A few months before marrying the girl of my dreams, friends and relatives would tell us that we should keep our feet on the ground, that our “romantic love” would fade away and turn into a cold, distant relationship within the first years of marriage, and that we wouldn’t have the time or energy to sustain our affectionate relationship after children came into the picture. Of course, our loved ones would also congratulate us and express their joy, but many insisted that we should acquire a “realistic” view on marriage. Nora and I would simply brush those suggestions off our shoulders and continue promising each other that we would be the exception to the rule. We promised each other that we would always be in love.
Then and now
The most anticipated day in my life finally arrived. There I was, standing in the front of the church, accompanied by my parents, anxiously and joyfully waiting for my bride. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world! Later that day we promised each other that we would always feel the same way for one another. We were convinced that nothing would ever change the way we felt for each other.
But after a good solid start, things began to change significantly. Our first year was a rocky one. The “romantic” stage passed and everything seemed to indicate that the warnings were wise and true. Reality sank in when our childhood wounds and traumas resurfaced to remind us that we had many issues we had to deal with first if we ever wanted to experience abundant peace and joy in our marriage.
Today, after ten years of marriage and five gorgeous children, we can confidently say that we aren’t just madly in love (eros); we have also discovered a deeper meaning of love (agape), which comes from God alone. In many instances, our culture equates love with something we feel. We discovered that love is not necessarily a feeling. This doesn’t mean that feelings are bad or that we shouldn’t acknowledge, recognize, and embrace them. It simply makes us aware of the fact that our emotional state is volatile and therefore it’s not a good idea to let our feelings dictate our decisions.
More than a feeling
Real marital love requires a radical decision to always seek the good of our spouse even when we don’t feel like it. I hear many couples say that they don’t really “feel” like saying “I love you” or “you look beautiful/handsome” to their spouse. I invite them and challenge them to do it anyway out of love and not based on their emotions.
Faith and forgiveness are similar to love in the sense that they sometimes require us to deny ourselves and make a radical decision in order to be right with ourselves, our neighbors, and our Creator. But God knows us and our humanity and he will never expect something impossible from us. Our religion is not based on emotions or stimulation (thanks be to God!).
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated in his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, that “God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has ‘loved us first’, love can also blossom as a response within us.” He continues: “In the gradual unfolding of this encounter, it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvelous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love” (17).
For many marriages, this is a hard pill to swallow. I’ve heard people say and ask: “How can I love this woman if I don’t feel anything anymore?” “The feelings I had for my husband aren’t there anymore.” “Our love is dead and it is time to move on from this relationship.” Many marriages end up separating and/or divorcing over things that do not merit such a drastic move. Some hope for an annulment. Others stay together to avoid hurting their children and/or to stay away from controversy. Those who end up staying together because they feel forced to do so, end up living miserable lives.
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is not intended to be a source of immense and pointless suffering. On the contrary, the grace that we receive from Christ in this sacrament is intended to “perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity” and to “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1641).
After all, “Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love. In the joys of their love and family life, he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb” (CCC, 1642).
To come to the awareness that love is “more than a feeling” is a task that every marriage (and every Christian) must undertake. So if love is not a feeling, what is it then? Echoing Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, Benedict XVI gives us the answer: “Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice” (Deus caritas est, 6).
What helped us grow in our marriage?
At one point in our marriage we were uncertain of the future, now we are extremely optimistic about what lies ahead. But the truth is that many marriages don’t experience the same fate. So how did we overcome our problems and our differences? How were we able to quickly straighten the crooked path we were recklessly taking? By God’s grace, of course, and also by taking some practical steps that we strongly recommend to all couples, especially the younger ones:
- We don’t face our problems alone. Instead, we rely on the prayers and support of our spiritual family. God sent us wonderful spiritual directors who helped us through the most difficult times. It is unfortunate that many couples refuse to seek help out of embarrassment or pride. Some may not realize that there is help. Sometimes is not easy to find the right help or the right people. This should be a main concern and priority in every parish. Marriages need guidance and direction from their pastor and the support and prayers of the faith community.
- Never have we gone to sleep without first saying “I’m sorry” for the wrongs that we did. During our first year, there were a couple of nights when we stayed up late waiting for the other to apologize first. It was actually kind of silly. We would eventually ask each other for forgiveness and reconcile before going to bed. This was one of the first lessons we learned from Scripture: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).
- Mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation should be essential for each Christian’s life. This becomes all the more important and urgent for those of us who are married. Some people need time to calm down and clear their minds. Others simply want to fix things immediately. It’s very crucial for spouses to understand and respect each other’s ways of dealing with problems, always remembering that the issue shouldn’t be taken to bed at night. It’s also worth noting that we don’t have to fight or even win every single battle. Sometimes it’s okay to surrender and let the spouse win. Especially if the issue isn’t that significant.
- Since the beginning, daily prayer became central to our relationship. Our daily prayer schedule includes the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, and Daily Mass. Praying together has without a doubt improved our marriage and our relationship with Christ. Despite the fact that now we have five children and super busy schedules we continue to practice our daily prayers to the best of our abilities. Our children love the Rosary and the Sacrifice of the Mass.
- Having a family meal at least three times a week is also extremely important and sacred. This practice allows everyone in our family to share our lives and bond with each other. I have read about different studies where it shows that families who dine together have healthier relationships. Here is just one of many studies.
- Weekly or bi-weekly “romantic dates.” This is one of the most effective and powerful ways of bonding as spouses. Going out on dates is harder with children (trust me, we know the struggle!) but when there’s a will, there’s a way. It doesn’t have to be something complicated or expensive. Sometimes “simple” is better and more efficient. When we can’t find anybody to watch the kids, we put them to bed early and then we have our date in the living room or in our room. We get some red wine or margaritas (for those who drink alcohol), we light some rose or vanilla-scented candles, play romantic music, express our love and gratitude for each other by exchanging poetry or songs, we dance, etc. The point is to be creative.
- Oh and a friendly reminder that both MAN and WOMAN enjoy the same and equal dignity of beloved children of God! This means that both have the same rights and responsibilities. Man is not above woman. The wife is not the possession of her husband or a domestic slave. She enjoys the same authority as her husband. Both must go over the different commitments at home and with the children, if applicable, and come to an agreement. Man and woman are created with unique traits and gifts. They complement each other. Both must recognize their strengths and weaknesses and support each other. After all, they’re both on the same team!
These are just some of the practices and rituals that have not only saved and improved our marriage but also strengthened and renewed it.
Love will endure
I know the real reason why we are still married and not merely surviving but actually thriving. It is thanks to the graces conferred by Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony: “For by this sacrament they are strengthened and, one might almost say, consecrated to the faithful fulfillment of their duties. Thus will they realize to the full their calling and bear witness as becomes them, to Christ before the world” (Humanae Vitae, 25). But it’s not enough to be sacramentally married: we must be predisposed to and cooperate with these graces. Therefore, living the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is a daily adventure that requires a lot of agape love: sacrifice, self-denial, fidelity, compassion, and understanding.
We are not a perfect marriage. We have our struggles and our disagreements. But we are both 100% committed to lovingly endure all these struggles and disagreements for the sake of our family, even if that means occasionally sacrificing and surrendering ourselves and becoming vulnerable to one another. Yes, true “love hurts,” but in the end, it is worth it to fight for our marriage and for our family.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
*** Spouses who are experiencing more complex situations such as infidelity, any form of domestic abuse, the death of a child, a terminal illness, etc., should immediately seek professional and pastoral help.