by Susan Vogt
Almost everyone knows that the Catholic Church supports marriage, yet that the divorce rate in the United States hovers around 50 percent. It’s welcome news, then, that the Church has launched a campaign to help — not only Catholics, but all — married couples to strengthen their own marriage. Not long ago, the bishops launched the National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage. One thing afoot is the creation of an energetic Web site, ForYourMarriage.org, a treasure trove of helpful resources for all married couples. It includes marriage tips and short videos of on-the-street couples answering, “What have you done for your marriage today?”
An encouraging pastoral letter on marriage, which explains theological underpinnings and key issues for marriage, is also in the works. Given this emphasis on marriage, has anything changed in the way we marry and love? In this Catholic Update we’ll explore some of the key themes that make a marriage work and last. It’s really nothing new, but we always seem to forget!
A high-stakes promise
Successful marriage is not so much a matter of finding the right person but being the right person. There are probably quite a few potential partners with whom an individual could be happy. The challenge is knowing when to bend and change yourself versus when to stand up for yourself. It takes a pretty flexible pair of people to make this dance work. Love is essential but not sufficient.
So what is there beyond love that fills in the gaps and makes marriage not only endurable but a joy? Typically, marriages go through three stages: the honeymoon, disillusionment and true love. The honeymoon and true love stages may sound similar on the surface, but the difference is time and testing. The length of each of these stages varies but the progression is pretty predictable.
There comes a point in most marriages when husbands or wives say to themselves, “How could I have been so blind? I didn’t notice that she was so wrapped up in getting her own way, or that he cared more about his status in the community than my feelings.” This disillusionment phase is the first big test of a marriage. If a couple can see each other, warts and all, and commit to “being the right person,” not trying to change the spouse, the couple moves into a more mature love.
Of course, being the right person doesn’t mean always being right. It means being flexible enough to love each other through disagreements, hard times and suffering. It often means changing myself in order to become more generous, more patient, more tolerant. It’s only having passed through these trying times that one truly understands the vows taken on the wedding day, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
The sacrament of marriage becomes real when our idealistic love for each other is tested, when forgiveness overcomes annoying habits and when it shares in the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross.
This doesn’t mean that sorrows won’t come and that couples won’t face serious failings like infidelity or addictions. To paraphrase 1 Cor 13: True love is a lifelong journey in which we are often yanked by love to become more “patient and kind, less jealous, boastful or conceited, less rude and seeking our own advantage. We grow in tolerance, trust and willingness to endure whatever comes.” It takes a long time, many mistakes and much forgiveness.
Following are 10 tips for both newly married and not-so-newly married to support your marriage commitment. After all, marriage is a perilous promise — and not for the fainthearted.
1 Be prepared for big challenges
One of the most reliable predictors of a lifelong marriage is the commitment to a lifelong marriage. It is for this reason that long-lasting marriages bury the D word (divorce). This doesn’t mean that we hide our head in the sand and pretend that divorce would never happen to us. It means being proactive and doing the daily work of nurturing the marriage so that divorce does not become the final escape.
The wedding day is only the first day of many “I do’s.” It is the commitment to look for a way through a troublesome problem that makes solutions possible, despite all odds. When boredom or weariness challenge your love, it is commitment that pushes you to renew it by dating each other again, attending a marriage retreat or, if necessary, consulting a counselor.
2 Befriend your spouse daily
The Web site Facebook asks you to confirm people who want to be your friend. Spouses need to be best friends! They need to talk — a lot — and not just about the kids and finances. Try committing to giving your spouse one compliment a day — that’s a way toward ongoing encouragement and love. At first this may seem like a no-brainer until you try to come up with a new, true, concrete compliment each day.
If the idea of offering an intentional daily compliment sounds artificial, try it anyway. As long as it is true and not so general as, “Honey, you’re beautiful!” it seems to work — even if you both know you’re doing it. Another benefit of the daily compliment is that it keeps you on the watch — looking for the good, the talents, the favors that your spouse does for you. Complaints, of course, are unavoidable, but the eye trained to look for a positive trait will counterbalance the negative.
3 Disagree without being disagreeable
Communication, however, is about more than just warm, fuzzy compliments. It gets harder when there are decisions to be made — especially decisions that find you on different sides. Whether it’s whose family to visit for Christmas or a faraway job offer — or anything else — when one partner wins the argument, he or she still lives with the loser.
One unfortunate strategy many couples fall into is listening with an answer running while one thinks up more arguments. That’s not honest listening. An unfortunate companion strategy is merely to keep repeating your previous arguments with more vigor and specificity, what I call “self-summarizing syndrome.” Neither of these solves anything.
To disagree without being disagreeable means sharing feelings and using “I statements.” Use the formula “I feel discouraged when you . . .” or “I would like it if you would . . .” Remember, “Feelings are neither right nor wrong. They merely are” (as our friends in Marriage Encounter say).
One method for making fair decisions is to ask each other, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how strongly do you feel about getting your way on this decision?”
If one spouse is close to 10 (feels very strongly) and the other is closer to 1 (doesn’t much care), conceding would be the gracious way to go.
If both of you are near the middle (4, 5, 6), consider compromising.
If both of you feel strongly (7, 8, 9, 10), consider agreeing to disagree or create a new solution that is win/win.
(An exception to this process is if the same spouse consistently claims to be at 9 or 10. This is just manipulation or selfishness and needs to be confronted.)
4 Strive for similar values
You can differ on all kinds of minor things, but if your moral compasses are at odds, you surely have significant stress and conflict in your marriage. Good communication can’t compensate for lack of common values. Couples don’t have to agree on everything, but they must have similar priorities in life.
For example, good communication skills are not enough to bridge the gap of differences about child-rearing. If faith in God and practicing one’s religion is important to one spouse and the other mocks those values, tension will be a constant companion. (This doesn’t mean the couple has to practice the same religion, but they both must respect the other’s choice and support it.) A couple can’t really compromise on whether honesty, fidelity, hard work and having a spiritual life are important.
What if these differences become apparent only after the marriage? If the differences are severe, it can be a real challenge to the couple’s commitment, since it’s hard to respect a person whose life assumptions are profoundly different from your own.
First pay attention to what you do share in common and what originally attracted you to each other. Sometimes one partner has new experiences not shared by the other, and it’s not so much a difference of values as an absence of common experience. If you can’t sort it out, consider marriage counseling to help you clarify which are essential core values and which are preferences that you can change. Sometimes a trained counselor can help you see things in new ways.
5 Be ready to accept differences
The differences between people are often endearing. You may love the way he takes charge of complicated situations while he may admire the way you deftly defuse tensions between colleagues. He may be good at reading maps while she’s good at asking directions, once lost.
What once was perceived as attractive and a strength, however, can turn into an irritation when overdone. The take-charge personality, perhaps, becomes a stubborn bully. The peacemaker is now seen as a wishy-washy people pleaser. The trick is to recognize that neither of you is right or wrong — just different.
It’s often difficult to let go of thinking that your way is normal and right, but is the extrovert morally superior to the introvert? Is spring better than the fall? Is yellow better than purple? We have our preferences, but that doesn’t mean our spouse’s personality is inferior! The complementarity of your personalities will be a couple strength — once you let go of your way being the right way.
6 Tightwad or spendthrift? Know your financial personality
Are you a tightwad, a spendthrift or somewhere in between? Unless you’re exceedingly wealthy, two spendthrifts will face issues of debt.
If you are at opposite extremes in your spending habits, the stage is set for quarrels. On the other hand, if you have good communication skills and common sense, you can work out compromises and hopefully balance each other out.
Even though two frugal people might seem like the healthiest combination, too much of anything can be problematic. It’s important to leave room for occasional splurges and spontaneity lest you crowd fun out of your ordered life.
Through it all, consider what your genuine needs are as a family. There’s a difference between being responsible and being a workaholic, after all. Many people work for more and more stuff that doesn’t really fill their soul with happiness. Strive for the balance between how much is enough and how much is too much. Seeking common ground in the middle is a valuable marriage skill.
7 Beyond sex to celebrating love
Our culture is saturated with sex, but what most married couples crave is intimacy. Sure, sex is important in marriage. It is the glue that holds us together in joy and soothes our ego when we feel discouraged. But the physical act of sex becomes even more powerful when it unites our emotions, minds and spirits. In fact, sex can be empty when loveless and painful when forced.
To move beyond sex to “making” love, as we commonly say, requires a 24/7 attitude. A husband cannot be disagreeable throughout the day and expect his wife to instantly feel amorous in the evening. A wife can’t be critical at supper and expect her husband to plan a romantic evening.
It doesn’t require a lot of expense or fancy clothes, but really making love means being loving throughout the day. Sharing vulnerable feelings and interesting discussions can bond you as deeply as an orgasm and heighten the desire to join your bodies physically also. A habit of attentiveness assures our beloved that our affection is more than momentary.
8 Keeping your relationship — among children
Having a child is one of the greatest joys of marriage. It is also, in one sense, one of the greatest burdens. Children pull virtues like patience, generosity and responsibility out of us — whether we seek them or not. When your love expands to include another person, it reflects the creative impulse of God, our creator.
As much as raising children requires extravagant energy from you as parents, remember that as Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh said, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Dads and moms: Don’t let the rightful caring you must do for your children trump your primary vocation — to love your spouse. Sometimes you just have to trust that the kids will be OK and take some time to renew your marriage.
9 Find balance
It’s challenging in marriage today to find the balance among work, family and personal time. Sure, we have labor-saving devices and technology, yet many spouses end up working more hours, spending less time with their children and racing to parties or sports for relaxation. We may have more money, but where’s the fun?
Balance is the answer. Earning an income is necessary, but don’t let your job be your god. Control it even if it means a reduction in pay. Jobs, after all, can be changed; spouses are forever.
Spouse and children need our presence more than our presents. Recreation — both alone and together — refreshes our spirits. Build some of each into your weekly routine, but let your spouse be your conscience as to whether you’re spending too much time on a hobby or sport. That conscience can also be used to make sure there’s a fair balance in household chores. Neither males nor females are inherently better suited to cleaning the toilet. Household jobs should be divided according to skill, interest and time—not gender.
10 Don’t avoid the deeper questions
We humans are drawn, by God, to understand the mystery of life. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there really life after death? How do we make sense of this world around us?
One can go through life avoiding these questions, but life is meant for seeking their answers. Couples are called together to seek God together. In whatever style fits your marriage, pray together. Marriage is, after all, ultimately a way to follow Christ, the one who laid down his life for us. Couples are called, in marriage, to lay down their lives for each other.
Reprinted with permission from the May 2009 edition of Catholic Update , a publication of St. Anthony Messenger Press (http://www. americancatholic.org.)