Living a Covenant Marriage
Edited by Douglas E. Brinley and Daniel K. Judd

Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth

Marriage to be Defined

This month the United States Senate will vote on the future of marriage.  Discussion of the Federal Marriage Amendment will question marriage as we know it – the union of one man and one woman with a desire to protect children within the bonds of society’s most functioning and basic unit, the family.  Did our founding fathers foresee the day when our nation would actually see the need to define something so simple and divine?

Editors, Douglas E. Brinley and Daniel K. Judd, take the idea of marriage to its highest level of discussion.  While the world struggles to define marriage, Brinley and Judd encourage LDS couples to vigilantly strengthen their own marriages, thus taking the primary step in creating a world where families are covenant keepers, separate and unaffected by the theories of a demoralized, limping world. 

Brinley and Judd have worked in collaboration with thirteen marriage therapists to complete a book for LDS couples that will give aid to slipping relationships and increased growth to flourishing ones.  Contributors for the text include Elder Bruce C. Hafen, Marlene S. Williams, Kent R. Brooks, Terrance Olsen, Brent A. Barlow, Kenneth W. Matheson, Charles B. Beckert, Rory C. Reid, Sherrie Mills Johnson, Guy L. Dorius, and John Livingstone.  These writers address heavy topics such as marital differences, intimacy and the plague of pornography, while breathing hope into a stale marriage that husband and wife can reconnect, to each other and to God.

The Divorce Revolution

The topic of divorce is largely present in the book.  Divorce is the outcome Brinley and Judd hope to help readers avoid.  But we must be realistic.  In recent decades, our generation has seen a rapid acceleration of divorcing families, even within the Church.  Sociologists are calling this the “divorce revolution.”  With due sensitivity, the above authors try to present a balanced viewpoint on divorce, noting that there are situations when divorce is justified – abuse, addiction and other problems.  But divorce is strongly and openly discouraged in the book, yielding a multitude of reasons why it is beneficial for couples to stay together and work through their differences. 

According to Barlow, this statement was made at the Council on Families in America.  “The steady displacement of a marriage culture by a culture of divorce and unwed parenthood – has failed.  It has created terrible hardships for children, incurred insupportable social costs, and failed to deliver on its promise of greater adult happiness.  The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage and to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships” (149). 

Barlow also indicates that a significant number of divorces could have been avoided (149).  While reading his chapter entitled, “Marriage Crossroads” I realized that this book is about choosing to make your marriage work.  No assumption is made that every reader has already made this choice.  In fact, the opposite seems to be true – that the book’s objective is to positively convince those at the crossroads that their marriage is worth saving.

Gospel-Based Marital Therapy

Brinley and Judd have chosen a group of therapists who promote gospel-based marital therapy.  Although these individuals are counselors by trade, they advise couples to guard against some counseling techniques.  Elder Boyd K. Packer taught, “There are some spiritually destructive techniques used in the field of counseling.solve problems in the Lord’s way.  Some counselors want to delve deeper than is emotionally or spiritually healthy.  They sometimes want to draw out and analyze and take apart and dissect.  While a certain amount of catharsis may be healthy, over much of it can be degenerating.  It is seldom as easy to put something back together as it is to take it apart” (8).

This collection of authors is convinced that answers lie within the gospel framework.  Brinley writes, “Long term positive changes in behavior take place when both spouses understand and live in harmony with the truths of the restored gospel” (16).  At times, he explains, we conclude that the gospel is deficient.  Our thoughts go something like this, “Since I already know the gospel (I regularly raise my hand in Gospel Doctrine class), if my spouse and I are not getting along, the solution to our problems must lie elsewhere” (17).  Brinley suggests we erroneously believe that because we can conceptualize and articulate basic doctrines of the church, we are living them.

In a day of “doing our own thing” and seeking personal fulfillment, Brinley wonders, “Have we come to the point where we too are guilty of what the Lord told Joseph Smith: ‘They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far form me.having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (JS-H 1:19)? (22).

Elder Packer taught that understanding doctrine is the key to Christ-like behavior. “True doctrine, understood changes attitudes and behavior.  The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.that is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel” (32).  With this in mind, Brinley offers the following progression to a happy marriage.  Understanding doctrine leads to a softer heart (Mosiah 5:2).  A softer heart leads to more Christ-like behavior.  Christ-like behavior leads to a happy marriage.

Making Positive Changes

The book is very practical in its advice.  Its writers and editors do not plan to give readers dismal stats that leave us hanging onto a dreary lifeline.  Instead, they offer gospel principles as ideas that can foster lasting change.

Brooks makes the point, however, that some disparity exists in our perception of change.  Some couples “grow and are perfected by their earthly experiences while others are destroyed by them” (106).  Why?  He believes it is because of our perspective on change.  He reminds us that change is gradual.  Change is painful.  The natural man resists and avoids change.  And finally – real and permanent change comes through Christ.  Brooks explains that we must shift our paradigm of thinking from something like, “my spouse needs to change!” to “my spouse needs to be healed”  (106-109).

When discussing the need to keep marital love alive, Marleen Williams writes, “The concept of eternal development and progression implies change.  Marriage partners may not always change and grow at the same rate or uniformly in the same areas.  This makes adjustments necessary” (76).  Williams then offers the following ideas for keeping love alive throughout the refining process of marriage.

  • Value and respect your differences 
  • Develop emotional intimacy – the ability to honestly share real thoughts, feelings and experiences 
  • See the good in your spouse
  • Accept accountability instead of assigning blame
  • Serve one another

The above ideas are discussed in great detail, but I list them here, to give readers a feel for some of the tools offered within the text – all of which can be found within the framework of the restored gospel.

Marriage as the New and Everlasting Covenant

The Lord taught Joseph Smith explicitly in the Doctrine and Covenants the importance of the sealing ordinance and marriage covenant (Doctrine and Covenants Section 132).   Without it we cannot claim the highest degree of exaltation within His kingdom.  Without it we cannot have eternal increase.  Man without woman cannot be complete.  Reciprocally, woman without man cannot be complete.  There was no opportunity for us to have increase in the pre-mortal world.  The opportunity for us to develop working relationships of covenant is during this life. 

Guy Dorius explains that in contrast to contractual marriages or civil marriages, in eternal marriage (D&C 132:19) the covenant is made with God.  “This covenant includes a man and a woman and involves promises to each other, but eventually it comes back to a covenant relationship between us and God” (290). 

It is this eternal perspective upon which the final chapter is written.  Dorius reminds us that the promises made to those who keep covenants are numerous and far-reaching.  “If we desire to build a marriage with all the desired blessings, we must do it after the manner the Lord has shown us. It is interesting to note that when we don’t keep the commandments, the love of the Father is absent and our life is comparable to walking in darkness. That is what so many couples feel when their marriages deteriorate.  The love of the Father is the love we must have for our spouse.  It is of light and comes from obedience to the commandments and covenants.  Once we have entered into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, our success in that relationship is absolutely contingent upon our relationship with God” (294).

In an earlier chapter, Daniel K. Judd writes about Jesus Christ, as the sure foundation in a marriage.  He writes, “Only through Christ can a wounded couple honestly and completely heal” (58).  Inclusion of Christ’s Atonement gives optimism to those with broken relationships.  We must ask ourselves if we need healing personally.  Could our neglect of spiritual things be the cause for some of our suffering?  Because of this neglect, are we unable to meet the needs of our spouse?  Is our spouse in need of healing by the Lord – and if so, is this the cause for some of our problems?  A God, who has suffered all, can heal these kind of wounds.

Keeping it Real

I am sure that most couples will readily admit that marriage requires work.  Growth comes with a price – it comes with effort and discomfort.  But there is no greater joy in a relationship than knowing that it is moving in a direction that is pleasing to the Lord.

Living a Covenant Marriage keeps the issues real.  I found the chapters on resolving marital differences, handling anger in marriage, and staying connected, to be extremely helpful. Most of us are guilty at some time of communications that corrupt rather than edify.  Too often, we don’t take responsibility for our choice to become angry or offended.  And even if no verbal comment is being made, we need to know that communication is taking place.  Kenneth Matheson states, “Feelings not talked about openly are acted out nevertheless” (184). 

It is also helpful to remember that just because we have differences in a relationship “does not mean the marriage is doomed to fail.”  Matheson continues, “It is how differences are handled by both spouses that really matters in the long run. Managing differences in charitable ways strengthens marriage” (172). 

Because each chapter is contributed by a different author, thematic elements, quotes, stats, and examples cited, tend to be a bit redundant.  I read the book in a weekend but felt it could be better read in small snippets as a couple.  For instance, reading together, possibly a chapter a week, would allow for time to implement the principles discussed.

I recommend Living a Covenant Marriage for any LDS married couple.  When we consider the multitude of ways Satan and his hosts are working to destroy the family, we realize we must guard ourselves on every side to fend off his seditious attacks.  A marriage needs constant nurturing from husband, wife, and the Lord, if it is going to live.  The Savior has all power.  He can heal relationships, soften hearts and bring an incomparable spirit into our lives and homes if we are willing to accept His help.  Judd concludes his chapter with this truth.  “The most important thing one spouse could do for the other is to love God by placing Christ at the center of their lives” (74).

2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.