How is a love marriage like an arranged marriage?

Boy, that sounds like the beginning to a stupid pun. But actually, it’s my new article at Aleteia!

The ways we’ve changed have strained our marriage, but they haven’t broken it — because, as it turns out, our marriage wasn’t built on our original compatibility; it was built, like my Pakistani friend’s [arranged marriage], on our basic good will and love for each other, and on our commitment to marriage for life.

Our marriage really isn’t that different from hers after all.

Read the rest here!

Memory and Marriage

This morning I was praying the Canticle of Zechariah and I misread the line “promised…to remember his holy covenant” as applying to us–instead of God “remembering” his covenant with us, we need to remember it.  It struck me that it works both ways.  I’m not sure exactly what it means for God to metaphorically “remember” us, but it’s urgent for us to remember Him.  The image of God and me remembering the covenant between us reminds me of marriage.  Whenever something goes wrong between spouses, the only way to restart is to recall your vows, the covenant between you.

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Just a quick thought for today!  I have several things I’d like to write about, but we’re in the middle of a move and I haven’t had time.

Self Esteem and Scripts

Self Doubt, Depression, Confidence, Psychology, Esteem

If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d end up doing “self esteem exercises” every morning, I would have laughed.  I grew up convinced that anyone who advocated for raising self esteem in children was trying to do away with the hierarchy of natural talent, and would end up trapping students on a feel-good plateau of mediocrity.  This way of thinking wasn’t entirely wrong: recent studies have shown that children are more successful when they are praised for trying hard, rather than for being smart.  But somehow it ended up, at least in my experience, with parents denying or ignoring the need to praise their children at all.  I was lucky enough to have supportive and appreciative parents; but a dear friend of mine grew up thinking that he was stupid, because he received nothing but criticism at home.  As an adult, he discovered that many of his difficulties were due to an undiagnosed and untreated disability, and that many of the talents and skills he took for granted were actually in high demand and esteem outside of his family.  He has found out that his parents were actually very proud of him but never got around to telling him that.  He is doing well, but still struggles against the self-doubt and feelings of deficiency that have been programmed into his brain.

This is why, at the risk of giving my children big heads, I work hard to praise their efforts and natural talents alike, to notice and point out their achievements, to be encouraging about their failures, and to tell them point-blank that I am proud of them, and that I love them.

This last point–explicitly telling the kids how I feel about them–brings me back to the self-esteem exercises, which were recommended by my counselor.  Like Gottman’s scripts, they sound awkward at first, because they’re so obvious and cliche (my personal version is “I am good.  I am a daughter of God.  I deserve to be loved and respected”); but that doesn’t make them unnecessary.  Yes, I know that God loves me, just like a child knows that his parent loves him; but it is so much easier to believe it when you hear it out loud!  In the same way, I know that my husband cares about me and is listening; but it helps so much if he makes sure to express it with a script like “how was your day?” or “yeah, that sounds rough” or “poor baby” or just “uh-huh.”  Silence can be misinterpreted; saying something, even if sounds unnatural, clears things up.  Whether you suffer from the criticism of your family and peers, or just the lifelong crushing weight of original sin, it’s important to be reminded, out loud, that you are loved.

Preventative Maintenance for your Marriage

Speaking of marriage and therapy, how do you feel about couples therapy?  I used to think therapy of any kind was only for people with serious problems–marriage on the brink of divorce, bipolar disorder, death of a child, etc.  I discovered that therapy can not only help you with “smaller” problems, which aren’t as dramatic but can do plenty of harm on their own, but it can be wonderful preventative maintenance.  There’s nothing wrong with making sure that things are running smoothly, and bringing little problems out in the open before they turn into trouble.  I really loved this article (shut up, I read it in the waiting room) about Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell’s marriage:

Kristen: You do better in the gym with a trainer; you don’t figure out how to cook without reading a recipe. Therapy is not something to be embarrassed about.

Dax: I noticed an actor and her husband on [a recent cover of a celebrity tabloid] that said, “In Couples’ Therapy!” The clear message is, “Oh, their marriage is ending.” There’s such a negative connotation. In my previous relationship, we went to couples’ therapy at the end, and that’s often too late.

What a great point–nobody expects you to know how to parent, how to eat right, how to exercise, or just about anything else, without learning how.  Why is marriage any different?  Why do we expect people to know everything they need to know about marriage on their wedding day?

My husband and I were lucky enough to find a good counselor through a recommendation from my midwives, but ran into some problems with her after a while because her secular worldview was really starting to clash with ours.  Then we learned about counseling services from Catholic Charities.  Not only are you receiving counselling from a trained professional, but he’s a Catholic, too!  (Our counselor isn’t 100% orthodox, but it is SO helpful just to have someone who’s on the same page with you, so you don’t waste all your time explaining that no, birth control isn’t an option, and no, you’re not being oppressed by the Catholic patriarchy.)  And they have a sliding scale payment system–we only pay $20 a session.  What a gift.  Anyone else have tips for finding a good counselor?

Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

“Tobias and Sarah Awake” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfelt

Well!  Let’s start with the most embarrassing one first.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire.  This book is for you if:

  • You’re a nervous virgin
  • You never really got any sex ed, except for “wait for marriage”
  • You got plenty of information on the mechanics, but you don’t understand why sex is sacred
  • You got plenty of information on why sex is sacred, but you don’t understand the mechanics
  • You have bad associations with sex, from past abuse, bad relationships, physical problems, or being brought up with the mindset that sex is necessary, but it’s kind of dirty, and we don’t talk about it
  • You’re a reasonably well-adjusted person who needs some help with any of the above, but you realllllly don’t want to have to wade through all the secular offerings at the library.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be tasteful while still being practical and explicit (where it needs to be).  Gregoire covers everything–the biology, the sacred symbolism, the basic mechanics, and the trouble-shooting–in a concise, friendly, and unembarrassing way.  Please note–Gregoire is Christian, but not Catholic, so there are a couple of ideas in here that are not quite kosher.  But for the most part, she does a wonderful job of explaining that God intended sex to be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.  This would be a good gift for a mature engaged woman.  Don’t be like Edith: (“the talk” starts at about 15:00)

Also check out Gregoire’s wonderful website and other resources at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.

Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  This is a dense, thorough book.  Popcak’s style can be pretty annoying, but it’s worth pushing through.  He is that wonderful and rare thing, an orthodox and well-read Catholic who is also a respected psychotherapist.  Holy Sex is the best of both worlds: explicit without being offensive, practical but also theologically rich.  The woman’s perspective of Gregoire’s Good Girl’s Guide is irreplaceable, but this book covers a much wider range of topics, from NFP and marriage-building exercises, to solutions for specific problems and discussions about what’s acceptable in married sex, and why.  I found Popcak’s “Four Pleasure Principles” especially helpful: along with the “One Rule” that a married couple can do whatever they want, as long as both are loved and respected, and the man climaxes inside the woman, he poses four correlative requirements: that there should be continuity between your daily relationship and your sex life; that spouses should be respected as persons and not used as mere producers of pleasure; that any technique, lingerie, position, etc. should be used as a means to the end of a loving union, rather than being the focus of the whole thing; and that each spouse’s comfort zone should be respected.  Popcak gives specific case studies of many couples which illustrate these principles in detail, and give the reader useful prompts to figure out what is wrong or missing in their relationship.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by the amazing Simcha Fisher.  This book covers so much, it’s hard to do it justice.  There’s a lovely depiction of how NFP can really mature and deepen your relationship, not in the advertised, immediate “honeymoon effect” way, but in a more profound and gradual way.  This is extremely encouraging for someone like me, who’s just starting out.  There’s some excellent theology in here, with candid anecdotes and original, spot-on analogies that really hit home more than most discussions of theology of the body.  There are practical and specific tips for having difficult conversations about sex and marriage, because “silence is where problems grow.”  There are sympathetic and straightforward discussions of topics that are really important, but that no one else is willing to talk about, like how to deal with the frustration that builds up when a woman’s libido is only high during off-limits times, or when a woman can’t climax.  There is help to escape the anxiety, fear, and scruples that often surround family planning decisions.  There is sympathy for good Catholics who secretly wish they could just have care-free, spontaneous, happy sex like the secular world, and a reminder that, in reality, “there is no such thing.”  There are ways to deal with periods of abstinence, and prompts to use NFP as a way to grow closer, “learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony,” by “work[ing] towards a place where the woman’s problem is her husband’s problem” and vice-versa.  And when you reach the end of the encouragement and advice, when you’re ready to hear it, there’s the reminder that

love…sometimes looks like a Cross.  There you hang, trying with all your might to remember why you’re doing this, and not knowing how much longer it’s going to go on.

For Fisher, the very real cross of NFP is not something to suck up, or something to be bitter about, but an opportunity: an opportunity to turn the confusion of sex in a fallen world into a path to deeper union with your spouse.  Take your time reading this book!  There’s a lot to take in.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.  This is set up like more of a typical self-help, popular psychology book, but don’t let that fool you; Gottman’s work is based on extensive research, observation, and counseling of real couples, and his advice is extremely practical and relevant.  He teaches you how to identify key problems that are wounding your communication, which can often turn into unconscious habits, including his “four horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and the aggressive “harsh start-up” to a sensitive conversation.  This book is a wonderful guide for people who are trying hard to communicate better, but not being very effective; if you can swallow your pride and teach yourself how to use the “scripts” he recommends, you can teach yourself new habits of communicating.  Gottman has specific guidelines for expressing simple “complaints” to your spouse without turning them into blaming “criticisms;” listening to a stressed-out spouse without giving hurtful advice or implied criticism; and “nurturing fondness and admiration” by doing specific exercises to build up a habit of appreciating and respecting your spouse.  I especially liked his discussion of “repair attempts” during arguments, which involve using specific scripts to structure your argument and keep it from getting out of control: “I feel blamed–can you rephrase that?…I need your support here…I’m sorry.  Let me start over again…That’s a good point…I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a break.”  Gottman makes an important point here:

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now…But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them.  If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’ initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet.

This book taught me that you have to grit your teeth and do uncomfortable things like using scripts if you want to really improve your communication.  It taught me that self-help books in general should not be written off just because they sound cliche or cheesy, because the truth often does.  Guides like this can really improve your marriage, especially if you grew up in a family that did not have a good way of dealing with conflict.  If you learned a faulty way of communicating–and most of us did, to a greater or lesser extent–you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things and teach yourself a new way to think and talk, from the bottom up.

What are some of your favorite self-help books?  Are you reluctant to read this kind of book?  What can I do to change your mind?  More book reviews to come!  My husband pointed out that Christopher West is conspicuous by his absence.  That wasn’t intentional–I just haven’t read his stuff recently enough to review it.

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image via Wikimedia Commons

Venus and Mars and Tobias and Sarah in the Bedroom

File:Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bibel in Bildern 1860 147.png

Tobias and Sarah Awake, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

I stumbled across this picture when I was looking for some good marriage clipart, and I love it so much.  I’ve never seen this particular scene depicted before, but it’s really crying out for it–after all the suffering poor Tobias and Sarah went through, let us enjoy the happy ending a little!  I love the peaceful, secure look on Sarah’s face, and the goofy, blissful, exhausted, satisfied expression that Tobias is wearing.  I never heard of this artist before, but he obviously knows what’s he’s doing.

File:Venus and Mars National Gallery.jpg

Venus and Mars, by Sandro Botticelli

This one isn’t quite so edifying, but I think he also gets the expressions spot-on.  I really enjoy the way Mars is sprawled out, fast asleep, but Venus wouldn’t be caught dead in such an indecorous position, even right after sex.  She’s perfectly dressed and coiffed, and she’s peacefully ruminating on what just happened.  Botticelli and von Carolsfeld seem to have the perfect experience for this sort of painting, if you know what I mean.

Tunnel of Love

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Tunnel of Love at the Reality Theme Park: “Here…you gotta dig your own…”

Pretty perceptive for a cheapo greeting card, right?  It doesn’t matter how much you love each other, or how virtuous you are, or how Catholic you are; marriage only works if you are constantly working on it.  What spoke to your wife when you were dating may not mean much to her now, and something that still screams “romance” to you may be just kind of embarrassing for your husband.  You have to sit down and have awkward conversations, and learn to use phrases that sound stilted and artificial to you.  You have to read cheesy self-help books, and it wouldn’t hurt you to log some preventative maintenance at the marriage counselor’s, either–even if you think your problems aren’t serious enough for therapy.  (More on this in a future post.)  Over the last five years, I’ve been constantly surprised by how much work marriage is.

In Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, the tunnel isn’t something you dig so much as something you have to survive, but his descriptions ring true to me.  The song uses an amusement park as an extended metaphor for a relationship, with distorting mirrors and a “room of shadows.”

…the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.

The tunnel is supposed to be a place where you have your lover all to yourself, under cover of darkness, but Springsteen points out that nobody comes without baggage.  There’s all kinds of things you don’t learn about someone until you live with them (and I don’t mean anything sinister!  People are just…complicated).  Sometimes the complications help you get closer, but sometimes they get in the way, or they were never really there at all–they’re just false projections from miscommunication:

There’s a crazy mirror showing us both in 5D
I’m laughing at you, you’re laughing at me.
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark, brother,
It’s easy for two people to lose each other….

Springsteen laments the counter-intuitive nature of a relationship, which starts out so simply but gets so complicated just at the height of intimacy:
it ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets a woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.

I’ve always been intrigued by the line “you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above.”  It sounds cynical–how can love turn into something you just have to “live with”?–but I don’t think that’s what he means.  The “tunnel”–the experience of real intimacy and commitment, with all its difficulties–is something you can’t “rise above.”  You have to go through.  When you’ve done everything you can to solve your problems, you are still two different people, and it’s never going to be entirely simple.  You have to live with it–embrace it as part of your life, instead of resenting it or pretending it’s not there.  Let me know if you find out what’s at the other end of the tunnel!