Dr. Gregory Popcak
Bethany and Frank have been married 12 years with three kids. Things have always been fine, but lately their relationship has seemed a little strained. Frank’s workplace has been threatening lay-offs and Bethany has taken a job just in case the worst does happen. Their schedules have never been more hectic. Sometimes they feel like their marriage is being pulled apart at the seams. As Frank puts it, “We love each other, but we barely have time to tell each other anymore much less show it.”
Amanda and Ted just recently celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary. Their oldest is heading to college in the fall. They still have some time before empty nest syndrome sets in, but their son’s imminent departure has them asking some important questions. Amanda says, “Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been taking care of our marriage like we should. I don’t want to be like the couple we saw at that restaurant the other day who just sat there obviously not knowing what to say to each other.”
Your Love Can Last a Lifetime: An Overview
Keeping a marriage going strong over the years can seem like an impossible task but you don’t have to be intimidated by the effort. A lot of people believe that couples whose marriage is great just got lucky or were born with a talent for relationships that most people don’t have. But new studies of happy couples find that it isn’t so much that so-called, “marriage masters” are magically predisposed to have a great marriage. Rather, happy couples practice certain habits that everyone can learn.
The great news is that the research on happy couples overwhelmingly supports the good marriage habits the Catholic Church encourages couples to practice. Likewise, Catholic couples have a great treasure in what Pope John Paul II called the “Theology of the Body,” which basically looks at how God’s plan for human relationships is written into the very way he created our bodies to work. Science can help us learn what that code is, and theology helps us discover the divine purpose of that code. Here are some tips that faith and reason reveal about sharing a love that lasts a lifetime.
1. Rediscover Your Mission
Whether you know it or not, you and your spouse are on a mission from God. God brought you and your spouse together to teach the world an important lesson about becoming everything God created you to be in this life and helping each other get to heaven in the next.
Happy couples know that to have a great marriage, you have to live for something bigger than just getting through the day. A study by Ohio State University found that husbands and wives who work hard to live out a clear set of values in their everyday lives are much happier in marriage than couples who don’t.
For Catholics, that means that husbands and wives must be committed to helping each other live their faith in every aspect of their lives, inviting God into our problem-solving, decision-making, communication, daily life, sexuality, family planning, and everything else. The Theology of the Body reminds us that we are destined for an eternal wedding feast with God. We prepare for that wedding feast in this life by committing ourselves to a life of generous love and service–especially in marriage and family life–so that we can not only demonstrate how much we love our spouse, but also how much God loves our mate.
Melanie and Ed have been married 14 years. They have 5 children. Says Melanie, “Ed and I have always had a pretty good marriage, but I don’t think we really appreciated how good it could be until we started living our faith a little more ‘on purpose.’ That’s when things really started to change.”
Ed agrees, “These days, I really see how everything Mel and I do has a spiritual piece to it. I know it’s made me a better husband. I’m more aware now that the way I approach the little things really matters. I just try harder to be gentler in the way I talk and to look for little ways to take care of her. I really feel like God wants to love Mel through me, and that makes everything I do mean that much more.”
“Our conversations are better too.” Adds Melanie. “All we used to talk about was what kid needed to go where and whether we had enough milk. Now we talk about things that really matter and our discussions are helping each other become better people. It’s awesome.”
To clarify the mission God designed for you, develop a Marital Imperative–a mission statement that will help you and your spouse have an action plan for loving and living out God’s plan for your marriage. Follow these steps:
a) Start by listing the virtues that would help you be a better couple (e.g., love, service, generosity, joy, faith, etc.). Of course you want to exhibit all the virtues, but for now you should focus on the 3 qualities that would specifically help you and your mate be more attentive, generous, faithful partners to one another at this point in your lives.
b) Next, list the action steps that will help you do a better job of living out those virtues. For instance, if you picked, “Faith, love, and joy” as the three most important virtues in your life you might commit to the following action steps respectively, “Faith: Spend at least 5 minutes a day praying together and go to Mass every Sunday. Love: do one thing to make my spouse’s life easier or more pleasant (without being asked) every day. Joy: Spend 30 min each night doing something fun together (make list of possibilities).”
c) Finally, encourage each other to live out your Marital Imperative every day. Discuss whether and how your faith impacts decision making, problem-solving, communication, sex. Consider the virtues you want to exhibit in your daily marriage and family life. Were there opportunities you missed to exemplify those qualities? How can you help each other be more consistent in your efforts to be the couple God created you to be?
2. Plug Into the Power Source
There comes a point in every marriage–often several times over the course of the marriage–when a couple hits a wall and has gone as far as they can go on their own power. We do the best we can to love each other with our own human love but that will only get us so far. Eventually, our own selfishness, score-keeping, fears, and limitations stop us from being as generous, loving, and fully committed as we need to be to make our marriage everything God created it to be.
That’s why, to have a great marriage, we need to plug into the power source, God’s love, to supercharge our ability to break through the barriers that human love can’t crack. How do we do that? We pray together as a couple. When we pray together, God teaches us to love each other with his love, a love that is so powerful that not even the gates of hell can come against it. As Scripture says, “if God is for us who can stand against us (Rom. 8:31)?” The Theology of the Body reminds us that sharing a spiritual life allows couples to tap, “the spiritual and creative ‘power’ of love” and to become everything a man and woman are meant to be to each other.
Some couples are terrified by the idea of praying together. They feel that prayer is “too private” to share with a spouse. But how can you share each other’s bodies while withholding your souls? Joining together in body and spirit is an essential part of what it means for the “two to become one.”
So many things try to divide us but in marriage God calls men and women to recreate, as much as possible, the original intimacy man, woman, and God shared at the dawn of creation. Couples who pray together discover new worlds of intimacy and partnership. Even psychologists agree. For instance, we know that couples who pray together are happier in their marriages than couples who don’t (and have significantly lower divorce rates). Likewise, a study by Florida State University found that prayerful couples are better at forgiving each other than couples who don’t pray.
Raul and Olivia have been married 18 years. They have 3 children. “This whole praying together thing was not for me.” Says Raul. “Olivia used to bug me about it, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I felt judged. Like my prayer wasn’t good enough or something. I mean, I wouldn’t say I had a great prayer life, but it was mine and I really didn’t feel like sharing it.”
“I don’t know how I finally got him to agree to do it with me.” Olivia added laughing. “ I think it was Lent one year and I guilted him into it. Anyway, he finally said that he’d pray with me as long as we kept it short and he didn’t have to do too much!”
“I know, great, right?” Said Raul. “Well, we all have to start somewhere. All we did at first was a little “Hail Mary” each night, and sometimes I grumbled about that. But after a while, I started looking forward to it. It’s really hard to explain, but I guess God got his hooks in me and I just started looking forward to spending that time with Olivia. Sometimes after we were done, we’d just sit and talk a little, and it was more than we’d done together in months.”
“I knew something changed when I got busy with the kids one night. I sort of forgot about our prayer time and Raul came to ask me if I going to be ready any time soon. You could have knocked me over with a feather, but I just played it cool. If he wanted to pray, I sure wasn’t going to say, no.”
“Things just kind of took off from there. We try to spend at least 10-15 minutes a night praying together and getting a little time to talk. It’s made a world of difference.”
If you have never prayed with your spouse and you’re not sure how to start, keep it simple. Agree to say at least one Our Father (or other simple, familiar prayer) each night. Then build from there. Perhaps, when you’re more comfortable, you may wish to do a decade of the rosary, or a chaplet, or some other meaningful devotion you discover. You might even like to take a moment, out loud and in your own words, to say, “thank you” to God for the little blessings of the day (that great parking space, the promotion, that hug from your usually sullen teen), or say, “Lord, Help us” with a special problem, or “Lord, we’re sorry” for a fight you had with each other, or even talk out loud about some big decisions you have to make (“Lord, I’d really like another child/to take that job/to move/etc., but we’re not sure…”).
There are only three rules–well, helpful suggestions. First, as long as you are praying from your heart, there is no “right way” to do it. Don’t criticize each other’s efforts. Second, feel free to commit to as much prayer as you feel is drawing you closer to God and to your spouse. No more no less. Prayer is about intimacy, not duty. Third, as you become more comfortable with what you’ve been doing, learn ways to go deeper. A great resource for learning more about prayer is The How-To Book of Catholic Devotions by Regis Flaherty and Michael Aquilina (OSV).
3. Date Every Day
In the early years of marriage–before kids and the commitments of family life begin multiplying-couples have an abundance of time for each other (or at least more than they will have for the rest of their lives). It’s easy in those early days to find time to have a meal together, to pray, to talk about important things, to work on projects and to be playful with each other. It is easy to think that these days will last forever and to take for granted the idea that there will always be enough time for your marriage.
Within a few months or years, however, things start to get more complicated. A couple will need to be more intentional about actually scheduling time every day to do the things (have dinner together, talk, pray, work, play) that used to happen spontaneously. A recent study reviewing 50 years of research on the power of rituals and routines (like meal times, prayer times, game nights, date nights, and specific time to work and play together) to make marriages strong found that the more of a commitment a couple made to regular rituals and routines, the more satisfying and stable the marriage, the more resistant to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse the couple was, and the more likely the kids were to be well-behaved, happy, and academically successful. Regular rituals and routines are like a miracle drug for family happiness and well-being.
Marta and Al have been married for 8 years. They have 3 kids. Al says, “We really notice a difference on the weeks we make time to do things like pray together and get our time to hang out.”
“We also try to do little things like wash the dishes together or pick up the family room together every day.” Says Marta, It gives us a chance to talk that we wouldn’t otherwise have and it makes us feel good to take care of our home together. I know it’s really helped our intimacy too. Being lovers comes a lot more naturally when you’re taking time to stay connected throughout the day.
The Theology of the Body tells us that our physical actions make love visible. Showing up for regular family meals and prayer times, and taking a little time each day to talk together, play together, and work side by side on the tasks of daily living are a way of physically and concretely demonstrating your commitment to each other. Don’t just live for those all too infrequent date nights! Instead, Sit down with your calendar each week and plan when you will make time for the rituals and routines that make your love and your commitment visible to one another.
4. Celebrate Your Passion
Many people don’t realize this, but for Catholics, marriage is the sacrament of sex. Every sacrament commits common physical stuff to a divine purpose that is intended to actually bring about the changes that “stuff” symbolizes. In baptism, simple water actually washes the soul clean of original sin. In the Eucharist, simple bread and wine really does become the body and blood of Christ. Likewise in marriage, sex actually has several divine purposes; it actually makes two people into one person, it celebrates a love that’s so powerful that it can (and is willing to) create life, and it helps the couple experience a small taste of the passion with which God himself loves each of us (c.f. Eph 5: 32).
Catholics are encouraged to celebrate the sacraments frequently and joyfully. Marriage is one sacrament I hope you will not have too much trouble about celebrating in such a way. Sex is not a duty, a chore, an extra, or even a “nice thing” to do when you have the energy. If you are married, then lovemaking is the foundation of your vocation. It is God’s first commandment to all of humanity. (When God said, “Go forth and multiply,” He wasn’t giving math homework.)
Too many Christian husbands and wives think that they must be ashamed of their sexuality. Shame, causes us to hold back just where we are called to be generous. It prevents sex from being the “self-gift” the Pope John Paul II said that it ought to be in the Theology of the Body. Our sexual and bodily shame is a direct descendent of the shame Adam and Eve encountered after the Fall, standing before God in their nakedness. If we are ashamed of being exposed and vulnerable before a mate, how will we ever tolerate standing exposed and vulnerable before our Divine Lover? Challenge your fears of vulnerability, of “losing control,” and you will find amazing joy in the arms of both your earthly beloved and your Heavenly one.
Likewise, for sexuality to be truly spiritual, we must learn to balance the virtues expressed by a responsible openness to life. On the one hand, openness to life helps us develop trust, generosity, vulnerability, selflessness and identify with the Fatherhood of God, among other things. On the other hand, practicing this openness responsibly (as the Church’s teaching encourages us to do), gives us an opportunity to develop a different set of virtues; chastity, self-discipline, honesty, temperance, etc. Both sets of virtues are equally important to our Christian identity, but they can be hard to balance. The best way to strike this balance in marriage is to practice Natural Family Planning (NFP) a deeply spiritual, profoundly rewarding, and imminently practical form of family planning. If you don’t use it, you can learn more about it by contacting your Diocesan Family Life Office. Experience for yourself the richness it will afford your spiritual and sexual life.
5. Stay in School
Marriage is something you have to work on every day and having a great marriage requires a ongoing commitment to learn new skills so that you can keep your your communication, prayer life, problem-solving skills, parenting skills, and physical relationship fresh, interesting, effective and vital. There is a saying that if you aren’t moving forward then you’re moving backward and that’s definitely true of marriage.
No matter how long you’ve been married, you are still a student in the school of love. Commit to regularly “taking courses” that make you a great lover (in and out of the bedroom) in this life and prepare you to experience the incredible feast of love that will be served at the eternal wedding banquet in the next. Make a commitment to read a new marriage book (or listen to a CD or MP3) every month. Even if you don’t agree with the information it will give you new ideas to discuss. Do a marriage retreat once a year. Subscribe to magazines that give you new ideas for living your faith, marriage, and family life to the full.
To help get you started, here are some great resources that will help you make your love last a lifetime!
For Further Reading
For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage–G. Popcak, Ph.D., Our Sunday Visitor
Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind Blowing, Infallible Loving–G. Popcak, Ph.D.
Good News About Sex and Marriage–C. West, Servant.
Heaven’s Song: Sexual Love as It Was Meant to Be–C. West, Ascension Press.
The Theology of the Body for Beginners (2nd ed.)–C. West, Ascension Press.
Faith & Family Magazine–www.FaithandFamilyLive.com
Family Foundations–A Publication of the Couple to Couple League www.CCLI.org
A Marriage Made for Heaven: Marriage Enrichment Program for Couples
–G. Popcak, Ph.D., Crossroads.
Worldwide Marriage Encounter (a weekend for marriage enrichment)– www.WWME.org
Retrouvaille/Rediscovery (a weekend for struggling marriages)– www.HelpOurMarriage.com
For Your Marriage.org–Marriage Help from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops
Need further assistance in your pursuit toward forming a bond of life-long love? Contact your PaxCare Tele-coach to find the solutions you’re looking for. Call us to get the support you need to succeed.