Alumni Profile • Linda Hertel Dykstra ’66
Owner’s manual included

Linda Hertel DykstraImagine being given a board game without its instructions or owning a car without its owner’s manual. That happens to many, if not most, couples who marry, said Linda Hertel Dykstra ’66.

“People think it’ll be like the movies: You fall in love and live happily ever after. Given the 50 percent divorce rate, it’s apparent that that is not the case,” she said. “Relationships require some basic skills, skills many people don’t have before they marry.”

Dykstra says the good news is that the skills are teachable. She has devoted the three decades of her practice as a marriage and family therapist in Grand Rapids, Mich., to clarifying and teaching those skills to couples who seek her aid. Often, by the time a couple sit in her office, their marriage is struggling. How much heartbreak could be spared, she thought, if couples could learn the components of a good relationship before signing the marriage license.

So 10 years ago Dykstra wrote Marriage Owner’s Manual. The book’s first section, “Design,” describes not only the five components that comprise a successful relationship, but also how to assess those components and tune them to their best working order.

In late February Dykstra taught the five component skills to Calvin students in a seminar sponsored by the chaplain’s office. “It was exciting to see students eager to learn about empathy, assertiveness, negotiation and compromise, non-negotiable values and unconditional love,” she said. “Now they have the ‘rules for the game.’”

Although the five components are relevant to both premarital and marital relationships, other sections of Marriage Owner’s Manual — “Operation,” “Repair,” “Breakdown” and “Rebuilding” — speak specifically to married couples who may need to address vulnerability, affairs, forgiveness and options short of divorce.

Comparing marriage to the maintenance of a machine may sound cold, but in Dykstra’s experience her approach — with its diagrams, assessments and guidelines — “makes hope skyrocket” for many of the couples she sees: “They’re so relieved that the problem can be identified and that it can be worked on so that they can have the best marriage possible.”

Dykstra stresses that though she provides couples with a manual and tools, they, not she, do the work. “I’m simply God’s vessel,” she said. “The results aren’t up to me. Time after time couples who seem to have little chance of success work it out beautifully. I go to the office and watch miracles happen.”

But not always. Sometimes, after all the work, a marriage ends. When that happens Dykstra offers couples a nonlitigious divorce process called divorce mediation. “It’s a more Christian approach to divorce,” she said. “The Bible states that when there is conflict it should be dealt with directly, and that’s how divorce mediation works.”

In mediation, spouses negotiate the terms of their divorce directly using the same listening and compromising skills Dykstra teaches for marriage strengthening. This makes it possible for them to leave the marriage with more understanding and less hostility, which is crucial, she said, for healthy co-parenting of any children involved. “After all, these children will be the next generation of brides and grooms, mothers and fathers. We want them to have the best parenting possible.”

To learn more about Marriage Owner’s Manual, see www.lindaherteldykstra.com.