Category Archives: Marriage

For The Husbands

I’ve had a request for some ideas for husbands in terms of marriage and spiritual leadership.  I decided to create a list of ten things (in no particular order) that regularly come up in counseling sessions, daily life and in spiritual conversations.  This list is by no means exhaustive.  I personally have a lot of work to do.  We all do.  The point is to know what needs work and then work on it.  Keep in mind that doing these things can be fun.  Just because it takes some effort doesn’t mean it has to be drudgery.  It all depends on your attitude.  The rewards are well worth it.  So, here you go husbands.  I hope you find something useful here.

1)      Mutual submission:

A lot is said about wives submitting to husbands.  Yet, husbands are also called to submission.  Jesus Christ is the model.  He is the Bridegroom.  How does the Bridegroom behave towards his Bride, the Church?  He does not consider his position as God (the ultimate leader) as something to be grasped at, but humbles himself as a slave.*  Are you that way towards your bride, or are you constantly trying to dominate and overrule her choices and opinions?  Jesus submitted to the point of death for his Bride.  “Husbands, love your wives, as Jesus Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it.”*  Would you die for your bride?  Are you willing to let even a small part of you “die” so that she can have her way?  Do you sacrifice with joy or do you allow resentment to build in your heart?

2)      Non-sexual touch and affection:

If your wife thinks you want sex every time you touch her, that’s a problem.  She needs hugs, kisses, hand-holding and physical closeness that has no “sexual strings” attached.  Many men regard women as sexual objects to be used for their own pleasure.  Not good.  Your wife is a person, a human being, a child of God, not a blow-up doll.  Treat her accordingly.  Jesus treated women with respect.  Follow his lead.  Find out what she likes.  It won’t do much good to hold her hand if she doesn’t like hand-holding.  When you know what she likes, you know her.  Then you can deliver the affection, with no expectations of having sex.

3)      Kind, respectful speech and humor:

No name-calling, even when you are angry and frustrated.  No name-calling.  No curse words.  Do not swear at your wife or your children.  Speak to them as Jesus would speak to the Church, with love.  Don’t say hurtful things to your wife and then try to cover it up with, “I was only kidding around.”  Don’t say things you will wish you could retract.  Oh, and did I say, “No name-calling?”  Bridle your tongue.*

4)      Eye contact and undivided attention:

When your wife speaks, listen, even if you think it is not relevant to you.  If you are unable to listen for some valid reason, tell her so.  Tell her you want to hear about it, and that you will listen as soon as you get a chance.  Then, keep that promise.  Also, give her eye contact.  Mute the TV, pause the game, whatever you have to do to look her in the eye and really listen.  If you forget what she said a few minutes ago, you probably weren’t really listening.  Develop your listening skills if you want to be a good husband.

5)      Conversation:

Being a good listener is part of being a good conversationalist.  Yeah, I know, men are all about “report” (just give me the facts) and women are all about “rapport” (let’s be in synch with each other mentally and emotionally).  So, conversation means different things to men and women.  That’s why men generally have shorter phone calls than women (get the gist of things and hang up).  Nevertheless, men, try to develop your rapport with your wife.  Listen and respond with more than a grunt.  Be happy with her when she’s happy.  Be sad with her when she’s sad.  Show some empathy.  Tune in.

6)      Follow through on promises, big and small:

Be faithful to your wedding vows.  That’s a big one.  Take out the trash when you say, “Ok, I’ll take it out.”  That’s a small one.  A promise is a promise.  We can’t trust someone in big things if we can’t trust him in small things.*  By the way, fidelity also means getting rid of and avoiding pornography in your life, your home, your computer, your phone, etc.  We are all called to purity and chastity within our vocations whether we are married or single.  You chose one, special woman out of millions.  Love her and her alone.  Forsake all others, even the paper or cyber ones.  As the Scripture says, “Rejoice with the wife of your youth.  Let her breasts satisfy you at all times.”*  And, yes, guys, that means the Victoria’s Secret catalog needs to go, too.

7)      Acts of service:

Find out what means “love” to her.  Do it.  Say it.  Mean it.  If it’s washing her car, wash it.  If it’s flowers, get them.  If it’s taking the kids away so she can rest, take them.  Get the picture?

8)      Spiritual initiative:

“Man up” and be a holy, spiritual Christian man.  Jesus chose twelve, ordinary, “unlearned”* men to be his apostles.  Quit making the ladies and the clergy do all the “spiritual work.”  The clergy is only there to prepare us, the laity, to do the real work.  That means go to church, pray with your family, read and study your Bible and your Catechism, know your faith, share your faith and be prepared to defend it against secularism, relativism, hedonism and any other “ism” that distorts truth.  “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”*  That ought to make a guy feel like wielding the sword of the Spirit to defend his family from the powers of darkness.  Look at it this way: if you heard someone breaking into your home, would you send your wife to deal with it while you stayed in bed?

9)      If you have children, be active and engaged with them:

You are a role model, whether you want to be or not.  You are either a good one or a bad one.  Be a good one.  Love your children with your time, your attention, and your presence.  It isn’t enough to be a financial provider.  They need their dad, not just dad’s money.  It also shows that the sex you have with your wife means more to you than lust or physical pleasure.  It means that you and your wife share in God’s creative power together and God blessed that union by creating new human beings.  If you want to know why sex is sacred and not to be used, abused or taken for granted, spend time with your children and look deeply into their eyes.  Yep, that’s why God made sex.

10)  Ask your wife what she needs/wants/likes:

There is no better expert on how to treat your wife than…your wife.  No two people are the same.  No two wives are the same.  Talk to your wife.  Ask her how you are doing as a husband.  Ask her where you can improve, and then, actually work on it.  You and your wife decided to create something that never existed before; your marriage.  Your marriage is not there to serve you.  You are there to serve your marriage and your spouse.  Find out what you need to do better and what you are already doing well, for the sake of your marriage.  With a humble heart, ask God to help you.

 

*I’ll let you look up these Scriptures on your own.  Good way to show some initiative, men!

Want A Happy Marriage? Hoe, Hoe, Hoe!

For the most part, people get married these days because they believe it will make them happy, and that’s ok.  Marriage is supposed to be a joyful relationship.  But, a lot of folks discount a very important piece of marriage that makes it a joyful experience.  They underestimate, or completely ignore, the formative aspect of marriage.  That is, they expect to settle into a relationship where they are loved and coddled and not expected to make any changes.  Growth cannot take place without change.  Change is not always easy or fun.  People generally want their marriages to be fun and easy, not challenging or something to work at.

When working with couples, I sometimes use a vegetable garden analogy.  I ask the couple to imagine that they decided to start a big vegetable garden in order to enjoy fresh veggies that they both like.  The garden will be of a size that requires the work of two people.  Then I have them list all the things that would be required to keep the garden healthy.  They will need to provide water, sunlight, and fertilizer.  The ground must be tilled (hoe, hoe, hoe!).  Weeds, insects and animals will need to be kept at bay.  The vegetables will need to be harvested, cleaned and prepared before being enjoyed.  In other words, it takes a lot of consistent work to reap the benefits that are so pleasurable.  One person cannot do it alone without part of the garden withering.  Want a great garden?  Expect lots of work from both of you!

So, marriage takes work.  We hear that often, but neglect to embrace it.  We don’t want to work, we want to be loved and coddled.  This is where the formative part comes in.  Work builds character.  Individuals with character have a better chance of a happy marriage.  There are lots of unhappy marriages because people lack character.  They want to eat the vegetables, but they don’t want to work in the garden.  They have not discovered their innate love of work and character-building.  Humans are not naturally opposed to work when it yields a reasonable reward.  Work is a healthy, fulfilling aspect of personhood.

We do not usually hear someone say, “I can’t wait to get married so that I can learn to love the work involved and build my character!”  No, people want the romance and the sex, but not the work.  They want the unconditional love, but they don’t want to love unconditionally.  They want their spouses to sacrifice for them, but they don’t want to live sacrificially.  They want respect, but they aren’t respectful.  They look at marriage with a “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude instead of asking, “What’s best for this marriage God has given us?”  They scrutinize or covet other marriages instead of working in their own “garden.”

To “grow old together” implies that some growth will take place.  Growth means change and change can be difficult.  “For better or for worse” is not just a romantic notion.  It means that you are choosing to enter a relationship that may challenge you in ways you never could have imagined.  These challenges may be emotional, spiritual or physical.  You will need to mature and grow as an individual.  You will need to be accountable to your spouse and hold your spouse accountable when it comes to nurturing the marriage.  You will need to bend your will to God, the institutor of marriage (as in Ephesians chapter 5).  You will need to forgive and ask for forgiveness.  You must swallow your pride and seek genuine, godly humility without degrading yourself.  You must not try to thwart God’s total design for marriage, including the procreative aspect.

The better you become as a person, the better your marriage will be.  Focus on the changes you need to make, not things your partner needs to improve.  God is the potter, and we are the clay.  Let it be!  God will surely use your spouse to mold you.  Some of it will be fun, and some of it might be grueling.  All of it will find an ultimate reward in this life or the next.  Marriage is a vocation.  The goal is for spouses to help each other and their children on the road to sainthood.  Faith, hope and love; the greatest is love (a godly, sacrificial charity), and that is where true happiness abides, for God is love.

Can You Give And Accept An Apology?

One thing that often comes up when counseling couples is the issue of apologies.  I often ask spouses, “Do you apologize to each other,” or  “What is it like for you to apologize?”  A follow-up question is, “Are you able to accept apologies?”

A sincere apology requires humility because pride must be swallowed.  Some people have such an aversion to being wrong that it obstructs their empathy towards others.  They assume a defensive stance as they think only of self.  It’s hard to embrace someone through a suit of armor or a castle wall.  Apologies require vulnerability.  The armor must come off.  Knights wear armor for fear of swords and arrows.  When the armor comes off, vulnerability increases and so does the fear.  Apologizing can be difficult because one must drop the defenses.

Some folks apologize incessantly.  This is usually a sign of an insecure, passive type of person and/or an abusive relationship, not a healthy relationship.  There’s no reason for a genuine apology unless there has been a genuine offense.

Accepting an apology is another matter.  It’s even harder to drop the defenses and apologize to someone who can’t accept an apology graciously.  Some people use the apologies of others as opportunities to “twist the knife,” as in, “Darn right you shouldn’t have done that, you big jerk!”  A sincere apology is a gift.  The proper response to a sincere apology is, “Thank you, I accept your apology.”  The acceptance should then be followed up with genuine forgiveness.  One who holds a grudge, pouts or gives “the silent treatment” has not really accepted the apology.

I saw a quote once that said, “Marriage is an adventure in forgiveness.”  Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive someone seven times.  Jesus told him, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:22)  Of course, the point is not to forgive a person 490 times and then quit.  The point is to always be forgiving.  Forgiveness is not necessarily a onetime event.  Often we have to say, “Oh yeah, I forgave them for that yesterday, so I need to stick with it.”  Similarly, marriage is a choice we make every day, not just on our wedding day.

Forgiveness is not the same as trust.  If someone whacks me with a stick when I walk past, I can forgive that person.  That doesn’t mean I have to trust that person to cease the stick-whacking.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  If the person displays sincere remorse and proper behavior over time, however, trust may be reestablished.  One forgives in order to avoid carrying around a cancerous grudge, not in order to “let the person off the hook” of responsibility.  I can forgive someone for stealing my car, but the car still needs to be returned and/or jail time must be served.  This, by the way, relates to the Catholic understanding of penance, indulgences, Purgatory and the temporal punishment for sin that remains even after we have been forgiven of our sins.  Of course, Christ forgives our sins.  We are still responsible to make amends wherever we can.  That’s the fruit of true repentance.  Scripture tells us to avoid the altar until we have made amends.

So, if a marriage is rocky, each spouse can benefit from asking, “What am I not forgiving my spouse for?” and “What am I not apologizing for?”  Making amends is a sign of true friendship, spiritual humility and a happy marriage.

Dealing With Anger: Water or Gasoline?

The issue of anger comes up frequently in my practice.  Whether it is a low grade irritability, prolonged resentment or full blown rage, it shows up in many relationships.  In dealing with anger it may be helpful to make a distinction between two different kinds of anger, good and bad.

Good anger is sometimes called “righteous indignation.”  Essentially, it is anger that is directed at an injustice.  It is a constructive anger because it seeks the good of another.  It can be used to improve the lives of people.  Suppose you saw a starving child and the sight angered you.  You know in your heart that children should be cared for and nurtured, not starved.  Your anger would be directed at the injustice.  Hopefully, you would be motivated to assist starving children in some way.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving is another example of good anger being used as a positive force.

Bad anger is basically a temper tantrum.  The self is usually the focus of bad anger.  This type of anger is not constructive.  It tends to promote the destruction of relationships, people and property.  People of all ages have temper tantrums of varying degrees.

Anger is often thought of as an emotion that “just happens.”  What is often overlooked is that anger is largely a choice we make.  It is really a secondary reaction to a primary emotion such as frustration, embarrassment, guilt, disappointment, etc.  When people do not deal with the primary emotion effectively, anger is the next recourse.

The primary emotions of anger can be placed into two main categories: feelings of being emotionally hurt and feelings of being put in danger.  The “fight or flight” reflex kicks in and people respond either by wanting to distance themselves (flight) or by wanting to lash out physically or verbally (fight).  However, once the anger begins to show up, we then have to make a choice.  This is when we decide either to pour water or gasoline on the flames.  Many folks don’t realize they have a choice at this point.  They just let the feeling take them for a ride rather than managing the feeling.  They claim they were “made angry” rather than admitting they chose their own reactions.

Road rage is an example of unmanaged emotions.  Being cut off by another driver may trigger feelings of being emotionally hurt (“How rude!  Can’t he see I’m in this lane?”).  It may frighten you and trigger fears that you are in danger (“I could have wrecked the car!”).  In any case, those primary feelings may lead to the next step of anger.  Then you make a choice: take a few deep breaths and let it roll off your back (water), or tailgate the other driver to get back at him (gasoline).

In relationships the same principle applies.  We need to take ownership of our own emotions and manage them.  Otherwise, we end up blaming others for our bad behavior while relinquishing our own power of self-control.

Watch this video and notice which person has control of his own anger and which person lets his anger take him for a ride.

A Happy Marriage: Some Reflections

What makes a happy marriage?  That’s a question with a lot of answers.  I can’t cover everything here, but there are certain qualities that come to mind.  Trust, honesty, love, respect, kindness, patience and forgiveness are several aspects of a good relationship.  Are these qualities earned or are they freely given?

A marriage needs unconditional love.  This is not the love of emotion but the love of choice.  It is “agape” or godly love.  It is a love no one can earn.  No one “deserves” unconditional love.  It is freely given by choice.  It is the kind of love that says, “I love you even though you are driving me crazy and I don’t really like being around you right now.”  It is the kind of love that chooses to be married every day, not just on the wedding day.  If someone must perform to a certain level in order to be loved, that love is conditional.  Humans crave unconditional love, not performance based love, especially in marriages and families.  Beware of “I love you, but…” statements, which often indicate that love has conditions attached to it.

Trust, on the other hand, must be earned.  Trust, like fine crystal, can be broken in an instant and can be very hard to repair, if at all.  Loving a person does not mean automatically trusting that person.  Trust is built over time by trustworthy behavior.  Words do not build trust unless those words match the behavior.  It is quite possible to love a person without trusting that person.  When trust has been deeply wounded, only trustworthy behavior over a long period of time can rebuild it.  Sometimes, trust is so badly damaged, it can never be restored.

Kindness, respect, honesty, patience and forgiveness must be freely given.  These are all linked to unconditional love.  Your spouse should not need to earn your kindness or your patience.  If you are kind and patient it is because you are a kind, patient person.  If you value the dignity of your spouse’s humanity you will be respectful, even when your spouse behaves poorly.  No one needs to earn your honesty.  Simply be an honest person.  Be forgiving.  Don’t wait for the offender to “earn” your forgiveness.  Carrying a grudge is like bearing a large rock on your shoulders.  You end up suffering the most by harboring your un-forgiveness and waiting for the offender to change.

Forgiveness is not the same as trust.  Forgiving a person does not mean you automatically trust that person.  Trust
must be earned.  Trust is conditional.  You can forgive someone while still holding that person accountable for the offense.  Forgiving a person does not mean allowing that person to continuously repeat the offense.  For example, if a man steals $100.00, you can forgive him for the theft and at the same time expect that he return the stolen money and face jail time.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting people off the hook for bad behavior.  In a marriage, spouses must be forgiving yet hold each other accountable for behaviors that are toxic to the relationship.

Ask yourself what qualities you expect your spouse to earn, and what qualities you freely offer.  It may open up new perspectives on your relationship.

Marriage: A Real Vocation

Recently, I was asked to participate in a discussion group about marriage.  The question posed to me was, “What are some of the biggest marriage issues you see in your therapy practice?”  I could have talked for hours about communication issues, money issues, unrealistic expectations, family-of-origin issues, gender differences, etc.  But, since it was a Catholic group with limited time, I decided to go more to the heart of the matter.  So, I began by saying that I believe three things are being extracted from marriage by society: vocation, sacrament and covenant.  One thing is being injected to replace these three things: self-centeredness.

Many people do not think of marriage as a vocation.  Rather than a divine calling, marriage becomes just another item on a list of “Things That Will Make Me Happy.”  A vocation is something to devote one’s life to.  It transcends feelings and emotions and relies on work, sacrifice, priority and commitment to bear the fruit of genuine joy and happiness that people long for.  Self-centeredness says, “This marriage is about making me happy.”  Vocation says, “We are in this marriage to serve God and each other.  It is our primary calling, not just our desire.”

Some non-Catholic Christian denominations ordain both women and men to the ministry.  I have seen it cause conflict in a marriage when both spouses feel called to the vocation of ministry.  The marriage and family becomes something to “work around” while they pursue their vocations.  There are essentially three vocations competing for attention and devotion in this scenario.  Even when only one spouse is called to the ministry it can be difficult for that person to devote enough time to both vocations.

I love that the Catholic Church regards marriage as a Sacrament.  It is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”  Marriage is a vehicle by which people receive God’s grace.  The “outward sign” is the couple.  The marriage reflects Christ as the Groom and the Church as his Bride.  From the beginning, “a man leaves his mother and father, a woman leaves her home, and the two become one.”  Christ and his Church are united as one body.  A happy marriage requires lots of grace.

It’s not surprising that the secular world has lost sight of the sacramental aspect of marriage.  Unfortunately, so has much of Christendom.  A few years ago, I attended a wedding where the minister actually made a point of saying, “This is not a sacrament, as some might think.”  I knew that some Christians disagreed that marriage is a sacrament, but I was surprised to hear that rejection stated as part of a wedding ceremony.  I was also saddened by the reminder that so many fellow Christians have been denied the graces available through the sacramental life of the Church because of the Reformation.

Most folks these days think of marriage as a contract rather than a covenant.  A contract says, “We have a deal, at least, unless one of us breaks the deal.”  Covenant says, “We’re family now.  We are blood relatives.”   Both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant of God were sealed by blood.  The family of God is a blood relationship.  A blood relative is always a blood relative, regardless of legal proceedings.  This is why the Catholic Church says that if a couple is validly married in the eyes of the Church, they stay married for life.  A legal divorce does not change the blood relationship.  A covenant is not a legal state of being, but a relational state of being.  A contract protects people from each other.  A covenant embraces people as family.

A self-centered approach to life does not fit well with the ideas of vocation, sacrament or covenant.  The Church, of course, has always known this.  As society becomes increasingly “me” oriented, marriage and family life feels the strain.  Generally speaking, as the family goes, so goes the society.  Although I can’t discuss the concepts of vocation, sacrament and covenant with all of my marriage therapy clients, I can help them to see the toxic character of self-centeredness and the joys of true commitment.  Hopefully, some of God’s grace enters the relationship that way.

Quite frankly, many couples would spend a lot less money on marriage therapists if they only took advantage of the Sacrament of Confession.  But that’s a topic for another day.

For another interesting article about marriage as a vocation read this.