updated 11 Nov 2011, 16:47
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Thu, Nov 10, 2011
The Star/ANN
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To love and honour
by Grace Chen

BE very honest now. From a scale of 1 to 5, using the number to indicate the degree of satisfaction in your marriage, rate your spouse according to these questions:

1. I feel that my spouse is affectionate enough.

2. I feel that there is no excitement in our marriage.

3. I feel that we manage arguments and disagreements very well.

4. I feel that my spouse is a comfort to me.

5. I feel that I should never have married my spouse.

These five questions were part of a marital index score sheet handed out by Estella Cheong and Lee Wong to attendees of the two-day Rekindle Your Marriage workshop held at the Faith City Church in Subang Jaya, Selangor, recently. Scores were compared at the end of the first day and naturally, there were a few surprises. It prompted senior pastor, the Reverend Samuel Ng, to get on his pulpit before the crowd dispersed and remind participating couples not to "take the issue home".

Long known for its stand on marital advocacy, the Faith City Church had invited Wong and Cheong, a Canadian-based husband-and-wife team, to conduct a refresher course. Both have doctorates in marriage and family planning from the Palmer Theology Seminary at Eastern University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States. Cheong, 48, is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Wong, 50, a pastor, is in transition between postings. Both have been married for 23 years.

Staying connected: Pilot Arthur Yee and Chong Ching Choo, seen here with their sons, Cael, four, and Cylas, one, are always in communication with each other despite his job.

Their interest in the subject was stoked when Wong was attached to a church in Unionville, Toronto, Canada. He noticed that 25 per cent to 35 per cent of the members in the church were struggling with their marriages.

"The couples were still together but there was no sense of camaraderie. From conversations, I could hear them becoming critical and negative of each other. I saw these as the beginning signs of a destructive relationship," says Wong, who decided to help his church members nip the problem in the bud, so to speak.

Their advice on maintaining a healthy marriage?

Go on dates, be attentive to your spouse, do not be demanding. And reopen the channel for communication, urge the facilitators.

Over time, couples tend to take their marriage for granted and due to work and family demands, they may inadvertently neglect the relationship. Taking time to revisit the priorities of the relationship is a start to helping both stay focused.

One workshop participant recalls how the husband's insistence on supporting his family strained the relationship to near-breaking point. Though both had agreed at the outset to shoulder responsibilities for elderly care, she felt that while her in-laws were still active and healthy, effort should be put into building their own home instead. At last, the husband relented but both agreed that when his parents could no longer care for themselves, the wife would have to keep her promise as a filial daughter-in-law.

"Whatever the case, there is no right and wrong. The onus is on both to agree on the direction that needs to be taken. Discuss it from all points, look into consequences, list out the advantages and disadvantages, work out solutions," Cheong advises.

Making adjustments

Ideally, talk time should be a constant practice, not only when there is a problem.

Workshop participants Arthur Yee, 36, and Chong Ching Choo, 32, who have been married for seven years and have two sons, say they will make it a point to update each other on their day. For the Yees, this is a tad tricky as Yee's duties as an airline pilot see him being away from home 10 days in a month. This is the time when "telephone porridge" (as the Cantonese-speaking are wont to describe long chats on the phone) is on the menu. Fortunately, communication these days is made easier and cheaper with Skype and online chats.

For the two, keeping the conversation going also means having to listen even when the subject is of no interest to the other party.

Tea for two: Victor and Juliet Tan make an effort to accommodate each other's different ways.

"Arthur likes to talk about gadgets, which I am not very keen on, but then he listens when I go on about fashion. At the end of the day, information is still information and I've been able to use it when I am interacting with other people," says homemaker Chong.

Wong and Cheong also stress that both should be aware of each other's priorities. During the workshop, participants were asked to list down 10 things that they planned to do together as a couple.

Participants Victor, 54, and Juliet Tan, 48, discovered that they had very different agendas. While travel was on the top of Victor's list, it was nowhere to be found on Juliet's, who finds sightseeing exhausting.

So, when not every issue can be crisply cut between "yes" and "no", the Tans say that love is also about being accommodating.

In sharing his experiences, Victor, a well-known motivational speaker and the bestselling author of Changing Mindset: Ensuring The Future Of Organizations, admits that the hardest part in his marriage was about adjusting to each other's characters. Both have been married for 23 years and they have three children aged 12 to 23.

Thankful that they have avoided major relationship calamities like addiction, gambling and adultery, Victor says the thorniest issue they encountered in the beginning was Juliet's friends and relatives showing up unannounced. On the other hand, human resource trainer Juliet, who favours serendipity, found Victor's insistence on a rigid schedule disconcerting.

"At the end of the day, if you are going to pick on all your partner's bad points, you can go on forever. We chose to look at each other's strengths," says Victor.

Over the years, the Tans have learned to make adjustments. To accommodate Juliet's love for karaoke sessions, he picked up singing. He also reads aloud to his wife who finds reading a chore. On Juliet's part, she has made an effort to be punctual for his sake and to turn their house into a beautiful home. She also plays the part of the perfect hostess at the many parties they throw.

"To strengthen a marriage, there must be mutual effort. Again, there is a stress on communication. The way a couple talk to each other and the choice of words are important as a sign of respect and love," reminds Cheong.

Date night

In setting specific goals for couples to revive a marriage, there is also the need to add in fun factors like date nights. In this case, there is no need to keep up with the Joneses. For the Yees, their favourite spot is the mamak stall. For the Tans, it's the karaoke room.

To help partners make time for themselves, Wong and Cheong introduce the SMART template for couples to achieve their goals; SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Retainable Timebase.

Detailing how this works, Cheong questions how often something like a date night is realised when a couple has to juggle family and other commitments. Therefore, it is important for both to plan for this event to make it a reality. Set a day for it, make arrangements for a babysitter, decide where to go and what to do. It should not be necessarily an expensive affair but it should be an activity that both will enjoy.

Marital bliss: The facilitators, Lee Wong and his wife Estella Cheong (left pic), exhort married couples to go on dates, make time for the spouse and not be too demanding.

Juliet opines that it is also not fair for one side to expect the other to comply with a spouse's wishes all the time.

For instance, while she can comb the shops for hours, hubby is not as enthusiastic. "He will say that I look nice in everything because he wants to get home quickly," she laughs.

In the end, though Juliet loves to have her husband's company, she prefers that he stays home to spare him the discomfort.

"No marriage is perfect," says Cheong, who reveals that after two decades with Wong, she can still find surprises.

But the most effective step in ensuring that both will be able to grow old together starts with these five little words: Honey, we need to talk.

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