The married couple forms an intimate community of life and love established by the Creator in their irrevocable personal consent. Both give themselves definitively and totally to one another. They are no longer two; from now on they form one flesh. The covenant they freely contracted imposes on the spouses the obligation to preserve it as unique and indissoluble. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” … St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: “I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us…. I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.” — Catechism #2364-65
After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the greatest form of friendship — St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Amoris Laetitia #123
I know a Catholic gentleman who has been a divorce lawyer for several decades. I asked him what he would say are the top reasons marriages end in divorce. He said lots of amazing things, some of which I wrote down later in my journal. Here’s a segment of his feedback:
There are lots of major factors, for sure, like money, infidelity, addictions or family of origin issues. Or maybe even psychological or physical abuse. But I found that behind many of the failed marriages that show up in my office is a slower story of how the couple drifted apart over time.
Like the proverbial frog being gradually boiled to death, the spousal relationship gets de-centered and other priorities begin to take precedence. Children and work usually loom large. For women it tends more to be the children, for men it’s more the work. Though this varies of course. This process of displacement can begin when one spouse — or both — begins to take the other for granted. “Okay, you’re not going anywhere so I can relax.” They stop working at the marriage and just coast along. You can’t coast in marriage — stagnation is regress. Usually one spouse coasts more than the other.
Then hairline cracks begin to open up. Things like the peculiar habits and quirks of one spouse begin to grate on the other. Irritants inevitably arise in any marriage in those first few month and years. You know, you start to be yourself, let your guard down over time, get sloppy with each other. It’s true that love is mostly in the details, and when you stop attending to details they begin to loom large. Also, when you go into default mode, coasting, those dysfunctional habits you picked up from your own families start to become your new autopilot. You swore you’d never become the worst parts of your dad or mom, but there you are; and you’ve stopped caring enough to work it through.
The guarantee to failure is, instead of dealing with these initial problems directly and quickly, allowing them fester or seethe under the surface. One spouse, or both, tolerate things they shouldn’t. Maybe hoping they will go away, or just not wanting to deal with the conflict of confronting hard issues. Anger and resentment build up. Spouses will often pick up crappy coping mechanisms to medicate the pain or emptiness, or find distractions in work or children or busyness or just zoning out. Watching TV, surfing the Internet, being on social media excessively. Or sometimes in more dangerous things like addictions to alcohol or pornography. Other times they begin to satisfy their need for emotional intimacy with others, and that can also be very dangerous. Sometimes these widening rifts make the relationship more volatile, and the couple fights or nitpicks all the time. Usually over stupid stuff that’s symptomatic of bigger things. Other times couples just grow cold and aloof, living like strangers in the same house.
All this is going on, but they’re not getting help. Or one wants to or is, but the other refuses.
Then there’s usually some trigger, a major stressor that comes in — like unemployment or a death in their family or an empty nest that leaves them alone with each other. Or infidelity. They find themselves faced with some crisis. But with few resources left to draw on, things can quickly unravel. They’ve squandered their most important relational resources for dealing with stress together. If they’ve learned to cope, they’ve learned to cope on their own, without each other. They suddenly discover in crisis that they had long ago ceased to operate as a unit, as a couple. The crisis exposes all the damage to the light. If they don’t seek help in this moment, there’s little hope for restoration.
I also find there are some core issues that are nearly universal. Often I hear the wife say, “He didn’t put me first anymore in his life. I was like an afterthought.” And the husband might say, “She didn’t respect me anymore, all she did was find fault with everything I did.” What both are really saying to each other is, “You don’t love me anymore.”
Though I obviously don’t get into counseling, I am often put in that role. When one or both come to my office for the first time, I usually recommend they go to counseling before they call it quits. And I usually say, “Before you finalize the end of your marriage, make sure you know what you are about to lose, why you lost it and decide if it’s worth finding again.” But so often, by the time I see them, the hurt is so raw and acute, the damage so extensive, they’ve forgotten there’s anything good left at all that’s worth saving. Sometimes they’ll say they can’t even really recall why they married in the first place. Or if they do, it’s like a distant memory from another life. The life that has died.”
When my wife and I went through marriage preparation, the Bishop who married us said to us over lunch one day, “Two-in-one-flesh isn’t some sacramental miracle God performs on your wedding day. It’s hard work. Don’t have any illusions. You don’t become one overnight.” Then he put a hand on each of our shoulders, looked back and forth at both of us, and said, “The two people sitting at this table right now are where everything starts and ends.” Then he said, “Patti’s face and Tom’s face will be the first thing you see every morning, and the last thing you see every night. I want you both to promise me that every single day you will remind your families, your friends, your employers and one day your children that [pointing at Patti] she comes first and [pointing at me] he comes first. Agreed? [Yes!] Everything else will follow.”
O God, may it always be, every day that: