| Bishop Thomas
During the past 40 years, I have had the privilege of presiding at scores of weddings, both for parishioners and for members of my extended family. Family celebrations can be particularly meaningful in the life of the celebrant.
Over the years, I have frequently asked, “Why do some marriages remain forever young, while others grow stale with the passage of time?” What qualities are present in those marriages that thrive both “in good times and in bad?”
I have prayerfully observed married couples in my extended family, among parishioners and in my circle of friends. I have concluded that strong marriages have a number of qualities that help to reflect our sacramental vision of Catholic marriage. In and through these traits we better see marriage as a “lifelong partnership,” “an unbreakable union,” a “covenant between two baptized persons” and “an intimate community of life and love.”
Here are a few observations that I have drawn from couples old and young whose marriages have remained vibrant and full of life. You may add your own.
In his book entitled, “The Seven Laws of Love” (Thomas Nelson, $16.99), David Willis wrote, “A perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other.” Every married couple will tell you that their marriage is a work in progress, a partnership between equals, and a relationship that is flawed, imperfect and incomplete. They are consoled by the knowledge that the power of love fills in the imperfections, complements shortcomings and brings out the best in each other.
Nationally syndicated columnist Ann Landers observed, “Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good times and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weakness. ... If you have love in your life, it can make up for a great many things you lack. If you don’t have it, no matter what else there is, it will never be enough.”
2. Time and resources
Every married couple I know recognizes that the occupational hazard of marriage life is habit, routine, busyness and mediocrity. Happy married couples know that marriage needs renewal, refreshment and rejuvenation every day of the year, most especially following the arrival of children.
Happy couples never stop courting each other and never take each other for granted. They keep the flames of passion alive in the marriage. They remain forever young at heart by having a weekly date night, by spending time together over a quiet dinner, a movie or an anniversary break, away from the kids. They intentionally approach the gift of time in their marriage as a gift that keeps on giving. Their marriage is marked by self-sacrifice and altruism, responsible financial planning and shared access to the checkbook.
3. Little things
An old love song says it well: “Little things mean a lot.” Simple kindnesses, like a loving glance across a crowded room, a bouquet of flowers for no good reason, a note in a lunch bag, a phone call from afar, a text message that says, “I love you more than any other person in the world” are precious gifts that cost very little. These little things are present in abundance in the lives of happily married couples I know.
A comedian once opined, “Marriage is a relationship in which one person is always right and the other one is the husband.” Happily married couples have learned that when they make a mistake, they can ask and receive the gift of forgiveness from their spouse. They learn the art of moving forward instead of riveting their eyes on the rearview mirror. They deliberately avoid harboring resentment and grudges.
Happy couples embody the sobering advice of a noted psychiatrist, who wrote, “Those with whom you choose to remain angry will control you. They will limit you physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” They know that forgiveness emancipates the heart and fills married life with peace. Happily married couples have discovered the healing grace that is present in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They also know that some problems in marriage need professional guidance and they are humble enough to ask for help when they need it.
Strong married couples have learned the necessity of flexibility, the art of compromise, the value of resilience, and the benefits that come to those who learn to “go with the flow.” Practicing the art of negotiation has salvaged many a difficult situation, and the absence of flexibility can lead to rigidity, resentment, and an infinite number of Maalox moments. A humorist wryly observed, “When I married Mr. Right, I didn’t know that his first name was Always!”
Mastering good communication skills is a lifelong endeavor. The happily married couples I know share their innermost thoughts with one another and avoid the poison of secret keeping. They have learned to fight fairly, and when disagreements come, they avoid mean-spirited characterizations and toxic name calling.
They never resort to the silent treatment as their weapon of choice, and don’t let the sun go down on their anger. They know that there is truth in Victor Borge’s observation that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” They deliberately retire the cellphone during meals and limit TV and computer time both for themselves and the children. Husbands learn early on to enter those birthday and anniversary dates into their electronic calendar, realizing that it’s cheaper than buying next-day roses at the local supermarket.
Every happily married couple I know has built their marriage on a strong spiritual foundation. They have encountered Jesus Christ deeply, daily and personally and have welcomed him as the center of their heart and home. They nourish their marriage on word and sacrament and live out their faith through intentional works of charity and compassion.
They are deeply committed to mutual and lasting fidelity as a living reflection of God’s enduring love for us. They are actively engaged in the life of their parish, and have learned to pray together as a couple. They have introduced their children to the Lord and have helped them to love Him as “the definitive answer to the question of the meaning of life.” Their presence and participation as a family at weekend liturgy is always a priority.
Pope Francis addressed married couples directly during an audience at the Vatican. He described the love between husband and wife as “an icon of God’s love for us.” He characterized marriage as a “beautiful reflection of God’s love, permanent, faithful and life-giving.” The Holy Father’s words were practical, concise and born in the heart of a pastor well acquainted with the joys and struggles, the challenges and hopes that every married couple faces.
Strong marriages have long been recognized as the bedrock of society, a precious gift to the Church, a source of grace for children and a profound blessing for the couples themselves. Marriage is so vitally important that the Lord himself raised married life to the dignity of a sacrament.
This is why we as a Church must constantly and fervently strive to build and support strong marriages, constantly praying, “What God has joined, let no one divide” (Mk 10:9).
Bishop George Leo Thomas is bishop of Helena, Montana.