“If my wife is a helpmate to me, to help me with my relationship with God and my faith, do I give my spouse permission to help me in that relationship with God?”
“We need to walk with them in prayer, to kneel down next to them by the bed before they go to sleep, to say those prayers, and to have that be their memory of their mom or their dad holding their hand.”
On October 19, 2002, I had no idea what I was committing to. I mean, I loved the girl and understood enough about what marriage was to make a full consent to the union, but I didn’t really know what I was embarking on. And how could I? I was 22 and just graduated from college. I had no money to my name, but love and dedication were enough to give a wholehearted “Yes” on the altar.
Now, 16 years later, I’m starting to understand what I said yes to. I said yes to love, with all its glories and struggles. Certainly, we could have just lived together and forgone marriage, which would have seemed like the easier thing to do. However, “living together” and “marriage” are not synonymous terms. There is always an out-clause in cohabitation, and while we think “having our options open” is what is best for us, in relationships it is not. If we always hold back a piece of ourselves, then we will never be vulnerable enough to know what it means to love. Love always carries an element of risk. The abiding commitment of marriage is what makes it unique among all other relationships. Marriage is not just a “piece of paper,” it is a vow, an unbreakable promise to love another person until death does you part.
The indissolubility of marriage has to be the most misunderstood part of the union. Often, it is scorned and ridiculed. It is viewed as some lofty ideal that is no longer practically attainable. Or it is met with outright disdain and referred to as a “ball and chain” locking you down and preventing your freedoms. That is all horse manure. If we can reorient ourselves to see the true intention behind it, we will see that indissolubility is not about staying together for the sake of it, but rather it is meant to be a tremendous source of consolation. Do you know how comforting it is to know that no matter what happens in my life there is always someone there to have my back?I cannot even begin to describe how reassuring that is to me. Just think about that for a second. Imagine the worst thing that could happen: cancer, loss of a child, bankruptcy… no one wants to face this in life, but bad things will happen to us and would you rather face them alone or with someone else? But let’s not just focus on the negative, imagine the best things that could happen: getting a gold medal at the Olympics, visiting the Eifel Tower, raising a child…again, would you rather embrace those successes alone or with someone by your side? The gift of marriage is that whether I am in the high-highs or the low-lows, there is always someone there with me because she made a promise to love me through it all.
The converse is true, too. No matter what happens in Kristin’s life, she will never have to face them alone (as long as I have air in my lungs and blood pumping through my veins). That is the greatest gift I could ever give another human being because I only have one life to live and it is fixed and limited. I will only be here for so long. Therefore, my life is my most precious possession and I have willingly chosen to give it to another human person. That type of commitment shapes me. That type of love is the most real and important thing I could ever do in my life. No other relationship carries that weight and it is the gravity of the bond that makes it special. Through loving my wife, I will become the best me that I could ever be. My poverty gives me opportunities to receive her love. And her poverty gives me opportunities to give her my love. We go back and forth, giving and receiving, and never letting our cups run dry.
There is nothing easy about loving this way. Which is why we need grace. In Jesus’ teaching about the permanence of marriage, even his disciples found indissolubility to be a far-fetched idea:
“[His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word,but only those to whom that is granted…Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” (Matthew 19: 10-12)
He is saying that grace is granted to those are disposed to receive it. There is not some exclusive club of a small number of people who can receive that grace. God’s love is given in superabundance to anyone who opens his heart to receive it. Marriage, as a sacrament, is a pipeline to that grace.
I still believe in marriage. Not just my own union, but as an institution. Nothing else lets us feel the fullness of our human capacities than journeying through life with our spouse. It is sheer grace that transforms our human love into something Divine… which is hopefully what will happen when death does me part.
“The power that coming together, turning to God and allowing our relationships to be formed and founded in that abiding relationship with God is so powerful.”
A couple of weeks ago, I was woken up in the middle of the night when a band of thunderstorms came ripping through New Orleans. And once I’m up, I’m up. After tossing and turning for a solid 45-minutes, I finally got out of bed, grabbed my iPhone, and headed to the living room to piddle online until I felt tired again.
I opened my ESPN app and was greeted with a story that reminded me why I love sports. Derrick Rose, a point guard for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves had a career night, scoring 50 points. Why did I care? (you may be asking). I don’t live in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and while scoring 50 points is a lot, it wasn’t the full reason for my jubilation. The reason was that any basketball fan knows that Derrick Rose is one of the ultimate “What if he had never been injured” stories. He was selected by the Chicago Bulls as the #1 pick in the 2008 draft and the youngest player to win the NBA’s MVP award. He was a star on the rise and Bulls fans were having dreams of Championships again, but his career was derailed by one significant injury after another and is on his fourth team since 2016. That’s why that night was so special. I’m a Bulls fan, have been for 30 years since seeing Michael Jordan play when we lived in Chicago as a kid. So, yeah, I couldn’t hold back the tears as I watched D-Rose’s interviews after the game talking about how he worked his “rear-end” off (except he used that other word for donkey). He knew and every fan of the game knew that what he had just accomplished was more than just a good game, it was redemption; an exhale after years of dealing with unforeseen events and still pushing through with hope and hard work. Just awesome.
I love sports the same way that I love good art. They both are a clear way of seeing a human person assimilate and express their God-given talents. While it is true that the desire for “celebrity” can get in the way of good art (as I talk about with Greg Boudreaux in episode 7 of Always Hope), at its core, good art reveals a human person’s capacity to do something truly extraordinary. To be a professional athlete, you need to be blessed with natural gifts, but also a hard work ethic to fine tune those gifts. As fans of the game or consumers of media, we rarely see the amount of work that goes into a final product or don’t fully understand how hard it is to perform at the most elite level in professional sports. After you watch a movie do you ever wonder how many names appear on the credits? In a big summer blockbuster, it is thousands of names! So many people who have dedicated years of their lives for a single two-hour feature film.
D-Rose had a moment that night. I know the phrase “overcoming adversity” seems like a cliché, but there was a guy who had one unfortunate injury after another. His career has been more defined by those injuries than his successes. And while none of those were life-threatening issues, it still is real-life drama on display for all of us to see. That’s what makes sports great. I long ago gave up a dream of being a professional athlete or lead guitarist in a band, because I do not possess the sufficient talent to succeed there. But God knows what he is doing and certainly has given me an abundance of other gifts that I am called to cultivate and fine tune. It is an easy translation for me to see a guy like D-Rose shine and take that as encouragement in the work God has called me to do. We are all just human after all.
In June of this year, the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life released a document entitled, “Giving the Best of Yourself” which draws connections between sports, the human spirit, and faith. Giving the best of yourself in sports is really just an icon of giving your best in life. Unfortunately, sports have become an idol for many people, but if we see sports in the proper context, we get to see what the church sees: that “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo” (paragraph 1.1).
It is not so much about winning and losing, but that healthy competition can bring out the best in us. Athletic training and competing are means of purification and building virtue. Sport can be at the service of attaining human maturity. The Vatican’s document says that dedication to excellence, camaraderie, and respect for the rules all help in the journey of faith. After all, does not St. Paul use the analogy of running a race? And to “run so as to win.” (1 Corinthians 9:24). That formational aspect is what I try to inculcate in my boys through their various sporting activities and is what I appreciated when I saw Derrick Rose score 50 points. We cannot always control what comes our way, but we can always choose how we respond. Success does not come easily or often, but with grace and virtue, we too will all have our moments to shine.
Spiritual and emotional connection is important, yet there is one more piece to this puzzle, physical love.
Before the desire for intimacy was expressed verbally, we felt a connection through physical gestures. A baby is formed inside the body of his mother and over the course of her pregnancy, a mom knows who her child is even before seeing him. The child comes into the world not fully developed and it is up to the parents to listen to the various intonations of the cry to learn how to respond to his needs. Often, a mother will soothe her child with sweet caresses and cuddling. Even though as adults we grow in our capacity to verbally articulate our desires, there inevitably still comes a moment when we just need a hug. The physical dimension of an enduring relationship cannot be overstated. The regular release of bonding hormones through physical touch, caressing, and sexual intimacy are keys to the survival of a long-term marriage.
However, physical affection has to mean more than just sex. Yes, sex is an amazing gift to married couples, but every relationship should have healthy amounts of non-sexual physical contact. That freedom of physical expression will, in turn, bless the sexual embraces, too! This is because if every kiss is signal for sex, then kisses will start to be viewed suspiciously: “What does he want?” “I’m not in the mood.” “If I kiss back are we going all the way tonight?” That pressure will quickly eat away at a relationship. Freedom and respect of all forms of physical affection make for a healthy marriage.
If you are disconnected outside the bedroom, usually that disconnection will manifest in the bedroom, unless there are medical issues at work. If you are working on reconnecting in your marriage, work on your physical love, too. Yet, not in the way you might be thinking. Unfortunately, in our culture when the physical connection is lost, we turn to things like “Novelty Items,” which are really euphemisms for buying things that only further the objectification of our spouse. Make no mistake, objectification is what happens when we lose sight of their eternal goodness. If you have lost the spark, you do not need to buy “Adult Toys” or read books to spice up your romance. You just need each other. That’s it. God is enough and his grace is sufficient.
Do the harder work of rediscovering your spouse and sharing who you are today. When you get this right, you will see a deepening and more profound love because it honors both the history of time together and the newness that is ever unfolding in a relationship. Holding the tension of both is the key to everlasting love.
Couples have the freedom to express themselves in the bedroom, but just make sure that those expressions draw you closer together and make you think about the person in front of you. The way you dress, what you say, and how you act should all be things that are a manifestation of your unique relationship, not influenced by an external stimulus like pornography. I know it is hard because what we define as sexy tends to be influenced by our cultural notions. But our cultural tastes of sex are just off because the world does not understand marriage anymore. Rather than being harsh, we should be loving. Rather than being fixated on our personal pleasure, we should be attentive to the desires of the other. Sex is about “us” not “me.” Each time is a gift and opportunity to share in that togetherness. Talk about your preferences and share with your spouse when things are good and when they are uncomfortable.
Marriage is not rocket science. The things that make a marriage work are actually quite simple. Yet, as one of my clients said in a counseling session, “this is hard as sh–!” True. Simple but hard. Over the course of our lives, intimacy will ebb and flow. Interests change. New responsibilities. Life stressors. All of these things will try to pull apart. But resist that pull, because the truth is you need each other. The grace of marriage is that you have a partner to journey with you through each of those dips, changes, twists, and turns. As a sacrament, this means that God (through your bond) is present in each of those moments, too. Grace is real, but sometimes we have to work in life. Keep focused on loving each other daily and keep striving to stay connected through it all.
Why was there no authority? This is what authority was supposed to do. What we’re against is people abusing their authority. People not living out that call to love that they were given.
In the first part of this series, we explored what it means to respect our spouse’s eternal mystery, the importance of regular conversations, and how prayer blesses a couple’s emotional life. Now let’s go deeper into how to support a spouse’s changing interests, without feeling like we are losing him (or her).
Respect their freedom to cultivate new interests and skills
Sometimes we lose interest in life because God is calling us to mature. We stop listening to the songs we liked as a teenager. Movies become dated. The things we liked as a kid often are not the same things we like now. Interests change as our lives change. That’s okay and to be expected.
Under that premise, we should then respect and encourage shifting interests by our spouse. We should not feel confused or threatened by that, because it means that they are growing and learning new things about themselves. I want Kristin to expand her knowledge and I want to share in that with her. If we respect that freedom, are curious about the things they are learning, and commit to regularly asking questions about those new things, that will perpetuate the “Getting-to-Know-You” phase of relationships. We should not presume that any marriage is above dating. Yes, this can be hard, especially when our spouse makes a dramatic life change or becomes interested in something we just do not care about. (As a caveat, I am not talking about anything immoral here. We should not engage in immoral behaviors, even if it is with our spouse.) Here is an example of what I trying to say:
Hypothetically, if a couple meets while working on a sales team for a technology company, naturally the things that they are going to first connect on are related to their jobs: conversations with potential buyers, success over securing big clients, learning about the latest company products, office politics, etc. As they live life together, these conversations would continue to be regular. However, the husband might realize after ten years that he hates his job and is ready to quit. Is his wife supportive of that? Are they ready for this big change in the identity of their relationship? Is their marriage more than shared conversations about work? These are hard questions but if they have been regularly connected, then the wife would not be surprised by her husband’s desires and they would have already been discussing potential next steps so that when the decision is made to quit his job, the husband knows that he has his wife’s support. This is certainly better than if he kept his angst a secret and suddenly informed his wife that he was quitting. Again, it takes regular commitment to have these reconnecting conversations and praying for the grace to respect and understand our spouse.
Remember why you fell in love
If you have been married for a few years and find yourself coasting in your marriage, the first thing to do is remember why you fell in love you with your spouse. If you have lost any spark, it is important to remember when you had it and when it was lost. It is good to recall the beginning of your relationship; what it felt like to talk and date, to remember that you had meaningful conversations and shared time together. It is okay to have an ache for that connection again, that means you still care and desire it.
Just like it took time the first time to build connection, so it will again if it has been lost. Share with your spouse the longing in your heart, not in an accusatory way, but in a way that invites connection. Make time to start talking again. Go on a date and ask the type of questions you would ask if it was the first date. The basic stuff: Tell me about your day. Tell me about your work. What’s your family like? What’s your favorite movie? Which musicians are you listening to? How are your kids doing? What do you like to do in your free time? How do those questions get answered in light of who your spouse is today? Not yesterday. Not last year. Today. As I said earlier, no marriage is above dating. Rekindle the feeling of first dates. That sensation of new-ness causes butterflies because we are sharing about ourselves and not fully sure how that will be received. We desire to be accepted by the other and fear their rejection. How much more do we desire the acceptance of another when we have given them 20 years of our life?
When I was in Tallahassee, one of the counselors in that practice was celebrating a milestone anniversary with his wife (I think it was 30 years) and they went to a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains for a week-long getaway. When he came back, he said the funniest thing about the trip: “My wife kept saying, I feel like you are having an affair…and I’m the other woman!” If you knew him, you would know that this irreverent humor was right up his alley. Of course, he is not condoning adulterous relationships, but what was sparked was a renewed sense of wonder about the person, they tapped into a long-dormant newness in the other and reconnected in a way they had not for a long time. What a gift!
Hope you are enjoying this series. Part 3 is coming soon!
Staying connected with your spouse over the course of a lifetime is no easy business. Not just because of the expected moments of disagreement in marriage and not even for the unexpected hardships that life throws at you. The challenge is just simply trying to stay connected in the midst of all the dips, changes, twists, and turns that come with being together for years. This is the first of a three-part series where we explore what it takes to stay connected and what do when things start drifting apart.
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a colleague at Notre Dame Seminary, a brilliant scholar and faithful husband. At the time, I was going through my doctoral studies and he shared with me some guidance that he had received when he was doing his graduate work. He said that the gift of graduate work was that you get the opportunity to dive deep into research and grow in the real knowledge of one subject. (That amount of reading and studying may not sound like a joy to you, but just amuse me for a second and go along with it!) Yet, that expertise can sometimes come with an untended price. There comes a moment where you simply know more than the average person on that specific topic and that can cause distance with those closest to you, particularly with your spouse. He didn’t imply that in an arrogant I-Am-Smarter-Than-You mentality, just that it becomes hard to continue a meaningful conversation with the person you are closest with when all your time and energy is focused on something that they cannot share equitably because they have not had the same opportunity to grow in their knowledge of that material. Makes sense?
Case in point, you want to catch up at the end of the day, but all you did was read comparative thoughts on some deep theory, and you want to share that with your spouse, but realize that she is not capable of ‘talking shop’ with you at that level. This colleague said that this situation often causes a disconnect in relationships and the way to avoid it was to keep her connected with your research all the way through the process. I thought he was right on and I took his advice to heart.
I have been married to Kristin for 16 years. That’s a fair amount of time and we have experienced a lot together. I have counseled many couples who have been married for much longer than that. Through my personal and clinical experience, I have seen this dynamic mentioned by my scholar friend as a consistent challenge to many married couples, even for those who are not pursuing doctorates. It is perfectly natural to presume that over the course of a lifespan, your interests will change, your expertise will change, and the things that brought you together will fade in the rearview mirror of time. So again, how do you stay intimate and connected through it all?
I propose four key points. First, it is important to never forget that your spouse is a mystery. Second, always respect their freedom to explore new interests and skills. Third, it is good to cultivate good memory and remind yourself why you fell in love. Finally, the power of physical affection should not be underestimated.
Yes, they are a mystery! (and that’s a good thing)
This might sound a bit too pious, but the truth is that each of us has an eternal soul, some immaterial form that we cannot measure scientifically. In practical terms, this means that we will never fully understand our spouse. That last sentence is not meant to be depressing but liberating. Since that mystery is what connects us to God, there is an eternal goodness within your spouse that surpasses understanding. We can and should take the time to understand our spouse; to know the things that make her tick and to avoid his emotional triggers. Yet, we should never take him for granted or say that we have her “figured out.” If we do take our spouse for granted, then the relationship will very quickly become stale in our mind and heart. This is not good.
Rather, we should presume their mystery and seek to encounter that goodness every day. This means that every day you are growing and learning something new and every day your spouse is growing and learning something new. This means that every day you have something new to discover about your spouse. Awesome! Your relationship cannot be built solely on the interests you shared when you were first dating. Those things change over time, but your spouse is still your spouse regardless of those changes. That is what it means to love a person over time.
When we talk about the day and hear the joys and struggles of our spouse, this is not only a chance to connect emotionally but an opportunity to pray for her. Praying together as a couple gives space for the Holy Spirit to come into the relationship and work like glue to keep you together. Moreover, you should share deeply about what God is doing in your life, things that spoke to you in prayer, and burdens that you might be carrying. It is all part of walking the faith journey together.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for Part 2!
“If you wish to be the greatest, you’re going to be the slave. If you want to be first, you’re going to be the servant of all.”