Lessons I Have Learned about Marriage from Downton Abbey

If you are like many (cultured) Americans, Downton Abbey has become must see TV on Sunday nights. If you have been keeping up, this post will be meaningful to you. If you have been choosing Jersey Shore over Masterpiece Classics, then it might not. I promise to offer a meaningful examination of Snookie’s relationships on another post. Or perhaps not.

In watching Downton for the past few years, I’m wondering if I’m the only person to notice that the evolution of the show has not been dissimilar to the evolution of a marriage. We fell in love during season one, we managed conflict (including a world war) during season two, and we learned how to fight, endure, and find some good in the midst of bad situations in season three. Obviously, we have witnessed an over-abundance of pain and grief in these past few episodes, but we have endured.

Beyond the general story arc, I have identified at least four things we can learn about marriage by watching the relationships in the world that Julian Fellows has created for us. I have also included a few good questions for us to consider in our own marriages.

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Falling in Love is Fun. Maintaining a Marriage is Hard Work

The best part of season one was watching Mr. Bates and Anna fall in love. Honestly, since they got together, their screen time hasn’t been near as interesting. (We saw the same thing happen to Ross and Rachel on Friends.) Their initial flirtation and pledges of love in season one was replaced in more recent episodes with a world at war, the murder/suicide of a past spouse, a false imprisonment, and many other trials. It hasn’t been particularly fun to watch. The lesson we can learn from them is that falling in love is energizing, but staying in marriage can zap the same energy right out of you. The trials of life that we will all face can overwhelm even the strongest of marriages. But I did see a solution to that in the last episode of season three. They showed that joy can be maintained in spite of difficult or even mundane circumstances. I saw Anna and Mr. Bates taking steps to continue to capture each other’s hearts. They renovated their home. They dated. She danced. He affirmed that she was beautiful, racy, and marvelous. Way to go, Bates. 

Question: What are you doing to breathe life into your marriage in the middle of the daily challenges of life?

Listening to One Another is Critical

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Across three seasons of Downton, the Granthams are at their best when they are listening to one another and at their worst when they allow the formalities of their societal roles to distance themselves from each other. We saw this most clearly in Sybil’s childbirth crisis, but it pops up in just about every episode. Robert does well when he gets his hard-headedness out of the way and listens to the insights of his wife. When he takes time to consider her perspective, he usually makes good decisions. On the other hand, there are times when a strong, levelheaded perspective is needed, and Cora needs to recognize the value of her husband in those moments. She may not be at a place emotionally to handle things and the strength of her loving husband comes into play. They need to listen and depend upon one another and so do each of us. This does not come naturally to any of us. Yet we seek God's help to learn.

Question: How good are you at listening to the perspective of your spouse? I mean really listening?

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A Common Mission Gives Strength to Your Marriage

Matthew and Mary Crawley have taught me that married couples benefit greatly when they share a common goal. After two seasons of them considering a relationship, I was finally looking forward to getting to watch them do life together in season three. But it has been painful to watch. Through most of season three, they have been at odds over the estate, the money, the business, etc. I grew weary of Mary’s pouty face and Matthew’s short temper. But am I the only one who noticed that when they both put their efforts into having a baby, they became tender, supportive, and full of life? I have seen Matthew smile more in the past two episodes than in the previous twenty, all because he and Mary were working together on something. Lesson learned: our families can be headed into many different directions, but we do well when we partner with our spouse to achieve something great together.

Question: What is a common task or mission that can bring some new strength and life to your marriage?

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Life is Short; and People Die

I couldn’t think of any nicer way to articulate this theme within Downton. The show has been pretty blunt about that this season, so we might as well be blunt here. We can assume that everything will go well in our lives and that we will all live to 90 years old, but for many of us, that’s simply not the case. I have attended enough funerals of my peers in recent days to know that our days are numbered. I can dream of 40 or 50 more years of marriage to Jenifer, but I am not promised it. So I had better make sure that I am making the most of every single day I have with her. You should do the same with your spouse. Downton Abbey has taught us that we must cherish the days we have, because we never know when our lives will come to an end.

Question: What are you doing today to love your spouse like it’s your last day on Earth?

Am I looking forward to season four of Downton? Not really. I’m too mad about how things have been going in recent days. At the pace they are on, I'm expecting there to be a Polio outbreak in the village that will kill everybody. Will I watch it when it comes out? Almost certainly. They have me hooked and I will no doubt come back for more, in spite of the difficult and ugly parts. There are just too many beautiful things there to watch and enjoy.

Ultimately, I want to learn that marriage is the same way: so beautiful, so precious, and so rich that it's worth every minute of my time and energy.

*In addition to some deep thoughts about marriage, here is a goofy video that diehard Downton Abbey fans might enjoy...