Marriage and Unconditional Love

eph-5-25-web-wRecently, while topic shopping, I came across a site called Marriage Builders.  It is the work of Dr. William Harley, who seems to be a one man corporation when it comes to writing about and discussing marriage.  He has a decidedly Christian bent to his work, although I’m guessing he’s not Catholic.  At any rate, having read a number of his articles, they are consistently well-reasoned and well-written.  I recommend you bookmark the site, as there is a wealth of material available to those interested in the subject of marriage.

After our Valentine’s Day Marriage on Tap event, one of the best ever, I was hunting for articles on the myths of marriage and, while having discovered several good ones and many not-so-good ones, I came across one of Dr. Harley’s articles on the subject of unconditional love in marriage.  Please follow the link, for the article contains some controversial thoughts with which many of you may disagree.

I recall a parish mission some years ago at which the speaker asked the audience to list Heveryone they loved in the order in which they loved them. Along with many of the attendees, I put my wife Nancy at the top of my list, followed by my kids and The Holy Trinity. Now, please don’t let my poor writing skills confuse you into thinking that hundreds of men put Nancy at the top of their lists; they put THEIR wives at the top.  🙂  The speaker went on to explain that we should ALL have God at the top of our lists, that God’s love for us is unconditional and therefore of a higher order than the love we feel for our spouses.

Dr. Harley’s article supports the notion that God loves us more than we love one another, but takes on the notion of its being unconditional.  Discussing this with Nancy, she flat out disagreed with him, arguing that God’s covenant is not a contract, citing several verses from scripture, and basically taking advantage of my lack of knowledge of the Bible.  She agreed with the author and with me that spousal love is not and should not be unconditional, that if I were to come home from work everyday and beat her senseless she should not continue to love me as she does.  Again, being better at this stuff than I am, she cited Thomas Aquinas, who famously argued that the nature of love is willing the good of the other for his own sake, which describes God’s love for us, in that God does not need us.  God gets nothing in return for loving us.  And this despite the fact that we may, using our free will, choose not to love God in return, which does nothing to diminish his love for us.  This, in turn, suggests that it is, unfortunately, possible to be loved by God and to also go to Hell.

cropped-lse-masthead6.jpgWhere was I?  Right, unconditional love in marriage, which seems to belong on one of the many lists of marriage myths that clutter up the internet.  Please pray on this and discuss it with your spouse.

LSE Papyrus logo

Hurt people hurt people.

AA logo

Alcoholics Anonymous

Thanks to Fr. Emmerich Vogt and his 12 step ministries for the inspiration behind this post.

As humans, we are wounded by living in a broken, fallen world, surrounded by a culture that seems to celebrate failure, death, violence and decadence.  Similarly, as humans, we seek out other humans as our life partners, and they, too, are wounded by the same fallen world.   Despite our best efforts, we often hurt one another.  Fr. Vogt speaks about spiritual healing, sharing lessons learned through years of service to a variety of 12 step programs and hundreds of participants.  He has developed an entire ministry around the divine inspiration built into these 12 steps.  Listening to him this past weekend, it occurred to me that the 12 steps can be easily applied to our marriages.  With apologies to the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, I will paraphrase the steps themselves, in order to highlight their relevance to our marriages.

1.  I am powerless in the battle against sin; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. This does not refer to the petty squabbles that all of us experience with our spouses, but to the body blows, the haymakers, the capital sins of infidelity, masturbation, porn addiction, gambling and drug and alcohol addictions that have the potential to ruin relationships.  Not all of us suffer these afflictions, but those of us that do are largely helpless to fight them by ourselves.

2.  Belief that a greater power can restore us.  This is the first step addicts must take in order to begin the healing process, and is thus one of the most difficult.  It is a necessary, but not sufficient, belief.  If we are suffering in our marriages, we are called to find the strength to first believe that we can be saved, that our relationship is not doomed. In one of Jewel’s early songs, she spoke about all of us having “addictions to feed.”  As spouses, we are all addicted to something; we must embrace this belief in order to begin the healing process.

3.  Deciding to turn one’s life over to the will of God.  Probably very few of you reading this have not, in some way, already done this.  It is God’s will that we live together in harmony; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t stand a chance.  Surrendering to the will of God follows accepting the belief that He can restore us.

4.  Taking a fearless moral inventory.  If we are going to succeed as a couple, each of us must take responsibility for our own shortcomings.  Playing the blame game is a guaranteed path to failure.  We must focus on what we refer to as “I” problems, not “you” problems.  In the immortal words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”  As couples, I believe that, having taken this painful inventory, we must consider sharing it with our spouses.  Or at least as much of it as we can, without hurting our partner.  As Father observes, “Honesty without gentleness is brutality.”  See #5.

5.  Confessing our sins/faults/shortcomings to ourselves, to God, and to one other person–our spouse.  Confession is itself a sacrament, and acknowledging our sins one of the basic elements of the Mass.  By speaking these words out loud, we take away one of the hiding places most of us use to avoid dealing with our sins–not talking about them.  If we are to seek true health, we cannot ignore our illnesses, any of them.  We must bring them out into the light of day, before God and our spouses.  This one strikes me as another of the more difficult steps in the process.

6.  We resolve that we are ready to have God remove the madness from our wounded selves.  We must acknowledge that we cannot fix our addictions alone, and we cannot expect our spouses to fix us, either.  We need to pray to God, in his mercy, to send The Holy Spirit to give us the strength to choose the narrow gate, to take the first steps toward becoming whole, and healed, capable of loving ourselves and worthy of the love of our spouses.  In short, we must first pray, in order to prepare ourselves to be healed.

7.  Humbly ask God to remove my defects.  One of the characteristics I’ve noticed in the people I’ve come to know and love at OLMC is a deep-seated humility, the constant refusal to take credit for all of the good they do, and their habit of always giving credit to God.  My own personal motto, which I do not practice nearly enough, is “Be humble or get humbled.”  We must be willing to knock on the door, God’s door, but we must do it in a spirit of humility, seeking his mercy rather than justice.  This is true with our spouses as well, for as spouses we all need to give and seek forgiveness.

8.  List everyone we’ve harmed, and be willing to make amends with them all.  At the top of the list, right behind God, should be our spouses, for they live in our presence daily, and are most likely to have been hurt by our sinfulness.  There is undoubtedly a long list of people behind them.  It is an inescapable truth that our sinfulness hurts God, and that our spouses bear the brunt of our addictions and faults in the world.  For you, there may be a lengthy list of folks behind the first two, but it is important to start at the top.  For me, the next five names on the list are my children and my parents, for all of them have undoubtedly suffered at my hands, in my thoughts and in my words.

9.  Apologize to everyone you’ve harmed, except when to do so will injure them.  For the living people on your list, including your spouse, this is rather straightforward, but must be approached in an almost spiritual sincerity.  As for God and the deceased persons on your list, it is only through prayer that you will be able to communicate your regret and apology.  Doing so, whether speaking to the living or praying to those others, is a cleansing act, one which should not be dreaded, but rather embraced.  How can we not feel better after having sincerely apologized to those people we’ve hurt?  As a young man, I went to my parents house one day and apologized for every single word that had come out of my mouth for the previous four years.  The three of us shared a toast–several in fact–in celebration of how good we all felt afterwards.  That was over 40 years ago, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.

10.  Commit to a daily examination of conscience.  If we are committed to living in the moment–give us this day our daily bread–we should regularly ask ourselves, “How did I do today?”  Some days will be better than others.  The point is that healing is a process, not a silver bullet, and we must commit to examining our conscience every day.  As addicts, we are capable of falling off our own particular wagon on any given day, and it is alleged to take 21 days to form new habits.  If we are to be healed, there can be no place to run to, no place to hide.  Examine your actions, words and thoughts every day.  If possible, share this process with your spouse; you can help keep each other on track.  After all, in marriage we are not called to achieve Heaven for ourselves, but to help our spouses find their way to Heaven.

11.  Pray and meditate to increase contact with God.  This, again, is a daily activity, as befits human nature.  Most of us don’t suddenly fall off a wagon we’ve been on for months or years; typically, we gradually backslide into our old ways.  This, I believe, is true for people such as myself with food issues.  I need to weigh myself every day in order to avoid waking up one day six months from now and being at the weight I was when I started taking better care of myself.  For others–especially those with alcohol and drug addictions–the world can tilt off its axis almost without warning.  In either case, by increasing our contact with God we are in a better position to enlist his help.  For those of us who find prayer difficult, saying the words of The Serenity Prayer is a fine place to start.

12.  Practice these principals in everything we do.  One of my best friends, who used to have issues around alcohol, once told me that the difference between drunks and alcoholics is that alcoholics go to meetings.  Practicing these techniques in our marriages does not require us to commit to any kind of formal 12 step program.  But it does require us to thoughtfully approach each other in humility, with forgiveness in our hearts, in as honest a manner as possible.   We must be convinced that we ourselves are, in most cases, the problem, and we must share this spirit.  With God’s grace, we will find happiness and peace in our marriages, create loving homes for our children, and model the behaviors that will, in turn, make them good parents to their own kids someday.

LSE Papyrus logo

If Momma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

One of the old jokes Nancy and I have woven into our relationship goes like this, as I tell it.Man-Laughing  “When we were first married, I decided that I would make all the big decisions and that Nancy could make all the small decisions.  Luckily for us, in over 38 years of marriage, there haven’t been any big decisions…”  At the heart of this laugher is the concept of influence, the extent to which spouses allow their mate to shape their thinking and actions.  And according to the Gottmans, couples who share influence with one another are more likely to have lasting, fruitful and rewarding marriages than those who don’t.
couple talkingIn the 21st century, it is amazing to me that we still see and hear vestiges of 19th century thinking on this subject, marriages in which the husband assumes the role of the dominant decision-maker, with the wife taking the inferior position of having to defer to his judgment (or lack thereof) and live with decisions he makes almost entirely on his own.  Less common, I suspect, are marriages in which the wife makes most of the decisions, and the husband meekly accepts orders and direction from her.  These types of relationships lack equilibrium and are, hence, less stable than relationships in which influence is mutually observed and decisions are shared.  Personally, I’m not sure I would be happy in either extreme, as I don’t like the feeling of being directed or pushed around, but also lack confidence in my ability to make important decisions on my own.  One of the qualities that attracted me to Nancy in the very beginning was her assertiveness, the clear understanding that I would not be piloting this relationship entirely by myself.

How does your own relationship stack up in this area?  The following 20 true/false questions were developed by The Gottman Institute in order to help couples assess the extent to which they allow their spouses to influence them.  Perhaps you and your spouse feel you liberally allow one another to influence the thinking and actions of the other.  If you’d like to test that theory, cut and paste the following questions into a Word document, print it twice, sit down together, answer the questions, and compare your answers.

1. I am really interested in my partner’s opinions on our basic issues. T    F 
2. I usually learn a lot from my partner even when we disagree. T    F 
3. I want my partner to feel that what he or she says really counts with me. T    F 
4. I generally want my partner to feel influential in this marriage. T    F
5. I can listen to my partner, but only up to a point. T    F
6. My partner has a lot of basic common sense. T    F
7. I try to communicate respect even during our disagreements. T    F
8. If I keep trying to convince my partner, I will eventually win out. T    F 
9. I don’t reject my partner’s opinions out of hand. T    F
10. My partner is not rational enough to take seriously when we discuss our issues. T    F
11. I believe in lots of give and take in our discussions. T    F
12. I am very persuasive and usually can win arguments with my partner. T    F
13. I feel I have an important say when we make decisions. T    F 
14. My partner usually has good ideas. T    F
15. My partner is basically a great help as a problem solver. T    F 
16. I try to listen respectfully, even when I disagree. T    F 
17. My ideas for solutions are usually much better than my partner’s. T    F
18 I can usually find something to agree with in my partner’s positions. T    F
19. My partner is usually too emotional. T    F
20. I am the one who needs to make the major decisions in this relationship. T    F

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleAn excellent metric for your ability to influence one another follows:  If answering these questions and discussing your responses leads to an argument, you may need to work on this aspect of your relationship.  If answering these questions and discussing your responses leads to sex, you’re probably doing okay.

Temperament and personality types will enter into this process.  For Nancy and me, in that we have significantly different preferences when it comes to Myers-Briggs typing, it is generally helpful when we sit down together to iron out disagreements.  As Gottman points out, the process of reaching external conflict resolution often relies on one’s ability to reach internal conflict resolution first, by learning to accept influence from one’s partner.  Early in relationships, this can be a challenge, as most of us enter marriage having relied almost exclusively on our own judgment for some period of time.  Overcoming disagreements requires us first to acknowledge that our partner’s point of view, though different from ours, may, in fact, be as valid, or even more valid, than our own.  Over time, and with practice, couples in successful relationships can learn how to navigate such differences with relative ease.

I suspect this is not always true with couples whose Myers-Briggs profiles are more similar.  In such marriages, it seems to me that significant disagreements may be more rare, but may be harder to resolve since each spouse approaches decision-making in a similar way.  In these instances, it may be that the best outcome the couple can hope for is to agree to disagree, a sub-optimal solution which, over time, may evolve into a “we just don’t seem to agree about anything” position that could require professional counseling.

One of the most mis-applied verses in scripture is found in Ephesians 5:22-24, which is often used to suggest that women must be submissive to their husbands.  But by reading through verse 33, it becomes clear that God expects equality in our marriages.  Husbands, if you wish to justify 19th century thinking by applying only the first three verses from this passage, you are likely to end up with an unhappy wife.  And, as the old saying goes, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

eph-5-25-web-w

“You’re So Predictable”

fighting_couplesMany of us have heard this charge leveled by one spouse toward another, whether in a movie, on TV, or perhaps in our own homes.  It reflects one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen–contempt.  By being predictable, it is implied that we are also dull, boring, uninteresting and non-spontaneous.  It is generally not a compliment.  Scripture and The Catechism touch this issue over and over again.

Cat. 214. God, “He who is,” revealed himself to Israel as the one “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  These two terms express summarily the riches of the divine name. In all his works God displays not only his kindness, goodness, grace, and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness, and truth.

My sense is that this particular flavor of contempt emanates from one of two likely spanner in the workdsources.  The first is what I think of as “children of chaos.”  Kids raised in an unstable family situation, where there is drama, abuse, violence or other negative environmental factors, often grow up to be adults who crave chaos.  If there is not drama in their family, they will seek opportunities to create it.  If things are peaceful and calm, they will find a reason to cause disruption.  If everything is running smoothly, they will throw a wrench into the works.  We all seek that to which we became accustomed as kids, and this is no exception.  Woe be to the woman married to one of these men.

Micah 7:18.  Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.

dreaming-expensive-new-car-12810851Another source of such disdain, as I see it, is the ennui of the young and privileged.  Kids who grew up with money, who spent winter breaks skiing in Vail, or went on European cruises in the summer, often grow up to be adults with what I think of as a low “coefficient of boredom.” They often find themselves at loose ends, put off by routine, and constantly in search of something fun or expensive or unexpected to get their engines revving.  Predictability probably ranks just below “cheap” on their list of cardinal sins.  Woe be to the man married to one of these women.

Romans 2:4.  Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Having grown up in neither of these environments, and having sought and found a woman from a family similar to mine, I feel blessed to be exempt from this particular criticism.  Not that I’m immune from criticism, most of it richly deserved.  As mature adults, I think we have grown to equate predictable with dependable.  Just the other night Nancy and I were sitting together when, unprompted by anything, she said, “I love coming home to you in the evening.”  My work schedule allows me to get home in mid-afternoon, and she knows that by the time she rolls in at 6:30 or so I’ll have the kitchen squared away, dinner on the stove, and a cold glass of chardonnay awaiting her.  We generally sit together for half an hour and share what our days were like.  Having thus disposed of any negative residue from our workdays, we can sit down to dinner together, and then do whatever wants or needs doing in the evening.

happy older couple

Cat 1804Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.

It strikes me as logical that boredom with one’s spouse can easily lead one to look for greener pastures, for the excitement and newness that can accompany marital infidelity. Though such adventures are generally short-lived, they may afford the stimulation  the pulse-pounding taste of forbidden fruit, what Eric Clapton once referred to as the “dull surprise” missing in some people’s lives.  Regrettably,  this newness probably wears off rather quickly, leading either to a series of such affairs or resignation to a life of perceived drudgery.

Cat 2365.    Fidelity expresses constancy in keeping one’s given word. God is faithful. The Sacrament of Matrimony enables man and woman to enter into Christ’s fidelity for his Church. Through conjugal chastity, they bear witness to this mystery before the world.

Once again, we are reminded that our efforts in this regard should not be to FIND the right person, but to BE the right person.  To be grateful for the truth in Nancy’s observation that “for every Jack there is a Jill.”  To count among our blessings the stability of our relationships, and the firm platform it provides our children as they are formed into adults. In sales, one of the most powerful statements we can make to a customer is, “You can depend on me to do what I say I’m going to do.”  In marriage, God’s grace is found in the spouse who is dependable, faithful, and happy to serve our needs  For those of us who ended up with that person, we should thank God every day.  For those of us who have not yet become that person, we should pray for the grace and fortitude to persist, to reach the point in our relationships where “You’re so predictable” is praise of the highest order.

Eph 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

cropped-catholic_wedding_rings-2.jpg

Four Ways to Be a Better Spouse

Here we go again, with an article borrowed from Huffington Post.  This one has a semi-Buddhist flavor to it, which is a switch from our usual fare.  Unfortunately for you, this fact reminds me of the only Buddhist joke I know, in which the Buddhist says to the hot dog vendor on the streets of New York, “Make me one with everything.”  Wait for it…  Anyway, since the article refers to I Corinthians, I thought it would fit in our blog.

PsychiatristBrandy Engler is a clinical psychologist and the author of The Men on My Couch: Stories of Sex, Love and Psychotherapy.  Her recent post, “Four Ways to Love Better” visits a recurring theme on this blog, namely, rather than seeking the right partner, we should BE the right partner for our spouse.  As most people married more than once will attest, in the absence of abuse–physical, mental, drug–the grass is rarely greener on the other side. We bring most of our relationship problems with us; if we’re capable of cheating on one spouse, we’re obviously capable of cheating on another, etc.

Engler does not specifically address marital love in this post; rather, she points us toward a wider, more inclusive love of the world and the people in it.  This is a very Christian attitude from a writer who strikes me as not overly, or overtly, Christian.  But by inference, we are to include our spouses in this view.  And if you can guess her four prescriptions for being a more loving person, well, you’re better at this stuff than I am.  YOU should be posting on this blog.

 

 

Fr. Robert Barron on Sex, Love and God

We bring you a YouTube video featuring one of our favorite pastors, Fr. Robert Barron, who offers his counter-cultural thoughts on three of our favorite topics.  Here is a little about Fr. Barron from his Word on Fire site, for those of you who have not experienced him:

Father Barron is the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award winning documentary series about the Catholic Faith. The series has aired across the country on PBS and EWTN (and here at OLMC) and has been seen and broadcast in parishes, universities, schools and media outlets throughout the world. The documentary received a Christopher Award for excellence. Father Barron and Word on Fire will be releasing a highly anticipated new documentary “CATHOLICISM: The New Evangelization” in 2013.

Father Barron currently serves as the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake. He was appointed to the theological faculty of Mundelein Seminary in 1992, and has also served as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was twice scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican.

Take nine minutes out of your life to appreciate the video.  And God bless you.

Do You Need God to Raise Your Kids?

Here’s another thoughtful post from our favorite guest blogger, Anne Slamkowski. Please visit her Making Room for God blog.

HYesterday, I blogged on a difficult subject: God and Marriage.  One of the issues that has comes up time and time again in conversations is how do you balance kids and marriage.  Not an easy topic to tackle for sure!  Kids complicate and at the same time lift up your marriage.  Kids give us joy and bring us turmoil.  Kids (and finances) are the first time you learn to sacrifice your selfish desires for your spouse.  No kidding. 

 When you first got married can you remember trying to figure out who was going to pay the bills and how you were going to share the money that was coming in?  Can you remember the first time you had to make a decision together about your kids’ future?  I would venture to guess that it wasn’t an easy decision.  There may even have been some arguing.   So when we talk about divorce rates in families today, we cannot help but discuss both financial issues and trouble with kids. 

One of the issues with kids is when things go badly.  Maybe (like me) you have a child that has medical issues or behavioral problems.  Maybe you have a child who suffers from mental illness.  Maybe you have a child who is constantly making bad choices.  Maybe you have a child that suffers from alcohol or drug addiction.  There are so many problems that parents are faced with today. Yet did any of you have training for this during your marriage prep classes?  Pete and I sure didn’t.   Nobody pulled us aside and said, “Heh, not all kids are perfect.”  No one told us the adventures we would be faced with when we started to grow our family.  No one told us that our kids could make bad choices no matter how good of parents we are.  The problem is we don’t have anything to model our lives after because all kids are different.  We cannot look at our own parents and make good parenting decisions because they lived in different circumstances.  All we have to rely on is each other and instinct.  When things go badly with our kids we tend to point fingers.  Have these words ever been spoken (or thought) about in your household:

“If you would have done or said this to him/her, we wouldn’t be in this place!” 

“If you would be home more often, then he/she would show more respect for us as parents.”

“If you would have disciplined better when he/she was young, then we wouldn’t be faced with these issues.”

“If you would do your job as a housewife, then our kids wouldn’t make these choices.”

“If only I would have treated my body better during pregnancy, then these medical issues wouldn’t have happened to my child.”

“Maybe I have done something to him/her to make him/her this way.”

“Maybe God is punishing me for something in my past.”

All of these comments go on in our brains.  They are doubts that arise during parenting.  I know because Pete and I have beaten ourselves up over why Katie has behavioral issues and seizures. We have blamed each other and ourselves.  Our doubts could have ruined our marriage, but we chose God over doubt.  Thank goodness! 

One of the best lessons that I have ever been taught is that my own kids are not my possessions. My kids belong to God.  They are children of God.  God has entrusted their care to me.  I love this because it reminds me that my kids are entrusted to me not because I deserved them, not because I purchased them, not because I own them, but because God gave me the opportunity to raise them for Him.  Whether you have adopted your children or given birth to your children, they are not your possessions.  Nope.  They are God’s children.  He gave you this opportunity.  What you do with this opportunity is now up to you.  You can choose to raise them without asking God for help, or you can raise them with God’s strength.  I choose the latter. 

If Pete and I were to dwell on all the mistakes we make as parents, I can tell you right now we would be miserable.  I make parental mistakes every day.  I try to learn from these mistakes.  I do my best to ask God daily for strength.  I constantly pray to God to show me what He needs me to do. 

Kids can be part of the problem in a marriage for sure, but they also can lift up your marriage.  If you realize now that kids are not your possessions.  Kids are not a way for you to re-live your childhood.  Kids are not an opportunity for you to show your own parents what they did wrong. Kids are a way for you to connect closer to God.  They are a way for you to see God’s beauty.  They are your pathway to a greater faith life.   f you are having issues with your own marriage that revolves around your children, ask God for help today.  Reconnect individually with your faith.  Find a way to keep God first in your life.  No one can parent effectively without God.  Exhaustion, depression and constant worry are all signs that you have pushed God away and are trying to tackle parenting on your own.  Don’t do this! Remind yourself that we all have the ability to be good parents, if we just ask God for help.

10 years and three kids later.

                      More of our favorite people.