Valentine's note to self: Enroll in school of love?

Catholic Sentinel Volume 139, Number 7

In time for Valentine’s Day for bedraggled young parents, here are two suggestions from Susan Gulka, marriage expert: Take it easy on yourself and keep your relationship strong. Gulka, parenting instructor at A Beautiful Marriage workshop, has been there. A member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, she is now the mother of a 7-and a 4-year-old. Believe us, she knows the difficulty of keeping romance alive during the child-rearing years.

“It starts with the lack of sleep and having a newborn baby in your home,” says Gulka, a former accountant who graduated from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. “When they are adjusting to a baby, couples can get snippy with each other.” The pressure continues as children age. Some people, when parenting and the rest of life gets hard, tend to target their spouse, the most convenient target for venting. Disagreements over children’s food, discipline and even clothes can be perilous to a relationship.

“No one in the world has ever said parenting is easy,” Gulka often tells her students. Gulka found herself mourning the loss of her old one-on-one relationship with her husband. But she is finding that gradually, the two are getting adjusted. Inasmuch as they are easy on themselves, surrendering a bit to what nature has wrought, they feel deep wonder. “You miss the joys of the two of you but then you see the joys of the three of you,” Gulka explains. “At each stage, you see the joy. My husband and I don’t have as much time together, but we come up with new ways to do things as a family. Then, as the kids get a little older, they start to contribute more with fun and intellect.”

To deal with the stresses of parenthood, Gulka suggests regular prioritizing sessions. Couples must be candid about how much time and money they have and decide the best way to use those resources. Some things—like spring break in Mazatlan or regular trips to Nordstrom—may have to go.

“If you try to do your old life and your new life, you will continue to be stressed,” Gulka says.

That said, couples need to forge moments together to keep the relationship lively. That is a great gift to youngsters. Couples may need to find more humble forms, but they should include regular couple time and regular solitude in their priorities. “If you have a strong relationship, that gives the children security, “ Gulka says. “Then you can have fun.”

Along the way, parents really must learn to set limits for children, despite what society is leaning toward, Gulka explains. In a world where we are all feeling more like giving our children everything, we must fear not to be the limit setter, she explains by way of encouragement.

Gulka grew up in Indiana and met her husband, a Portland man, at Notre Dame. She was a CPA, but then found that people were more to her liking than balance sheets. So she became a life coach, then got trained in the Love and Logic parenting ideology. Her current hero: A 5-year-old girl who has cancer. “She is teaching me about the precious gift of God children are,” Gulka says. “It makes me do everything I can to love my children and help them develop.”

Gulka has another piece of advice for parents. Don’t gut it out alone. She suggests joining some sort of community. Her class, for example, serves that purpose. “It is helpful to know you are not the only one out there,” she says. Love is what makes the world go around, but it takes a whole lot of work, says Sher Ireland, owner of A Beautiful Marriage. With more than 30 years in the field, she now aims not to give counseling, but to offer education. The difference is that couples learn concrete skills.

Ireland and Gulka call their project a “school for love.” The unique school – in operation for more than two years – gives more than 50 different workshops for singles, couples and parents. “If you’re pro-people you kind of have to be pro-marriage,” Ireland says. Most people prepare too little for the most important decision of their lives, she maintains. “We train more to drive a car than we do for the most important relationships we ever do, which is being a parent and marriage,” she said. Ireland tips her hat to the Catholic Church, which has a healthy marriage preparation requirement. For Catholics, she seeks to build on that.

The foundational course, where all students start, is called Learning Intelligent Love. It’s held twice per month September through June. After that, couples can choose from a stuffed catalogue of more than 50 workshops, depending on their need. The sessions are held on weekends, again twice per month. The schedule is arranged to make it easy to get a babysitter. Ireland says this is not some grueling stereotype of group therapy, where people reveal dark secrets. The classes tend to break into useful hilarity. There is input from instructors and video learning. “People think it should just come naturally to them,” Ireland says. “Well, couples need to know about the behaviors they do that can contributed to the destruction of a marriage.”

Ireland says couples can turn decay into construction by learning more effective ways to communicate and problem-solve. They need to know what makes their spouse feel loved – it may be different than what works for them. They need to know how to forgive. “Some problems continue throughout a marriage, sure, but people can learn how to treat them with humor and good will rather than vilifying the other, “ Ireland explains.

Ireland and Gulka see themselves in one way as knights errant, combating the divorce rate, slaying marital misery. Ireland herself went through a divorce, which is one reason she has decided to take on marriage as her mission. She is now happily married, and has learned a lot in the process. For more information on A Beautiful Marriage Relationship Education Center, visit or call (503) 620-1500. --Ed Langlois

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