Canadian Consulting Engineer

Love and Marriage

"Love is in the Air," croons the popular song. But according to Phil Sunderland, P.Eng., love has to rest on something much more solid if it is going to bloom into a good marriage.Sunderland is a prin...

June 1, 2000  Canadian Consulting Engineer

“Love is in the Air,” croons the popular song. But according to Phil Sunderland, P.Eng., love has to rest on something much more solid if it is going to bloom into a good marriage.

Sunderland is a principal of Levelton Engineering of Richmond, B.C., which took over his former firm, SCS Engineering, in 1997. He is also president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC), and has spent six years on the association’s council.

In the 1980s, however, Sunderland’s volunteer hours were spent very differently. He and his wife Nancy led pre-marriage counselling courses at his Anglican church in North Vancouver. Four evenings a month for 11 years, they counselled groups of up to two dozen people heading for the altar. One of his fellow APEGBC counsellors is even an ex-student. Sunderland later spent four years as president of the B.C. Council for the Family.

The skills the Sunderlands taught in the marriage preparation classes were attitudinal approaches like how to recognize when problems are just teething troubles, and being able to accept that you and your partner will change and grow over time. They also covered basic topics like how to manage finances, sex and birth control, and above all, making sure you are tying yourself to the right person in the first place.

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The Sunderlands have not heard of any marriage that came through the course that later failed, though they did have half a dozen couples who decided not to tie the nuptial bonds. “They found they were rushing into it,” Sunderland says, recalling that they often saw couples fall into heated debate during the discussions.

What would entice an engineer to jump into the emotional hotbed of social counselling? After all, social work and engineering don’t often make cosy bedfellows. The Sunderlands were initially invited by their rector to lead a group, says Sunderland. But the real spur, he says, was having watched some friends’ marriage fall apart, and feeling “helpless to do anything.”

Sunderland’s interest in nurturing human relationships, however, comes from more than a desire to make people happy. He also believes that providing people with the abilities to form solid relationships may help to build a better functioning society. This is where his professional background comes in. “I see an aspect of engineering as being the business of planning, doing things beforehand that avoid problems later. We build systems, design systems, and so on…. From my perspective it makes more sense to put some effort into providing training and support that will prevent problems, rather than throwing an immense amount [of resources] at the problems after they have occurred.”

Sunderland might support family values but he is not an orthodox thinker. He has long campaigned within his church to have it openly recognize gay and lesbian unions and believes that same-sex couples should be able to raise children. “We bless houses and cats and fishing boats,” he argues, “so why not bless the commitment of long-term relationships by people of the same sex?” He disagrees with the authoritarians: “I don’t share the approach to scripture and authority in the church that says, ‘It’s in the Bible and therefore it must be true, and we’ve got to do it.’ I think that it [scripture] is to be used selectively and the underlying message is love and nurturing, rather than categorizing people and ruling them out of your group.”

In the end, he admits social relationships might be beyond even the engineer’s skill: “I don’t pretend to have any all-seeing wisdom on the issue of marriage. I believe that there is an element of grace or miracle in a really successful and durable marriage and relationships.” Bronwen Ledger

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