The Four Areas for Marital Communication

Some of us are good at planning. Some are good at sharing our feelings. Some good at resolving conflict. Others at having fun together. Much of the time we think, when we are communicating well in one area, especially the latter, that our marital communication is good overall. But if we aren’t communicating well in all four areas, we leave ourselves open to marital conflict.

Planning and Coordinating

Life is complicated, and when kids enter the picture, especially as the family gets larger, the complications can grow exponentially. Good planning and coordination between a couple is critical. One of you is probably better at planning, but don’t leave all the responsibility on that person. That’s a ticket to an imbalanced marriage. We plan our day every morning over breakfast, before the kids get up. We plan our week every Sunday. We plan our month at the end of the month prior. We even do yearly strategic planning, which I highly recommend. These are conversations that have to happen to keep stress at bay.

Fun Times

Fun in a marriage never stops being important. Sharing a movie or play or sporting event or family outing is a form of communication. It is shared experience, and each shared experience adds one little thread to the ties that create the marital bond. Even CNN, not the most marriage friendly organization, realizes the importance of couples spending time together.

Conflict Resolution

Hundreds of books have been written on conflict resolution. Bad conflict resolution or, worse, conflict avoidance can end up in broken marriages. One of the key skills a married couple must learn is good conflict resolution. The Marriage Book by Nicky and Sila Lee is one book with an excellent section on conflict resolution. The key, though, is not to think there is one magic technique that works for everyone. Each person, and each couple, is different. Read widely in this area. Try different techniques as long as they are rooted in respect for God and your spouse. Find the parts that work and build them up into your very own personal conflict resolution technique.

Sharing Your Feelings

I put this one last because, to some degree, it’s first. The key to sharing your feelings with your spouse is to communicate with her who you are at this very moment. We are constantly changing and growing, and we must communicate those changes to our beloved. And just as importantly, we must receive those communications from our beloved and learn who she is today.

This is the root of communication. When we know who each other is, intimately, then we can plan effectively. We can enjoy each other’s company. We can resolve our problems with love instead of acrimony. So we need to spend time each and every day in intimate communication of our innermost selves. We must hold back nothing, and we must provide a safe refuge where our beloved can share her innermost self without fear.

There is no doubt. Communication in marriage is hard. But if we approach it with respect for God and our spouse, and if we pay attention to our communication in all these four areas, we can build a strong and stable marriage.

Marriage Is Not a Game

Baseball season will soon be upon us. We’ll have two boys in Little League, and practices are intense, three times per week to start, leveling off at twice a week once games get going. With two boys, that means we’re at the ballfield just about every day.

Little League ballgames are thrilling, sometimes too exciting for some parents. There is plenty of action – hits, stolen bases, runs – and you have the benefit of a loved one right there on the field. Even if your child isn’t one of the All Stars, there are always opportunities for parental pride to kick in as you watch your child do things he or she could not do just a few weeks before. But even when we lose, we can go home feeling good about playing the game, and the pain of the loss is short-lived.

Our culture is treating marriage as a game. Kids start living together as practice, to see if they’re “compatible”. Premarital sex is like sandlot baseball, just getting out there for the fun of it, with nobody keeping score. People jump into marriage for the wrong reasons – pressure from parents, an overeagerness to please, or because their friends are doing it – just like some kids play baseball for reasons other than a love of the game. But they don’t worry about that, because to them it is just a game, one they can walk away from if they’re not performing well.

But divorce is not the same as losing a baseball game. It’s not a matter of dealing with a little pain and then getting on with your life. Divorce is a life-long scar that doesn’t heal. It scars the couple. It scars the children. It scars extended family and friends. It scars the community. People who divorce are very unlikely to ever find a happy marriage on a second go-round. They are more likely to end up depressed, sustance-dependent, stuck in poverty, or divorced again.

Men and women treat marriage as a game even while they are in it. Even while things are going well. Even when they still feel as if they are “in love”. They hide things from each other – secret bank accounts, secret friends, secret Facebook accounts, secret web browsing. Will they get caught? Who knows, it is all a game. Arguments are games to see who will win. They play games over how to spend their money – his golf clubs or her car. They play games over where to go on vacation or whose parents to spend Christmas with. It becomes a contest over who will exert the behind-the-scenes control over the relationship. The loser of that game becomes more and more resentul, and soon they want to take their ball home, and find another game to play.

Marriage is not a game. It is a vocation. It requires the kind of single-minded focus that a prima ballerina gives to dance, that a concert violinist gives to music, that a professional baseball player gives to sport. To these people, those activities are a profession, not a game. They practice every day, in season and out of season, orienting every aspect of their life to make themselves a better dancer, violinist, or ballplayer.

Marriage, if it is to be something real, something that will last a lifetime, must be like that. It must be something we work at everyday, something we strive to excel at, something we orient every aspect of our life towards.

Men and women were not meant to use each other, or to play games with each other. They were created to become one in body and soul, and that takes work and dedication. If you give it that work, if you make that sacrifice, the rewards you get will be out of this world. Literally.

Thoughts on 20 Years of Marriage

My wife and I recently celebrated our twentieth anniversary. It was a good celebration, full of love and joy and happiness.

The sad fact is that most marriages don’t make it to twenty years. We are blessed to know people, including our own parents, whose marriages have lasted much longer. But more recent marriages often do not. It is important to reflect on the why of that, and not just to chalk it up to some half-imagined attribute that some have and some do not (good communication, for instance).

The first important thing to realize is that no marriage is easy. It is simply not true that the only marriages that work are marriages in which there are never conflicts and the couple is “made” for each other. The concept of the “soul mate” is on the top ten list of modern inventions most toxic to marriages. (Also on that list: contraception, no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, pornography, and so forth.) Every marriage has difficulties. Ours has. We have had our share of crises. We have gone through those moments where we really couldn’t stand each other, where we hurt each other in ways no one else had or could, where we desperately and seriously thought about divorce. Human beings are capable of great cruelty to each other, and we have been no exception.

So with that in mind, how did we survive? How does anybody.

Is It Faith?

Is it simply a matter of faith? Faith does help, of course. But the fact of the matter is that the divorce rate of Catholics who profess to believe the faith is really no different than the divorce rate of seculars. At the same time though, faith is essential. “The family the prays together stays together,” is not a falsity.

It all goes back to this: “Faith without Works is Dead” (Jm 2:17). A faith that remains unacted on cannot help our marriage or any part of our life. Only faith that is lived through daily actions and decisions can bring graces into lives or into our marriages. This is born out by other studies that show that couples who do not contracept or who actively pray together daily or who are active in their parishes are much less likely to have a divorce.

Committment

We all know that a marriage is a committment. But there are the normal kinds of committments – lukewarm, only kept until things get difficult – and then there are the serious kinds of committments – the kind you keep even if it means suffering and death. The latter is the kind of committment both spouses have to have if a marriage is to be strong. It is basically an attitude that divorce is not an option.

That kind of attitude – that divorce is simply not an option – brings with it the will to do the hard work needed to make the marriage successful. It makes you willing to take marriage classes, see a counselor when needed, make changes to your own behavior, keep the lines of communication open even when you don’t want to. A champioship caliber football player has the attitude that nothing is more important than winning that Super Bowl. That attitude gives him the will and perseverence necessary to lift weights all summer, to stick to a serious diet regimin, to stay on the practice field long hours and keep the nose in the playbook late into the evening. We, as married couples, have to have that same attitude.

That is it, in a nutshell. An unwillingness to even consider divorce. That committment comes from living the faith, and that committment leads us to do the hard work we have to do to make it work.

And the beauty of all that? It is the happiness and joy that arises. I would not trade the twenty years with my wife for anything. All that work we have put into our marriage has been paid back ten-fold in happiness. She has brought me places in my life I never could have reached myself, and I know I have done the same for her. I pray that all married couples can have the kind of happiness that we have found. If they live their faith and keep their committment, God’s grace can make that happen.

5 Things I Wish Every Engaged Couple Knew

This past weekend, my wife and I had the privilege of teaching a “Pre-Cana” marriage preparation class to a group of 20 engaged couples. We use a version of the Evenings for the Engaged program, which has been converted from a six evening program to one all-day session, due to the large distances our couples often must travel to attend.

I pray that we have some small influence on the future course of these marriages, helping to prepare them for all of the challenges ahead. I know that my wife and I feel closer than ever each time we present.

There is so much to know and learn about marriage, that we can barely scratch the surface in one 8 hour session, but if I had to summarize five key things every engaged couple should know, they would be:

1. Every Marriage Goes Through Hard Times
Those hard times can come from external sources (like finances) or they can be bred within (like a deterioration of communication). But I can pretty much promise you that there will be a moment where you wonder if you made a mistake, where you question whether you should go on. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce because when those times come, couples too often give up.

2. Marriage Can Withstand the Worst
Adultery, addiction, physical or emotional abuse, the loss of a child,financial ruin. I personally know strong marriages that have withstood all of these painful experiences. Even in the wake of utmost betrayal, it is possible to rebuild a marriage. And it is very worthwhile. The more adversity you face, the sweeter the victory.

3. Nothing Strengthens a Marriage Like Faith
The statistics vary depending on the study, but the results are consistent: marriages in which both couples are dedicated to their faith are much more likely to survive the test of time, with the divorce rate dropping to as low as 98%. Couples who are serious about their faith understand that a marriage is a sacred institution created by God and not just another kind of human relationship. And as Christ said, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

4. Contraception is Poison to a Marriage
It is no coincidence that the huge rise in divorce rate, abortion, single parent homes, and pornography use has followed the broad cultural acceptance of contraception. Contraception fundamentally alters the sex act, turning it from a self-giving act that nourishes a marriage and brings it closer to God, to a selfish pleasure-seeking act that turns spouses into sexual objects. Everyone I have talked to who has stopped using contraception and kept that commitment has found that it improved their marital and spiritual lives.

5. Love is a Decision
This is a catch-phrase for many marriage-oriented organizations including, I believe, Worldwide Marriage Encounter. What this means is that the feelings you have, no matter how strong, are not love. Feelings go as quickly as they come. Instead, love is a decision you make, actions you take. When those warm and fuzzy feelings go (and they will), all you will have left is your ability to say, “I will contine to take take the actions. I need to take to keep this marriage together.” If you keep making that decision, the warm fuzzy feelings will come back.

Understanding these five simple truths isn’t a guarantee of a successful marriage, but it can save a couple from the most common pitfalls, and I do wish everyone entering into marriage could have that basic understanding.

One of the Good Guys

I am taking a musical theater class with my daughter. (I find that participating in my kids’ activities – as coach, helper, or fellow student – brings us closer in a way that’s hard to get otherwise.) My daughter’s vocal teacher, who is leading the class, picked out a song for me: One of the Good Guys from the music revue Closer Than Ever. It is a remarkable song about temptation, mid-life crisis, and the truth about marriage.

Temptation

The song is sung by a self-professed good guy, who dotes on his wife and kids. It quickly becomes a confessional:

But there was a night in Hawaii
On a business trip,
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow.
She was someone’s friend, and she had this smile…

They become close, but in the end he resists the temptation to cheat on his wife. (Though he should never have been on that beach in the first place!)  And in his reflection it gets interesting:

…one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat
To build a warmer fire;
Denies himself a treat
To shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know.

What is the “something higher”? Of course it is marriage, but it isn’t just any marriage. There are plenty of loveless and miserable marriages out there. It is a marriage that has realized something important. A marriage in which self-sacrifice is recognized as the highest virtue. A marriage built according to this guideline:


Husbands,love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5: 25-31

This is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to the husband to give over his very life for his wife, just as Christ gave up his, a concept out of fashion in our no-fault divorce world. This sort of self-sacrifice, however, which is the definitive sign of real love, is what we were built for, what we are called to, and when we reach it, we have reached something higher. We have reached something holy.

I can honestly say, after twenty years of marriage in which we have seen our share of pain and in which we have failed to love more than I would care to admit, that what you get to after those 20 years of perseverance really is something higher, something transcendent. We have, even in a very imperfect way, attempted to imitate Christ’s love, and even imperfectly it is something wonderful.

But that’s not the end. There is more to the story.

Mid-Life

Fast forward and the singer is now 44 with everything laid out in his life as perfectly as he could ask. But…

Sometimes at night, in the stillness,
Lying wide awake
As the wife I still desire sleeps by my side,
I can feel the wash of the perfumed air
As my mind is drowning in billowing hair…

He is tormented by thoughts of what might have been, of what he gave up, and of the possibility that even now he could seize those fantasies and make them real.

Of course, he doesn’t. After all, he’s one of the good guys. And then he passes on the key piece of wisdom from the song:

It’s not which road you take,
Which life you pick to live in,
Whichever choice you make,
The longing is a given.
And that’s what brings the ache
That only the good guys know.

He has come to realize that no matter how happy you are, no matter which spouse or career or life you choose, you will feel the regret, the questions, the uncertainty, and the temptations. It is just a normal part of life. These things we find ourselves desiring – and the people – are mirages. Worse, they are lies. They promise something they can never give, which is completion. Total happiness.

But why? Why are we built that way? Why can’t we achieve that happiness we desire? St. Augustine understood:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We have an emptiness inside us that only God can fill and that will not be filled in this life. We try to fill that need with pleasure; with sex or alcohol or excitement or food or other indulgences. We try to fill it with our spouse. But it is never enough. We always come back to that empty feeling.

Even our marriage cannot fill that God-sized hole, and if we persist in believing that it should, we may be tempted to throw it away and start over. But if we come to understand what marriage is and what its relation to God is, then we can feel that transcendence that I talked about earlier, even while tormented by the longing that never goes away.

And what is this understanding of marriage? Marriage is no less than a relationship, designed by God, to reflect both Christ’s love for his Church and the Father’s love for the son. It aspires to be the perfect and selfless love that is Christ’s love. Paradoxically, the only way to achieve total happiness is through a total outpouring of oneself for another, for in doing that, we begin fulfill our purpose, which is to be an image of God. Likewise, our marriage an family begins to fulfill its purpose, which is to be an image of the Holy Trinity, that most fundamentl and perfect of all relationships.

And that truly is the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know.