Wedding Vows Revisited

 

Marriage Blog Art.pngWe were married in late September 1975 in a small Catholic church in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. It was one of those steamy Indian summer Saturday mornings that hang around, wearing out their welcome, before the brisk, crisp notes of fall arrive in October. The church doors were open, and the bright lights focused on the altar made it even warmer inside.

I clearly remember Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rossanadanna bit on SNL back in the day, with sweatballs dripping off the end of my nose as I stood, petrified and melting, in front of God and the world and made a bunch of promises for “all the days of my life.” I don’t remember much about the actual promises, vows we wrote ourselves. I’m pretty sure the “…for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” parts made it in there.

(To lower stress for everyone, I think the standard set of “I do’s” should be changed to, “Lord, I surely hope so.” If things were to fall apart down the road, the person might feel simply disappointed rather than branded for life in the eyes of God.)

With very few twisted exceptions, I cannot imagine a couple entering into marriage, sacramental or otherwise, without a fervent hope that they truly mean the words they are saying. They hope they’re telling the truth. I suspect wedding vows almost always feel like the truth, but the truth, from ground zero, is often difficult to discern.

Standard wedding vows include the “richer and poorer” and “in sickness and in health” clauses for the purposes of form only. Surely, if a couple finds themselves rich and healthy, it makes some things easier. For the poor and sick, who spoke the same vow, things, in general, are far more difficult. This would presumably include staying married, which can be tremendously challenging with little kids in a high stress environment.

Although we cannot know if we are lying or truthing on our wedding day, we get to find out later in our lives. Looking back, for me, proves several things. Nancy was telling the truth during the richer and poorer part, in that, though we’ve never been rich, we’ve been poor, and she never showed any signs of it eating into our marriage. During times in my life when I’ve been sick, she has been there for me. And now, as it turns out, I, too, was telling the truth during the sickness and health part.

In 1975 I’m pretty sure I didn’t give that part much thought. My main concern, if memory serves, was that I would inevitably, inexorably, somehow, someday bungle things up and land us in divorce court, Catholic-style. As to how I might screw up, there were numerous ways, but which one wouldn’t matter–any would do. I was kind of a slouch, marrying up to a woman with high standards and strong moral fiber. My main worry, besides the stifling heat, was that I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the deal.

So, 40-some years later, the sickness part arrived.  Since then, I have confirmed to myself that I was telling the truth in 1975. I am ready, willing and able to respond regardless of what sickness brings. I cannot imagine it being otherwise. I haven’t yet been called upon to do much, but I’ve created space in my life I can devote to my caregiver role without advance notice. No one knows how to do the everyday things the way she likes them. No one knows how to manage the home the way she likes it. Our local middle daughter knows and does it all but has her own uber-busy kids and life and job to manage. I am generally the boots on the ground.

Fortunately, my “giving” love language is Acts of Service, which allows me to happily do the numerous small things involved in keeping prescriptions on hand, an empty nest provisioned and financially afloat. We are now both officially on Medicare and Social Security, enmeshed in the safety net of public policy, and doing everything her doctor tells her to do. We are coloring within the lines, and she is exceeding most expectations by being in such good shape at this time.  I would like to take credit for her robust health, but that would be absurd and dishonest. She attributes it to the power of prayer.

So, as it turns out, we were both speaking the truth in 1975 and have lived it, per the terms of our original agreement, in full. It continues to work well. It has allowed us to transition from employed and long-lived to retired and dealing with a serious disease. It has changed the conditions of our relationship, not the content. The content, the essence, comes from decades of struggle and delirium and determination, the fruit being our three daughters, their families, and the privilege of assuming the role of Nanny and PopPop. Fast Eddie was the original PopPop for our kids, and I am but a pale imitation for theirs. Nanny has no such pretenders.

2017 has been, for me, a year of examining feelings, feelings about oncology, feelings about God, feelings about the Church, feelings about myself. And although I rarely feel as if I can hear God speaking to me, I can say that living day-to-day is generally low stress as long as I don’t allow myself to think about Life in the Future. The lesson here, and I’m a slow study, is to ask only for our daily bread and let tomorrow take care of itself which, for me, is virtually impossible, since I have put myself in charge of having tomorrow’s bread on hand today. And some idea of what the next day’s bread will look like. Protein, veg, starch.

To the extent we are discomfited by Nancy’s illness, we are comforted by being able to live day to day without pretense, almost always on the same page when it comes to her health. Trying to make things easier for one another. We are weathering a storm and have ridden out several other storms along the way. We are headed in the same direction.

As it turns out, when we spoke our wedding vows in 1975 we meant every word.  Who knew?

Couples struggling in their marriages might re-read their wedding vows, to see if they can remember how they felt when they originally spoke them. It might only take two minutes. It might take all night. Doing so might be balm on a series of relational wounds inflicted by life lived multi-tasking at 90 mph in the 21st century.

Doing so might remind us how we believed we were telling the truth back in the day.

May God shed His grace on you.

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When God Turns the Tables

Perhaps 15 years into our 42 year marriage, it became pretty clear that Nancy would outlive me. Women generally outlive men. She has always taken better care of herself than I have–better diet, more exercise, meditation, yoga, Sudoku. For me, this natural state of things was always premised on the virtual guarantee that I would, by predeceasing her, leave her to deal with the messy emotional and social fallout.   Similar, in many respects, to my point of view concerning the weddings of our daughters–they just seemed to happen on their own, and all I had to do was show up properly dressed with as few prepared remarks as possible.

Along with the diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer came this ridiculous possibility that I would outlive her. A scenario I had literally never considered. I recall having laughed out loud at my father, 14 years older than my mother and with his own cardiologist, who would occasionally wring his hands about what he was going to do when Mom was gone. His worries were, as expected, unfounded.  Mine, perhaps not.

[In fact, my concerns may be misplaced, just like my father’s were.  Nancy is doing remarkably well with chemo, her blood chemistry is all in the green, her weight has stayed up and she shows very little in the way of slowing down.  She doesn’t complain about her neuropathy the way she used to, especially during infusion week. My own health is “OK,” which is to say not perfect but not imminently dangerous.]

As an economist, I’m comfortable around statistics.  As a reformed gambler, I still figure the odds and go with what seems most likely. As (determined by StrengthFinders) someone who practices intellection, these statistics and odds and percentages bounce around in my brain.  I talk to Jesus about them in the Chapel. He reminds me we know not when nor where. I remind him of five year survival rates and the physical effects of long term exposure to chemotherapy.

Since Day One, Nancy has not wanted a prognosis attached to her condition, and has been more or less actively disinterested in her disease other than routine conversations with her oncologist. In this, her approach differs from mine, as I’ve always been more comfortable with a devil I know than one I don’t. But, as a spouse, I have recognized, out loud, that this is her journey, that I am beside her for care and support, that she will make these types of decisions–what and whether to talk about–and I will respect her choices.

old-couple in loveAnd so here is the point. The spouse with the serious illness gets to make these calls, all of them. How much to know and how much to leave unsaid. What to discuss and what not to discuss. The caregiver must willingly include these in the inventory of things about which you will want to talk less. If, as in my case, you find a need to discuss concerns you cannot comfortably share with your spouse, do what I do and talk to a counselor every now and again.

In the most recent ten years of our marriage, when we both worked, we had maybe 30 minutes in the evening to sit together and discuss the day’s events.  Now, we no longer have work, we have a few subjects that are off limits, and instead of 30 minutes we have more like 10 hours. Nancy has been more comfortable with these periods of sustained silence than have I, but I’m getting better. Spouses may want to prepare for these in advance, as they should not be misinterpreted as character flaws or a lack of bonhomie, as it were.

It has taken me awhile to understand God’s will in this radically-altered future of ours. This, what we are living, is God’s will. It is God’s will that Nancy carry on her lifelong interest in learning and teaching, and that she be allotted time to do so. It is God’s will that she can suffer in private and go out socially looking healthy and vibrant. It is God’s will that she have someone like me to hang around and take care of her. And it is God’s will that I have finally found a vocation, after decades of searching, that gives me a feeling of purpose and allows me to express my love language–acts of service–every day.

Life is not a bed of roses, and Christian marriage comes not without costs. But being married, at this stage in our lives, is a blessing beyond measure. If you are struggling in your marriage, it may help you appreciate each other by fast-forwarding the film 25 or 30 years, to an empty nest and a dread disease. For the sick spouse, you are unlikely to be able to purchase such loving care on the open market. For the caregiver, being in a position to uphold the marriage vows you made 40 years earlier is a great honor, likely held in high esteem by God. And no couples get there without weathering some serious storms along the way.cropped-lse-masthead6.jpg

Changing Direction

As of September 2017, this blog is no longer formally associated with Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Carmel, Indiana. The Love’s Sacred Embrace ministry has been discontinued at the parish in favor of other efforts directed toward celebrating Catholic marriage.

The focus of the blog will, at the same time, change from ideas about how to joyfully achieve 42 years of marriage to how 42 years of marriage helps hold couples together when one of them receives a serious medical diagnosis.

Without examining any data, I suspect the typical reader is younger than me, as I am in my mid-60’s. If so, the posts to come may be of help in thinking about stuff going on with your parents. I think about images of Nancy and me from the 80’s, and look at young couples with small kids today oblivious, as we were then, to the trials awaiting them in their futures, to the crosses they will be asked to bear together, if they’re blessed enough to stay together for the duration.

This is my promise not to violate Nancy’s privacy as this goes along. I will share thoughts and lessons learned along the way, mostly for my own benefit, as I tend to work things out as I type. I have a weekly conversation with Jesus in the prayer chapel at OLMC to try to get him to see things my way which is generally fruitless.

Obviously, the reason I choose to undertake this now is because we’re finally in one of those life trajectory-altering situations I’ve always been thankful that we, as a family, have managed to avoid up until the summer of 2016. I have been “on hiatus” since then dealing with the changes going on and yet to come in my life as husband and caregiver. I feel I’ve covered enough ground mentally and spiritually that I can engage with people about these things and help others approach peace, to seek and accept God’s will.
If you are interested in updates concerning Nancy’s health specifically, please visit her CaringBridge page.

 

 

 

There’s No Pill for Boring

If you were to organize a game of Family Feud with married couples under the age of 30–Family_feuddividing the teams into husbands versus wives–and the question was, “Which aspect of your relationship do you most fear losing in the next 30 years?”, topping the list for the men would probably be some version of “losing my world-class sexual virility.” Even those of us who consider ourselves to be merely average lovers might put this response in the top three, alongside “no longer being able to support my family” and perhaps “having to become the primary caregiver for our kids/her mom/anyone, really.”  Of course, I have no clear idea as to the answers that might top the ladies’ list, which would require more insight into the female psyche than I’ve ever possessed.

Anyway, the fear of no longer being able to satisfy our wives sexually is, I think, fairly universal among husbands.  Evidence for this comes in the sheer volume of ads featured on ESPN-type sports channels and NFL games for drugs that treated the dreaded “E.D.” and which, by most accounts, adequately address the problem for many, if not most guys. (These ads do not, of course, suggest that, at age 60, our wives may not want us to be Hugh Jackman in the marital bed, instead preferring more of a Michael Buble-type of experience.)  The point here is that, for us husbands and our primary concern growing older–THERE’S A PILL FOR THAT!

Busy-ParentsFor young married couples with children, what few private conversations we’re able to share probably center around the kids, our jobs and the news of the day delivered by our TV sets–sports, a murder somewhere, bad weather, etc.  In the evening, once the kids are safely in their beds, we sit down in front of the TV, suck up a little screen, and then head up to bed, preparing to do battle with the world again the next day.  Published data suggests that married couples with children spend, on average, something like seven minutes a day actually talking with one another.  I suspect that many of these conversational snippets include one or both spouses punching away on a smartphone.

My wife Nancy shared an observation with me years ago that stuck in my head.  She said that the only difference between a person today and that person a year from now is the places he (or she) has been, the people he’s met, and the books he’s read.  For many parents with busy kids, travel opportunities are often limited, our circles of friends include mostly other parents, and we rarely have time to luxuriate with a good book for a few hours.  Over time, these problems change, but don’t go away.  Our children and their schedules continue to dominate our non-work time, even after they leave for college or elsewhere, our circles of friends tend to shrink as people move or get divorced, and the amount of free time available to us never seems to grow.  If we’re fortunate enough to advance in our careers, work increasingly intrudes on both our family and free time.

As the expression goes, life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.   Suddenly we’re in our fifties, empty-nesters, with fewer friends than we used to have.  Our careers may be winding down, or perhaps we’ve been displaced from once lofty jobs and have joined the legions of post-50 workers facing unemployment, or under-employment, in which the job satisfaction quotient is drastically reduced, along with the space in our consciousness formerly occupied by work.

As couples, the question, suddenly, is, “What are we going to talk about together?”  If you couple talkingtrack divorce statistics, you see the predictable spike around the so-called “seven year itch”, but then observe another one that jumps up around year 30.  It is this second one that we must prepare for, as it is avoidable and at least as destructive as the early one.  It is the one that would leave us facing the rest of our lives alone, damaged by the loss of three decades of our personal life story, contemplating the brutal prospect of re-entering the “dating game” and its attendant impossibilities.  As Catholics, it is also one bereft of the possibility of a second marriage, one which is even more likely to fail than was the first.

The challenge, and the opportunity, is to remain interesting to each other.  To take advantage of the occasional stolen minutes or hours while we’re young to go to a museum or gallery, meet some new people through, say, volunteer work or a parish ministry, and to read books.  Reading books is, by far, the easiest, as Kindles and books-on-CD offer opportunities to turn dead time spent waiting in airports, driving our cars, or waiting in our cars for soccer practice to end into time spent staying relevant and interesting.  What we see, where we go, and what we read is not nearly as important as the seeing, the going and the reading itself.

The momentary discussions about our kids, our jobs and the news du jour will, over time, give way to expanses of time together.  When that time comes, it is important that we have things to talk about.  As we mature, we owe it to our spouses, even if we can’t stay physically buff and movie star-gorgeous, to remain interesting, aware of the things each other takes pleasure in, and capable of conducting a coherent personal conversation. Otherwise, we are at risk for becoming incurably, terminally dull.  And there’s no pill for boring.

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Defeat vs. Freedom

Another thoughtful post from our favorite guest blogger Anne Slamkowski

Funny how one man’s defeat is another man’s freedom.  Isn’t it amazing how one spouse can feel uplifted and free while the other feels defeated.  What is even more amazing is that we can walk around and not realize these differences for what can be years unless we open up and talk about them with each other.  And how many of us take the time to do that?  I know I just assume that Pete feels the same way as me.  If I am on an emotional high, then Pete is.  If I am floating in God’s arms, then Pete is.  If I am on vacation and feeling free, then Pete is too.  Right? (You all can stop laughing here).

happiness image ChristineThe point of this is, if we don’t communicate our feelings to one another, then our spouses will never comprehend what we are going through emotionally.  Sometimes we NEED to communicate and share those feelings so that our spouse can also see our unique and beautiful view of life.

After selling our Florida condo last week, Pete and I journeyed down to pack up a few personal belongings (pictures, and might I add “stuff”) before closing.  We sat outside one night looking at the ocean, and Pete shared with me that he felt defeated.  Mostly because he felt like we had given up because it was too hard.  I, on the other hand, felt freedom.  Free from all of those rental calls about things that were broken.  Free from all the emotional baggage of worrying about what is going on at the condo when we are 1000 miles away.  Free of debt – that was a big one!  But his feelings were valid, even if they were different from mine.  His feelings were slanted by societal views, and I could relate to that.

Throughout this process of downsizing our lives, Pete and I have felt very differently about it.  I have felt freedom and he has felt defeat.  It is hard for a man to give up “things” in life (and I am not speaking badly of men because women can feel this way too).  “Things” in life are what society tells us we should work toward.  Unfortunately, those “things” can ruin our relationship with God.  Our family had begun to idolize those things above God, and I knew that was wrong.  Pete knew that was wrong too.  Our family was beginning to look like society wanted us to look – and I didn’t like that.  “Things” are not bad, but they are open doors to sinful behavior.  And when we started to look like everyone else – I knew something was wrong.  God made us all unique, and we shouldn’t conform to be something that God did not make us to be.

Pete and I began to realize over the last year, that our life could be significantly different Old married couplewithout all that stuff.  Instead of each of us having our own bathroom (like we did in our old house), we now share two.  Actually four of us share one, and our teenager has her own in the basement (which trust me – is okay with me).  Instead of having 4000 sq ft to run away from each other in, we now have 1200 sq ft to snuggle up together within.  Instead of looking out at our neighbors everyday, we look out at 8 acres of woods and creek.  It is different, and in my viewpoint, it is freeing.

Our perspectives may be different on what we have accomplished over this last year, but all in all, Pete and I both feel a closer relationship with God and our family.

Eventually, I suspect, Pete’s defeat will turn into freedom.  We all have to work through emotions when big changes take place in our life.  Even with the freedom I am feeling, I still am remorseful over losing “stuff”; I still am sad about “things” that are left behind.  So Pete’s words made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.

It seems easy to rid my life of stuff, but it seems hard to look at it through society’s eyes.  I am the queen of throwing stuff out!  I dream of a large dumpster being parked outside my house so I can trash all that “stuff” that people leave lying around.  That has not been the hard part of this downsizing kick we are on.  I think the difficult part of this ride has been watching others look at us.  The thoughts go through my mind about what “they” might be saying… Did Pete lose his job?  Have they racked up too much debt?  Why are they selling off everything?  Are they crazy?  How do you think their kids feel?  How can they just uproot their kids lives like that?  It can be good for their family to just eliminate all that excess, I bet they will regret it.

Life has been a roller coast ride for all of us this last year. Those thoughts of doubt usurp me sometimes, and I can see where defeat could set in.  I can see Pete’s side to the story, but I wouldn’t have, if he didn’t share it with me.  By him sharing with me about his feelings of defeat, I could see his roller coaster ride a little more clearly.  I mean this has been a roller coaster ride for us this past year.  God has poignantly made his message clear to us.  He has not nudged us, instead he has pushed us – hard.  Listening to Pete made me realize that even though I thought we were on the same ride – we weren’t.  He was on the roller coaster named Defeat.  I was on the roller coaster named Freedom. He was on one with twists and turns and upside down hills.  I was on the kiddie version.  I thought we boarded the same ride.  I thought we were in line together. I thought we were in the same car, but that was not the case.

In marriage, we can think we are all feeling the same way, yet that is so far from the truth.  Communication can change that in an instant.  We still might not board the same roller coaster, but we can share in the joys and sorrows of it by just communicating.  I don’t like those roller coasters with twists and turns and upside down hills, but Pete does.  I prefer the kiddie ones.  I get to listen and relive Pete’s thrill ride though when he chooses to share it with me.  He gets to hear my side too – which probably seems a little boring to him, but he listens anyway.

Defeat versus Freedom – it really doesn’t matter which ride you board, as long as the two of you end up walking off the ride together -in the arms of God.

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Archbishop Joseph Kurtz on Love

man and woman“Couples, like individuals, acquire virtues through the repetition of particular practices and behaviors. They make the virtue their own by freely choosing to act in certain ways, every day.”  

Introduction to the “Marital Virtue of the Month” Series By Archbishop Joseph Kurtz   (An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Archbishop Kurtz continues, “Love, of course, is the more excellent way that includes all the virtues. As a couple grows in virtue they also grow in love. Hand in hand they walk the journey to holiness. I pray that you may persevere in this journey, knowing the love of God, the encouragement of the Church, and the support of the many couples who are walking this journey with you.”H

This up-to-date piece continues the conversation we’ve been having on this site, i.e., the responsibility of spouses not to simply strive for perfection on their own, but to bring their spouse closer to God as well.  We do that not by encouragement/arguing, active evangelization or subtle pressure, but by prayer, by living a committed Christian life, and by creating a wake with the power of our spirit that eventually overtakes our less-committed spouse and becomes irresistible, a wave that can help him along the road to faith.  As usual, we must allow The Holy Spirit to work in our lives and those we love.  And acknowledge that these things take place in God’s time.  Amen.LSE Papyrus logo

Get Connected – Turn Toward Your Partner to Create Intimacy

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleHere’s another nugget from John Gottman, courtesy of the Alabama Healthy Marriage Initiative.  This piece discusses the specific types of connections we make with our spouses, how some are positive and some are negative.  Mastering the art of opening positive connections–leaning in versus leaning away–with your spouse invites a warm, open relationship in which conflicts heal quickly and intimacy is part of everyday life.

Get Connected – Turn Toward Your Partner to Create Intimacy

The story many of us tell ourselves is that our marriages are imperfect, that they are what they are, and there’s no point in trying to re-build them.  But what we also see are research reports, by Gottman and others, that suggest practical techniques for improving our relationships.  That yours, and mine, is imperfect is due to the fact that each of us is imperfect. We are all sinners.   And, therefore, it’s not so much about finding the right person as it is being the right person.  If our marriage appears to be failing, we will be taking some of the reason for that with us in the pursuit of a new, improved marriage.  Logic dictates that even in the unlikely event that Spouse #2 were, in fact, perfect, it would bode poorly for the success of the relationship.marriage-vs-money

Marriage literature suggests that most marriages go through three distinct stages.  Euphoria, that unmatched feeling early in the relationship when it seems the sun, the moon and the stars rotate around your intended spouse.  Disillusionment, when you realize the natural order of the universe and where exactly you and your spouse, and probably children, fit in it.  And, finally, That Third Stage, in which the partners either don’t work it out, manage some kind of peaceful coexistence, or, at best, feed and maintain a relationship built upon respect, trust and intimacy, both emotional and physical, and thank God for that person, for the loaning of your partner’s spirit, if only for a short time, that is at the core of sacramental marriage.

The practice of leaning into your spouse when discussing important issues is what the Masters of Marriage do.  It allows couples to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise in marriage quickly and without any need for retribution.  It is a skill, and can be developed by anyone ready and willing to try to improve their marriage.  The story we need to be telling ourselves is that we can improve our marriage if we want to and if we enlist the help of The Holy Spirit.  As Nancy constantly reminds me, “The door is open.”

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