BY Brian Caulfield
November 20-December 3, 2011 Issue | Posted 11/14/11 at 6:46 PM
Small Steps, Big Rewards
By Dr. Ray Guarendi
160 pages, $14.99
To order: catalog.americancatholic.org
Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist of common sense and uncommon wit. Known to Register readers for his “Family Matters” column, and popular for his Catholic radio call-in show, he spends a lot of his professional time reassuring parents that the time-tested truths of childrearing are better than the modern trends that would replace the parents as the dispensers of discipline and moral instruction.
In Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards, the good doctor applies his insights to the husband-wife relationship, again stressing that the commonsense principles of the Christian life — forgiveness, holding your tongue, listening, self-sacrifice — can do a lot more for a couple than the latest “7 secrets” or “10 ways” hyped on daytime TV. In fact, the title of the book shows his admirable restraint. With 10 main chapters offering 10 categories of advice, he could have titled the book 10 Steps to a Blissful Marriage, but he is far too realistic for that. Aware of the weakness of human nature and the broken relationships strewn across our culture, Guarendi knows that most of us must be content with “Small Steps” — often taken again and again — to realize “Big Rewards.”
Step 1 toward a better marriage is to say “sorry,” Guarendi writes. He goes to great lengths to explain just how important this word is and how difficult it can be to say, especially when a couple has a history of rancorous arguments. Guarendi’s big insight that runs counter to pop psychology is that a spouse must say “I’m sorry” even when he or she does not “feel” remorse. There is something in the very words, and the act of humility — imperfect as the intention may be — required to get them off the tongue, that can improve a relationship. The author gives the example of parents insisting that two battling siblings say “sorry” to one another, even though they say it more to the floor than to the offended brother or sister. Parents know that an apology has the power not only to end an argument, but to heal and change the person who utters it, however grudgingly.
Here we have a basic Guarendi dictum that is repeated in different ways throughout the book: “You don’t have to feel like doing something to do it.” A good word or action need not be fully heartfelt and pure to be authentic and effective within the imperfect world of human interaction, or, as Guarendi writes, “Sometimes the words themselves can begin the healing.”
Other Guarendi gems: “You never have to apologize for what you didn’t say.” “Don’t allow emotions to be the primary drivers of your behavior.” “Write down what you admire, appreciate and like about your spouse.” And this less aphoristic insight: “All lifelong self-improvement is predicated on the core assumption that nearly all of us have a capacity … to assert our will over our impulses.”
Though Guarendi’s humor is effective at times, some of his ironic jabs seem to take back the point he is making. Even so, I will move Dr. Guarendi out of his “comfort zone” by asserting that this small, readable volume of practical wisdom is “guaranteed” to make your marriage better. Just follow the small steps.
Brian Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.
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