Summer happens to be anniversary season in our family. We just celebrated my parents’ 34th wedding anniversary last Friday and my husband’s and mine on Saturday, plus other anniversaries take place later this summer. I asked my parents about their thoughts on what helps one have a lasting marriage, and from the fruits of that discussion, I have been thinking a lot about the elements that make up a good and happy marriage.
One summer, when my husband and I were dating, he spent break walking with the Crossroads Pro-Life walk from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and I took summer courses in philosophy. We both read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, which left a deep impression on us. We admired the goals of Sheldon and his wife, Davy, to preserve their “inloveness” through the many years of their relationship, which they began planning from the very beginning. Inspired by them, Mark and I sought to create a similar foundation, in which we had shared interests, activities, and most of all our shared faith. We did not just share our faith. We went to Mass, adoration, and prayed from the office together daily. We did homework together, and made meals together. The only things we really did not do together were some of our classes and I lived in a house full of women while he lived in a house full of men. Our common activities transitioned easily into our marriage. Since we have had children, and he has been the one working and I have been the homemaker, we have had to work to keep the unity in our marriage.
It has been an evolving time for us, going from no children to three in six years, living in two different states and four different homes, and the shift from graduate student living to employed professor living. Yet, certain things have been key to maintaining our unity and togetherness, and we found that when we failed to do them, instead of growing closer and more loving, we become more separate and bicker more frequently. Besides the obvious physical aspect of unity, these are the things we have found to be essential:
1) Daily prayer together. We always say at least one prayer together for our children, but most days we also take quiet prayer time together. Gone are the days when we can head on over to adoration together (cough, cough, three small children), but we can pray at home. When we pray together, we remember that the final end of our lives and marriage is unity with God, and that should be our focus day to day.
2) Regular Confession on the same day. During different points in our marriage this has become complicated, but usually on Saturdays we have been able to find a time that we can both go. Lately, we all get in line as a family. What is nice about going on the same day is that we discuss with each other when we had arguments and how intense they were. Doing so, we are creating a space for forgiveness again and letting go of any lasting resentment. We are acknowledging that we are not perfect and that we need God.
3) Going to Mass together on Sundays and during the week. Once again, we are putting God first in our lives. When we make it a priority to go to Mass together, we are helping each other be open to grace, hear scripture, and receive God into our very beings. If you and your spouse just consumed Jesus together, you are doubly unified as a married couple and in the Body of Christ.
4) Family/Couple Meals together. My husband and I, on the mornings we wake up for Mass together, eat breakfast together, alone. We wake up before the kids, get dressed, eat breakfast, and drink our hot coffee in our breakfast nook over our breviaries (because it is okay to pray while eating, right?). Also, we have family dinner every night (unless my husband is at the occasional professorial dinner thing).
5) Recreation time together. During this season of our life, most of our recreation is done either out with the whole family or as a couple after bedtime. Sometimes our recreation happens when my husband is available to help me put together dinner, and then we work side by side in the kitchen, excited by whatever meal we are cooking. In the evenings we normally read, write our separate articles, or watch shows or movies. (We had a lot of discussion early in our marriage about whether or not watching movies and shows should be a regular part of our recreation, and decided that if we are going to watch, it is going to be purposeful. We choose in advance what we will watch, and get most of our movies from the library so that we do not just watch some random movie that happens to be available online.)
6) Family fun times. Since our older children are actually talking, sometimes reasonable people, we have been adding more family fun times lately. Sundays are set aside for walks in beautiful places when it is nice and games when it is gloomy or freezing. Often we do both! We fit in fun times with our kids whenever we can during the week as well. When we enjoy our children together, we are building our relationship.
7) Talk about what you need and anticipate your spouses needs. Sometimes your spouse is not having his/her needs met. I know several couples, where the husband is very introverted, and needs to spend time by himself unwinding everyday. My husband is more extroverted, so when he is not working, he likes to talk and discuss things. I do best when I get time alone to exercise, without having to worry about the children. When spouses understand what helps each other thrive, they can have a more unified relationship.
8) Understand each others’ temperaments and personality. There is a great book on temperaments written by Catholics called The Temperament God Gave You and another called The Temperament God Gave your Spouse. If you and your spouse have trouble understanding each others’ personality traits, this is a great place to get an understanding of yourself and your spouse, so that you can help each other grow in virtue and be more understanding.
There are plenty of other ways to build unity in marriage that I have not mentioned here. When a married couple works to preserve their unity, they are united when they face life’s challenges. Those very challenges, when faced together in Christ, are the very foundation for even greater unity. They will have built their marriage on rock and not sand, and their marriage will stand strong:
“Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”