Ordinarily, the idea of reading a book on marriage seems about as appealing as getting a root canal after using an actual tree root to bludgeon me unconscious. Far too often, well-meaning writers (and pastors) take a subject and topic that is incredibly complex and try to boil it down to the easiest, solvable, paint-by-numbers method imaginable, often leaving out core subjects and ideas, and ultimately ending with the pithy idea of "taking it all to God in prayer" as a method of wrapping it with in a nice, neat, theologically-weak bow. So I went into Philip Wagner's How To Turn Your Marriage Around in 10 Days with a touch of cynicism and eye-rolling, expecting to be disappointed yet again with a book that doesn't know how to deliver what it promises.
I love it when I am proven wrong.
In this guide, Wagner lays out ten days' worth of exercises designed for spouses to work on individually and collectively, although the "ten days" portion is a bit of a misnomer; there's actually enough actionable material contained within each chapter that a couple could spend ten weeks utilizing one section each week and still not get bored. Every chapter not only contains a story from his own marriage, but many contain additional narratives taken from couples he knows. Instead of this coming across as padding for the chapters, it reinforces a key concept married couples sometimes forget in their struggles: you are not the only couple who has ever experienced something like this. Taking that sense of struggle from the isolation ward we often place it in and realizing there are communal pains is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this book.
What I loved about Wagner's method of approaching a marriage is that it pretty much mimics Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: the core needs must be met first before we can progress on. In Evangelical Christianity, we erroneously think that maybe we should pray more (or harder) or study the Bible more (or harder) as the answer to relational issues without realizing that in doing so, we ignore the basics of our relationship, and sometimes we become harder. Wagner approaches the topic of marriage from the standpoint of it being between two individuals and not two names on a church roster, and that thematically makes all the difference in how his tone comes across.
The concept Wagner used that struck me as IT was summed up in the phrase "Love demands that we climb." Instead of falling back on the exhausted meme "marriage is work," Wagner continually refers to the imagery of a relationship as taking place on a ladder, going one rung at a time, and not progressing further up until the rung we are on is stable, fixed, and can bear the weight of the climb ahead. Or to use some of his chapter titles, "Play" should not come before "Forgiveness."
Like all good albums, there's a "bonus track" chapter included, which encourages the reader to be an active participant and engage in an ongoing refinement of the exercises in this guide. Although the book isn't perfect (for one thing, the constant references to "men and sex" got to be a little distracting if not repetitive), it's relatively thorough and comprehensive in what it covers, and manages to give advice that is not only sincere but humorous at times.
This is not not kind of marriage guide one would read once then put a shelf thinking "well, that was okay." Neither, interestingly enough, is it a marriage guide that I would say is written exclusively for a Christian audience. To be certain, the book is rooted structurally and philosophically within a Christian framework and with a biblical foundation. Yet unlike other "Christian marriage guides," How To Turn Your Marriage Around in 10 Days contains not only enough quality material that a couple in an interfaith relationship or those who come from a different faith background could find material and ideas on how to strengthen their relationship, and it could simultaneously stand as an example of Christian literature that is not surface-level and is incredibly real in expressing the struggles we as people In loving, committed relationships experience.
Really. It's just that good.