Every year in order to strengthen, equip and encourage my relationship with my wife I read a book on marriage. This year I read Gordon MacDonald’s 1980 volume, Magnificent Marriage. The age of a book for me is not typically an issue—I love old books, read them all the time, and in fact I have a thorough disdain for the new as the new in pretty much all its forms. But in this case I mention the publication year because it is relevant: age has not been kind to MacDonald’s book. I found it dated, boring, and on the whole unmemorable. In fact, I am tempted to suggest as an alternate title for the book, Mediocre Marriage.
MacDonald seeks to build a lasting foundation for Christian marriages by constructing a ‘ground-up’ book on marriage. He begins by discussion ‘romance’, which he considers to be the very practical basics of liking the other person, touching on kindness and regard. After this he moves on to the nuts and bolts of ‘sharing’ with one another, touching on communication and conflict. His third section deals with the concept of developing the other person’s gifts through serving one another. His final chapter is on the physicality of marriage (i.e., sex). There is nothing wrong with MacDonald’s structure in broad terms; it is his execution that is inadequate.
A marriage book which is not practical is unusable. If you cannot, as a married person, imagine yourself in the situations described by the author, the book itself will be worthless to you. And here MacDonald’s book suffers from twin problems: first, MacDonald talks a lot. In this it’s more of a reflection on what marriage is than a book on how to have a magnificent one. That in itself isn’t terrible (other books have done it well—see below), but if you are going to write a meditation on marriage it had best be a memorable or poetic one. MacDonald’s meditations were neither. And I think the chief problem was that the book was overwritten. Consider the following paragraph, taken at random from the book:
“Servability grows a third time when a couple learns that their life together is a shared ministry and vision. As long as two people see their lives as two separate thrusts of existence where they rise or fall on their own merits, there is no marital ball game of consequence.” (127)
The combination of ‘thrusts’, ‘rising and fallings’, ‘merits’, ‘ball games’, and ‘consequences’ create quite a metaphorical slurry. And perhaps that sentence doesn’t bother you much, but after 100 pages of them, I was exhausted from reading and couldn’t wait for it to end.
The second problem, as I have indicated above, is that the illustrations are dated, and while thirty years ago it might still have been true that a man would come home from a hard day’s work and want to read the paper, while the woman needed the advice (after her long day of housework) to spruce herself up before he came through the door, these examples were dated when MacDonald wrote his book in 1980, serving as a closer fit to 1950s America than anything resembling today (and reminds me, once again, that in cultural terms the Church had three consecutive decades of the fifties). What is more, MacDonald’s illustrations often create an oversimplified sense of martial conflict; hence their temporality. While MacDonald does cover some of the deeper interpersonal elements that shape marriages, both the dated examples and overwritten responses left me with little I cared to remember from the book.
That doesn’t mean the book wasn’t without its gems, and a few sentences were worth underlining. Speaking of the leaving and cleaving of marriage, MacDonald writes a timelessly perceptive sentence: “Leaving must be done not only geographically; it must be done psychologically. And that is exactly what many young people in the process of getting married fail to do.” (8) In my (limited) experience counseling couples, the lack of leaving and cleaving is a pervasive problem. Later, considering the reason for the mysterious moments of great conversation between a couple, he writes that “they occurred when they did, not because they were planned, but because someone was aggressively listening to something another said.” (61) Such ‘aggressive listening’ is surely one of the secrets of great communication. Lastly, in his chapter on serving one another, he pens some compelling ideas about the value in searching for and developing the strengths of your partner.
If you have never read a book on marriage before, MacDonald’s Magnificent Marriage can get you on the right track. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the book, but in comparison to what is available in marriage books, there’s little good about it either. Instead of MacDonald’s book, go and find a copy of one (or both) of the following two books: first, John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which is the most practically useful book on marriage I’ve ever read. The other book is Mike Mason’s The Mystery of Marriage, which is the most theologically stirring and poetic meditation on marriage I’ve read.