“This is a generation that has a real fear about making marriage work, and they’re hungry to figure out how to do it so they don’t end up making the same mistakes they see everyone else making and experiencing that agonizing pain.”
That “agonizing pain” is divorce, and marriage counselors Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak say they’ve had many couples approach them for help because they want to avoid the devastating break-ups they witnessed among their own parents, family members and friends.
To help newlyweds avoid those pitfalls, the Popcaks have written a new book called “Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage.” It incorporates the latest relationship research, their personal experience of 24 years of marriage, and their work through the Pastoral Solutions Institute, which offers both in-person and telephone counseling.
Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?
During a recent interview on “Christopher Closeup,” the Popcaks discussed their belief that “no newly married couple knows what they are doing when it comes to marriage” – and they admitted that held true for them as well.
Lisa said, “Greg and I went to a university that had a whole course on Christian marriage, and we had a wonderful advisor, Father Angelus, who said, ‘If you get past me, you’ll make it forever!’ But even with that, there’s a culture shock to being married: joining your traditions, working out the everyday ins and outs of life, having to live with somebody during all their moods. The Church knows what it’s talking about when it says the vows are ‘for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.’ Most people don’t realize how quickly you’ll go through all those stages, even in the first year of marriage!”
Greg added, “Most couples think they’re indestructible, especially in the early stages. And they should think that! That’s a good thing. But they shouldn’t be surprised when they wake up and think, ‘What did I do?’ That’s perfectly normal. But you can get through that so long as you’re committed [to each other] and going back to God and asking Him to teach you to love each other with His love.”
The Benefits of Praying Together
Including God as the third person in your marriage is crucial, say the Popcaks. And one of the best ways of doing this is through praying together. Not just going to church together, but actually praying together.
Greg said, “I know a lot of couples struggle with that idea because they’re not used to praying with somebody. But the reality is, especially for a husband and wife who are sharing each other’s bodies—how can you share each other’s bodies without sharing your souls with each other?”
Lisa points out another benefit of prayer as a couple: “It brings conflict way, way down. It’s no longer ‘My way or your way, we’re going to battle to see who’s the superior one in the relationship.’ It’s ‘Let’s join together and pray and ask God what His way is.’ So you both put yourself under the headship of God, and then all that tension and conflict begins to melt away.”
That isn’t just advice the Popcaks cite due to research that other people have done; they’ve relied on God to help solve their own occasional conflicts.
Lisa recalled, “I’ll never forget a day where we had a pretty big row, and I was upstairs in our bedroom seething! Greg had actually walked out of the house to the front yard and he was having the same experience. At the same time, I think we were both praying, ‘God, we can’t do this alone! If You want this to work, then You’ve gotta do it!’ When Greg came back into the house that day, we both had the grace to say, ‘I’m sorry, how can we fix this?’ We ended up being more in love by the end of that day than we ever could have been if we had said, ‘We’re just gonna tough it through ourselves.’”
A frequent source of conflict in marriage is the very thing that’s designed to avoid conflict: compromise. Some people think that by doing things differently than they always have, they’re giving up their identity.
It’s true that each partner needs to take the other into account when making decisions. You can’t just do what you want for the weekend or the holidays without considering what your spouse wants. But a little self-denial is good for the soul, and actually increases your sense of identity in the long run.
Greg explained, “Our Catholic faith teaches us that we find ourselves by making a gift of ourselves. And the reason I bring that up is because a lot of couples are afraid of losing themselves to the marriage: ‘If I make too many changes, maybe I won’t be me anymore.’ The reality is, we find ourselves by making those changes, we find ourselves in the generosity and the humility and the genuine love that making those changes really takes.”
Lisa elaborated, “The theology of the body tells us that we’re all unique and unrepeatable people, each one of us. We’re not marrying a mirror to shine glory on ourselves and say, ‘Oh yes, every way you’ve ever done things is just perfect.’ We’ve married another unique and unrepeatable person that’s there to challenge us, to help us grow, to show us new things that will give our lives more joy and more fulfillment.”
You Don’t Need Money for This Bank Account
One of the most fulfilling parts of marriage can be hearing and experiencing how much your spouse cares about you. It’s called putting deposits in the “emotional bank account,” and research from the Gottman Institute has shown that couples who compliment each other the most have the most successful relationships. That’s because the good will and trust built up by these caring acts provide a solid foundation when conflict arises.
Lisa noted, “All of us have gone through it, where we’re mad at our partner and the first thing we can think of is, ‘She’s such a jerk!’ or ‘He’s such a jerk!’ And if we’ve really been working on building up that emotional bank account, there will be something that tugs back on that leash and says, “No, they’re not always a jerk…We can work through this. Look at how great this person is the rest of the time and how much they love me.”
Changing the World Through Your Marriage
According to the Popcaks, “God wants to change the world through your marriage.”
While that goal sounds lofty, Greg noted that it stems from the Church’s view of marriage: “When we live out this commitment of marriage and love, we don’t have to be perfect at it. We just have to keep striving and keep drawing closer to each other and God through it all. That sends a powerful message to the world that love is possible, that the kind of love we’re all aching for really does exist, and that God wants to give it to you.”
Both Greg and Lisa believe that “Just Married” will give readers the skills to create that kind of world-changing marriage. Lisa said, “Most people think marriage is hard, and it’s going to suck the lives out of them! But it’s a joy; it’s a wonderful thing to wake up to every day! And it’s so much easier and so much more blessed than the whole world tells us it has to be. So I’m hoping that couples who read this will really say, ‘Hey, we can do this,’ and have real hope and real skills leaving the book.”
Greg concluded, “A successful marriage doesn’t depend on history, doesn’t depend on where you come from or what you know on the day you say ‘I do.’ It depends on having the humility to say, ‘I have a whole lot to learn about love, and I’m going to spend my life learning it with you.’ If you can do that, then you’re going to have a great marriage.”
(To listen to my full interview with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, which includes insights on how to argue in a healthy way, click on the podcast link:)
Christopher Closeup podcast – Guests: Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak