How do you make a marriage last?
Karen and I have been married happily for 54 wonderful years. For the past 39 years we have been a volunteer Marriage Preparation Team in the Catholic Church, doing our best to assist couples who are about to make the commitment to love each other faithfully for the rest of their lives through the sacrament of Matrimony. The question we are asked most often is, “How do you make a marriage last that long?”
We wish that we could give a simple answer but it is not simple. It takes a lot of effort, in many different ways, spread out over years. We advise them there will be adjustments to their way of living, just as there is in starting their careers in life.
The preparation of a good marriage is like the creation of a special meal that requires a multitude of ingredients tied in with the cook’s patience, caring, and love so that it can be shared with others who are close.
We have made a list of many of the ingredients that lead to a long and happy marriage. But no two marriages are exactly alike. Each couple may find other ingredients to add to their own final outcome. The quantity of each one of these, which has to be combined with the others, is unlimited. Couples can’t get away with using only a pinch or a teaspoonful of this or of that. The more that each gives of each these factors to their marriage cake of life, the better the outcome.
ACCEPTANCE: First we tell them that each of them has to accept himself or herself. You might think that you’re not pretty or handsome enough that someone could really care deeply for you. But if he asked you to marry him, or if you said joyfully “yes” to that question, you’ve cleared that first hurdle.
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and some people have been blessed with exceedingly good looks and catch our eyes. But that is akin to judging a book by its cover. The cover may look attractive, but what is inside the book makes the book meaningful. When Karen met me I was 6-foot-1-inch tall and was a beanpole of only 127 pounds. My “book cover” was my Air Force Blue uniform that I wore to the first freshman dorm dance of the year at Texas Women’s University in 1960. That uniform attracted her. Of the 38 young guys at the dance, only three of us were in uniform. She noted my sense of humor when we danced, and that was one of the contents of my book.
I was attracted to Karen even though my ideal girl as a late teenager was a 5-foot-8-inch slim blonde. But Karen was a brunette standing only 5-feet-2-inches tall and she wore glasses. However, I became very attracted to her because she was the only girl there to ask me the favor of dancing with a shy friend of hers. Karen’s demonstrable caring about someone else was one of the contents of her book that set her apart from every other girl I’d ever met.
She didn’t feel competitive in the dating arena at the time, and it took her a while to accept the fact that she had won a lifetime love interest out of a field of over 300 attractive young women. Accept yourself as you are. You are the contents of your special book and don’t hesitate to let others see it. Accept the fact that someone else finds you, on the inside, to be so attractive that he or she wants to spend a lifetime with you.
AFFECTION: Affection can be the look in someone’s eyes as they look into yours and smile. It can be a gentle touch or a soft, unexpected kiss. It can be a warm, embracing hug. Or it can be a special meal prepared for him or a handful of flowers or a pair of tickets to a theater that he may give with a note expressing his love.
It can be doing something you think is funny, just to get a smile or laugh in return. Affection is what causes the warm feeling of being recognized and wanted, the feeling that all is right in life when the person you love is showing you signs that you are special to him or to her.
ANTICIPATION: When bad things happen and we don’t have anything planned to look forward to, hope and flavor go from our lives. All lives have their ups and downs, but during the downs it is often difficult to imagine or even think of positives in our future. Some of the things that can result are depression, and using drugs or alcohol just makes situations worse. But what if you have something positive planned to focus on?
We used to plan family vacations, in generic terms, five years in advance, but we fine tuned the details for just the coming year. We would plan camping trips. I would look at every site or activity I could find along various routes and list them. Our three kids and my wife and I would each choose two items from the list and we’d mark those locations on the map to finalize our driving route. In the 15 years we spent seeing every state and 9 Canadian provinces, our children always had something to anticipate, as did we, their parents.
Twice, when I lost a job during that period, I was more prepared to roll with the punch because my wife and I still kept going to dances or bowling together or planning get-togethers with friends and relatives. After a fruitless week of job hunting, looking forward to some planned event carried us through the rough spots.
BELIEF: In yourself and in your spouse is not just something nice. It is a key to happiness. Without it, self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness, of not being as smart or as handsome or as beautiful as others, can start to plague your relationship. You start comparing yourself to others and start to believe that you are not good enough for him or her. When you pull yourself down, or when you pull your spouse down, your marriage will suffer.
Be fully committed to one person for life. Believe that he or she loves you and wants to love you just the way you are. You really must believe in the good and the positive qualities within yourself and then look for those qualities in your spouse and from time to time remind him or her of the qualities you see in your spouse. Neither of you chose someone else. You chose each other because of things that you found in him or her. Believe that you are good and you are loveable and then show your spouse daily that he or she is loveable as well.
CHILDREN: Children will come along and you will love them and cuddle them and watch then grow up. But too often, the wife and/or the husband will shift the greatest portion of their love to their offspring. That is dangerous for a marriage. Children will be leaving your home within two decades, but your spouse is supposed to be with you as long as you both shall live. Keep the love that you share with your spouse alive and don’t let it fade away during the time that you have your children close. Let children know you are both on the same wavelength in discipline and if you have differences work them out between yourselves. Your spouse must remain foremost in your life so that your children will always have two parents to guide them.
COMMITMENT: Shortly before my wife and I married, we agreed that our marriage was going to be for life. We agreed that the word “divorce” no longer existed for us. Today, when we are helping couples prepare for marriage, we start our first meeting with them by pulling out our 5- inch-thick, 10-pound, 2,289-page Webster’s Dictionary and asking them to look up the word “divorce.” Where the word once existed is an empty rectangle where we have carved the word out. That is the proof of our promises to each other when we formed a total commitment to a lifetime of marriage to each other. A Catholic marriage has to be based around the commitment to a “forever marriage” by both the bride and the groom. When there is a real commitment, and both people constantly look for ways to make it work, solutions to problems pop up unexpectedly.
COMPLIMENTARY: Try to say something nice to your spouse about him or her every day of your marriage. Thank each other for each of the good things that he or she does: for the surprise kiss or hug; for supporting you; for the way he or she handled a situation. You can’t say “thank you” too many times. When the words “thank you” are spoken regularly, you will both become more aware of how many times each day you or your spouse has done something that has been recognized by the other as an act of love. Both the giver and the recipient strengthen the bond between them through the acknowledgement of these often unrecognized acts of kindness, love, and recognition.
COMMUNICATION: Most people see communication as talking about what went on at the office, at home, at school, or on the factory floor. These are not the type of communications that hold a marriage together. Communication is using words of feelings which better help your life partner to understand your statements fully. Communications have to flow both ways: speaking and listening.
DATING: Doing things that both of you like together worked in your earliest years of relationship. Getting married doesn’t mean that the thrill of going out alone together has to end. Those dates were fun and they should continue to occur throughout your marriage. After 54 years of marriage we still enjoy dating.
He may like to golf and you might prefer a book club. That’s fine for each of you to do on your own. You each need to have interests that are not always the same as your spouse’s. But these solo activities should not replace doing things that are enjoyed by both of you together. You can also decide to go out to something that neither of you have done before like a rodeo or a recital. That will give you something new to talk about afterwards. By not withdrawing but sharing experiences, you each put an emphasis on each other. The magic that brought you together can hold you together.
FAITH IN GOD: If you want to have a strong and lasting marriage, God must be a factor in your lives. How many divorces have you read about between movie stars who have more money than they can count, and might be going into their second, third, or fourth marriage? Even with all that money they are not happy.
Our faith in God must be passed on down to our children. They must understand how important God can be in His commandments, His mercy, His presence, and in the consolation He can afford us when things go bad. Look at all of the kids who are from broken homes and have lost confidence in marriage. Look at those who don’t know how to turn to God when things get rough and who rely on drugs or alcohol or friends who have no faith in their backgrounds for direction.
The children that you will bring into the world are the greatest responsibility you will ever have. You and they will need God in your lives to be able to give them a good future. Faith is one of the greatest gifts that you can pass along to your children — not by word alone, but by being an example for them as they see your love for a God who will be there when you or they most need Him. Also, guide and help your children to associate with other children who come from religiously oriented families. This can alleviate the danger of being pulled into a godless life in the future.
FAITHFULNESS TO EACH OTHER: Often the erroneous notion that a person can satisfy their physical needs outside marriage ruins multiple lives. This is a serious mistake and even those who have high positions cannot overcome this temptation. We’ve seen it even in presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Clinton, and Trump who have had their legacies tarnished forever by failing to abide by their vows of marriage. Fantasizing about having an affair can lead to problems beyond your capability to recover. It can destroy your marriage, terribly hurt you, your spouse, your children, your family, and even many of your friends and eventually your job. It just isn’t worth it.
If sex is a problem try to sit down and communicate with your spouse and if that ends in a draw, seek out an expert who has seen this problem before and can offer help from his knowledge and experience. Don’t ever take a chance on losing everything else over this. Destroying trust is forever. It is just not justifiable. Don’t destroy your life and those of your spouse, your children, and your other loved ones.
FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS: Money is one of the deadly factors that can arise in a marriage. Early on couples should decide on the limit either of them can spend without consulting the other. When you are married, you are a team and both of you should share making decisions on various topics including this one. Make a budget and stick to it. You can adapt it, together, and fine tune it, but make sure that you don’t get into too deep a financial hole. Also, even though it may be difficult, put a little aside every payday. You never know when one of you might get sick, lose a job, have an accident, or encounter some other calamity that will eliminate your income.
FORBEARANCE: (self control; refraining; pausing; holding your tongue) In other words, think before you react. Pause, take a breath and try to find a way of saying what you want to say in a non-accusatory manner. Someone else cannot make you angry or happy. You always have a choice. You can choose whether to get angry or to try to understand the actions that have come up. Talk problems or difficulties out in calm voices. Hold hands as you do and explain or listen to the facts behind the event, without interruption. Then the person who felt offended should be able to explain why he or she has become upset. It takes two of you, working together to reach a common ground. Each may have to agree to make some changes in thoughts or attitudes.
FORGIVENESS: Holding a grudge is a waste of time. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses (in the same way) as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do you want Got to hold a grudge against you? That is what you are saying when you recite this prayer if you can’t forgive.
Others, including your spouse may do things that hurt you or irritate you. But anger is a decision; and in these cases it is a decision that you might make in response to something that you don’t like. However, there are other ways to handle those situations. Sit down and talk it out without demonstrating anger. Hold hands and look into each other’s eyes. Both sides must listen – without interruptions or excuses. An “I’m sorry” can often defuse many of those situations. Accept that fact that you could be wrong to some extent or that the situation wasn’t what it seemed, or otherwise. Ask for forgiveness and show regret if you’ve done something that offends or hurts.
HONESTY: is not only what you say or do – but it can also be in what you don’t say or don’t do. It requires that you be honest with yourself in addition to being honest with your spouse. If you’ve done something wrong, don’t be embarrassed and try to hide it. Be an adult –admit that you made a mistake or did wrong and ask for forgiveness. Follow up with a promise to do your best to not repeat the offense. If you think that you can hide something in a marriage you are only fooling yourself. Your lives are too intertwined. You may succeed for a time, but the reaction will be much more unsettling when discovered than it would have been if you took steps earlier to diffuse the situation. The more honest you are, the more honest your spouse and your children are going to be, based on your example.
HUMOR: My marriage lifetime goal has been to make Karen laugh at least once every day of our marriage. I don’t care whether she laughs with me or at me. But I want her to enjoy something that I do or say every day that she lives. Every time I try, she knows that I love her. That’s better than the results I’d get from frowning. Laughter always drowns out discord. Try to show a smile to your spouse as often as you can. It can, and will, become habitual. A smile can brighten up each day for all who see it. Give several away each day to your wife, your children and to many of the people you encounter. It will also brighten up your own day!
LISTENING: This is not to be confused with “hearing”. When your spouse wants to talk, listen – don’t interrupt. Try to understand the feelings present when your spouse wants to share information with you. Show that you are listening by looking into his or her eyes. Nod to show agreement. Pay attention. If it seems important to him or her, ask questions. Listening is not paying attention to a TV or radio that is playing, or thinking about something else, including what you want to say. The importance of putting your total attention into what your spouse believes to be important will draw you closer together. If you haven’t done this before, listening is like learning to play a new musical instrument. You have to practice, practice and practice.
LOVE: (Don’t confuse with just sex). Love is touching each other as you pass him or her sitting in a chair, or while passing in a hallway, or standing under real or pretend mistletoe. Doing the little things every day show your life partner that you care about him or her, and that you want to do things that will please him or her. There are hundreds of ways to show love and it helps to practice doing several of them each and every day. Your visible acts of showing your love for each other, like holding hands in public, can be contagious – especially for your children. When they know that you are both in love with each other, they feel safe and secure.
SUPPORTING: Remember that when you are married, it is not supposed to be you against your spouse, but the two of you against the world. That includes your relationship with your children. Always give support to your spouse. You both will have times in your lives when you will need the other to show that he or she understands and loves you and will be with you until it gets better. We promise to love each other in the best of times and the worst of times. Giving your full support during the worst of times will bond you closer to your spouse.
By Ray and Karen Cartier, North Texas Catholic special contributor