An Even Better Marriage
From Newlywed to Long-Timer
Those of us who are married all want happy marriages. Some of us have angry, troubled marriages. Some of us have ok marriages, but maybe we have drifted into boredom or lack of interest in each other. Others of us have good marriages but we want them to be better.
There are things we can do in ordinary life that will affect our relationships with our spouses – for the better.
Please note that this discussion is not about an abusive situation where the safety of a spouse is at risk. Sometimes we have to leave an abusive situation – and certainly we need outside help to deal with it.
This reflection is about an ordinary marriage with the everyday ups and downs. Sometimes we find ourselves looking at more downs than ups. How can we give a new life and even new joy to our relationships?
- Don’t look for marriage to be 50-50. A good marriage is not about keeping score. If I always try to do more than my share, to love more deeply…the main question is not “Does he/she make me happy?” The question to look at is “Do I make him/her happy?”
- Love my spouse at her/his most un-loveable self. This comes down to loving my spouse the way God loves me: without judgment and without holding back. Here is the challenge: when he is barking at me about something, when she is snapping back and pouting, at the moment we are most searching for retribution, that is the time God is inviting us to ask ourselves, “What does my spouse need from me right now? How can I love my spouse better in this harsh moment of insecurity?”
It is harder to love a spouse who is behaving badly and we feel we are the wronged party, but the love God has for us is never based on how we are behaving. We are simply loved. A brief mental prayer asking God for support, patience and love can give us strength to love despite our loved one’s tantrum.
- Choose your fights. Minor squabbles are a part of life and we can move on from them. But they can pick away at our sense of cohesion and so often are not even worth the fight. Do I need to correct my spouse about that … again? Do I need to steam because the cupboard doors are left open, the clothes are on the floor, tools aren’t put away or the dishes remain un-done? The solution is not to yell. It also isn’t being a martyr and pouting or storming around as we fix what we want done. This is the time for a prayer of patience and love.
Maybe there are bigger issues we have a fight about. Often we can follow that argument back and discern what is going on under the surface of a heated discussion. The worst fight is a misdirected one – if I am feeling hurt, jealous or insecure, I might find myself fighting over something completely unrelated – and usually insignificant.
Do we ever think to ourselves that every fight we have is about the same thing? If it seems a small issue, it is might not what we are really arguing about. “Can’t you fix something besides pork chops for dinner?” might be the fight, but real issue might be that the spouse who is cooking doesn’t feel appreciated. In a huff about that comment, the cook also refuses to ask what the spouse might prefer for dinner. Instead of a discussion, it’s an argument – and it isn’t really about food.
Say it out loud: We may have done it when we were dating or newlyweds, but how often do we still tell our spouses how much they mean to us? It’s important to let our husbands and wives hear words spoken out loud: “Thank you. I appreciate what you do for us. Most of all, I appreciate you.” It doesn’t cost a thing and it doesn’t take time – just a focus on the other person. It may reap the greatest rewards for our marriage.
Sometimes as we age, there is nothing more special than a spouse who says, “You look wonderful to me.” It’s the appreciation of each other that is key. The way God says it to us in Isaiah: “You are precious in my eyes and I love you.” [Isaiah 43]
Compassion and communication are two wonderful tools for a good marriage. We may be acutely aware that our spouse is not perfect, and occasionally we recall that we aren’t perfect either. We can ask God for compassion for this imperfect person we are married, especially for a sense of how he/she is hurting or wounded in some way.
And it helps to remember our own imperfections. Jesus reminds us to take care of the beam of wood in our own eye before we worry about the splinter in our spouse’s eye. Those who work with mentally disabled people may, at the outset, think how different “we” are from “them.” It is only when we spend time with those who have limited abilities that we realize we are all limited in some ways – all of us. If we can bring that kind of awareness to our relationship, it helps us to deal with a spouse who is frustrated with us, with work, with children or with life in general. We all need help to cope and I can be there for him/her.
I can’t change the other person. I can only change myself. This is a deceptively simple idea that can have a powerful impact on my marriage. Instead of spending a lot of time thinking of ways I can change him/her, I can be realistic and understand that I can only change myself. Now: what needs changing in me? Are there uncomfortable truths my spouse tells me which I should listen to? Is it true that I nag and correct constantly? Do I try really try to control my world and those around me? We can take some time to reflect on what my spouse might have said in the heat of an argument – is there a nugget of truth in it? How can I ask God for help to heal me?
- Remember the little things we can do to make our marriages better. A candle lit at a Tuesday night dinner at home. A note left on the mirror when I leave early for work. A card or even a sticky note tucked into a briefcase, a lunchbox, or left on a steering wheel of a car. This may seem deceptively simple, but it is a real way we can draw closer to the person we loved enough to marry. How can we get back to remembering that kind of early love? Not once, not twice but over and over, without keeping track of a response – or losing hope.
St. Ignatius says that love expresses itself in deeds more than words and always expresses itself in a mutual sharing of gifts. What deeds can I do today? What mutual sharing of gifts can I use to express myself to my spouse?
Remember that a crush on someone else is not a solution to my own marriage struggles. It is normal for humans to be attracted to other people whether we are married or not. But for those of us who are married, we simply don’t act on our feelings. If we find ourselves attracted to someone else, the real prayerful question might be: “What is going on in my own marriage that I am finding myself vulnerable to being attracted to someone else? How can I take steps to strengthen my own marriage?”
How can I re-focus on my own spouse? Guard against straying affections. Be careful about taking comfort from the affection of someone else. It is tempting to turn to another who is more affirming, appreciative, understanding, or simply more present to me, but it isn’t the solution to my own marriage challenges.
- Pray. I am not praying that my spouse will change but I can ask the Lord to help me change. I can beg for courage and hope that will allow me to be more patient and compassionate. I can ask for the gift of fidelity in self-sacrificing love and ask God simply to “make my heart like yours.”
I am not asking that the two of us will be happy. The real place of joy in a marriage is when our marriage is fruitful, in the sense that we work together to make our family, our neighborhood or our world a better place.
The key to each of these suggestions is to remember that marriage is a sacrament, a promise not only that we will be with each other in good times and in bad but that God will be with us in all of those times, too. Too often we try to work on this very important marriage relationship without any reference to God’s promise to us in marriage. We can remember that we are living a sacrament, that we are living something that does what it symbolizes.
Forgetting God in the recipe of a solid, sacramental marriage is like ignoring or forgetting a key ingredient in a recipe – it simply doesn’t turn out as well as we expected.
Marriage can be difficult. It is very understandable that we might get discouraged. Our reflection on this mystery of life and God’s grace is not intended to discourage us further, but to outline some ways we can allow there to be new life in our relationship.
Marriage can be a joy. Let’s live it that way today.