me: soap, washcloth, chair—he hadn’t been making a mess; he had been trying to clean the ink off the chair!”

His voice broke. “I can’t tell you the depth of remorse I felt when I realized what I had done and thought how he had looked up at me, his eyes filled with both fear and a hope for understanding. I went back to my son’s room and begged humble forgiveness.

“After that, I taught several lessons on forgiveness in family home evening—because I needed it from them so much.

“Now I’ve tried to become a listener. But not just when someone does something wrong. I’ve found that everyone needs a listening ear, someone to confide in with their private thoughts, with confidence and without fear of criticism—someone who will love them without reservation. My wife needs this kind of love; our children need it, and I do too.”

When it comes right down to it, Family Relations is about love—the deep love that can develop between husband and wife as they view each other as partners for eternity. When this kind of love is missing, loyalties and priorities shift away from their proper focus; the physical relationship may become unbalanced; barriers to the flow of love and harmony develop; needs are not met; love is withheld. But when there is this kind of love, the marriage remains balanced. Fidelity in all its aspects is strengthened; difficulties are transformed into strengths; and the couple eventually come to know more fully the meaning of the scriptural declaration “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:11.)

Photography by Jed A. Clark