My role as wife and mother is my primary vocation – and also my most challenging! Because I am also a psychologist, I joke that dealing with psychotic patients all day is a lot easier than settling an argument about in-laws and who is going to fold the laundry or give the youngest a bath. I’m not alone, right? These everyday moments of family life are HARD, really hard!
Pope John Paul II in 1981 wrote an Apostolic Exhortation (Familiaris Consortio), in which he declared, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”
- Then why is it so hard?
- If it is so “fundamental and innate,” why is it so messy and confusing?
Love is tested, every day, in big ways and lots and lots and lots of little ways. Regardless of the source of marital stress and conflict, couples in distress always present to the therapist with the same primary complaint, “I’m just not happy anymore.” Love Tested. This time the test is “Does it make me happy?”
I struggle with this as a psychologist and also as a cancer survivor. I wonder how my husband might have answered the question of happiness as he watched his wife lay in bed for months sick from chemo, bald, and now missing some important body parts. Joy and happiness were in pretty short supply. Love Tested? Well if feeling happy day in and day out is the standard and ultimate goal for marital love then we fail this test when life gets real.
Don’t get me wrong; the CCC says, “The desire for happiness is of divine origin.” God has placed in our heart the desire for happiness, but let’s be clear about what the Church means about happiness and what modern culture means by happiness. Catholic couples have gotten these definitions very confused.
The world says happiness is a feeling erupting from pleasure. Satisfying every impulse and desire brings happiness – or so we are told. However, ask any addict and they will show you the lie in this.
St. Thomas Aquinas said, “God alone satisfies.” This is happiness.
So how do we bring that joy into our marriages and families? How do we reclaim God’s perfect plan for love and marriage and allow our unions to set the world on fire?! How do we live out the sacrament and vocation of marriage in order to achieve the ultimate good of eternal life with God in Heaven?
This Lent I challenge you to make your marriage the focus of your conversion during this liturgical season. Through living faithfully and sacrificially the sacrament of marriage, we may have the perfect means through which to achieve holiness. Marriage has the potential to perfect us in love! Marriage when accepted with the truth of God’s plan can transform our weak hearts.
So instead of giving up chocolate for Lent, I challenge you to take on one of the following marital behaviors to address. Read through the list with your spouse and chose one (or more) to focus on this Lent. Allow this list to help identify the areas of your marriage in most need of triage!
Once you as a couple find your focus then make a list of concrete behaviors each of you are to encourage in yourself and in your spouse. Document your progress! Keep a daily journal of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which apply to (or detract from) your goal. Don’t be afraid to use this list to seek spiritual direction or professional counseling to transform your marriage this Lent.
How does your marriage apply these ten tests of love?
- Strong couples pray for and with their spouse; at-risk couples pray about their spouse. Do you pray together as a couple? Is your prayer a complaint about your spouse or a prayerful plea for grace and mercy to be showered upon your spouse in their need?
- Strong couples see their marriage as a path to holiness; at-risk couples see their marriage as a contract that can be dissolved when it no longer satisfies. Do you both share the same understanding about the sacramental nature of your marriage? Have you entered into a non-sacramental marriage and need to seek pastoral care and convalidation? Are you both not exactly on the same page about intimacy and the Church’s teaching about Natural Family Planning?
- Strong couples fight to help their spouse in all of life’s hardships; at-risk couples just fight. Do you treat your spouse as an ally or as an adversary? Are you on the same team when hardships arise or do you war with each other in order to always win or be right?
- Strong couples encourage and build each other up; at-risk couples criticize and tear each other down. Do you actively seek to praise your spouse everyday? Do you spend most of your time picking out every failure?
- Strong couples communicate emotions and needs without feeling threatened; at-risk couples blame each other without even trying to listen. When problems arise do you have a plan for how to resolve them? When you attempt to “communicate” does someone get defensive and do feelings get hurt?
- Strong couples are interested in helping to heal each other’s old wounds from their youth; at-risk couples develop great skill in provoking each other where it hurts most. Are you protective and considerate of your spouse’s emotional struggles and needs or are they weapons to win an argument? Are old wounds ignored and allowed to drive negative behaviors that create recurrent problems?
- Strong couples strive to outdo their spouse in life-giving service to the family; at-risk couples keep score and always complain the family burden is unfair. Do you find yourself saying “your turn” often? Are you resentful of your spouse’s “lesser share” of the household and childcare work?
- Strong couples show respect for each other in words and deeds while showing mercy and forgiveness when problems arise; at risk couples hold grudges and retaliate. In an argument do you offer a list of every similar offense committed to prove your point? Do you truly forgive or just drop the argument (for now)?
- Strong couples find happiness in placing Christ at the center of their families; at-risk couples are always chasing the fun and pleasure owed to them by their spouse. Do you pray as a family (beyond grace before meals)? Do you treat your faith as a once a week Sunday obligation (unless a game or something is on) or is God’s will the focus of your family life?
- Strong couples willingly accept sacrifice as Christ did; at-risk couples feel unfairly burdened by sacrifice. Are you in the middle of a great trial in your marriage (job, health, addiction)? How have you chosen to carry this cross (are you allowing your faith and the sacraments to help you)? Is the suffering bringing you closer together or breaking you apart?
If you are suddenly thinking, “I would rather give up chocolate than address any of these problems” then this challenge is for you!
St. Francis de Sales wrote, “The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other; it is a perpetual exercise in mortification.” So there you have it, there can be no more perfect Lenten challenge!
I’ll be praying for you and I hope you pray for me! I’m taking the challenge too!