"I do." Those two little words mark the start of one very big commitment. Once the honeymoon is over, husbands and wives are faced with the exciting, albeit challenging, task of building a partnership that incorporates a little bit of everything -- romance and practicality, fiscal responsibility and spirituality, child-rearing and long-range planning. Some juggling skills wouldn't hurt either.
Very few jobs out there require people to be as adept at so many things, often all at the same time. In other words, marriage is not for the faint of heart. So, how do couples do all the things that life requires without losing the heart of the thing that brought them together in the first place?
It takes both attention to detail and big-picture thinking. And it requires a shift away from the "job" mentality that is so much a part of our culture toward the "gift" mentality that is so much a part of our faith.
That being said, there are a few key issues that are sure to be points of contention in even the most blissful relationships.
Using experiences from our own 14-year marriage, we'll try to offer some practical advice on how to avoid the pitfalls and establish habits that not only give a marriage staying power, but make it stronger with each passing year.
Checks and balances
Challenge: Deciding how to spend your family's limited resources can lead to tension between partners.
Mary: When it comes to finances, I tend to be the more frugal one in our family. If not for Dennis' relentless badgering about updating our technology, I'd be writing on a 12-year-old computer and talking on a cell phone the size of a shoe with a foot-long antenna. Whenever Dennis suggests we invest in something new, be it a new laptop or a new gas grill, my knee-jerk reaction is, "No way." Not because I don't like nice things, but because I worry. It's my hobby.
So, at our house, it has come down to real give-and-take when it comes to navigating the rocky waters of consumerism, budgeting and debt. After 14 years, Dennis and I are like a well-oiled machine. Every Sunday, as I clip coupons in the kitchen, he puts the Best Buy flier in front of me so I can see the fabulous deals with interest-free credit that extends for years, and every week I hand it back to him and say, "We don't need it." Eventually, usually a few months down the road, there will come a point where we reach an accord and either head to the store or decide it's an item we can do without.
Finances can be a real stumbling block for couples. If one or both spouses rack up huge credit card bills, the whole family will suffer. On the other hand, if no one is ever willing to part with a dollar, even for necessary purchases, things aren't going to be much better. There has to be a balance, an agreement on how much you can afford to spend on monthly expenses, on luxury or recreation, and on long-term savings.
Even if one partner is in charge of paying the actual bills, both husband and wife need to have a firm grasp on the overall financial health of the family. And both have to be able to trust that the other partner will honor the family's budget, even if that budget is just about getting from one month to the next without falling behind.
Dennis: Recently, we weathered a bit of a financial crisis in our family, when, without notice, Mary found out that a job payment she was expecting would not be coming anytime soon, if at all.
We were counting on the money for Christmas expenses and numerous bills and had to quickly make some tough decisions and reprioritize quite a bit as a result. We're not big spenders to begin with, so we weren't just trimming fat, we were cutting into bone. Those were tense days, as we sorted through how to reduce or eliminate living expenses to weather the storm.
We've been lucky, though. Many people face this kind of crisis all the time. For us, we've always had enough to get by, even if long-term planning for our children's college fund consists solely of prayers for academic scholarships. It gave us a glimpse into how financial problems can strain a marriage and impact a family. We were more short-tempered with our kids and each other as a result, and we found ourselves obsessing over the whole situation in an unhealthy, even unchristian, way.
We hear all the time that finances are a major cause of marital discord, and now I can see firsthand just how that occurs. Our family life was impacted from just a temporary financial hiccup. What must it be like to always be in fear of losing your home or not having food to put on the table? In our current economic crisis, with so many people losing their jobs, marriages are going to be tested in this regard more than ever. It's critical that when financial crises hit, spouses support one another emotionally and work together to simplify family life until the worst is over.
Practical Solution: NPI (Never Pay Interest). Whittle down credit card debt so you can pay balances off every month. If you make large purchases, do so in a targeted way and only when companies are extending interest-free credit for a year or more.
Men Are From Mars...
Challenge: Maintaining intimacy and communication isn't always easy once the honeymoon is over.
Dennis: We've all heard some variation of the newlywed joke premised on the honeymooners never setting foot outside of their hotel room. The jokes may be cheesy, but there's inarguably an element of truth to them. The human sex drive is a powerful thing, and at no time does it seem as strong as in those first months of marriage.
This time is truly a gift for the new couple, but it is important to understand early on that such intensity is not possible to sustain. Couples must learn to allow their sexuality and their intimacy to evolve for the long haul and the changing life situations that come with age and the onset of children. Think marathon, not sprint.
I'm not saying that sex doesn't matter. It certainly does. A lot. The marital bed should never simply be just a place to sleep. A healthy marriage must find a way to maintain a healthy love life through the years. But as the initial passion subsides, other forms of intimacy must step up, too.
It's all about realistic expectations. Sometimes love can be expressed just as powerfully with a single kiss good night and falling asleep in each other's arms as it can in a decidedly more intimate embrace. The really good news is if you can sustain those more subtle forms of affection, a prolonged strong sex life should follow naturally. And that strong sex life, in turn, will feed the subtle displays of affection and the process starts all over again. Kind of like photosynthesis.
But you have to work at it, with each partner willing to give a little to meet the other's emotional and physical needs. If you can keep this cycle going, satisfaction will follow. In every sense of the word.
Mary: Balancing out the need for eros in a marriage, is the equally strong need for agape, that self-giving love that separates a sacramental relationship from one based solely on physical attraction or companionship. Intimacy in marriage is all-encompassing, taking in not only the sexual aspects of the relationship but the deep soul-level bonds that are forged when two people put self-interest aside in favor of true partnership. Of course, it's not that simple, is it? Let's be honest, there's clearly a difference in the way men and women approach intimacy and communication. After all, the pop culture notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus didn't materialize out of nowhere.
Women, especially after having children, are more likely to look for intimacy in the little affections that are shared in day-to-day routines -- the kiss on the way out the door, the hug after a bad day, the flowers for no reason at all. Men, on the other hand, may consider the sexual side of the relationship the place where real affection is shown. In other words, it's a minefield out there, and without ongoing and open communication, it can get pretty tense.
So maintaining intimacy is about maintaining communication, and I'm not talking about conversations regarding meetings and appointments. I'm talking about heart-to-heart stuff, where you turn off the TV -- gasp! -- and discuss the issues that might be sapping some of the joy from your marriage. You don't have to review your life story and everything you ever wanted from your marriage, so you men can breathe a sigh of relief. You do have to talk honestly about what each of you need to feel loved and appreciated. And then, even if you have very different ideas about what that means, you meet in the middle and offer a little of yourself for the good of your partner.
Practical Solution: Talk about one thing you'd like to add to or change in your relationship over the next year. Maybe it's as simple as sitting together on the couch when you watch TV instead of across the room. Maybe it's as big as planning a romantic vacation as a couple.
Leap of Faith
Challenge: Spiritual life can often get pushed to the sidelines in a busy household.
Mary: When Dennis and I were engaged, faith took on an important role in our relationship. The resurgence of our faith in a particularly deep way was part of the gift of our newfound love. Somehow our coming together as a couple was not just about companionship but about our journey toward God. We became active in a nearby parish and began reading a couple's Bible and praying together each day. Then, in rapid succession, we got married, moved across country, found new jobs, bought a house under construction and, once that was finalized, had the first of three children. Let's just say the daily Scripture and spontaneous prayer thing fell by the wayside pretty quickly.
And yet faith remains a central part of our daily lives -- and our work. It's just that now our faith life looks very different -- as does so much about our marriage -- than it did in those early years. Now it is like a strong foundation that often doesn't get the attention it deserves but continues to shore up our family. It is there in an obvious way during times of crisis, but it is just as present when things are going smoothly and it doesn't seem so blatantly evident, giving us stability, strength and direction.
Of course, part of the reason our faith remains so constant is because we do try to make at least minimal efforts to nurture it and help it grow. We make it a point to attend Mass every week as a family, even when it would be easier to go separately and leave our rambunctious 3-year-old at home. We pause for grace before meals, even if the children are clanking forks or if in midbite when we do so. We include spiritual rituals in our lives -- Advent wreath, Lenten rice bowl, nightly bedtime prayers, and occasional special feast day celebrations -- to remind our children and ourselves that God is in the details of our days.
Dennis: Marriage for the practicing Catholic isn't just about sexual love or emotional attachment. It's not just about raising a family either. The Church asks that in addition to these things, we allow our marriage to become a spiritual communion between the spouses, and to allow God to enter into that union with us as the third person.
This is essential for a true Christian marriage. Religious people, studies tell us, tend to be happier than the general population. So it stands to reason that the religious marriage will be a happier one as well. Speaking from experience, I know this is true. So much of the joy of our married life and family life can be traced directly to our faith and our participation in the life of our parish and Catholic school.
But it's not only in the good times that we see the importance of God's presence. It's just as evident during the inevitable tough stretches. Like all couples, Mary and I have had our share of strong disagreements and even serious fights. Without the commitment that comes with having God as the third person in the marriage, it is very easy to see how those moments of anger can continue to fester until eventually the marriage itself becomes threatened. If you don't understand marriage as a covenant, it becomes just about you. And you leave.
Knowing that we are part of something bigger, that our marriage is a vocation, has taken that option off the table for us. Sure, we get angry with each other at times, but by remembering that we made a vow not only to each other, but to God, and that He is with us, we receive the grace to be able to see the light at the end of the dark tunnel of those difficult times that every marriage experiences.
Practical solution: Add one new spiritual practice or ritual to your routine as a couple or family, whether it's something simple, such as grace before meals, or something more advanced, such as morning and evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.
Family Is Job No. 1
Challenge: Overscheduling can leave little together time for families today.
Dennis: Our family has never been to Disney World. There, I've said it. I know what you're thinking. "They have to go!" "Denying their children of the Magic Kingdom and Epcot is tantamount to child abuse!" OK, maybe you're not thinking that last part. You know what, though? Neither are our kids.
Would they like to go to Disney World? Of course. Might we go one day? Perhaps. But I can honestly say our kids do not feel deprived and have barely ever uttered a word about it.
We do go on a family vacation every year, but it has always been within driving range of our upstate New York home. This summer, for the fourth straight year, we will be staying in the exact same condo in Wildwood, N.J., home of a two-mile-long boardwalk, the tallest Ferris wheel on the Eastern seaboard, fried Oreos and funnel cake, and one of the most beautiful stretches of beach you're likely to see outside the Caribbean. Every year, on the way home, the kids start planning for next year's trip.
Here's the point: It's not where you go on vacation, or even if you go away at all. What kids really crave is family time, where dad is not grumbling about work and mom is not stressed out by having to be in three places at once. Family vacations, no matter how modest, are a great way of achieving that for a few days. But it is even more important to find some of that family closeness at home during the other 51 weeks of the year.
Let's face it. Our daily lives are about the furthest thing from a vacation, with work pressure, household chores, kids' schoolwork and extracurricular activities vying for our attention. But for the sake of your marriage and your family life, it is imperative to carve out some downtime, even if something else worthwhile has to give.
So let that lawn go uncut or the laundry pile creep up to eye level. Have a catch instead. Or play a board game. It may not be breakfast with a princess, but sometimes the best memories are the ones made closest to home.
Mary: Between baseball and soccer, piano and dance, Brownies and Boy Scouts, we can sometimes feel like bilocation is the only answer to our scheduling problems. And that's despite a conscious effort to put limits on what our three children do.
Add to that the fact that I work from home and constantly feel the pull of the office just one floor away and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
We are very aware of the need to step back and slow down at times, not just for our own sakes but for the kids as well. Sure, they love running from one fun event to another, but it's pretty clear that there's one thing they love even more: time together as a family, even if that simply means making pancakes on a Saturday morning and spending time outside riding bikes.
Although we don't have any written rules or a "mission statement," as some parenting professionals suggest, we do have some unwritten guidelines that have served our family well. First and foremost is dinner together as a family every single night except on rare occasions when it simply isn't possible. And that really is rare for us, maybe once a month or so. I can't imagine what our lives would be like if we let that ritual fall by the wayside.
We are blessed that Dennis' job is close enough that he can run home for lunch on summer days or to take a child to the doctor. And, of course, my home-based business has allowed us to keep our children at home whenever they are not in school.
Not every family is so lucky, but even if schedules are more complicated and commutes more time-intensive, parents and children need regular time together, whether it's just taking a walk around the neighborhood or going to an actual destination. The reality is that kids aren't really looking for extravagant outings; they just want time with mom and dad. Turns out kids sometimes know better than we do what's most important in life.
Practical solution: Look at your schedule and make sure you have some non-negotiable family time, even if it means juggling obligations to ensure a certain number of family dinners each week.
About the Authors
Dennis and Mary Poust have worked in and around the Catholic press for more than two decades each. Dennis is director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference. Mary is a freelance writer and blogger and is the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism." They live in upstate New York with their three children and two cats.
Christian Family Movement: The national network promotes Catholic teaching on marriage and the family (www.cfm.org).
For Your Marriage: This initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops includes daily marriage tips, quizzes, a blog, resources and advice on how couples can prepare and then care for their marriages (foryourmarriage.org).
Teams of Our Lady USA:This movement recognized as a lay institute under the Pontifical Council for the Laity teams up couples with a spiritual adviser for individual, couple and family prayer, Scripture readings and discussions among spouses (www.teamsofourlady.org).
Worldwide Marriage Encounter: Program offers married couples a chance to get away for a weekend that promotes communication between husbands and wives and sponsors World Marriage Day the second Sunday in February (www.wwme.org).