This time of year, Catholics of every kind — even, research shows, Catholics who don’t go to church — are asking, “What should I give up for Lent?”
If you’re looking for something a little different, I have a small suggestion that will not only be a great spiritual exercise, it will also improve your marriage. What is it? This Lent, I suggest that you give up loving your comfort zone more than you love your spouse.
In the zone
A “comfort zone” represents a person’s preferred ways of being and acting. My comfort zone keeps me on familiar ground and helps me feel safe. This isn’t a bad thing by itself. Who doesn’t want to feel safe and comfy? The only problem is that true love, and especially true, godly love, almost always demands that we leave our comfort zones behind, challenging us to grow and stretch in ways that wouldn’t occur if our spouse wasn’t in our lives.
|Four Rules for Lenten Self-Denial
During Lent, observing penances like fasting, abstinence and “giving up something” are meant to help us focus on God. Russell Shaw, an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor, offers some common-sense rules for navigating these practices:
◗ Don’t inflict your mortifications on other people.
◗ Remember that self-denial is between you and God.
◗ When looking for something to deny yourself, make it something in your everyday experience.
◗ Make it a point often to remind yourself why it is you’re practicing self-denial and even to pray about it.
This negatively affects marriage in several ways. First, it undermines intimacy. Intimacy requires us to know that it is safe to be vulnerable with a person. That means I have to know that if I come to you with a need or a concern, you’ll be willing to help me address it. But what if addressing my needs requires you to grow or change in ways that would be good for you, but somehow uncomfortable? For instance, what if your spouse needs you to be more communicative, or affectionate, or playful, or serious, or responsible, or faithful, etc.?
If you love your comfort zone more than your spouse, you will most likely hide out behind the excuse of “that’s not me” and simply refuse to address your spouse’s need. As a result, your spouse will feel unsafe communicating his or her needs to you. If a couple does this often enough, they will close off their hearts to each other and live as “married singles” — people who share a house, but little of their lives with each other.
The second way loving your comfort zone damages marriage is by undermining relevance. Research shows that happy couples are more likely to seek out new experiences together than unhappy couples. They try new restaurants, take classes, try out new hobbies, seek out new things to do, just to mix things up. This variety-seeking isn’t just a way to fight boredom. It is a way to learn more about each other, to expand your likes and dislikes, and to help each other become more well-rounded people.
Couples who regularly challenge their comfort zones in positive ways for positive reasons tend to enjoy each other’s company more and feel excited by all the ways their relationship is helping them grow. By contrast, couples who love their comfort zones more than they love each other tend to do the same things in the same ways. They reject opportunities to learn new things and feel threatened by change. These couples do not only find that their relationships become boring, they also fail to provide ways for the marriage to facilitate the growth that all human beings need to feel alive. Again, these couples tend to either grow apart, or feel more suffocated in their relationships as time goes by.
The change we need
The third way loving your comfort zone more than your spouse undermines marriage is by making it impossible to solve problems. Solutions to marital problems usually requires one or both spouses to change in at least some small way. The more a spouse adopts an “I am what I am and you knew what I was when you married me” attitude, the more couples tend to get stuck in the same old problems and refight the same old exhausting fights again and again. As a counselor, I see so many sessions revolve around the “why should I have to change?” question. The simple answer, of course, is that marriage requires change, and sacramental marriage — whose entire focus is helping couples become the saints God intends them to be — requires even more of a willingness to change. As I note in “For Better ... FOREVER: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage” (OSV, $19.95), “If you want to spend your life being comfortable, don’t get a marriage license, buy a recliner.”
In Lent, Christians are called to make sacrifices that help us become the people God is calling us to be. Through marriage, God perfects his sons and daughters in love and prepares us for the loving union that defines eternal life with God. Loving our comfort zones more than we love our spouse makes it impossible to fully enjoy the earthly, much less the heavenly, benefits of marriage. This Lent, make a sacrifice that really matters. Love your spouse more.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including “For Better ... FOREVER” (OSV, 2015) and the host of More2Life airing weekdays on SiriusXM 130. www.CatholicCounselors.com