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Four things I wish I had known about marriage
After 23 years of marriage, I was standing alone in my bedroom, fists clenched, enraged stare piercing the heavens.
“Lord, I. Will. Not. Divorce!”
How could it have gotten so hard? At that moment, it seemed as if the only thing left holding my marriage together was sheer willpower. Truth is, it was. And it was enough. When I hit rock bottom, I found the rock, and it supported me.
1. ‘Til death do us part’ is the hardest consolation
I never expected to feel hatred in marriage as intensely as I had felt love. If you’re scandalized by that, so was I. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1767) sheds light on the passions and explains that feelings are neither good nor evil. The feeling of hatred is an involuntary response to something highly offensive. In contrast, harboring hatred and/or acting in an evil way, that is sinful because your will is engaged; you choose it.
My wife and I had chosen something else: commitment. We had promised to never say the “D” word. Divorce was not an option.
When a friend of mine was entering his third marriage, he told me how strongly he felt that this time was different. Three years later, it was over. He said, “I’ve noticed a common denominator in my three marriages: me. And that kinda scares me.”
I shared with him my own intense struggles and how, after 30 years, my marriage is solid and so worth it. When I explained our “no-D-word” commitment, no matter how upset we feel, he reflected for a moment and said, “Divorce has always been one of my options. That may well have made a difference for me.”
It’s made all the difference for us. When everything seemed to accelerate toward that cliff, the grace of till-death-do-us-part held me safe. I was able to pause, breathe and begin again. I felt no practical hope for our marriage, but our will to love — to seek the good of the other — was enough for God to breathe his new life.
2. Loving wholeheartedly requires revealing your anger
What moved us from desolation to consolation in marriage? Learning vulnerability through marriage counseling.
Once, when I complained about the anger I felt toward my wife, the counselor asked, “Have you told her?” I hadn’t, I said, and the counselor asked why. Exasperated, I responded, “because she can’t handle it!”
“Hiding your anger is a barrier to intimacy. How can she know what you really feel and where you are coming from if you won’t tell her? You’re not giving her the chance to love you and work through your problems. That isn’t love.”
My world was shaken. Anger is one of the seven deadly sins. Doesn’t that make it bad? I figured it was best and even virtuous to set anger aside — to not feel it or act on it. However, I did notice, over time, that little offenses would evoke big responses in me, and the weight of those past hurts would spill out.
I had to learn that while committing an evil act out of anger is wrong, the feeling of anger is simply a signal indicating some injustice. That injustice needed to be clarified, understood and dealt with, not ignored. Of course, I needed to choose a healthy way to express my anger, but I needed to express it before it damaged my relationship.
A priest-psychologist once said that, in 30 years of counseling, he had seen far more damage from silence than violence. The total and wholehearted commitment to love by seeking the best for the other in marriage requires us to speak up, be vulnerable about our true feelings and carefully work them out together.
3. ‘Freely and without coercion’: Even more important after you get married
No woman wants a man to marry her because he has to, and vice versa. Part of the joy of marriage is the freedom of choice; you have been chosen by the other for life. It’s a sweet gift, both to receive and to give. That freedom to love continues to be essential every day after the wedding.
Many of the deeper wounds I inflicted on my wife came from instances where I indeed coerced her. Let me explain.
I was at a meeting. I had promised my wife I’d be home by 5 p.m., but I stayed late to talk through future collaboration opportunities. When I finally called her two hours late, she was furious. She felt way overtaxed by the kids and was livid that I had broken my promise. I explained that I had good reason due to the value of my discussions for our future income. In fact, I had just used financial security to trump her.
|AT-HOME MARRIAGE RETREAT|
|To celebrate National Marriage Week 2021, ForYourMarriage.org, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is providing couples with a seven-day at-home retreat with the theme “To Have, To Hold, To Honor.” Each day offers a Scripture reading, an inspirational story and reflection question. For more information, visit ForYourMarriage.org.|
What I should have done was call her after the meeting and discuss my proposed change of plans so that she could weigh in. Of course, she has a stake in finances, but I also have a stake in her mental health and the care of the kids. That all needed to be weighed out, together.
The result of my Lone Ranger approach was that she felt forced into what I decided to be best, instead of us deciding that together. Taking care of the kids should be an act of love, but I had removed her free will. My coercion wounded her and hurt both of us.
True love requires the work of constant communication and collaboration to allow each spouse to give freely.
4. Kids can accelerate or block your love
Being open to new life and filling my quiver with 10 children has been one of the highlights of my life. Since children truly are a blessing, why would I limit God’s generosity?
What I didn’t realize initially is that while children have the power to strengthen the love within a marriage, they also have the power to kill it.
Children require attention. Lots of it. We used to joke that through our first three children, our defense strategy moved from 2-on-1, to man-to-man, then zone. Now you could say it’s a “prevent.” Throughout parenthood, we grew to accommodate the kids’ needs, which has made us better lovers than I believe we ever would have been on our own. However, we often made the mistake of not putting that same skilled attention into our relationship with each other.
Just like we did for our kids, we needed daily check-in times, free from children and focused on each other’s heart: How are you really doing? What do you need? What would you like? We needed scheduled date nights as well as marriage get-aways, just the two of us, for a weekend — better yet, a week — each year. We waited 20 years too long before making those rituals.
For our 20th anniversary, we finally snuck away from our nine kids for a three-day beach weekend. It took a day and a half to unwind before we started to enjoy just being a couple again. By the end, the spark was rekindled. We felt energized and even looked forward to seeing our kids. My wife then admitted that she had been truly afraid we wouldn’t connect as a couple again. If we hadn’t course-corrected, that may well have been our fate.
When you prioritize your marriage, the demands of kids increase your capacity to give generously and love deeply. If you let your kids always take first place, then you leave no place for your spouse.
Michael O’Rourke has been married 30 years to Maria, is a father of 10 and founder of StrongCatholicDad.com.