The secret to a successful marriage “isn’t rocket science”, say Keith and Sarah Condie - authors of a new course aimed at helping to enrich the lives of married couples, but it does require some work on behalf of couples.

The Sydney-based couple have recently launched the 'Building A Safe & Strong Marriage' course developed as part of their work at Anglican Deaconess Ministries’ Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute to help couples build strong and lasting connections.

They say that research shows a successful marriage involves three basic ideas - being able to maintain a “sense of friendship through the ups and downs of life,” being able to manage conflict in gentle and positive ways, and managing to maintain a level of positivity throughout the relationship so the “negative stuff” doesn’t overwhelm.

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Sarah and Keith Condie, creators of the Building A Safe & Strong Marriage course

The Condies decided to develop the course, which takes place over five two-hour sessions and as well as the keys to a successful marriage looks at how to identify warning signs before any damage occurs, after a journey which saw them first stepping into the area in the early 2000s.

Rev Dr Keith Condie, an Anglican minister who had studied psychology and previously worked in child welfare for the NSW State Government, was then Dean of Students at Moore Theological College when he and Sarah were asked to run a marriage enrichment day for the students.

The Condies say that research shows a successful marriage involves three basic ideas - being able to maintain a “sense of friendship through the ups and downs of life,” being able to manage conflict in gentle and positive ways, and managing to maintain a level of positivity throughout the relationship so the “negative stuff” doesn’t overwhelm.

“We, at that point, had no idea how to do such a thing but we thought that was probably a good idea so we cobbled something together and gave it a go…” says Sarah. 

The other thing that really “spurred them on” was that around that time there was a year group from college – which had been out of college for about five years – in which a high percentage of married couples had split up.

“That disturbed us and we thought perhaps we needed to try and do a bit of investment in couples early on,” says Keith. 

So they started reading and researching in a process that went for a number of years and were soon being asked to run courses at churches. 

“It kind of…ballooned,” says Sarah.

Meantime, Keith left Moore to take up the role of co-director at ADM’s Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute. Sarah, co-director of the institute, also works three days a week as director well-being and care at Church By The Bridge in Sydney.

The decision to formally launch the marriage course, which is based around a series of videos, came about as part of ADM’s work aimed at strengthening marriages.

“Without ADM it would never have happened,” says Sarah.

The course covers everything from good communication to sex in a marriage and even flags issues of domestic violence (encouraging people facing such situations to seek professional help rather than doing the course) and features videos of couples telling their stories.

It can be undertaken as a church, a small group or even as a couple over a five week period or a single weekend

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The Condies speaking at one of their marriage enrichment courses.

While the Condies acknowledge there are many marriage courses out there, they say that what sets their course apart is the blend of both Biblical principles and marriage research that’s been incorporated into it.

“We use a lot of [US –based Dr] John Gottman’s research and he’s researched…hundreds of married couples, if not thousands, of all ages and stages…” says Sarah. “His question is why is it that some marriages last and some marriages just implode? So he’s actually then looking, OK, these marriage have lasted – what is it that has kept them together and are there warning signs that a marriage is in trouble. So he’s just researched and observed and come up with some really interesting findings.”

Its Christian content comes from a non-denominational perspective and particularly focuses on what the end of Genesis chapter two shows us about marriage.

“A lot of people – they look at verses 23 and 24 about leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh, but we make quite a big deal about verse 25 – the man and the woman were both naked and they felt no shame…” says Keith.

“[W]e think that’s a picture of what God really wants a marriage to be, where a couple can be completely open with each other and still feel totally safe. So that sense of intimacy, connection, vulnerability.  To be able to really share what’s on your heart and to have that received by the other…warts and all,” says Keith.

“We think that picture, that actually meshes really well with the research which talks about friendship. There’s a lovely little saying about friendship we came across – I’m not even sure whether we put it in the course – but it’s ‘A friend is someone that’s happy to see you and has no immediate plans for your improvement’. 

“It’s just a beautiful picture of love and acceptance of this person, just simply as they are – they’re not a project to be improved. And that’s not to say that we can’t spur each other on to grow and to develop as Christians and as people but…we can become the project of another in a way that’s actually quite unhelpful and undermining, I think.”

“[W]e think [in Genesis, chapter two] that’s a picture of what God really wants a marriage to be, where a couple can be completely open with each other and still feel totally safe. So that sense of intimacy, connection, vulnerability.  To be able to really share what’s on your heart and to have that received by the other…warts and all."

- Rev Dr Keith Condie

The Condies see the course as something beneficial for all married couples – “whether they’ve been married for three months or 60 years” – including those who don’t share the same “faith commitment” as Christians.

“We still think there’s a lot of helpful material in here,” says Keith. “Because it does bring in what we think is very significant marriage research.” 

He adds that while it’s not an evangelistic tool, he thinks it is a “lovely way for the church to have a positive impact in the wider community, we hope”.

They also point out that the oft-held belief that a marriage needs to be in trouble before the couple undertake a course like this one isn’t true. Sarah even suggests that if the course was to be run in a church, the pastors and ministry staff could be involved themselves.

“Every marriage is a work in progress,” says Sarah.

And that includes their own. The Condies, who have been married 37 years and have three adult children, says they have had their share of ups and downs – and that too, was a spur for them to create the course.

“We’ve never hated each other but  I think we go into some really unhelpful patterns in our own marriage and, by the grace of God, we’ve managed to turn that around,” says Keith, adding that that included him becoming too busy and not being attentive to Sarah’s needs.

“And I think event things like sometimes the way we had conversations were not helpful – you know, starting them harshly rather than gently..”

The couple tell a few stories about their own experiences in the course – and it’s that honesty, says Sarah, that they’ve found does give couples going through some hard times hope.

“We would do anything to help couples “not make the mistakes that we made,” she says. “And I think we made the mistakes through ignorance, really.”

And, asked if they could give one final piece of advice to people about what makes a good marriage, Keith says “being good friends with God and good friends with each other” is key. As, adds Sarah, is “not taking each other for granted”.

“You don’t get something for nothing,” she says.

Building A Safe & Strong Marriage can be purchased via the website which also contains information on where upcoming courses are being held.

Correction: The story originally stated Keith Condie once worked in childcare for the NSW State Government. It has been corrected to child welfare.