April 4, 2014
My wife and I have been married for about a year and a half. Might you suggest some progressive Christian resources we can use to strengthen and deepen our relationship together?
New Newly Wed
Dear New Newlywed,
Staying married for life is one of the hardest things you will ever do. A random sampling of some friends, when I asked them what spiritual practices they have in place to keep their marriages holy and healthy, yielded such gems as "I don't kill my husband, or divorce him. I find this brings us closer. He does the same for me."
If marriage is hard, it is also, when it is good, one of the best things ever. It provides us with a helpmeet for some of the hardest things life will send our way. It provides us with a person who loves us so well; it gives us a strong base from which we can act with courage and become the person God intends us to be.
Marriage also provides us with someone who knows us so well, they can be a check on our egos and insecurities, or simply keep us from becoming, er, too much of a good thing. People who live alone for a very long time risk living in an echo chamber, where all of their thoughts, especially the negative, are amplified and distorted.
Richard Rohr said, "Marriage is made to order to steal you from your selfishness. It first of all reveals your selfishness to you (the first seven years after the honeymoon, I am told, are not easy), and then, if you stay in there, and fall into a love that is greater, it is usually much easier from there."
So marriage is a great gift. You know this already, New Newlywed. What you are asking, though, is how you can have a marriage that still makes you feel that way when you've become and Old Oldywed.
Many of us hear the lovely words of I Corinthians 13 on our wedding day, and in the pre-dawn bloom of a new marriage, it's easy to believe that love is ALWAYS patient, kind, never envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
But best-dressed and best-behaved brides and grooms give way to ordinary wives and husbands with flamboyant flaws and weaknesses. Most marriages don't explode because of a single event. They erode over of a long series of day-to-day difficulties. Kathleen Norris tells of happening upon a friend and her husband at a tense moment. "Do you want to know how serious our fight was?" the friend said, her voice brittle with rage. "It was over the little garbage can in the bathroom." "That bad," said Kathleen.
If marriages are unmade by the daily wear-and-tear, so are they also re-made by daily spiritual practices. You and your spouse can make up your own Spouse Sabbath practices, based on your personalities and strengths. Do what you're drawn to, not what you think spouses "should" do. Customize! But here are some suggestions to get you started:
Have lots of good sex. Make sure both partners is satisfied before you are done! Find a way (lights on, lights off, after a glass of wine, over email) to discuss what you like and what you don't like, sexually—no assumptions, even if you've been married for decades.
Read a book together. Poetry, erotica, Richard Rohr's Spirituality and the 12 Steps or Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, John Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity by Kate Braestrup. Don't limit yourself to self-help: think humor, memoir, graphic novel, art-making. If it brings you together, it's good—it doesn't have to be an upper-level college course in Marriage to strengthen your bond.
A 'two-minute vacation' or a weekend away. One couple I know stares into each other's eyes once a week for two minutes. Even—or especially—if you end up laughing your way through it, this is a free, easy way to reconnect amidst lives that may become increasingly busy with children, jobs, aging parents and other demands.
At other times, you might need bigger guns. A weekend dedicated to time together without any children you may have can do loads for your bond. If you have children, don't use them as an excuse to avoid the directness of being alone together for two decades. They don't need you as much as they need their parents to be good friends and lovers. Whether it's a self-styled retreat to a cheap hotel (or in your own home!), or a Marriage Encounter-style weekend (Catholic and other denominational settings offer these), it will certainly shift the status quo.
Other little liturgies: bedtime rituals, verbalizing gratitude daily, praying over the day, going to church together or going for a sacred walk together often…Any good habits you develop together will offset the annoying habits you have as individuals—habits that wear on a relationship over time.
Remember, your love will change over the years. Through crisis and conflict, through aging and frailty, the goal is not to feel exactly the same way about each other as you did on the day you made those vows. It's ok to feel what you're feeling, on any given day, knowing it won't last forever: bored, scared, pissed, hot for someone else.
What matters in a basically healthy marriage is not so much what you feel—it's what you do, every single day, as a hedge against the fickle feelings that will undoubtedly float through.
Bless you, and may you be a blessing,
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