Susanne M. Alexander Discussed “Healthy, Unified Marriages as Service to Humanity,” the Wilmette Institute’s Seventh Web Talk
“Healthy, Unified Marriages as Service to Humanity” was the topic of Susanne M. Alexander’s Web Talk on August 30, the seventh in the Wilmette Institute’s series marking its Twentieth Anniversary. Her talk, which was punctuated with cartoons and two short videos, generated a longer question-and-answer period that any of the preceding Web Talks. The talk was filled with Bahá’í quotations about unity, marriage, courtship, families, and service, but you will find many of them in new contexts that encourage you to think about them in new ways. The talk was also filled with many practical suggestions that you can put to work in your relationship and/or marriage.
Alexander began by talking about how exciting it was for her and her team (Alex Blakeson, Hoda Kemp, Wendi Momen, and, now, Raymond Switzer) to be working with the Wilmette Institute and trying to answer the question “Could they delve into marriage and relationships in online courses?” The answer seems to be “Yes!” Over the last two-and-a-half years the team has offered 10 courses on two tracks—preparing for marriage and strengthening marriage—to 446 learners (85 living outside the United States). In the next year and a half the team will be offering 7 courses and starting a new track—parenting and family courses—and perhaps a course that begins at a Bahá’í school and continues online.
In her talk on “Healthy, Unified Marriages as Service to Humanity,” Alexander focused on two questions: (1) What creates healthy, unified marriage? and (2) How are such marriages of service? The key, the foundation, she explained, is unity.
Marriage is the nucleus of unity, which then enlarges to the family, the village, the city, the country, and, ultimately, the entire planet. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that the couple should “become the signs of harmony and unity until the end of time.” A practical side of unity is communication between the couple in which one does not imagine him/herself to be right and all others wrong. A healthy, happy marriage, Bahá’u’lláh says, is to “set the world in order.”
Then Alexander discussed what physical well-being in marriage means (things such as healthy eating habits, exercising together, supporting stress reduction, encouraging moderation, keeping an orderly house, managing money effectively, loving touching, including sexual intimacy). Next she discussed what spiritual well-being in marriage entails (things such as improving each other’s spiritual life, fostering character growth, encouraging communication, engaging in spiritually related activities, healthy service to spouse and family, and outward service, which might include offering hospitality, building friendships, doing community service, and participating in devotions and worship). But she stressed that there is no clear line between the physical and the spiritual; they should be integrated. Alexander concluded this section of her talk by listing ways in which marriage is service and contributes to the well-being of the couple, the family, the community, humanity. Shoghi Effendi, she said, describes “‘service’ as ‘the true basis’ of family unity.”
In the next section of her talk, Alexander expanded her discussion of service, urging us to give up the false dichotomy of thinking that nurturing one’s marriage and family means neglecting service to humanity. She quoted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who says that “Service to humanity is service to God.” Moreover, the Universal House of Justice has emphasized that we should all form friendships and build relationships to help create a “new kind of collective life.”
Another section of Alexander’s talk focused on preparing for marriage, which involves the individuals preparing themselves (being healthy and educated and developing character), the couple’s becoming acquainted with the other’s character, getting to know each other, and developing “a profound friendship of spirit” “Careful preparation for marriage,” a memorandum from the Bahá’í World Center Research Department say, “is an essential first step in the preservation of Bahá’í marriage.” Laughter and stories, Alexander noted, are one way to build friendship. Looking deeply into character is another important aspect of preparing for marriage.
Alexander stopped at this point in her talk to answer the questions “What is character?” and what does it mean to “study each other’s character.” Character, she said, is the sum of qualities one develops (truthfulness, patience, courage, compassion, responsibility, and so on. It also includes one’s moral compass or ethical strength. And it involves doing what is right, even if the choice causes you difficulties and even if no one is watching or knows what you do. Then she provided a thought-provoking list of character traits to consider, and some practical-application life situations asking the couple to identify the character qualities involved (or not).
Alexander also included a section on dating, emphasizing the importance of the couple growing up and, after consider the Bahá’í teachings on purity and chastity, using their own judgment in applying the principles to their moving toward courtship and marriage. She also talked about the respectful role parents must play as their children choose life partners (discussing the choice of a mate at the level of principle) and the respect due from the children to their parents in order to establish love, unity, and harmony in the family and to strengthen society.
Moving back to unity and unity in the marriage, Alexander returned to the theme of unity as service. Here she discussed the equality of women and men before God; the roles of women and men in marriage; the importance of effort, sacrifice, and fun in marriage; and the role of communication in a way that ensure the well-being of marriage. She elaborated on communication, noting one type of consultation involving only the couple (or the couple and their children) and another type in which the couple seeks “counsel from those they trust and in whose sincerity and sound judgment they have confidence.”
Alexander provided a helpful list of types of communication that show signs of conflict and another that shows healthy consultation. Communication that involves negativism, harshness, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal all show signs of conflict. Communication that involves praying together, sincerity, truthfulness, sensitivity, careful listening, detachment, understanding, paraphrasing what you think you heard, requesting prayer or a break, and agreeing when to resume all show a healthy couple turning to consultation to solve problems. She stressed that the couple should be prepared physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually before speaking about anything important. A cartoon shows the “top 10 stress management techniques”: eat/sleep/eat/sleep/eat/sleep and so on to 10.
Alexander concluded with a summary of her key points: (1) Individuals with excellent character contribute to others. (2) Individuals and couples who are responsible and skillful engage with their friends and build communities; (3) Couples serve each other’s physical and spiritual well-being so they are prepared for service and eternal life. (4) Couples act as an example of oneness, loyalty, and love to all; (5) Couples demonstrate equality and respect for each other; (6) Consultation brings peace to families and communities; and, ending where she began, (7) Healthy, unified marriages contribute to a peaceful planet.
The question-and-answer period after the talk ended ran for at least forty-five minutes, and questions were still coming in when the session ended. They ranged from “What is your advice for couples where only one is a Bahá’í?” to “Tell us more about consultation and techniques, especially during difficult times? “ and “What is meant by the barrier over which they cannot pass?” Alexander’s breadth of knowledge about marriage and relationships seemed encyclopedic.
Alexander serves as lead faculty for the Wilmette Institute’s relationship and marriage courses. She is a Relationship and Marriage Educator and Coach with her company Marriage Transformation®, www.marriagetransformation.com. She has authored over twenty books and discussion guides, including Marriage Can Be Forever—Preparation Counts! A journalist and editor, she is a member of the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education (www.narme.org). She holds a BA in communications from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. Through the Internet, Alexander meets with clients globally for marriage preparation and marriage strengthening, and she presents dynamic workshops. She has been single, dating, engaged, married, divorced, and widowed. She is a child, stepchild, parent, stepparent, and grandparent. All of this has given her a diversity of experience to share. She is currently married to a wonderful man and lives in Harrison, Tennessee, near Chattanooga.
Click here to listen to the talk.