Marriage in the Age of COVID-19: Timely Tips From Damon Owens
During National Marriage Week, Catholic husband and speaker provides vital links to living better the sacrament during the pandemic.
Damon Owens and his wife, Melanie, are co-founders of Joyful Ever After and hosted The Catholic Marriage Summit, where more than 38,000 couples gathered online during the 2020 pandemic to learn how to “get the marriage you want from the marriage you have.”
In addition, Damon Owens has published numerous articles and has appeared regularly on radio and television (EWTN, Catholic Answers, Ave Maria Radio, Relevant Radio, Immaculate Heart Radio, ABC, CBS, NPR). He has also hosted and produced three television series for EWTN.
In 2018, Pope Francis honored Owens with the papal Benemerenti Medal for his service to the Church in support of marriage and the family.
Married for 28 years, the Owenses live in Philadelphia with their eight children.
This month, the Register discussed marriage in this time of COVID-19 with Owens by email.
Tell us about the extra pressures the pandemic has placed on marriages.
This lockdown has affected every major area of marriage: intimacy, parenting, school, finances, work, worship, recreation and health. But with every crisis, there is danger and opportunity.
Pressure is familiar to every marriage since Adam and Eve, but there is no doubt that the pandemic has jolted couples in new ways. One of our Catholic Marriage Summit sponsors last June presented results of a national survey where one of four couples self-reported marital distress in 2020 due to the pandemic. That’s 25%!
Our takeaway from this survey, the 60-plus couple presentations at our summit, and comments from 38,000 attendees all confirmed that the pandemic, specifically the lockdown, has put unique pressures on marriages and families. Some of these already existed, but were intensified by the lockdown, so that many new pressures made this an extremely difficult time for couples.
What do couples need to do to get through this time?
Couples really need each other right now, more than ever. The heart of our work with Joyful Ever After is building the essential community; that includes mentorship, fellowship, catechesis, coaching and, when necessary, professional therapy. The norm for much of Western culture is that marriage is lived in isolation: We expect our marriage to be a personal project, even with its obvious public, social and religious connections. The need for physical distancing with COVID-19 (regrettably coined “social” distancing) has tested our limits.
On the one hand, the increased time together as couples is an opportunity to begin addressing real issues that keep us from “getting the marriage we want from the marriage that we have.” On the other hand, it should challenge us to rethink trying to live God’s plan for a joy-filled marriage alone.
While in-person gatherings still won’t be possible in the near future, couples need to take advantage of whatever connections are possible: with each other, other couples, friends, online events, and even counseling. In other words, we need to see this not just as a time to “get through,” but as a unique opportunity to flourish in ways that weren’t possible in our busy pre-COVID days.
What spiritual resources do we need to utilize?
Regular worship: individually, as a couple, and as a family; whatever is available to us in person or online should be intentionally prioritized.
Now is also the time to learn and grow in our couple prayer. Praying together as a couple is both the most challenging and the most rewarding practice in married life. Developing a “couple spirituality” begins with approaching God as a Father, together in our own unique way. Is it awkward in the beginning? Absolutely. But over time you develop an authentic, personal dialogue with the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit. Together, you offer your hopes, your pains, your dreams, your whole heart.
We also need the sacrament of confession regularly to “begin and begin again.” Any sin, small or large, is exploited by the enemy to separate us from God and each other.
What psychological strategies would you suggest?
We need to nurture our minds with stories of faith, hope and love to fight against the fear, doubt and anger that fills our social-media feed, video stream, television and radio.
Fear is the intoxicating mind-killer that is more infectious than coronavirus. We need to be attentive to, and discerning of, what we hear, read and watch. Do our thoughts lead us to transfer our anger and frustrations into our life and marriage? How are old wounds and doubts robbing us of the hope and perseverance in seeing God’s hand in these times? Do we rely on our own power when we feel powerless or lean more on God’s promise and presence?
What practical tips would you recommend?
Make this shut-in time a kind of retreat: Talk, read, pray and work on your marriage and family life together.
Commit to doing one small thing for your marriage each week. How about starting or restarting a date night? The power of prioritizing a weekly date night — right at home — is something witnessed by dozens of our Marriage Summit presenters.
Why not create a morning or bedtime ritual of connection, such as a prayer, a blessing or “I love you” kiss? What about dedicated time to gaze at one another? Do not underestimate the power of an extended gaze into each other’s eyes. You don’t need words. Holding each other’s gaze can be one of the most disarming, vulnerable and deeply intimate gifts we can give one another as husband and wife. This is why it is so difficult and rewarding to do. The “fight” to keep our gaze is not in forcing ourselves on or into our beloved with a stare, but in letting go and allowing ourselves to be seen as we are. Take care of your beloved. Be a gift and receive your spouse as a gift. With a gaze you can renew your marital vow, “I am yours, and you are mine.”
Does the theology of the body have any particular insights into this moment?
Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body gives us a deeper understanding of the “why” behind the “what” of living in joy, even in a pandemic. The heart of our faith and discipleship is communion. And this is communion in the broadest cosmological sense, even while holding the Eucharist as the source and summit of our faith.
God himself is a perfect communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are made in God’s image and likeness, male and female, with the capacity to enter into communion with one other and with him. In fact, the entire salvation story, from Genesis to Revelation, can be understood in light of our coming into perfect communion in God. The two greatest commandments — love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves — are calls to communion.
These commandments are inseparable from one another and connect in the icon of marriage. The communion of a husband and a wife is a sign, call and preparation for eternal communion with God in heaven. And, conversely, our deepening intimacy and communion with God (prayer, worship, sacraments, works of mercy) allows us to enter into deeper intimacy and communion with our spouse as our first neighbor.
What is the greatest challenge to married Catholics today?
Living in the true power that God has granted in the sacrament of matrimony, which carries with it a stewardship of the greatest powers in the cosmos: life and love. We are the stewards of God’s life-giving love, co-creators with God not just in a moment of reproduction but in the irreplaceable, lifelong vocation of procreation.
There is a reason why God created marriage (and family) long before government or even Church! We have a primordial power as stewards of God’s life and love.
Living in the true power of the sacrament of matrimony works to restore all of society to its primordial, God-given order. Marriage and family life has always been the source of culture. If we truly want to build a culture of life, our marriage creates it first in our own family life. This is not just within our power; it is our power because it is our duty.
What is marriage’s greatest strength?
Our greatest strength in marriage is the faithful generosity of God. No matter what we’ve done or failed to do, can or cannot do, as long as we have our breath, we can begin and begin again. Our greatest strength is truly how much God loves and delights in us. His love for us is not conditional on what we do or how we feel. It just is.
How should we best celebrate our Christian marriages this Valentine’s Day?
Together! Through some intentional ritual of connection — so plan ahead and prioritize time to pray, talk, work or play together. Celebrate with others if you can. Remember your story and reminisce on how God brought you two together, maybe with a video or photo album. Take some time to dream together about your future.
Share with each other and with God all the things that you are grateful for. Prepare and offer a sincere act of forgiveness for a slight, hurt or wound that you caused or was done to you. A sincere act is not a “Don’t worry about it” or It’s okay” or “Forget about it.” It involves acknowledging the real wound, seeking understanding from your spouse, and allowing God to bring reconciliation through our mutual desire to will one another’s good.
St. Valentine’s Day may be our culture’s celebration of eros, but we celebrate and reverence eros sanctified by agape — that free, total, faithful and fruitful love animated by passion! Love’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Your marriage is worth it.