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February 19, 2000
Column #964

WHAT BRITISH CHRISTIANS ARE DOING TO IMPROVE RELATIONSHIPS

     TOTNES, ENGLAND In this small town, 200 miles southwest of London, a retired vet, Chris Grimshaw, has persuaded the clergy, the schools, the medical profession and town government - "the whole community to work together to increase the health of relationships," as he puts it.

     "While stepfamilies and single parenthood can be made to work, neither has quite as good a chance - or gives children quite a good a chance - as enduring marriage."

     Marriage is disintegrating in Great Britain, as it is in America. While British divorces soared six-fold from 26,000 in 1961 to 171,000 in 1997, the nation's number of couples getting married has plunged by a third, from 459,000 to 308,000.

     To put it differently, Britain now has one divorce for every two marriages, just like the United States. That gives it one of the highest divorce rates in Europe, double that of France or Germany. Further, Britain's cohabitation and out-of-wedlock rates are even higher than the U.S.

     British research reveals that a child living with unmarried parents is 20 times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than one with married parents, and 37 times more at risk if the mother is living with a boy friend.

     Chris Grimshaw is committed to turn these trends around. Several years ago, he and Claire, his vivacious wife of 27 years, attended a marriage enrichment weekend "with fear and trepidation" along with several other Christian couples from different churches. "We all came back with our marriages greatly strengthened," he told 110 people in his home town last weekend.

     They came back determined to do what they could to revive marriage in Britain.

     He was invited to attend a free weekend for pastors run by Americans David and Teresa Ferguson of Intimate Life Ministries. They taught how clergy and lay leaders can recognize the emotional needs of one's spouse, and then, how to fulfill them.

     Intimate Life identifies ten emotional needs, which if unfulfilled, lead to relational problems: Acceptance, Affection, Appreciation, Approval, Attention, Comfort, Encouragement, Respect, Security, Support. One exercise you might try: identify your own top three needs, and those of your spouse. Few husbands know their wive's core needs.

     The Grimshaws own a small farm resort in Totnes that is completely rented out in season. But in the winter it is unused. So they began running marriage enrichment weekends, charging very small fees to encourage a maximum number of couples to attend. So far 350 couples have done so. They take eight couples at a time, using either Intimate Life materials, or Marriage Review, a form of Marriage Encounter.

      Two years ago, from the Website of Marriage Savers, Chris heard of Community Marriage Policies being organized by clergy in the United States. He told Totnes leaders: "Whole towns have had their divorce rates drop by rates of 25 percent or more. This was done with very ordinary people working together across a community. I thought, `That's what. I want to do here."

     He invited the mayor and 13 other leading citizens in Totnes to a dinner with fine wine, and made a proposal far broader than Community Marriage Policies, which are focused on how clergy can cooperate to prepare, strengthen and save troubled marriages. "What I am proposing is to teach relationship skills to every adult and child in this community of 20,000 people." Four elements are in place:

  1. When women give birth to children, health workers teach both mother and father relationship skills. Tania West, who is training midwives, says, "Martial satisfaction expectations are high at the beginning, but take a dip when the first baby comes. A crying baby takes a lot of time. Couple communication becomes small talk about nappies (diapers). Deeper sharing tends not to happen We teach the ten emotional needs, and how to meet them."

  2. Elementary school principals are very concerned about the behavioral characteristics of five-year-olds. Children don't want to go out for recess because they don't know how to make friends. Those skills are now being taught.

  3. In secondary schools and community colleges, students are taught communications and conflict resolution skills. Grimshaw says, "I want every child leaving secondary schools be as emotionally literate as they are computer literate."

  4. The clergy have agreed to require serious marriage preparation.

     The Totnes model has attracted national attention. Last week my wife and I traveled with Chris Grimshaw to meet with a Committee of Parliament and local religious and government leaders in London, York, and four smaller towns to help them launch similar initiatives.

     America and Britain have much to learn from each other.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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