By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
Beverly and Jim are newly engaged. Even though they are very much in love, they have big concerns. As Jim explains it, “Neither of us had the best models for marriage. My dad was an alcoholic and Beverly’s parents are divorced. How can we know what it takes to stay together?”
Their question got me thinking. Is it possible to boil down the keys to a successful marriage into some basic rules of thumb? Unfortunately, marriage isn’t quite that simple, but there are some do’s and don’t that are universally good ideas when it comes to living in love for a lifetime.
St. Paul reminds us that husbands and wives are to, “defer to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Everything a couple does must be about helping each other become the people God created them to be in this life and helping each other get ready for the next life. Pray together every day. When you have a disagreement, discuss it, then submit both of your wills to God’s will in prayer. Then get more information, discuss, pray, and repeat until you achieve a successful resolution to the problem. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you or your spouse wants, the only thing that matters is that you and your spouse are committed to helping each other more clearly discern what God wants.
2. Prioritize your marriage.
You are the most important influence in your spouse’s life second only to his or her free will and the saving power of Jesus Christ. As I mentioned above, your job is to help each other become who God wants you to be and to get to heaven. There is no other work more important, and no other relationship that can compete. You did not promise at the altar to place your mom, your dad, your, boss, your neighbor, or your Great Aunt Brunhilda first in your life, but you did promise God to place your spouse first. You must be prepared to give your mate not only symbolic first place “in your heart,” but also first place in your schedule, your allotment energy, and your commitment of time. If you are not doing this, then your life is disordered, your priorities are flawed, and your marriage will pay the price. Guaranteed. The promise to “forsake all others” does not merely apply to sexual partners, it applies to every relationship that seeks to compete with the primacy of the marriage.
3. Take time to talk.
Husbands and wives must have at least 30 minutes a day where they can talk openly, not just about what went on today and what they have to do tomorrow, but also about what is on their hearts, where their lives together are going, and what specific support they need from–or are trying to give to–each other in order to fulfill the prime directive of marriage; helping each other become who God created them to be and get ready for heaven. (Now, where did I hear that before?)
4. Learn new skills.
If you needed surgery, would you pick the doctor who hadn’t picked up a medical journal or been to a continuing education class in twenty years, or would you prefer the doctor who has kept current with the latest techniques and treatments? Of course you would pick the doctor who has kept current. But is the work of marriage any less important or challenging than the work of a doctor? (I’ve counseled many a doctor who said that marriage was harder.) Regularly read books on Christian marriage together and discuss what does and does not apply to you (and why). Take a marriage encounter weekend. Once a year, go on a mini retreat together where you spend a day or a weekend thanking God for the blessings of the past year and asking for guidance in the next. Stay current with the skills necessary for caring for each other’s heart and soul. You’ll be glad you did
1. Don’t Pick on each other.
Avoid all forms of name-calling and unnecessary criticism. These things wear out your welcome in a person’s life. When you must complain about something, make sure you do it in a charitable manner. Learn how to express your concerns in love. For specific tips on how to do this, check out my book, For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.
2. Don’t Have Emotional Affairs.
Do you share information with someone before you tell your spouse? When something good or bad happens to you, do you think of sharing that with someone other than your spouse? Is there someone in your life that you feel understands you better than your mate? You may be committing emotional infidelity, and if this certain someone is of the opposite sex, then the problem is twice as bad.
If your mate isn’t your best friend, then recognize it is: a marital problem. Then get professional help to fix the problem. Seeking a confidante in someone else, especially someone of the opposite sex, is asking for trouble.
3. Don’t Marry a Script.
Too many couples don’t marry each other. They marry a script. Instead of taking the time to learn how to meet the needs of the unique person God gave us, we tell ourselves that we are being a good spouse if we do all the things our friends do for their spouse, or all the things that our mom did for our dad, or vice-versa. It doesn’t matter if our mate is miserable in the marriage. As long as we are following our script, we are doing our job. When our spouse complains, we shrug and say, “I’m doing everything right. It must be your problem.”
A good spouse learns the heart of the person to whom he or she is married and generously works to respond to those unique needs, even when doing so means leaving behind his or her comfort zone. Assuming that our mate doesn’t ask us to do something that is morally offensive or personally demeaning, we are obliged to meet the request, generously and cheerfully. If you don’t, then contrary to what you might wish to think, you are a lousy spouse. Start doing better today or suffer the consequences tomorrow.
4. Don’t play marital chicken.
Spouses love to play a game I call “marital chicken.” Like the game played in the 1950’s where reckless teens drove toward each other at high speeds, waiting for the “chicken” to veer out of the way, couples bluff each other in their own high stakes game when they say, “I would be more communicative/romantic/sexual/ playful/responsible/etc. if you would be more communicative/romantic/sexual/playful/ responsible/etc. But I know you, you’ll never change.”
When we play this game, we get to avoid doing our job while getting to feel self-righteous at the same time, but we’re just fooling ourselves. When we die and go to heaven (hopefully) and God says, “Why weren’t you the generous person I needed you to be to your spouse?” Do you really think it’s going to cut the mustard to say, “Well, Lord, I would have been generous, if only my spouse…”
These simple do’s and don’ts might not be all it takes to have a great marriage, but if you follow them, I can guarantee that you’ll have one of the best marriages on the block. You’ll be well on your way to living a marriage that will make the angels smile and the neighbors sick with jealousy.
Other Marriage-related Issues
Children are the biggest casualties of divorce. If you and your spouse have broken up, remember, you still have to parent together. Some states offer post-divorce parenting classes. Look into taking one with your ex. Likewise, don’t punish your kids when you are mad at your estranged husband or wife. Show up for visits when you are supposed to, pay your support on time, give your estranged partner first dibs on baby-sitting, try to maintain similar expectations of rules and behavior (go with whosever are higher, kids perform to your expectations) and never criticize the children’s other parent. You and your ex are responsible for the proper formation of your children even if you couldn’t manage to live together. Yes, we all know that temperatures run high when you are in the presence of your estranged mate. Even so, your children need grown-ups in their lives to guide them. Be one.
In her book, The Good Marriage, author Dr. Judith Wallerstein observes that almost 20% of the most satisfied couples in her study had weathered an affair at some point in their marriage. But healing can be very difficult. Recovering from an affair is a complicated multi-stage process that requires the help of a good therapist to work through. Getting beyond the pain requires rethinking one’s priorities and deepening one’s capacity for intimacy, communication and problem solving. It is not uncommon for couples who have not gone through all the stages of post-affair recovery to still carry the pain of the affair with them for decades.
If your marriage has suffered the trauma of infidelity, pick up a copy of Dave Carder’s book, Torn Asunder: Recovering from Extramarital Affairs. Also, be sure to contact your PaxCare Tele-Coach, who can help you find faithful solutions to any and all of the challenges addressed in this article. If needed, they can help you find a Catholic therapist who can guide you through the pain and toward healing and intimacy. Call us to get the support you need to succeed.
The Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse.
America’s premier marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman identified four stages failing marriages go through in his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. They are:
1. The First Horseman: Criticism
This is when spouses begin to complain, not about each other’s behavior (which is acceptable and even necessary sometimes), but about each other. This is the difference between, “It really bothers me when you do that.” And, “I’ve told you a thousand times how irritating that is. You are so inconsiderate!”
2. The Second Horseman: Contempt
The couple rarely, if ever, compliments each other. They tend to assume the worst about each other’s intentions most of the time. Most offenses are perceived as being committed intentionally, with malice, whether or not they really were. As soon as there is a problem, insults are lobbed directly at the heart of the person. The couple begins to hate being in each other’s presence for any length of time.
3. The Third Horseman: Defensiveness.
The couple has stopped listening to each other. “Discussions,” such as they are, take the form of charge and counter-charge. The couple is not really trying to problem-solve as much as each is trying to prove to some imaginary judge that it is their partner who is the bigger jerk.
4. The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling.
The couple has heard enough from each other. The charge-countercharge game is losing its appeal. Anymore, criticisms are met with shrugs, snide comments, or merely ignored. The couple tries to talk and relate as little as possible. They have all but given up hope that their problems can be solved. If this couple does not find competent help soon, separation may be immanent. Using the above criteria, Gottman’s study was able to predict with 95% accuracy which couples were going to be divorced within five years.