In Catholic families, St. Valentine’s Day celebrates, in particular, the love between husbands and wives. This special, sacramental love, according to the Catechism of the Catholic
Church, is caught up in divine love and is essential not only for the happiness of the spouses, but also for the health and stability of children and, indeed, of the culture.
Based on working with thousands of couples over the past 34 years, I would like to offer suggestions for priceless gifts that you can give to your spouse this Valentine’s Day. These are the gifts of virtues that will strengthen your personality, marriage, children and society.
As a result of the weakening of the Faith and the subsequent diminishment of the sense of the sacred over the past 40 years, many couples have entered marriage without a deep understanding of the beauty and holiness of the vocation to Catholic marriage. Pope John Paul II addressed this weakness in his extensive writing and teaching. He expanded the Catholic understanding of marriage as being not only a symbol of the love between Christ and his Church, but also as being an icon of the love within the heart of God, the Trinity.
The oneness and flow of love between a husband and a wife is meant to model after this Trinitarian love.
Pope John Paul wrote, “[M]an and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 7).
An understanding of this call to total self-giving and its support from the Lord’s love is a source of fulfillment and happiness to couples.
Growth in self-knowledge is essential to understanding the emotional and personality weaknesses that interfere with complete self-giving and receiving in marriage. A first step in this process can be asking one’s spouse and the Lord how one is doing in mastering the common obstacles to marital self-giving. These include excessive anger, selfishness, controlling behaviors, poor communication, anxiety, lack of cheerfulness and the common pitfall of repeating negative behavior patterns, such as being emotionally distant. These weaknesses can be overcome through growth in virtues.
Mastery of anger
Most spouses bring into their marriages unresolved, unconscious anger with a parent or important others who disappointed/hurt them. Under stress, they can misdirect this resentment at their spouse. A commitment to engage in the hard work of forgiving regularly those in the past who inflicted hurt can resolve such damaging anger.
Also, immediate forgiveness exercises are essential for mastery over the highly disruptive and harmful emotion of excessive anger. Here one thinks, when angry, “understand and forgive, understand and forgive.” This exercise in prompt forgiveness diminishes feelings of anger, and only then should one begin to discuss a hurt or disappointment. The expression of anger toward a spouse is a sign of major emotional immaturity, should rarely occur in marriage and can cease through growth in virtues.
Mastery of selfishness
In “Love and Responsibility,” Pope John Paul presents the importance of giving to romantic love, to the marital friendship and to betrothed love, which includes, but is more than, sexual intimacy. In betrothed love, the spouse surrenders himself/herself to the other so that the spouse no longer thinks primarily “me” but “we.” Selfishness interferes with this self-giving by turning spouses in upon themselves.
Major factors that have influenced the development of what has been described as the narcissistic epidemic are modeling after parents who contracepted and only had two children and the failure to communicate the truth about the dangers of contraception, which has a proven relationship with the divorce plague, permissive parenting, the support of selfishness by peers, the media and educators, and the weakening of faith, which can lead to the worship of self.
A commitment to grow daily in the virtues of generosity, self-denial, humility, gratitude, self-sacrifice, responsibility, orderliness and temperance is effective in the mastery of selfishness. Also important is making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Experts in marital communication recommend five positive comments for each negative, and have determined this pattern as being essential for the maintenance of a healthy marital friendship. The development of this good habit takes a great deal of work, but it is worth the effort. The Scriptures relate that God delights in the praises of his people, and so, too, do his children.
The style of the communication is also important and should be respectful, cheerful, relaxed, mature and confident.
When a spouse has modeled after a parent who communicated very little or in a negative manner, it can be helpful to reflect upon being loyal to that parent’s good qualities but not his or her weaknesses. Since modeling begins in early childhood, it is difficult to break without grace. Prayer and the sacraments are essential.
Respect — not control
The tendency to dominate and control is a common human weakness that must be mastered in order to maintain a healthy marriage and family. This conflict often arises from acting like a controlling parent, from severe childhood hurts, from divorce trauma, from selfishness and from a lack of confidence.
Spouses subjected to controlling behaviors often feel sad, angry, insecure, exhausted and discouraged. They should correct the tendency to dominate and remind their spouse that the Lord is in control — not him or her.
The virtues that can resolve this weakness that leads some spouses to consider separation are respect, gentleness, forgiveness of a controlling parent, greater love for the goodness in one’s spouse and prayer to stop repeating dominating behaviors.
Some husbands, who have been given the gift of great strength to protect their wives, children and the culture, can be perceived as being controlling even though they do not want to control. Such men are able to gain greater mastery over their strength by growing in the virtues of gentleness and meekness.
Trusting, not worrying
Excessive anxiety, like excessive anger, is a source of significant stress in marriages and families. Today, both husbands and wives often worry too much about their work and providing for the family. This anxiety regularly can give rise to irritability that can be misdirected at one’s spouse and children. In the present challenging economy, both spouses can benefit from growing in the virtue of faith and of trusting God more with their pressures and responsibilities. Also, many Catholics report that entrusting their work, spouses and family to St. Joseph several times daily to be effective in diminishing anxiety.
Women have no shortage of anxiety and, in fact, anxiety disorders are far more prevalent in them. Some wives report that their anxiety diminishes as their faith grows. Making a list of all their worries and entrusting them to God daily is helpful.
Many spouses model after anxious parents. In such cases, it can be helpful to ask the Lord to free them from such a negative legacy by building their faith and trust.
Finally, lack of balance in family life and too many responsibilities can be problematic. Since excessive time in children’s athletic activities is a major source of a lack of balance, I strongly recommend not permitting participation in traveling sports teams.
Cheerfulness is an essential virtue in married life. A warm, smiling face helps spouses cope with their many pressures, burdens and responsibilities. The Scriptures state that the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and so do spouses. In order to develop this wonderful habit, spouses first need to grow in the virtues of faith and love so that they can live like children of God who know they are protected and loved.
Strong faith life
Numerous mental health studies have demonstrated the psychological benefits of faith, and, in our experience, it also strengthens marriages. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Without his help man and woman cannot achieve the union of their lives for which God created them ‘in the beginning” (No. 1608). The Lord’s love comforts, refreshes and strengthens couples in their sacrificial self-giving to each other and to their children.
This St. Valentine’s Day consider giving your spouse the gift of a greater commitment to faith in God’s love and providential care for your marriage and family.
Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D., is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing (www.maritalhealing.com) in West Conshohocken, Pa., and the author of the forthcoming book “Ten Habits for a Happy Marriage: Replacing Faults with Strengths."