Can a vicar’s guidance on marriage from 1947 still help us today? We know that the desire to forge a relationship that lasts and provides happiness is still with us as much as ever, but what are the modern rules for a successful union?

The advice from the Rev. Louis A. Ewart, vicar of Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, UK, was recently published by the marriage guidance charity Relate, to mark its 70th birthday.

Rev. Ewart suggested the following Ten Commandments for a happy marriage:

  1. Always tell the truth
  2. Love, goodwill, wisdom and understanding are absolutely required
  3. A sense of humor is quite necessary
  4. Respect each other and each other’s desire for privacy
  5. Be tolerant
  6. Be patient; it is foolish to fuss over small things
  7. Never let the sun set on your anger
  8. Avoid self-consciousness and false pride
  9. Remember that marriage is a game that must be played on a 50-50 basis — give and take; bear and forbear
  10. Always be companionable and do not forget to smile — that is of vital importance

Rev. Ewart probably expected us, as mortal human beings, to break one or two of the commandments now and then, but gave the list as an ideal to aim for. The advice seems reasonable enough, but does it require updating for life in the 21st century?

For example, the rule “Always tell the truth,” if taken literally could risk giving offense. But maybe there is scope for diplomacy in the way information is given. Being honest to the point of rudeness should clearly be avoided.

Perhaps there are some overriding principles that work in our lives and have not changed over the decades, despite advances in modern living. Neglect is still neglect, betrayal is still betrayal. That is why marriage still works or fails, depending on what you do with it.

These days, people travel more than ever and thus may spend more time apart. So it seems reasonable to question our motives if we find we are spending a lot of time away from home, and be aware of the risk of neglecting our marriage in favor of personal pursuits. Of course, the same applies to any other area of life which would suffer were we to treat it with indifference, whether employment, friendships or health.

The commandments make no mention of sex, understandably for their time. It is clearly a central issue in marriage, but whether all marriages could live under a single rule is debatable. Most people would agree that sexual opportunities have increased over the years. On the whole, adultery is still frowned upon and is one of the top reasons for divorce. People usually want fidelity and faithfulness in a relationship, and still need that commitment to monogamy.

It may be the case that modern couples expect a greater level of fulfillment than our predecessors, so one possible update to the advice could be to discuss the major issues — money, children, where to live, beliefs and values — before marriage.

Modern couples also have the opportunity to make prenuptial agreements before taking the plunge. But they are certainly not yet the norm. The size of our divorce settlements is not top of our agenda in the run-up to the big day, despite lawyers urging us in that direction.

When making a verdict, judges take into account that women may have sacrificed their careers to bring up children and look after the home. Over recent years, wives have been compensated for this lack of earning power, and have been allowed to claim a share of their ex-husband’s future income.

Lawyer Emma Hatley fears that these rulings will serve as a deterrent to marriage. But she believes that “prenuptial agreements will provide a good degree of protection — and I predict it will not be long before they are made binding. It’s not if, it’s when.”

Much of the reverend’s advice has been repeated by generations of couples who have remained together long-term. Trust, communication, and mutual respect often are given as the most important factors. Marriage has been reinvented in each era and we can be certain that it will continue to evolve as we go into the future. But there is still a lot to be said for investing time and effort every day into a relationship we can hopefully cherish forever.

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