Popular author, marriage and family therapist and syndicated radio host Greg Popcak and his wife, Lisa (a family life coach and educator), have just released a new book for Catholic newlyweds called Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage. The book combines decades of experience as counselors, the latest findings in marriage research, and the wisdom of Catholic teaching to offer newlyweds a master plan for creating a strong bond in the first five years of marriage.
I spoke with the Popcaks — who celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last May — about their book and some of their tips for a successful marriage. After chatting with them, I’d argue that Just Married isn’t just for Catholics, or newlyweds … this is good, solid advice for all of us navigating the beautiful, challenging and sacred journey called marriage.
What inspired you to write a book on surviving the first five years of marriage?
Greg: We’re in the third generation of the culture of divorce. More couples than ever are lacking the confidence that other generations have had to say that they have what it takes to make marriage work. With marriage on the decline, and couples entering into marriage with less confidence than ever, we felt it was important to do a book to show couples how to start their relationship with a foundation that will enable them to establish the habits to keep marriage going strong over the years.
Lisa: Our 20-year-old son is at a Catholic college and a lot of his friends come to visit us on the weekends or holidays. Some of them are getting engaged. And they’re coming to us saying “I’m terrified. My parents didn’t make it. Their marriage was terrible. What can we do?” We wanted to give everyone who’s entering into those first five years of marriage the same kind of answers that we give these young people at our dining room table!
You say that all couples have what it takes to have a successful marriage, as long as they’re willing to learn new skills. What are some of these skills that are important to learn and how will they help lead couples toward a strong and lasting marriage?
Greg: I think a lot of people wonder if it’s just luck or family history that leads to a sgood marriage. All the research shows that solid marriages are built on skills, skills that can be taught. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what your family background is, what your issues are. Everyone comes to marriage with issues and baggage and stuff. The point is having the humility to recognize there we’ve got a lot to learn about love and that we’re willing to learn that. If you have that attitude, and you’re willing to get those resources, you can have a terrific marriage. The point we make in the book is that God wants your marriage to be the greatest love story every told … because he wants your marriage to be a witness of that free and totally faithful love that He has for His church as well.
So when it comes to those skills, one of the first we talk about in the book is keeping an eye on our own emotional temperature. When we get into arguments in a relationship, we get so focused on what happened to us, and what the other person has done to us, we stop focusing on the engine room, if you will. When the emotional temperature goes up too high, the logical brain actually turns off. Your limbic system – your emotional brain – lights up like a Christmas tree…
Lisa: And suddenly you’re married to a tantrum-y 2-year-old!
Greg: Yeah! And so keeping an eye on that emotional temperature, so you can keep the conversation down below that point where the non-verbal centers of your brain shuts down and you start rolling your eyes, and huffing and puffing … when you get to that point in the conversation … that’s when its time to take a break. Which is a lot lower than most couples think! When you let it get past that point, you’re not talking with each other anymore, you’re reacting to each other.
Lisa: We also teach in the book how to take a break. Some people think taking a break is storming out and slamming the door and never returning to the issue so it never gets resolved. But taking a break means saying, “Honey I love you so much, but I just need a second.” Or, if it’s really heated, saying I want to be able to solve this, but I’m not in that place right now, but can we come back to this tomorrow morning. Making a plan to solve it … that promise that I’m still in this with you, but I’m not in that place right now.
Greg: The most important thing in problem-solving isn’t actually problem-solving, it’s taking care of your partner so you come out the other end of the disagreement closer than you were when you started it.
Lisa: When you learn that early on, you not only have the skills for a solid marriage, but you’re passing on those skills to the next generation. They see you taking care of each other before winning the battle. And that’s something that can change the whole world.
So you’re acknowledging that conflict is going to happen in every marriage …
Greg: Sure, and for the Christian too, really that conflict is all about embracing the Cross. It’s recognizing that we’re going to be growing and stretching and the conflict really comes when I’m struggling to love you more than I love my comfort zone. If I can love you more than my comfort zone, then we can get past that conflict and enjoy the Resurrection that comes from really loving from the deepest part of our heart.
So, what are some of the most common mistakes newlyweds make and how can they avoid or resolve them?
Lisa: The idea that everything is a crisis! If you can step back and say, we’re going to control this, of course there’s conflict … we’re two people becoming one, and just like you have to break in a new pair of shoes …. you have to break in each other and figure out who we want to be. Instead of it being your family versus my family. It’s who are we now? And if we can take down the idea that everything is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that everything is a Def-Con 1 crisis. … then we can just can calm down a little bit and come to those resoutions together, instead of as opponents to each other.
Greg: I think the other thing a lot of couples make a mistake around is that fear of losing themselves in the relationship. If I give up too much of my stuff, or my preferences then somehow I cease to exist. The reality is, especially as Christians, we know that we find ourselves by making a gift of ourselves. I get my identity by loving you and responding to the needs that God has placed on your heart. That’s how I find out who God really wants me to be and I become myself by making that gift.
What advice would you give to newlyweds who are worried they’ve made a mistake?
Greg: Don’t panic! Everybody has that moment when they hit the wall, and say Oh my God, what have I done? Marriage requires more love than we can generate on our own. Loving somebody that much is the least natural thing for a human person. And at some point, the well runs dry in our heart and we feel like, I’ve got nothing left! And that’s really when we need to reach out to God.
One of the things we hit over and over again in the book is the importance of individual, and more importantly even, couples prayer. As Christians, we’re trying to learn to live an extraordinary love. That just can’t come from the human heart. It has to come from God’s own heart. We are broken, we are fallen people … and the love that we can give to each other is broken and fallen as well. God wants us to love with that extraordinary love that comes from his heart. And if we’re not leanring at His feet through humble prayer, we’ve got nothin’. He will mulitipy your efforts just like he multiplied the loaves and the fish, and you will get through that time.
Lisa: It’s amazing how many people will say, but I am praying for my marriage, I am! And we say, but are you praying together? And there’s dead silence. It’s not a big deal, you don’t need to know a million rote prayers or get out the incense. You just need to sit on the couch, hold your spouse’s hand, and just start talking to God.
Is this book just for newlyweds, or is there something in it for older couples as well?
Greg: The reality is the habits benefit any marriage. Those first five years serve to establish the foundation for the decision-making, your prioritizing, the care-taking, etc. … and yet if a couple has been missing some of those habits, and are later on in a relationship, this is a great way to go back to basics and say, what are those things we’re missing and that we need to retrofit into our relationship to make this thing work?
Lisa: I think it’s something everybody should pick up on an anniversary … when you want to freshen your marriage up and say, I’m committed all over again, let’s go back into this like we are newlyweds. Let’s really make our marriage everything we’ve always wanted it to be. Let’s prioritize us for a little while and remember how to do this all over again. It’s a great way to freshen up a marriage.
For more on Just Married – and to read an excerpt – visit the Patheos Book Club here.