Les and Leslie Parrott: Saving Marriage—Part 1

There’s this developmental path as your own story is being written—your own relationship—but then you’re in the midst of studying the deeper issues that contribute to how marriages are strengthened or how they erode. How did your perception of the institution of marriage change during that time?

Leslie: Well, it’s interesting that you put it that way, “the institution of marriage.” Our passion has always been, marriage is a gift God has given and it’s one of the relationships that has the potential to most reflect God’s presence on earth, when we love well. So our call has always been to take good relationships and make them better, and bad relationships and make them great.

So I think our whole way of teaching and everything that has inspired us in our research, in our writing, we’ve always said we’re pilgrims, we’re not proclaimers. In other words, everything we’ve researched has grown out of our own need in some way or other. And we recognize it’s not just us, but the couples in our counseling offices and in our classrooms are having these same struggles. We have the joy as educators of being totally identified and connected with those we counsel and teach in the journey of marriage. So if we’re talking about how to communicate without having meltdowns, we relate. If we’re talking about how to have a good fight, it’s because we have different styles of handling conflict and we’ve struggled to find our way. And not just struggled to find our way, but because it’s our profession, we have access to this unbelievable research, and we have a passion to connect that with biblical principles. So that’s been our unique call: not always to do the original research—although at times we have—but to take that, to mine that gold and connect it with biblical principles and then simplify it so it gets into the hands of people who need it.

Would you say that marriage problems are different today than when you began your practice—either in nature or degree?

Les: There have been a lot of shifts over the last 20 years in marriage for sure. One of the most notable that we see today, of course, is co-habitation. There’s a mentality that looks at cohabitation as a step toward marriage—the starter marriage. What we know from research is—this sliding rather than deciding—when couples live together before they get married they kind of slide into marriage rather than decide to get married. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s go live together.” It’s more like, she’s staying over like a couple times a month and now it’s a few times a week and keeps clothes here. Let’s just move in together. Why are we paying for two places, you know, that kind of sliding effect. And so that’s been a huge shift. In the 1960s there were fewer than a half million unmarried couples living together. Today it’s closer to 8 million.

The research shows that when it comes to cohabitation, men typically see this as a means to postpone marriage, while women see it as a step toward marriage. So you have the real dichotomy between the genders on cohabitation. And that’s why you see the divorce rate in many studies showing that it’s higher among these cou-ples.

A pastor’s marriage has the potential to validate or destroy his ministry. We know what some of the big issues are. What are some of the less obvious, unanticipated pitfalls?

Leslie: One of the things we sometimes laugh with cou-ples about—especially the spouse of the one serving in the professional ministry role—is the St. Elsewhere Syndrome. It doesn’t take much to figure that out. Everyone comes to you and says, “It must be amazing to be married to your husband” or your wife, because they are X, Y and Z. And you’re thinking, Yeah, they are all that, but they’re so exhausted by the time they get home from giving all that away to the community that they basically just need to refuel. And that’s my job. I get the leftovers.

Another one we see, particularly with clergy couples, is so often one of the duo is in the spotlight, more charismatic, perhaps, and the other one feels like their dreams are getting left behind—their self-definition and their dreams. We need to tip the scale to be generous and aware that the other person so often gets unacknowl-edged.

Another issue is social support—genuine friendships. We’ve talked to clergy couples and everyone knows there’s tension, you develop close friendships. You’ll travel together, you vacation together, you’re in small groups together and then you’re 10 years down the road and suddenly your close friends leave the church and you don’t know why. It’s just heartbreaking and you often don’t even have permission to explore it, because your personal life and your professional ministry life are so intertwined. You’re trying to have integrity and not take it personally and yet, you do and you can’t help it.

What encourages you about marriage today?

Les: We hear a lot of negative reports on marriage these days, but one of the optimistic things is that people still believe in marriage. We know that 87 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 still plan on being mar-ried. That’s the vast majority of them. And of that 87 percent who say we’re going to get married, 82 percent of them say it’s going to be for life. So most people still believe in marriage and want it to work in spite of seeing some examples of how it doesn’t. That’s one example of good news.

Here’s another: We have more research than ever on marriage these days. As a professional community, we know what it takes to navigate conflict. We know what it takes to generate healthy conversations and communication. We know what it takes to bridge that gender gap. How to align our expectations. How to love in a way that this person’s going receive it and we’re going to give it in an effective manner and so forth. So this mountain of research that we have to stand on these days is completely encouraging.

There’s a lot of energy and angst invested in the controversy—How should marriage be defined? Certainly a reasonable discussion, as the church and culture inevitably clash. But while we’re enmeshed in the cultural battle, church marriages are sometimes eroding, at times quite publicly. So while we fight to defend the institution from those who would define it differently there needs to be energy and intentionality going into strategies in the church to strengthen it or what we say will ring hollow and hypocritical. You two have been working proactively at this issue for years. How has that unfolded?

Les: Some time ago, we were speaking at Willow Creek Community Church for the Leadership Summit. Jim Collins was speaking and it was the first time we’d ever heard of a BHAG—a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. [In their book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, released in 1994, James Collins and Jerry Porras encouraged companies to define visionary goals that were more strategic and emotionally compelling.] That concept really hit us between the eyes and we just said, “Wow, what is the big hairy audacious goal in our efforts?” We came to the conclusion that something incredible would take place if we could help reduce the divorce rate in the local church by a third in our lifetime. That be-come our BHAG.

We believe passionately in this because it impacts everything. A healthy church is built on healthy families and healthy families are built on healthy couples.

By the way, for every percentage point that the divorce rate drops the lives of more than a million children are positively impacted. Think about that. That’s just for a single percentage point.

I think it would be one of the greatest social revolutions the church has ever seen. And it would have a ripple effect for generations to come.

In Part 2, Les and Leslie Parrott explore the seven questions that are the basis on Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, and the SYMBIS assessment tool, and offer a hopeful picture for the future of marriage in the church. »

James P. Long
James P. Longhttp://JamesPLong.com

James P. Long is the editor of Outreach magazine and is the author of a number of books, including Why Is God Silent When We Need Him the Most?