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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Marriage is Like a Favorite Pair of Jeans...

A lot of choices...
As most people know, we live in a throwaway, consumeristic, instant-gratification culture; where, more often than not, things, from appliances, to watches, to leather shoes, are replaced instead of trying to fix them.  Unfortunately, that includes relationships.

In fact, there are some, and we all know someone, who jump from relationship to relationship, as if they were trying on a pair of jeans to see which fits the best.  And, even when they find the right pair, it's just a matter of time before they start shopping for a new one because they feel the old pair is fading or getting worn out.  (For PG purposes, I won't even mention those who have a closet full of jeans!)

I remember a conversation I had with a friend several years ago, who after getting divorced, only a few of years into his marriage and with a toddler son in tow, he nonchalantly said to me, when I said I was sorry for his failed marriage, "Hey, things happen!" as he shrugged his shoulders.

"Things happen?" the words resonated within me.  It's a sad commentary on society, but it's what many people have come to accept in our Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives and it's all about "me" society, where immaturity, feelings and personal "happiness" usually outweigh responsibility, commitment and family.

It is not a coincidence that slightly over forty percent of first marriages end in divorce, which sadly jumps to sixty percent of second marriages and seventy-three percent of third marriages.  (I guess you can say, the grass is not always greener!)

Worst of all, it's a vicious cycle.  Children of divorced parents are more likely to have failed marriages themselves.  According to the U.S. Census, daughters of divorced parents are sixty percent more likely to get divorced than daughters of non-divorced parents and for sons, it's thirty-five percent higher. 

The statistics are alarming and, quite honestly, depressing when considering the biggest casualty of this throwaway culture is the deterioration of the family, which sociologists would say, is the cornerstone of any civil society.

Bl. Pope John Paul II once said, "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live."

And, the family begins with marriage.

Earlier this month, my wife and I celebrated our 16th civil wedding anniversary.  I use that caveat, when describing our anniversary, since we took our vows a second time in the Catholic Church in 2007 and call the latter our Catholic wedding anniversary.

A complimentary gift...
To celebrate our nuptials (and my 50th birthday the previous week!), my wife booked a room at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.  We sent our kids off to my mother-in-law's condo and had a short getaway, just the two of us, like we used to.

One of the things my wife and I have always tried to do, which I'll admit was easier when the kids were younger, is go out on dates and spend quality time together alone; whether it was going to New Orleans several weeks after our oldest daughter was born, or New York, or Key West, or weekends at the Biltmore Hotel (which is 5 minutes from our house!).  Not only do we feel it strengthens our bond as a couple but we have always truly enjoyed each other's company (What can I say? She laughs at my jokes!).

Yet, it hasn't been as easy in recent years.  Having demanding full-time jobs and all the stress that they entail, extremely busy schedules, including the kids' ballet, baseball, softball or basketball, and parties (many many parties!), house chores (my wife more than me!), commitments to several ministries at our parish, school gala planning (my wife is the chairperson), family and friends obligations and the expense of three kids in Catholic school (which is a non-negotiable for us), orthodontist bills, a mortgage, home repair bills, car payments and real estate (and a blog) on the side.  It gets overwhelming at times and, unfortunately, there's not enough time in the day to make time for each other.

For us, like many couples, it's easy to get caught up in the rat race.  It's easy to get into a rut of laundry, helping kids with homework, picking up messes, cooking (note: these are all things my wife does!), then get irritated and to lash out at the people we most love; i.e. each other and our children (not that I'm suggesting that, after doing all that, she's the only one that lashes out). 

It's easy to start building walls, as a defense mechanism, because of things said in frustration or anger.  That is when communication breaks down in many marriages and can lead to staleness and apathy (Fortunately, we've never reached that point but I can see how it can happen).

It's in those times, when we most need time out (and I don't mean in a corner).  Time with each other.  Time away from the everyday pressures, strains and distractions. 

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory." 

As funny as the quote may sound, maybe he had a good point because, according to our faith as Catholics, purgatory is where we will experience the greatest joy we have ever felt but also the greatest anguish.  Now, is it me, or does that sound like marriage? (And Lincoln wasn't even Catholic!)

My wife and I are involved in a marriage covenant group at our parish, whose purpose is to strengthen marriages through faith, understanding the sacrament and placing God in the center of our relationship. 

Aside from meeting once a month to nurture friendships with like-minded couples committed to their marriages and families, and work on strengthening the intimacy in our relationships, every year we hold a retreat to help new couples; some who are struggling, others who just want to refresh their relationships, get re-energized.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I served on a retreat, where apart from the team members, there were twenty-four couples; ranging from newlyweds to thirty plus years of marriage; all having a wide range of reasons for being there.  

Let's face it, marriage is under attack in our society; not just by attempts to redefine it but by the de-emphasis on it's importance.  Thus, people are waiting longer to get married; partially because of self-interests (and I'm guilty myself!), partially for fear of divorce; or they follow the lead of many Hollywood stars, who are just living and having children together without getting married or getting married after living together for a while (Not realizing that those that live together before getting married are 46 percent more at risk of getting divorced than couples that don't!). 

It's funny, while my wife and I were staying at the Biltmore, there was a couple getting married and at the entrance of their reception, they put up a time line of their relationship that stated:  first date on such and such a date, first kiss on such and such, moved in together on such and such, etc. (Say what?  Are you kidding?  Moved in together?  Is that a monumental and proud moment in a relationship nowadays?).

In any case, all marriages need a jolt on occasions because as humans, we all tend to get complacent and, quite frankly; lazy at times (which is probably a higher tendency for me than the average bear, as Yogi would say).  That's what the retreat is all about.

After several years of inviting them, a couple that we have been great friends with from the start of our relationship, who unfortunately have been going through a difficult time, decided to join us.  I'll admit, I was a little apprehensive because they are not particularly religious but, at this point, they were looking for help because their communication had deteriorated to the point where they couldn't talk without getting into an argument.

The not so newlywed game...
We spent an amazing weekend with them, giving them their space to address their problems, as well as new and old friends sharing our lives, including some of the darker sides of marriages that people don't freely discuss, playing games, laughing, crying, praying, eating meals together and participating in exercises meant to rekindle that "magic" that drew us together in the first place. 

I remember at our first retreat, discussing things with my wife that we didn't normally discus and what made it more effective is that it was done on neutral grounds, which lends itself to deeper conversation without the bickering normally attached, and spending quality time together.  After one exercise, we ended up shooting hoops at the school basketball court.  It was a bonding and unforgettable experience for both of us.  But, it all begins with God.

If we order our lives and our marriages correctly, by putting God first, everything else falls into place.  Because, if I start with the understanding, praise and thankfulness that God is truly our loving Father, who I am dependent on for every breath I take, then I must, as a consequence, realize that just as He loves me, He loves my wife as well.  Therefore, I need to treat and respect her as a beloved daughter of God (Yikes!).  Then again, she needs to treat and respect me as a beloved son of God too! (As my grandmother would have said, "La pobre."). 

Consequently, God serves as a bonding force in every marriage.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote a best-selling book in the 1950's whose title said it best, "Three to Get Married," and he wasn't referring to the mother-in-law!

So, it's not about "me," as society tells us.  It's about us.

Moreover, at the risk of getting a little deep (which has never stopped me before), our wedding vows don't end at the altar.  They begin there.  They are renewed and reaffirmed each time our two bodies become one.  If you think about the profundity of this sacramental union, consider that God creates life through the intimate relations of husbands and wives.  We become family, which John Paul II called entering into the innermost life of the Holy Trinity, who is family; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are completed in the image and likeness of God through marriage.  Are you still with me?

So, Jerry McGuire got it right when he told Dorothy Boyd, "You complete me."

At the end of the retreat, our friends couldn't thank us enough for having invited them.  It may not have resolved all their problems but, at least, it was a start and they both appear committed to working on fixing and improving their relationship and putting God in their marriage. 

As Jesus says in a parable, "Though it (the mustard seed) is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches." (Matt 13:31-32)  Hopefully that mustard seed planted at the retreat will bear good fruit.

As for me and my marriage, despite a little wear and tear and having faded a bit, I stopped shopping for a new pair.  My favorite jeans are just fine.  In fact, they are more comfortable and better fitting than ever before...

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