Seek Lasting Virtues

One of the foundational precepts of this ministry is that marriage is not all about FINDING the right person with whom you will spend your life, but BEING the right person.  Accepting this belief, however, does not mean we should go out looking for Mr. or Miss Wrong, and then trying to make things work out by superhuman acts of will and effort. In this post, we will explore some ideas for shortening the odds against marital problems, by seeking lasting virtues in a prospective mate.

One of the problems with this process is that, generally, people looking to get married are Young Beautyoften young, and their judgment has yet to fully mature.  Men, for whom I can speak with some authority, often tend to get distracted by physical aspects of a woman–the babe factor–which can cloud their judgment.  My favorite cousin Butch, who has been married a number of times, is a sweet, brilliant, funny, lovable guy, but has, as he puts it, “a bad picker.”  When it came to women, he routinely made choices which were doomed from the outset.  (As an example, I believe his first wife’s choice of cocktail beverage was scotch and Diet Dr. Pepper.  Just sayin’.)  His current and, we hope, last wife, is a solid, stable, down-to-earth woman, a scholar of native American heritage, although I don’t know what she likes to drink.

Two observations I’ve picked up during my life have bearing on this topic.  The first, from a former boss in the insurance business, states: “Slow as a freshman, slow as a senior.” The implication is that people basically do not change, and marrying someone while keeping a list of those aspects of his or her personality you intend to “fix” is folly.  The second, courtesy of my own mother, is relevant to men seeking wives.  She advised me, if I was seriously interested in a woman, to arrange to meet her mother, and believed that most women grow up to become close copies of their mothers.  She didn’t have anything to say about women seeking men, although I find a number of disturbing aspects of my own personality that closely resemble my father, to my lasting distress.

So, borrowing from the Preamble to the U.S. constitution, in order to form a more perfect union, we should try our best to look beyond the short-term physical attributes of our prospective spouse and focus instead on those aspects of his or her character that will likely be there forever.  A word of caution before getting too far into this–there are some dealbreakers out there for which there are no ready work-arounds, among them a tendency toward physical violence or mental abuse, addictions to gambling, drugs or alcohol, etc., A person with all of the following virtues who is saddled with these issues is not a strong candidate as a life partner.  Acknowledging these concerns, let us examine:

  • Kindness.  One of the virtues that is difficult to measure, but that you know when you see it.  How does he or she treat wait staff in restaurants, or animals?
  • Patience.  Try as you might, during 40 or 50 years together you are going to demand plenty of this from your spouse.  If he is not generally patient, does he have it within him to be patient when necessary?
  • Honesty.  One of the footings of marriage is trust, which is impossible with someone who finds it easy to lie.  I observed this first-hand in my parents’ marriage, and it made my mother’s life hellish at times.
  • Generosity.  If he is cheap, or tight with money, it’s going to be a long row to hoe; there’s frugal, and there’s CHEAP.  Similarly, this can be a spiritual quality, as we often look up to people we think of as having a generous spirit.  Does she come from a sense of abundance, or one of scarcity?  Is he inclusive?  Does she support charities?
  • Forgiveness.  Does he or she stay mad, or have a short memory when it comes to getting over slights, whether real or imagined?  What about you?  Do you have forgiveness in your own heart?  If not, is it fair to expect it from your spouse?
  • Similar “coefficients of boredom.”  If you are a person who is easily bored, and she can be happy curled up on the couch reading a book, there exists the potential for friction.  It pays to seek someone with whom you share interests, and who has a similar tolerance for exhilaration and/or quietude.
  • Shared theories of raising children.  You want ’em, he doesn’t; this issue just won’t resolve itself.  If you’re not on the same page on this topic, perhaps you’d be better off “starting to see other people.”
  • Complementary Myers-Briggs profiles.  Ha–just put this in to see if you’re still paying attention.  But seriously, the cliche that opposites attract is a cliche because it’s true. The two of you don’t have to agree on everything, and by “everything” I’m including issues around religion and politics.  If you’re able to keep debates from devolving into arguments, issue-oriented stuff like this is relatively unimportant.  A side benefit of having different points of view on Issues is that your children will grow up with better independent thinking skills, not having had a strict “party line” to which they were expected to adhere along the way.  Upon hearing their parents present opposing points of view on issues, they will have to decide for themselves which position makes more sense. I’m convinced one reason our three daughters are high achievers is because they had to figure out a lot of stuff on their own, after listening to Nancy and me go at it over dinner.  (The exception to all of this, of course, is climate change.  If one of you believes the planet is heating up, and the other dismisses the thought as claptrap, this single issues can become a wedge in your relationship.  Don’t know why I believe this, but I do.)
  • Fairness.  This is a quality which emerges during difficult times, especially when it comes to fighting.  There is no way to be married to someone for half a century without a few real fights along the way.  “Fighting fairly” is crucial, as it allows wounds to heal more quickly than does its opposite.  John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness–are all examples of fighting dirty, and are all highly damaging to your marriage.  If your prospective spouse has a strong sense of fair play, this improves your chances.

young-couple-in-love-There is certainly a congruence between these suggested marital virtues and what are generally referred to as The Seven Christian Virtues.  Readers are encouraged to comment with other virtues they feel are important to lasting marriages.  These are but a few.  If you’re fortunate enough to find someone with all, or most, of them, as I did, you will likely live a long, happy life together.

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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.


These are the Good Old Days

One of the core beliefs of Love’s Sacred Embrace is that the sanctified union of a man and a woman is a gift from God, though the qualities of the gift itself often change over time. ( I’m pretty sure our speakers this week at Marriage on Tap will be discussing the various phases most marriages go through against the backdrop of a culture that disrespects the institution of marriage in general.)  As some of us who have lived together as husband and wife for decades discover, there comes a time when you’ve discharged the main responsibilities of your roles as parents.  At this moment, the quality of the gift is different than it was in the beginning.

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleWhen it was about infatuation and learning about one another and our families, Nancy and I sensed we might be on to something.  In the midst of this dazzling exchange of opinions, beliefs and attitudes, fueled by hormones, we discerned gifts in each other, the absence of which was likely a deal-breaker; honesty, a sense of humor, the ability to think standing up, similar Theories of Children, and so forth.  We married in three years and were parents in five.

Two and a half decades with children in the house were, for me, another gift from God that
I only infrequently allowed myself to enjoy during the time we had it.  I was overly focused
sisters on the beachon the mundane details of sustaining a fairly modest lifestyle in Carmel, and was not very good at making money.  One of Nancy’s gifts is that she doesn’t need to go out and buy a lot of things, what I refer to as “recreational shopping.”  She made sure the holidays and birthdays were done well.  We had help from our own parents with things like music lessons, orthodontia, college, etc.  I overlooked a lot of the good times, to my lasting regret.

Nancy and I became empty nesters when Cate left for WashYou in August of 2002 and my mother, who spent the last two years of her life with us, passed away in late October of that year.  I began my own spiritual journey, starting mine about where Nancy was in hers since she was a girl, just kind of falling into step and trying to keep up.  We made hard decisions that led to our getting our financial house in order.  We framed a retirement plan that seems to be working.  We’ve done some traveling, and generally travel well together, unless a restaurant I really wanted to go to in Michigan had closed for lunch for the SEASON the previous day, unannounced other than a small hand-written sign in the window, for crying out loud.

autumn-leaves-wallpaper1With the bulk of the heavy lifting of being parents and workers and savers largely complete, we have found that God’s greatest gift to us is His having helped us arrive at a point–the door to retirement–where we’re both facing essentially the same direction, with similar hopes and expectations for how we will attend to one another for the last 25 years of our lives. We have achieved a level of emotional intimacy well beyond the “peaceful co-existence” we survived earlier in our marriage.  We each hold a bank of goodwill for the other we draw upon when we get crosswise for whatever reason.  We assume friendship and fair play.  She still laughs at jokes I’ve been telling her for 40 years.

So often we see in ourselves and those we love times when, due to circumstances, we allow ourselves to wish great chunks of our lives away.  “I can’t wait for this to be over;” we hear it every day, about situations that may last for months or years.  What a relief and blessing it is to be able to say to Nancy, “I am looking forward to spending the rest of my life with you.  It sounds like fun.  For not entirely selfless reasons, I hope it never ends.”

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Finding the Perfect Mate

A beautiful reflection on our eventual sons- and daughters-in-law, by Denise McGonigal.

When my (young) adult children were still toddling around and just beginning school, a sisters on the beachfriend introduced me to the book, The Power of a Praying Parent, by Stormie Omartian.  What a gem that book is!  Among the insightful prayer petitions Omartian suggests, the one she explores in Chapter 25, “Finding the Perfect Mate,” spoke to my “mother heart.”

Who might be the lucky men who would marry our four daughters?  My wonderings were endless.  What did they look like? Who were their families? Where were they growing up?  And what choices were they making that would lead them, ultimately, to meet Erin, Caitlin, Meghan and Molly?

woman_prayingOmartian’s advice struck a chord in me: Begin praying for the future spouse of your child very early in his or her life.  Although we did not and could not yet know his identity, each of these four young men was already, in some eternal, cosmic way, becoming woven into the fabric of our family.

Do you pray for the yet-to-be revealed future spouse of your child?  At this very moment he or she is establishing patterns, forming values, developing opinions and making choices that will matter to a future life shared with your child.  And there’s also the real possibility that no one else is praying for him or her right now.

Joe and I have been blessed with three sons-in-law who are better than we could have ever come up with, had we hand-picked them ourselves. And when each of those young men made that fateful call to Joe, to ask for our daughter’s hand, my heart sighed with both peace and assurance: “Ah!  So you’re the one I’ve been praying for all these years! Welcome to the family who wove you into our hopes and hearts long before we ever met.”

Before you were born

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A Funny Thing Happened at Marriage on Tap

WeddingLast Saturday evening, my wife Nancy and I were at our parish’s monthly Marriage on Tap event–cocktails, dinner, a speaker and some topical conversation–which featured Dr. Tim Heck, a Catholic marriage counselor practicing here in Indianapolis, speaking on John Gottman’s theme about Marriage Masters and Marriage Disasters.  Another thoroughly enjoyable evening spent with parishioners from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel celebrating the many gifts of sacramental marriage.

After Tim’s talk, Denise McGonigal, our Director of Adult Religious Education, passed out a set of questions entitled Do You Know Your Spouse?  We do this type of exercise every so often, primarily because it is a source of laughter and fun among the people at the dinner tables.  Nancy and I have given several talks at our annual marriage retreat on the subject of temperament, and like to think we know each other fairly well.

Anyway, question #7 follows:  “Complete this sentence:  It must be true that opposites attract because my spouse and I are total opposites when it comes to _____________”

Before I disclose our answers, I’m just going to say that when I’m right, I’m right.  It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it’s memorable.

I filled in the blank with the word “everything.”  Nancy filled in the blank with the word “nothing.”

Wait for it…

I believe I’ve made my and woman

For details on the October Marriage on Tap event, please click here.

Holy Matrimony, from Salvo Magazine

Unbeknownst to me until after I shared it, the link in the previous re-post “Be fruitful, multiply…and have a good time” came to us from Fr. Richard Doerr, the pastor at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.  Father Richard must be catching up on his reading, as he has also provided this article from Salvo Magazine.

Holy Matrimony

Though the subject matter, and the conclusions, are similar, comparing Salvo Magazine to US News & World Report is like comparing Masterpiece Theater to Sesame Street.  This is a much more in-depth look at the relationship between one’s spiritual life and one’s sexual satisfaction.  Parts of it are, bluntly speaking, clinical.  It draws from a number of research studies and articles, ranging from The University of Chicago and C.S. Lewis to Redbook, and concludes that piety does not equal prudishness.  To the contrary, the subtitle–The Unexpected Connection Between Religion & Sexual Fulfillment–pretty much tells the story.

For me, the most encouraging part of these two posts, aside from the conclusions, is that we appear to be inching ever closer to the day when we will be able to share actual blog posts from Denise McGonigal and Fr. Richard, two of the most articulate voices in our parish community on the subject of sacramental marriage.  This blog went live back in January with the idea that both would be occasional contributors.  And while this hasn’t yet been the case, we seem to be making progress.  Christians across the globe have been awaiting Christ’s return for two millennia; followers of this blog can easily wait a few more weeks, or months, or years even, for the Holy Spirit to move our leaders to join this conversation.

Robin Phillips is the author of the book Saints and Scoundrels and is working on a Ph.D. in historical theology through King’s College, London.                                                         Robin blogs at

Support Salvo Magazine here.

Be fruitful, multiply…and have a good time!

A recent U.S. News and World Report article offers yet another reason to attend church every week.  Several studies cited by USN&WR staffer Elizabeth Flock suggest that devout Catholics have more and better sex than any of the other demographic groups studied.  Leave it to Denise McGonigal, OLMC’s Director of Adult Religious Education and resident expert on The Theology of the Body to uncover, as it were, this gem of an article.Cute-Romantic-Love-Couple

The research studies themselves aren’t new, one having been published in 1992 and the other in 1994.  For those of you interested in crunching the numbers, you’ll find plenty of links to the studies, as well as the organizations that conducted them.  Plus, there’s a link to the Amazon page for a 2008 book that, were I not already Catholic, might send me running to sign up for RCIA.

Holy Sex!

Critics will contend that the studies are biased, that the sponsors have an axe to grind, etc. etc.  Bah!  The world’s full of critics.  Personally, I’m happy to find a small oasis in the desert of anti-marriage, anti-spiritual popular culture.  We are called to evangelize, and many of us find it hard to do.  Sharing this article with our unchurched brethren may be a step in the right direction.  Think of it as the good news about The Good News.

Here’s the article–

Devout Catholics Have Better Sex, Study Says

Group presents data showing those who go to church weekly have most frequent, enjoyable sex.