One of the most special Valentine’s gifts spouses can give to each other is to recommit to working daily on fulfilling the Catholic mission of their marriage. This work requires an understanding of marriage, oneself, and one’s spouse and the need to engage in the beautiful and sacrificial self-giving love that is required. The weakening or even loss of this special marital mission to God, one’s spouse, children, and kin is seriously depriving spouses and children of the benefits of marriage.
One couple came to my office for help and their story was all too common. They were dissatisfied with their marriage and complained bluntly. The couple’s dedication had slowly dissolved under pressures they faced as well as from the powerful cultural influence of selfishness without their realizing it. These stresses led the husband to pursue pleasure and turned him in upon himself and away from giving to his wife. He disguised his selfishness under the guise of “hard work” and the need for relaxation. The fact was that giving into selfishness changed him. He started to think more about himself and less about his wife and children. He began to place his own desires and need for comfort ahead of the family, choosing to pursue his own leisure activities more often than attending to the needs of his wife and children. His wife recognized that she failed to identify clearly his growing aloofness, thought it was normal in family life and subsequently put up with it.
Although the husband was unaware of his own selfishness, the marital session revealed that he harbored anger toward his wife for what he saw as her selfish attitudes. He thought that she had become too preoccupied with material possessions, with her appearance, and frequent workouts. At times, he felt appreciated by her but at other times he felt used. Above all, he was deeply hurt that she was not open to his desire to have a third child. Feeling “unfulfilled” as the father of two children, he believed that her opposition to another child was motivated by a lack of love. They needed help. They had lost the sense of mission in their Catholic marriage.
There are two markedly different views about marriage: the traditional Catholic belief and the non-religious model. The Catholic belief is that marriage is a sacred and lifelong union of husband and wife with the common mission of deepening their own mutual love, growing in self-knowledge and in virtues to become more Christlike, raising children, and helping each other to attain eternal life.
The non-religious model focuses primarily on seeking one’s own happiness through a satisfying emotional relationship, which is a fragile foundation for marriage due to an excessive reliance on one’s feelings. It also minimizes the importance of children. The success of this relationship is dependent upon partners relying on each other with little or no recourse to God. The most serious psychological weakness with this model is that it contributes to the growth of selfishness, which is the major enemy of marital love. My work as a psychiatrist is consistent with the research findings that those who embrace this marital model have less marital happiness and more divorce.
This model is commonly and erroneously described as the “soul mate model” but is more appropriately identified as the temporary mate model.
In order to achieve the Catholic mission of marriage, spouses must daily work to grow in their ability to love as God loves, which requires grace and ongoing personal development. Such personality growth involves acknowledging one’s faults, receiving and giving forgiveness, and cultivating virtue, that is, the habits of consistently doing good, not only for oneself, but also for one’s spouse. Although this view of marriage may seem challenging, it is the path to love as Christ loves.
For Catholic husbands and wives the strength to love as Christ loves is available to them through reliance upon the graces in their Sacramental Bond, the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, and prayer. Also, uncovering and working to resolve psychological and spiritual weaknesses makes spouses more Christlike.
Marriage for Catholics is not a purely human institution, but one established by God, who created men and women in his own image and likeness and calls married couples to reflect his unfailing love through their lifelong fidelity to each other and to their children. This is a tall order, but the good news is that the Lord who calls also provides the grace to fulfill the calling.
Back to our troubled couple: each spouse realized that they had lost their sense of mission in Catholic marriage. A journey of mutual forgiveness, of growth in virtues of generosity and self-denial, and of greater reliance upon grace in their Sacrament of Matrimony was a powerful help in overcoming their shortcomings and distractions and in strengthening their love.
Gratitude for and recommitment to your demanding and rewarding Catholic marital mission would be a special gift this St. Valentine’s Day for your spouse. A precious Valentine gift to children would be giving more long-term preparation for the vocation of marriage which is a wonderful parental responsibility.
(Note: This essay was originally posted on February 21, 2020. Much of the material in this article, with some editing, has been taken from the book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Spouses.)
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