Ethos Education

The Descendants: What makes a marriage work?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understand Christian beliefs about the roles, commitments and responsibilities of husbands and wives.
  • Consideration of why some marriages succeed and others fail.

Learning Objectives:

  • Understand Christian beliefs about the roles, commitments and responsibilities of husbands and wives.
  • Consideration of why some marriages succeed and others fail.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon a number of different types of relationship.
  • Evaluate what it means to be ‘a real husband.’
  • Evaluate the purpose of a marriage.
  • Reflect upon the difference between emotions and decisions in a committed relationship.
  • Synthesise a list of ingredients for a successful marriage.
  • Analyse Bible passages to produce a list of ingredients for a successful marriage from a Christian point of view.
  • Compare different perspectives on what makes a good marriage, analysing any surprising similarities or differences.
  • Synthesise a list of rules to govern Christian and secular marriage (if the two were to be made legally distinct from one another).


Write some or all of the following relationship pairs up for everyone to see (feel free to add further pairs).

  • Student and teacher
  • Employer and employee
  • Sports coach and athlete

Put the students into small groups, and assign each group one type of person (i.e. one half of one of the pairs). You don’t have to use all three relationships, but make sure that you assign both halves of any pair used (i.e. if one group is assigned ‘student’, make sure that another group has been given ‘teacher’, and so on). Each group should put themselves in the position of someone in that role within the stated relationship, and produce a list of things that they would want their counterpart to do in order to make that relationship as good as possible for all concerned. In other words, a group who is assigned ‘student’ would produce a list of what they would like their teachers to do for the benefit of both student and teacher (n.b. not just for the benefit of the student).

Once they have had time to complete this exercise, combine the pairs with a group who tackled the other half of their relationship to compare notes. Have a brief time of feedback and see if you can draw any general conclusions about what makes relationships work.

Explain that in this lesson you are going to be thinking particularly about marriage relationships, asking what ingredients make for a successful marriage and looking in particular at what Christians believe a good marriage relationship should be like.


Introduce the clips from the film The Descendants (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011, certificate 15). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that the clip features Matt (George Clooney), a Hawaiian businessman and husband whose wife is in a coma following a speedboat accident. In this clip he visits her in hospital and reflects upon their marriage. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the effect that Liz’s accident has upon Matt’s attitude to their marriage.

  • Start time: 0.02.10 (in chapter 1 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.03.02
  • Clip length: 52 seconds

The clip starts with Matt in the hospital. The first line – spoken in voiceover – is Matt saying, ‘This is Elizabeth Dawson King, my wife…’ The clip ends when Matt’s phone rings. The last line is Matt saying, ‘Please, Liz, just wake up.’

Ask the students what difference the accident has made to Matt’s attitude. If necessary, remind them of his comment that before the accident he and Liz ‘hadn’t really spoken in months.’ Ask the students what kind of communication they think Matt means here (having already said that they hadn’t spoken at all for three days before the accident, because he was out of town).

What do the students think Matt meant when he said, ‘I’m ready now; ready to talk, I’m ready to change. I’m ready to be a real husband and a real father.’? To what kind of change do they think he might have been referring? What do the students think are the marks of a real husband?

Introduce a second clip from The Descendants. Since the first clip, Matt has discovered that prior to her accident Liz was having an affair and was planning to ask him for a divorce. In this scene, Matt brings their two daughters to see Liz.

  • Start time:       0.43.20 (in chapter 14 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.45.04
  • Clip length:      1 minute and 44 seconds

The clip starts with Matt saying, ‘Girls, let me go in for just a quick moment alone first.’ It ends with Matt going to fetch the girls. The last line is Matt saying, ‘Alex is home from school. Try to be nice, okay?’

Please note that the clip includes instances of swearing (the F word used in anger by Matt). If you think this is inappropriate for your students, you could describe the clip to them rather than playing it. Explain that during the scene, Matt says the following to Liz:

‘Isn’t the idea of marriage to make your partner’s way in life a little easier? For me it was always harder with you, and you’re still making it harder.’

Ask the students whether they agree with Matt’s concept of the idea of marriage being to make your partner’s life easier. Is that what marriage is for? Do any of them have other suggestions for the purpose of marriage? Draw out that another way of putting Matt’s point is that one vital ingredient of any successful marriage is the willingness of spouses to put the needs of their partner ahead of their own needs and desires.

Give out copies of the article When I Don’t Feel Love for My Spouse by Steve Cornell and ask the students to read it. You might want to read out the opening two paragraphs (up to the headline ‘Being and behaving in love’) and then ask the students whether their view is closer to that of the writer or the woman he describes. Then give out the articles for the students to read. Once they have read the rest of the article, ask if any of them have changed their mind now that they have seen the writer’s line of argument explained.

You can find the article at

Do the students agree with the distinction drawn in the article between being in love and behaving in love? Is this a helpful way of thinking about love? Draw out that a definition of love, in the context of marriage, which emphasises the feelings (such as the one this article warns against) will also have the effect of downplaying the importance of commitment within a marriage. Do the students think that it is possible for someone to show that they value their spouse while also acting on romantic feelings towards another person?

Ask the students to work in pairs or small groups to compile a list of important ingredients for making a marriage (or other serious relationship) work. Their list should include at least six items. Once everyone has had time to complete the task, bring the class back together to share their results. Were there any suggested ingredients that other students disagreed with? What were the suggestions that recurred most often in all the lists?

Give out the worksheet of Bible verses about husbands and wives, and ask the students, in the same pairs or small groups as the previous exercise, to read the passages and extract from them another list of ingredients to make a good marriage according to the Bible. Students may refer to other relevant Bible passages as well if they wish.

How do the two lists compare? Ask the students if there are any ingredients on the new list which they find surprising, or which they disagree with.

Tell students about the book The Sixty Minute Marriage by Rob Parsons. Rob Parsons is a Christian speaker and writer, although the book The Sixty Minute Marriage is written for people of any faith or none. It contains advice on marriage which corresponds with biblical advice, but which is put forward using arguments based on common sense, not simply saying ‘the Bible says…’ Click here to buy The Sixty Minute Marriage online.

The Sixty Minute Marriage recommends the following recipe for a successful marriage:

  • Effective communication
  • Making time for each other
  • Surviving conflict
  • Forgiveness
  • Accepting things you cannot change
  • Identifying and dealing with ghosts in your past that can affect the way you respond to situations

Ask students how this list compares with the previous ones. If the students’ lists based on the Bible are notably different in character to the above, ask students whether they can see anything in the Bible passages they looked at to support this perspective on what makes a marriage work.


Read the following quote from C.S. Lewis to the class:

‘My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.’ (From the chapter ‘Christian Marriage’ in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. First published 1952.)

Click here to buy a copy of Mere Christianity online.

More able students may benefit from reading the whole chapter (which is fairly brief – only 8 or 9 pages), to understand more of Lewis’ reasoning, and his understanding of the principles that underpin a Christian understanding of marriage.

Ask the students to draw up a set of rules for governing each of these two types of marriage. How would the Christian marriage be distinguished from the state-governed one? What would the two types of marriage have in common? Which type of marriage would the students prefer to be part of if they were to marry at some point in the future?


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