Maintaining Your Marriage Connection

It’s easy to tell when someone is happy. People often express outward signs when they are feeling good, such as smiling, using an upbeat tone, or having a bounce in their step. But it can be harder to tell what someone is thinking when they are feeling down, tired, or upset. These emotions are often masked or do not come with as markedly definitive expressions. While you may think you know all of your partners’ “tell tale signs” of their emotions, new research suggests otherwise. Psychologist Chrystyna Kouros states “We found that when it comes to the normal ebb and flow of daily emotions, couples aren’t picking up on those occasional changes in ‘soft negative’ emotions like sadness or feeling down…They might be missing important emotional clues.” Because of this, there are a few things that we must keep in mind to maintain the connection in our relationships.

Theology of the Body reminds us that we were created for communion, but of course, sin ruptures that communion.  Because of sin, instead of coming naturally to us, making connection to others takes effort.  It requires us to be intentional about asking questions, scheduling dates, praying, reflecting and planning in order to create the kind of closeness and intimacy we were created to enjoy naturally. The sense that great relationships should “just happen” hints at the time before the fall, where Adam and Eve enjoyed Original Unity and it also hints at how things will be once we are united with God and the Communion of Saints in heaven. But here, in this sinful world, creating connection takes real work, and doing the work that is necessary to create loving communion–first, within our families and then in the world–is what it means to “build the kingdom.” Doing good works, serving in the parish or community, saving the world are all important things, but creating connection is the most important work a Christian can do.  Remember what St. Paul said, “If I have the faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Let’s refocus on the great work of being intentional about creating meaningful connection with the people closest to us and let God multiply our efforts to bring the world to him through our efforts to consciously connect.

Don’t Assume–Too many couples assume that things are “fine” if there isn’t any conflict.  They think that the lack of arguments is the same things as satisfaction. But there are a million reasons a couple might not be fighting that have nothing to do with intimacy. Don’t ever assume your marriage is on solid ground just because you’re not arguing. Instead, ask. Make time everyday to say to each other, “What can I do to make your day a little easier or more pleasant?”  Make sure you get meaningful answers. Don’t settle for “I don’t know” or “Nothing.” If those are the answers you get more often than not, make a point of scheduling more focused conversations–at least weekly–about how close you feel to each other, what pressures you might feel are challenging your sense of togetherness, and what you might need to do to grow closer–even if things are good. Happy couples, don’t wait for conflict to tell them they are off-course, they regularly check their course and make tiny course corrections every day so they can make sure to stay on track

Give Your Connection to God–God wants you to have a great marriage, both because he wants to fill your hearts with his love AND because he wants to show the world–through your relationship–that the love that everyone longs for is truly possible. But God doesn’t expect us to create that kind of connection on our own.  He wants to teach us, and he will, if we bring our relationship to him everyday.  Take a few minutes every day to sit down together with your spouse and say to God, “Lord, we give you our relationship.  Help us to love each other the way you want us to. Help us to really listen to each other, take care of each other, be honest about our needs, and be generous in our response to each other’s needs. Teach us to be a couple after your own heart, so that our hearts would be filled with your love and so that the world would see your life in us.” Let God teach you how to create and maintain a powerful, loving connection. Sit at The Master’s feet and learn to love each other with his love.

Connect Consciously–Most couples assume their relationship will “just happen” since they’re living under the same roof. But truly happy couples are conscientious about creating times to connect. Make a point of scheduling even 10 minutes every day to work, pray, talk and play together. Working together might mean setting the table together or cleaning up the kitchen together after dinner. Praying together just means bringing your day and your relationship to God and asking for his grace. Talking together means asking, NOT just about what happened in the day or what’s on the schedule tomorrow, but about how you’re feeling about the direction of your life and relationship and how you can better support each other. And playing together can be as simple as taking a 10 minute walk around the neighborhood, or playing a couple rounds of a favorite game. The point is, happy couples don’t assume relationship connection will “just happen.” They make mini-dates everyday to briefly maintain their ability to work, play, talk, and pray together, and then they look for bigger blocks of time to have more significant opportunities to connect across those levels as well. Being conscious about connecting daily, helps prevent you from feeling alone even though you’re always together.

For more on how to maintain the connection in your marriage, check out For Better…Forever! and tune in to More2Life—weekdays at 10am E/9am C on EWTN, SiriusXM 139.

Practically Perfect in Every Way – Three More2Life Hacks for Overcoming Perfectionism

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In the age of social media, self-criticism and perfectionism are more prominent than ever. We continue to become increasingly focused on being “perfect”: having the perfect physique, having the perfect job, or keeping the perfect house. In reality, however, this striving for “perfection” simply makes us increasingly unhappy as we lose focus of what we are really working towards.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves, but both theology and science show us that it is a mistake to believe that we can somehow mentally force ourselves into perfection.

Theology of the Body reminds us that God’s plan for us is written in the design of our bodies. Brain science shows that the more self-critical we are, the more our brains lock down and become resistant to change. It’s actually self-acceptance that creates the chemistry necessary for new neural connections to form.  Ultimately, it’s important to remember that while none of us is perfect, it is God’s love that perfects us.  We are destined to be, as Jesus puts it, “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect” God does not expect us to get there on our own.  TOB teaches us that it only by cultivating a receptive posture to God’s love and grace that we are able to be transformed from the inside out through an authentic encounter with God’s love.  Perfection doesn’t come from flogging ourselves to be better. It comes from letting God love us and learning to see ourselves as he sees us–works in progress, certainly–but on the road, by his love and grace, to becoming the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled people we are meant to be.

Here are three More2Life Hacks for preventing perfectionism from taking its toll on you:

Mind Your Mind–Beating yourself up, feeling “not good enough,” engaging in  self criticism are all signs that your brain is overheating. Brain science shows that giving into these behaviors actually makes the brain resistant to change as it locks down in the face of a perceived threat.  When you hear that inner-critic ramping up, don’t try to challenge those thoughts directly at first.  Instead, remind yourself that self-criticism is just a symptom of the real problem–trying to do too much, too fast.  Give yourself permission to slow down, to create more realistic goals, and make a more realistic plan.  Remind yourself that jobs take the time they take.  Getting mad at them, or yourself, doesn’t alter time.  It just makes you less able to make good time by making you less efficient and less effective.

Deadline and Done–Perfectionistic people have a hard time just walking away. They always feel like they have to add just a little more or review it just one more time. A better approach is to pretend that you are on one of those reality shows where you have a certain amount of time to complete a task and when the clock runs down you have to step away and be done.  Whether you are working on a particular project or trying to plan your day, give yourself what you think will be a reasonably generous amount of time to accomplish your tasks, but when that time hits, walk away.  You can always come back to it some other time if you need to.  But for today? Be done! Perfectionistic people tend to get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture. Setting an arbitrary deadline allows you to step back and gain perspective.  If a particular project really needs a little more effort, then it will still be there tomorrow. For now, move on to other things–like taking a break to connect with the people who love you and can remind you that you are a person, not a machine.

What’s the Point?  Perfectionism is almost always a faulty means to achieve some deeper end.  We WANT love, approval, validation, acceptance, peace, but we PURSUE being a perfect employee, a perfect parent, a perfect homemaker, a perfect…whatever.  But the harder we work at being perfect, the further we get from satisfying the real emotional need driving our perfectionism.  Ask yourself what the point of your perfectionism really is.  Take some time in prayer to reflect on what you are trying to accomplish–emotionally and spiritually–by being so self-critical and task oriented?  When you find yourself giving into the temptation to perfectionism, remind yourself what you are REALLY looking for, and ask yourself what you would need to do to get that?  If you honestly don’t know, then it’s time to seek some help so that you can step off the hamster wheel and start getting your needs met instead of constantly running but never getting anywhere.

For more information on how to strive to be the person God meant you to be, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart, and tune in to More2Life Monday-Friday 10am E/9am C on EWTN, SiriusXM 139.

Family Food or Family Feud—Surviving or Thriving During The Holidays

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The holidays are wonderful, however, as some of us may have experienced during Thanksgiving, they can also be very stressful. Spending time with extended family can often lead to arguments or strained relationships. While we all made it through Thanksgiving, chances are, you’re preparing for Christmas, New Year, and the entire holiday season where you may be spending more time with your extended family. So how do you recover from the family conflicts that may have occurred over Thanksgiving, and what do you need to do to prepare to see them again in the coming weeks?

Theology of the Body reminds us that families are School of Love, but too often they feel like battle grounds especially when it comes to disagreements about politics, religion, sexuality, and all the other issues that families feel passionately about. When we get into these discussions with family members, we can forget that the most important thing isn’t winning the argument, but rather, loving the person. The question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t “What can I say to convince my idiot cousin to repent of his idiotic ways?” But rather, “How do I need to respond to my cousin (or other family member) in a way that makes him feel genuinely heard and cared for even if he knows I don’t agree with him?” People aren’t projects. The more we can remember that, the more we can be effective witnesses to the people we love, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

Here are three More2Life Hacks for managing conflict with extended family:

Will I Be Able To Follow This Up Tomorrow? –When you’re tempted to argue with your extended family ask yourself, “Will I be able to follow up on this tomorrow?”  In other words,  Having a fight with a relative you only see two or three times a year is not going to do anything except prove to that relative that you are a jerk. Evangelization is all about relationship; that you know a person, understand them, and truly care–not from a distance, but in a personal way–about their lives. If there isn’t any reasonable way for you to build a discipleship relationship with this relative that can allow you to lead them, over time, to a deeper relationship with the truth, the best thing you can do is plant a seed by showing them how God’s grace allows you to remain unruffled, calm, and confident in the face of those big differences that divide your family.  If you can manage to stop yourself from acting like the foaming-at-the-mouth religious lunatic they already think you are, they might just start to respect you, which gives you a better chance to represent the faith effectively in the future.

Redirect the Traffic–Even if you decide that you do have a strong enough relationship with this relative to enter into a real conversation about a contentious issue, avoid a head-on collision by redirecting the traffic. Rather than getting drawn into a “battle royale” at the family table, say, “Listen, this isn’t really the time to hash all this out, but if you’re genuinely interested in discussing this with me, I’d really love to discuss this with you over lunch sometime (or dinner at my house, or some other shared activity). Let’s table this for now and make a plan to really talk this out.” This approach allows you to weed out those relatives who just want to play the “Let’s fight” game while still allowing you the opportunity to disciple people who are genuinely interested in an authentic dialog. Plus, you’ll gain tons of credit from the rest of your family by showing them that you have the grace–literally and figuratively–to prevent THIS family get-together from turning into a ten-car pile-up.

People Aren’t Projects–If someone does take you up on your offer to get together for a follow-up conversation, remember “people aren’t projects,” they are people who deserve to be understood and loved. Before you say anything about what you believe–especially before you say anything about what you believe about their opinions, their life, or their choices, make sure you understand them so well, that even they agree that you get them. Don’t focus on lecturing. Focus on asking question, “Tell me more about why you think that way? Help me understand why that is so important to you? How does all this affect you?” Show the other person that you are more interested in loving them than in changing them. Ironically, they will be much more open to hearing what you say–and even changing their mind or ways–when they feel genuinely understood. That said, don’t think of this approach as some kind-of sneaky technique. Think of it as an opportunity to get to know someones’ heart and to let God’s grace flow from your heart to theirs.

For more tips on dealing with conflict and keeping peaceful relationships, check out God Help Me! These People are Driving Me Nuts! and make sure to tune in to More2Life—Monday through Friday on EWTN Global Catholic Radio, SiriusXM 139.

Find out more about our tele-counseling and spiritual direction services at CatholicCounselors.com

Simple Tips For Living a More Joyful Life

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We tend to think that joy is a product of stepping away from life and finding little ways to take a break or enjoy ourselves. While that can be important, just doing this only leads to fleeting moments of happiness. But how do we find real joy in our daily life without having to take time away from work, family, or the other aspects of our lives?

Theology of the Body reminds us that Joy is the fruit of living a meaningful, intimate, and virtuous life. Joy is that quality that allows us to have a deeper sense of rightness and contentment about our lives even when things are a little crazy or not going the way we’d like. Because Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, you can’t pursue Joy directly. Cultivating joy means dedicating oneself to a life of meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue regardless of our circumstances.

Here are three More2LifeHacks for Cultivating Joy in your Heart:

Keep the Big Picture in Mind–Joy requires us to be able to step out of the chaos of everyday life and remember who we are and what’s important. This requires us to stay connected to God–to be able to see things from his point of view. Find ways to bring the present moment to God no matter how crazy it is. Ask him, “What do you want this moment to look like? How can I respond to this in a way that glorifies you?” Then re-engage the situation from this more graceful perspective. Keeping the big picture in mind helps you remain connected to what’s important.

Be Kind–True joy comes from seeking little ways to be a gift to others all day long.  As you go about your day, consciously ask yourself how you can make a difference in this moment?  Is there something you can do to make this person’s day even a little easier or more pleasant?  Is there something you can do to take down the tension in this situation?  Is there some way you can surprise someone with a small thoughtful gesture or little act of service? You don’t have to be a martyr about it.  In fact, it’s better if you aren’t.  Just look for those little ways to be a gift or create caring connection while you’re passing by or passing through.  These little acts of kindness increase your joy by helping you see all the ways you are making a positive difference in your world and in the lives of those around you.

– Stay In School–Research shows that joyful people are eager students in the “school of life.”  Joyful people are always open to seeing things from a new perspective, trying a new experience, and growing in ways that help them be stronger, healthier, more well-rounded people.  Joyful people aren’t shy about sharing what they like.  They know who they are and what they stand for, but they are open to discovering all the ways God is revealing himself to them through the people and the world around them.  And the more ways we open ourselves to this experience of God the more his grace makes us joyful. So, be yourself, but don’t be afraid to be more, learn more and grow more.

For more tips on living a joy-filled life, tune in to More2Life Monday-Friday 10am E/9am C on Sirius XM 139 and check out my book, The Life God Wants You to Have!

When Sex Isn’t About Sex: 3 Things You Need to Know

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The Church’s teachings on sex and love are among most provocative and the least understood things in Catholicism.  What difference does it make what we do in the bedroom?  Does God really care about our sex lives that much?

St John Paul’s Theology of the Body reminds us that the Church’s teachings on love and sex aren’t just about sex, they are ultimately the way that lay people can give their whole selves–soul, mind, and body–to Christ.  Because of the incarnation, Christianity is an embodied spirituality that has to be expressed not just spiritually or mentally, but concretely and physically.  Just like clergy and religious practice celibacy as a way of giving themselves totally and completely to God, living the Catholic vision of love and sex is the way lay Christians can make a total loving response to Jesus giving himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity. God holds nothing back from us, even taking on a body so that we could feel his love more concretely. How can we hold anything back from Him. God doesn’t just deserve our minds and hearts. He deserves for us to dedicate our bodies to his service. Living the Catholic vision of love isn’t always easy, but it is a privilege that lets us make an embodied response to Christ’s gift of his body to us.

Whether you’re a life-long Catholic or just learning about the faith, there are three things that you may not have known about the Church’s teaching on sex and sexuality!

1. Your Body is A Prayer–Most people tend to think that as long as they pray and go to church, what they do with their bodies doesn’t really matter.  But this belief is a heresy called gnosticism.  Gnosticism is the disembodied spirituality that grew up alongside of Christianity but has always been rejected by the Church since the beginning. God created our bodies. He pronounced them good. He loves our bodies so much that he plans to save not just our souls but our bodies too, that’s what believing in the resurrection of the body means! For the Christian, the body isn’t just something we can choose to do with as we please. It is a prayer, that allows us to be God’s physical presence in the world.  When we use our bodies in ways that God didn’t intend, its like defacing the image of God. Treat your body like the prayer it is. Dedicate yourself to learning how to use your body to love others only in the ways that respect God design of your body and the godly purpose of your body–that is, to bring his free, total, faithful, and fruitful love to the world.

2. Your Body Requires Healing–Most people recognize the value of diet and exercise.  These things are hard, and often, not a lot of fun, but we do them because we recognize that our bodies don’t always tell us what is best for them. Because of sin, our body’s desires are out of whack with reality. If we give our body whatever it says it wants when it says it wants it, we’ll become sluggish and unhealthy.  But if that’s true in the way our body’s express its appetites for food and for rest, isn’t it the same with the way our body expresses its appetite for love?  The desires for food, rest, and love aren’t bad, but sin makes the body want to express those desires in ways that are bad for us and others, and can even make us sick. Like a healthy diet and exercise, practicing Catholic teachings about love and sex bears tremendous benefits.  Maintaining a healthy diet teaches us to eat well.  Maintaining a healthy exercise schedule trains our bodies to move well.  And practicing the Catholic vision of love heals our body so that it can love well.  Our bodies require healing to be as whole and healthy as God created them to be.  Let God give you the healing you need to live and love more abundantly.

3. Your Body is a Gift–We tend to think that what we do with our body is entirely personal. That’s why so many people believe the pro-abortion statement, “My body, my choice.” But the Christian knows that our body is meant to be a gift. We were given our bodies not to do whatever WE want with them, but so that we can work for the good of other people. Each one of us is, literally, God’s gift to the world, and our bodies are the means of communicating that gift. If you wanted to give someone a gift, would you just throw it at them? Or try to shame them into accepting it at some inappropriate time? Or just leave it laying around? Of course not! You’d look for just the right way, just the right time, to give the person you loved your gift in a way that would be really meaningful. Not just once, but EVERY time you gave them a gift. Practicing the Catholic vision of love allows you to pick the right way, the right time, and the right means by which to give the gift of yourself in the most meaningful and beautiful way to the person you love. Your body is a gift. Practice the Catholic vision of love and learn to appreciate it for the gift it is.

For more information on the Church’s teaching on sex and sexuality, check out my book, Holy Sex! and discover many more resources—including information about Catholic counseling services—at www.CatholicCounselors.com

Zombie Apocalypse: Spirituality, Sex, and the Lay Vocation

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At the upcoming USCCB Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, my wife and co-author, Lisa Popcak, will be leading a panel titled, The Family and Sexuality:  Challenges and Opportunities.  One of the first questions the panel will address is, “What is often overlooked when attempting to evangelize people about the Catholic vision of sex and love especially in marriage and family life?”

Our response? The single most overlooked point  in communicating the importance of the Church’s view on sex in marriage is that sex stands at the center of the lay vocation. Attempting to practice a lay spirituality while ignoring sex is like living a zombie spirituality that divorces the body from the soul.  If the Church is serious about the universal call to holiness, she has to get serious about proclaiming and helping people live the Catholic vision of sex and love.  What am I talking about?  I’m glad you asked.

 

Lay People: Spiritual Also-Rans?

Historically speaking, until Vatican II, lay people were all-but officially considered to be “spiritual also-rans” who, if they wanted to be serious about their faith, were welcome to borrow whatever spiritual equipment (e.g., Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, etc.) they could from the spiritual A-Team—clergy and religious.

But it isn’t always easy for lay people to use these tools.  Lisa and I regularly hear from listeners to More2Life who complain, “Since I had kids, I just don’t have time to pray like I used to.”  The problem isn’t that lay people are spiritually lax.  It’s that many of the tools Catholics consider to be our spiritual stock-in-trade were primarily developed for clergy and religious and don’t easily translate to life in the domestic church.

Until Vatican II’s earth-shattering proclamation of the “universal call to holiness” declaring that priests, religious, and lay people alike are capable of real sanctity, no one really considered what an authentically home-grown, lay approach to spirituality would even consist of.

 

Lay Spirituality:  A New Approach

Enter St John Paul the Great. As (effectively) the first post-Vatican II pope, he dedicated his life to laying the foundations of a lay spirituality that fit the demands of the domestic church.  Because lay people’s lives are consumed the minutiae of paying bills and raising families, he made St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. Her “Little Way” of holiness offers a path to sainthood that consists of doing even these little things with great love. Acknowledging how few examples of sanctity the Church offered to lay people, he canonized more lay and married saints than any pope before him.  Considering the challenges lay people face trying to live a holy life in the midst of a troubled world, he promoted devotion to Divine Mercy.  Viewing the rosary as the layperson’s easiest entrée into contemplative prayer, he wrote an apostolic letter on how to pray it properly and added an entire set of mysteries highlighting events every family could relate to; a baptism, a wedding, teaching children life lessons through stories, a father raising up his beloved son, a family meal.

And the crown jewel in this effort? St John Paul’s Theology of the Body, through which, week-after-week, over the course of 129 Wednesday audiences, he promoted a marriage-centric, nuptial view of the pursuit of holiness, the sacraments, salvation history, the Church, and the gospel itself.

 

Sex: The Heart of the Lay Vocation

And what was at the center of the Theology of the Body, this massive reflection on lay spirituality?  Sex.  Why?  Not, as some critics alleged, because St John Paul had a weird obsession with pelvic issues,  but because virtually every waking moment of the lay person’s life is spent seeking a mate, maintaining their relationship with their mate, conceiving children, dealing with struggles related to conceiving children, and raising those children to find good and godly spouses. It all comes down to tasks related, in one way or another to sex and sexuality.

Christianity is an incarnational faith. It begins with conception; with God emptying himself and becoming embodied.  As such, an authentically Christian spiritual life must also be embodied. If celibacy allows priests and religious to dedicate their bodies to work for the good of God’s Kingdom, how could a lay person share in this work? The Theology of the Body answers this question by encouraging lay people to resist the secular world’s reconception of fertility as a disease, and to refuse to engage in sexual practices that treat people as sexual objects, create barriers to the two becoming one flesh, and think of children merely as a burden.

That’s why any lay spirituality that seeks to divorce itself from the sexual character of the lay vocation is little more than a zombie spirituality; a body stumbling around desperately seeking redemption for its basic hungers. Christians, especially lay Christians, can do better. It’s time for Church to give lay people their rightful spiritual inheritance by boldly proclaiming and supporting lay people in living an authentic, embodied, home-grown, nuptial, spiritual life.  And it is time for lay people to claim their sacred right to live the universal call to holiness in the unique ways only lay people can.

When we talk about the Church’s teaching on sexual love, and NFP in particular, we as a Church need to do a better job to help people see that we aren’t just talking about a way to regulate fertility. We’re really talking about the foundations of a lay spirituality where couples join priests and religious in bringing their sexuality to God for the greater glory of his Kingdom and the building of an authentic Civilization of Love.

To learn more about how you can begin to celebrate the Catholic vision of in a way that can invigorate every part of your life–especially your spiritual life–check out Holy Sex! The Catholic Guide to Mind-Blowing, Toe-Curling, Infallible Loving

3 Ways To Guarantee You’ll Be Your Spouse’s BFF

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Many people question whether husbands and wives should expect to be each other’s best friends. Spouses are often faced with difficulties throughout their lives and marriage, so how can they still be best friends with one another? While it may come as a surprise to some, over 83% of married couples report being best friends with each other.

Pope St. John Paul the Great’s Theology Of The Body calls couples to recall the original unity–the remarkable best friendship–our First Parents enjoyed before the fall.  While many couples, today think that men and women aren’t supposed to even expect to be each other’s best friends, the Church is clear that that is exactly what God created men and women to be.  Adam’s exclamation, “At last, this is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!” was, according to St. John Paul, an acknowledgement that Adam and Eve saw, in each other, two people who could truly “get” each other.  Through God’s grace, they enjoyed “the peace of the interior gaze” that allowed them to share the deepest part of themselves with each other without fear or need to hold back at all.  Since the Fall, because of our tendencies to self-protection, selfishness, and fear of vulnerability, this level of friendship can be challenging, but that is what the grace of a sacramental marriage is intended to empower couples to enjoy. Our efforts to cooperate with that grace allow husbands and wives to be witnesses to the love God has for the world and the friendship he desires with each of us.

Here are three simple More2Life Hacks you can use to guarantee you’ll be your spouse’s BFF,

1.  Take Care–Being your spouse’s best friend begins with finding little ways to take care of each other every day. Happy couples look for little ways to make each other’s day easier or more pleasant, they look for opportunities to stay in touch throughout the day with “I love you” texts and short calls to check in.  Being your spouse’s best friend doesn’t require tons of money for elaborate dates or huge swaths of time to connect in deeply meaningful ways.  It means making the point of using this present moment–even the moments you are apart–to reach out to each other and connect in some loving way; offering a thoughtful act of service, a friendly call or text, leaving a short romantic note or other loving token of affection, an offer of prayerful support.  These little efforts make a big difference in how much you and your spouse can feel like each other’s friends.

2. Date Everyday–Date nights are wonderful, but they usually can’t happen often enough and they aren’t the panacea people make them out to be.  Couples who are real best friends don’t save their relationship for date night.  They date every day, making little appointments to work, play, talk, and pray together every day–even for five minutes at a time.  Making daily dates to do the dishes together, take a short walk or play a hand of cards, take a little time for couple prayer, and make a point of talking about something other than just the chores goes a long way toward maintaining the little connections that make being best friends possible.

3.  Enjoy Little Adventures–Research shows that couples who feel like best friends make a point of trying new things together.  They are open to participating in each other’s interests–even when they don’t personally enjoy the same things to the same degree.  Couples who are best friends practice the notion that the activity they do together isn’t the point.  Rather, the activity is just an opportunity to be together, to share something with each other, and maybe to learn something about each other.  The new things you try don’t have to be expensive or time consuming.  Make a meal together and try a new recipe.  Play a new game.  Explore a different part of the neighborhood. Try out something your spouse enjoys but you aren’t so sure about–and keep an open mind and friendly attitude about it. The point is, couples who are best friends look for little adventures to share that enable them to take their friendship in new directions.

For more information on how to be best friends with your spouse, check out For Better…Forever! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage and make sure to tune in to More2Life, weekdays 10am E/9am C on EWTN Global Catholic Radio/Sirius XM 139.

Can Christians Have “Healthy Shame” about the Body? (The Answer Isn’t What You Think).

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Lisa Madrid Duffy posted a blog about the new sex ed curriculum published by the Pontifical Council for the Family.  (And to be honest, before you ask,  I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly review it yet. That said, although I understand there are some who have expressed concerns, my cursory view is that it is probably more appropriate than any other off-the-rack sex-ed program that exists, but stay tuned for more when I get a moment).

SHAME , SHAME, SHAME?

Regardless, in that post, she mentioned  that the program–whose English translation is….clunky–discusses the need to have a healthy sense of shame about the body and sexuality.  LMD rightly takes issue with this phrase insofar as she understands it to mean that we should somehow be ashamed of our bodies or our sexuality.  She rightly notes that no Christian should ever be ashamed of his or her body or sexuality. In fact, I’ll go one further and point out that being ashamed of either our body or our sexuality is, in large part,  the heresy known as Jansenism.

Even so, there is another sense of “shame” that every Christian should know about and is actually both healthy and appropriate.

THE PROTECTIVE EMOTIONS

In Love and Responsibility, which is the book Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote as a kind-of pre-cursor to the Theology of the Body, he argues that shame, as an emotion, is a gift from God like all the emotions.  In essence, it belongs in a similar category as guilt, or fear.  Each of these feelings, when it is function according to its godly purpose, is a protective emotion in that they protect us from real or possible harm.   Healthy guilt (as opposed to scrupulosity) protects us from threats to our moral or relational self.  Healthy fear (as opposed to anxiety) protects us from threats to our physical well-being.  So, what does “healthy shame” (as opposed to self-hatred) protect us from?

Simply put, healthy shame protects us from being used.  We are created by God to be loved.  That is the fundamental raison d’être of the human person; to love and be loved. To love someone is to work for their good, to help them develop into their best selves, to help them be the best person they can be.  The opposite of love–argues TOB, is not hate, but use.  To use someone is to turn a person into a thing, something that can be employed to some other end and then disposed of.  To be used is to be treated in the exact opposite manner that a person should be treated. Where love always makes us into even better persons if we accept it, use always depersonalizes us even when we allow ourselves to be used.

LOVE NOT USE

Shame then, rightly understood and healthily employed, is the emotion that allows us to know if someone is trying to use us or we are allowing ourselves to be used.  It is intended to warn us away from people or situations that are not looking out for our best interest and want to treat us as an object or tool.  Along with healthy fear, and healthy guilt, healthy shame (again, as opposed to the unhealthy alternative, self-hatred) serves as a warning light on the human dashboard that lets us know that either someone or something is threatening an important aspect of our overall well-being.

Having a healthy sense of shame our about our body or our sexuality, then, does not mean that we hate our body or our sexuality or are somehow suspicious of them. It means that we love our body and sexuality so much that we never intentionally place ourselves in situations where will be used by others or allow others to use us.  It means that we treasure ourselves and expect to be treasured by others.

I agree with Lisa Madrid Duffy that this needs to be better explained in the English text of the PCF’s sex ed program, but now, at least, YOU know what the truth is. For more help in living out the Catholic vision of love check out my book, Holy Sex!  Or, to effectively convey the Catholic vision of love to your kids, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees.

Pontifical Council for the Family Members, Dr. John & Claire Grabowski, to Join More2Life Radio Line-Up

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Beginning Monday, July, 11, 2016, Dr. John and Mrs. Claire Grabowski, members of the Pontifical Council for the Family, will join More2Life Radio with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak as regular guest contributors.

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More2Life Radio

More2Life, a call-in program that applies St. John Paul the Great’s dynamic Theology of the Body to challenges of everyday life, is hosted by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, authors of over 20 popular books and the directors of The Pastoral Solutions Institutean internationally-recognized Catholic counseling practice.  More2Life airs M-F at Noon (Eastern) on over 50 stations across the US.

Dr. John and Claire Grabowski’s Bios

Dr. John Grabovski serves at Catholic University of America as Associate Professor of Moral Theology with continuous tenure and the Director of the Moral Theology/ Ethics area.  He and his wife were appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Family by Pope Benedict XVI in the fall of 2009 where they continue to serve as a member couple. Together they are the authors of The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World: Anniversary Edition, a popular commentary on Pope John Paul’s encyclical, Familiars Consortio.

M2L Contributors

Dr. John and Claire Grabovski will appear every other Monday beginning July 11th, 2016.  They’ll be joining our current line-up of contributing TOB experts including…

Fr. John Riccardo— (Beginning Aug 3rd, 2016) Host: Christ is the Answer, popular theology of the body expert and speaker.
Dr. Andy Lichtenwalner–Executive Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family and Youth.
Bethany Meola–Assistant Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family and Youth and Editor of ForYourMarriage.org.
Damon Owens-popular theology of the body expert and speaker, former Executive Director of the Theology of the Body Institute.
Bill DonaghyCurriculum Specialist for the Theology of the Body Institute
Fr.Thomas Loya-Director of the Tabor Life Institute
Emily Stimpson–popular theology of the body speaker. Author These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body
Dr. Joseph White–Family Psychologist and National Catechetical Consultant to OSV Publishing.  Author: Catholic Parents’ Toolbox.
Rachel Watkins–Developer of the Little Flowers Girls Club and mom of 11.

We’re excited to have Dr. John and Claire joining the More2Life Radio family and we hope you’ll enjoy their terrific insights on how to live a more joyful and abundant marriage, family, and personal life through the gift of St. John Paul II’s awesome Theology of the Body!

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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Burden of Natural Family Planning–PART 1.

Image shutterstock.

Image shutterstock.

Apparently all the 4th of July fireworks got a lot of couples thinking about the fireworks that weren’t happening in their bedrooms.  It’s usually difficult to ever find anyone writing anything about Natural Family Planning.  This week brings two different posts on the challenges of using NFP.  America Magazine has an article about the struggles various couples have with the method due to everything from medical complications to failure of the method to struggles with periodic abstinence and the sexual frustration that this abstinence often entails.

Likewise, Melinda Selmys,  has been musing on the challenges of NFP.  She–and the comments to her post–point to some real challenges that couples experience with the method.  In fact, she cheekily concludes that it is not a coincidence that about 1-2% of the population are asexual–that is, have no interest of sex with anyone of any kind–and only 1-2% of Catholics use NFP.  The implication being that the only people who are really happy about having to do NFP are the ones who really don’t give a fig about sex anyway and would like a pious reason for avoiding it. Relax.  She’s only kidding.  Sort of.

At any rate, the upshot of both pieces is that NFP is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad burden on couples and the best we can do is do it grudgingly, if at all.

Serious Questions Require a Serious Response

Because these are such huge issues, I’m going to do at least two posts on the concerns raised by the authors of the articles I mentioned above.  That said, blog posts  can’t possibly address these serious concerns as thoroughly as they need to be addressed.  I do, however, respond to all of these concerns listed above and more importantly, offer real-life, practical solutions in my book, Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind Blowing, Toe-Curling, Infallible Loving.  If you’re looking for practical answers to the challenges you facing with trying to integrate your faith with your sexual life, I really encourage you to take a look.  I think you’ll find real help there.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the issue of sexual frustration.  In my next post, I’ll respond to the other challenges identified by the above writers.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.

A lot of people have the idea that NFP is supposed to be the cause of the kind of joy usually reserved for deodorant commercials.  That is, because a couple is doing NFP, they are supposed to automatically be dancing in a sunny field while smiling manically at each other as an unseen symphony orchestra plays Copland’s Hoe-Down (the song from that American Beef Council commercial).

I would like to suggest that this understanding is, um, tragically mistaken.

Harvesting the Fruit

NFP can produce a lot of good fruit–both personally and maritally–for the couples who use it but it isn’t automatic.  Couples need to be taught how to cultivate, nurture and harvest that fruit and most simply aren’t.  The problem is that because so many people in the Church would like to see NFP just go away and so few Catholics actually use it, most NFP program’s resources need to be invested in fighting off attacks and convincing people to give it a try.  They just don’t have the support they need to do the job they would really rather be doing; that is, supporting couples in learning how to use NFP well.  Even within the Church, NFP programs are like MASH units stuck on the front lines of the battle against the Culture of Death.  they can do as much as they can with what they have, but they can’t do the job they’d like to be doing–the job they should be doing–because they are constantly being shot at and bombed from every direction.   That is a tragedy but it is also the very real and human cost of dissent.  The harder people protest NFP, the more energy NFP programs have to spend fighting for and justifying their existence in the first place.  Likewise, the fewer resources they can afford to spend supporting couples and improving the method.  Even so, the good news is that there are real answers to these common concerns.

Dealing with Frustration

Let’s look at the objection that  NFP doesn’t work because some men—and women—find it “too frustrating.”   It would be easy to belittle such comments but it would be wrong to do so.  The struggle with our fallen selves is a serious matter, and there is real pain involved.  Sexual frustration can be the source of great tension in a marriage and unless a couple understands it and knows what to do with it, the person’s mental health and marriage will suffer.

As I indicated above, this is a big question with a lot of different dimension.  To make things more manageable, let’s focus our blog discussion on the relationship between sexual frustration and NFP.  In Love and Responsibility as well as the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II teaches that sexual attraction serves both as a reminder that we were not created to be alone and as a call to remember that we are always to work for the good of the other.  In other words, as long as our sexual energy and urges inspire us to draw closer to our mate and keep our mate’s best interest in mind simultaneously, then those urges are good and godly.  By contrast, if our urges cause us to be primarily concerned with getting what I “need” from my spouse no matter what, then that urge is disordered, fallen, and ungodly.  Left unchecked, that urge can ultimately destroy my marriage and my soul.

NFP–What’s the Point?

As I am fond of reminding people, NFP is not, in my view, primarily a means of spacing children.  It is, in my view, primarily a spiritual exercise that allows couples to accomplish 3 ends; (a) to facilitate the communication and prayer life of the couple (b) to help the couple prayerfully discern their family size and, on an ongoing basis, continue to both balance and expand all the virtues associated with the unity and procreativity of marriage and (c) help the couple achieve holiness, freedom, and true love  through self-mastery and self-control.

It is point (C) that I am most concerned with here.   All of us are fallen.  All of us struggle with the desire to use another for our own selfish ends.  For some, that struggle against selfishness is stronger than for others—but it is in all of us, and overcoming it is hard and sometimes painful.  The spiritual beauty of NFP is that it highlights that struggle and challenges us to overcome our tendencies toward selfishness in ways we might not otherwise be challenged.  When someone says that NFP “doesn’t work” for them because they get too sexually frustrated, I have to respond that, in fact,  NFP was made for them.  Why?  Because any sexual urge that—if unsatisfied—threatens to blot out all the other good things about the marriage is a disordered urge that will either destroy the person, the couple, or both.  Such an urge must be tamed.

Sex on the Brain.

Is this unrealistic?  No.  The sexual drive is part of neuroendocrine system, the same primitive brain system responsible for urges like hunger and anger.  What person in his right mind would argue that intense urges to rage at people indiscriminately or eat uncontrollably should be encouraged?  No one.  In fact, we praise people who have mastered these urges (not repressed–mind you–but rather, can consciously choose when to use them and when not to) as being, in some ways more human than those who have not mastered them.    Likewise, people who have mastered these urges—who are capable of eating or stopping as they choose or being angry or not as they choose—can be said to be more free than people who must eat any time the urge strikes or must rage any time their anger is pricked.

And here is the irony.  Although society makes a distinction between the sex drive and the anger and hunger drives, the brain does not.  Society praises the unfettered sex drive, while practically criminalizing people who are overweight.  But  the same region of the brain is responsible for all three urges.  Gaining mastery over our sex drive; that is, being able to consciously choose to use it only when it is ordered toward the good of the other person, makes us more human and more free than the person who must give into every impulse for sex “or else.”  Having to wrestle with this fallen nature is hard.  The process is painful but it is sanctifying, and that struggle is a necessary part of the daily life of anyone who takes his or her mental and spiritual health seriously.

How Do I Know I’m Doing it Right?

We need to recognize that any frustration we feel in the process of doing NFP is a sign that NFP is working.  If my muscles are sort after an intense exercise session–that is a sign that my exercise regimen is building muscle.  If I am fasting or dieting, the hunger I feel is a sign that what I am doing is working physically and spiritually.  Are any of these things “fun” in the common sense of the word?  Of course not!  But we do them because they bear great fruit.  They help us look and feel and be our best.

THE SAME IS TRUE FOR THE PAINS OF NFP.   When we feel those pains, we must learn to recognize them as the growing pains that accompany both our advancing spiritual maturity and our increasing capacity for true love (i.e., the ability to work for the good of the other even when doing so makes us uncomfortable).  In those times when the growing pains—the disordered sexual frustration—hurt the most, we must recognize that we are not feeling a sexual urge that must be satisfied, but a selfish urge that must be contained and transformed.  In response, we must draw closer to our mate, in conversation, prayer, work, and non-sexual affection, as a way of reclaiming the freedom that our fallen-ness has taken from us.  Is it always easy?  Absolutely not, and anyone who says otherwise is telling you a tale.  But it is worth it, because with the struggle comes an increased capacity to become the lover, the person, and the child of God each of us is being called to be.

When to Get Help

All that said, there are times when because of medical concerns, or ridiculously long periods of abstinence, or pregnancy despite cautious usage of the method, or other issues, that NFP really isn’t working for a couple. In those times, special assistance is going to be required. My next post will be on how to deal more effectively with those situations.  In the meantime, if you are struggling–or if you want to learn how to avoid many of the struggles common to most couples–check out Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.  It can start you down the path of experiencing the joyful, loving, passionate, soulful and faithful sexual relationship you were meant to have.