What couple doesn’t want a wonderful marriage?
World Marriage Day, celebrated every second Sunday of February, is a good reminder of that goal. Launched in 1981 to celebrate marriage and honor husbands and wives, it was vigorously promoted by Worldwide Marriage Encounter. In 1993 it received John Paul II’s apostolic blessing.
This year, World Marriage Day falls on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, and it’s a good opportunity for married couples to go beyond Cupid’s arrows and chocolates to consider loving ways to make and keep their marriages “happy, healthy, holy and lasting forever,” as Father Tom Aschenbrener at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral puts it. Experts in the field share eight ways to start:
1. “Let God be God.” So says Jennifer Roback Morse, wife, founder of the marriage organization Ruth Institute and author of 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage (RuthInstitute.org).
Many times people marry believing a spouse is going to solve all problems and meet every need. “That’s not realistic,” she says. “You have to accept the fact your spouse is a limited human being, as you are.” Expect limitations, don’t blame, and work together to solve any problem.
2. Pray. “It really comes down to the importance of praying together,” says Father Aschenbrener, co-author of the marriage preparation program “One in Christ.” Pray as individuals, as a couple and together at Mass with the larger community.
He points out that many people take great care to eat right, nourish their bodies with organic foods, and get enough exercise. But more importantly, “if we deprive ourselves spiritually by not praying, receiving the sacraments or spending quality time with our spouse,” he says, “we start to lack forgiveness in times of trial, and we become very selfish as opposed to self-giving.”
“By cultivating prayer with your spouse,” he explains, “you’re bringing God into your lives and allowing him not only to help sustain the marriage and fortify you, but to open up yourselves to the One who brought you together in the first place and who has sealed the covenant between you.”
On their wedding day, spouses received the grace of the sacrament. “It’s not a gift that God just gives on that day of their marriage, but a gift that keeps on giving,” he says. “They can call upon that grace always. That’s why marriage is not just a natural but a supernatural vocation.” Spouses must seek each other’s holiness and salvation. That means making God part of life throughout the day, not just for a short evening prayer. Remember him in the morning and at meals. Other suggestions: Get a book on prayer, use short Scripture passages, and pray the Rosary.
Tom and Katie Watson, national board members of Worldwide Marriage Encounter (WWME.org), agree that prayer is indispensable. “If we don’t allow God at the center of the relationship,” says Tom, “it has no strong foundations to hang onto in the winds of the world that cause strife in the marriage.”
3. Frequent the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation. “The Eucharist is the gift of self-sacrificial love,” observes Father Aschenbrener. “When a couple comes together to celebrate the Eucharist, they are uniting themselves to God in this act of self-sacrifice, and it should remind them of their own call to self-sacrificial love.” Receive the Eucharist frequently, daily if possible.
Add confession, too. “One of the greatest things we learn from Scripture is to forgive and to be able to forgive someone,” he notes.
As one couple told him, the more they experience the forgiveness and mercy of God, the more they’re able to extend that to each other, their children and others. Regular confession helps root out vices that keep them from fully living their marriage vows. It makes it much easier to tell your spouse “I’m sorry.”
4. Forgive. Morse says forgiveness is more important than conjugal love for building a healthy, lasting relationship. It might be hard to admit you’re not perfect, but apologize, ask forgiveness and grant forgiveness.
“It helps explain why regular religious practice turns out to be a protective factor against divorce,” says Morse. “What we’re learning in church is how to forgive and be forgiven. People are flawed human beings — accept the fact.”
5. Communicate. Tom Watson notes that Jesus’ example teaches us how to be Christian in the way we respond to people.
For instance, he counsels couples to remember that God made us male and female with different attributes. Empathy and understanding is needed in order to smooth over the difference in communication style between wives and husbands. One hint: Females tend to be more verbal, males nonverbal.
For instance, develop sensitivity to each other’s nonverbal signs. For example, Bob hardly says “I love you,” but might bring Betty coffee in the morning. Or a surprise breakfast. That’s how he can say “I love you” in a nonverbal way. Even if she would have preferred cocoa, she still empathetically accepts the coffee thankfully, realizing it’s his way of saying he loves her.
“We have to learn what our spouse really needs and desires, particularly outside the bedroom,” advises Tom Watson. “That’s where most couples fail in their conjugal love.”
Morse affirms it’s in the interest of the marriage to be receptive to what your spouse has to say, even if your spouse gives you a hard time: What they’re saying might have some validity.
6. Practice humility. Learn to give way on the trivial issues, advises Morse, who finds many people feel the need to win unimportant arguments. That’s a sign of weakness, not strength.
“Jesus told us that the meek shall inherit the earth,” she says. “Christian humility is an important and significant virtue. It tells us you don’t need to aggrandize yourself all the time. It’s not good for your or someone else’s well-being.”
7. Be generous. Give to your spouse — even something simple.
“Generosity is a major virtue for married couples,” affirms Morse. “It keeps the giving process going within the marriage. Both people should participate and respond. It isn’t an affront to your dignity to get up and get a cup of coffee.”
Generosity means each spouse gives 100%. Frequently compliment your spouse and express your gratitude, thanks and appreciation even for small things done every day.
Remember, generosity is a form of self-sacrifice. This extends to being open to life. “Contraception goes against everything we believe about marriage,” stresses Father Aschenbrener. “Couples are not only denying the gift of new life that God could give, but closing themselves off from the gift of oneself completely.”
8. Associate with others who share your values. “Surround yourself with other couples — it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be Catholic — who share your faith values, people who reverence and honor marriage, our Catholic faith, the Lord Jesus, and the dignity of life,” says Tom Watson.
In everything, keep Christ at the heart of your marriage, says Father Aschenbrener, noting that scripturally the number “8” symbolizes the new creation God is bringing about. So will these “8” steps for happier, healthier, holier marriages.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.