Building a Long-Term, Successful Joy-Filled Marriage

Photo courtesy B & K Hrkach, Photography by Tim Baklinski

Photo courtesy B & K Hrkach, Photography by Tim Baklinski

My recent article at Catholic Mom:

Recently, when we were at a restaurant celebrating Valentine’s Day, we asked our waitress to guess how long we’ve been married. She guessed 20 years. I responded, “35 years.”

“Wow! How is that possible in this day and age? And you guys look so happy. Well, good for you.”

 She didn’t wait to hear our answer for how it was possible, but as I reflected on the reasons, it became clear that the most of the long-term successful and happy marriages we know about have the following practices in common:
  1. Pray Together and Attend Mass Together

Marital prayer is an ideal way to keep a couple emotionally, spiritually and physically close. We also try to say a daily Rosary together for our children (one decade for each son.)

The conjugal embrace is itself a prayer. With their bodies, husband and wife renew their wedding vows. Becoming one with our beloved spouse is the ultimate spiritual, physical and emotional experience. We become one flesh…so much so that sometimes, nine months later, we must give the representation of that oneness a name.

  1. Use NFP (and throw away the contraception)

No, I’m not saying that couples should have as many children as possible. But what I am saying is that for the marital embrace to be honest and life-giving and joy-filled, it must be free, total, faithful and fruitful. Natural Family Planning allows a couple to love each other as God loves: freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully. NFP couples chart the wife’s fertility signs and, if avoiding pregnancy, abstain in the fertile time. They are not using devices; they are giving themselves fully and they are open to children with each and every act of marital relations.

See my previous post on the Theology of the Body in a Nutshell.

For more information on NFP, check out my previous post on NFP.

  1. Treat Each Other With Respect and Kindness, Communication

I know a few couples who fight constantly. These same couples brag that they have a great sex life. Well, they may have a lot of “good feelings” but when a couple is not getting along in their day-to-day life, sex, even ‘good’ sex, is not going to fix that. What about the husband who treats his wife in a condescending, critical manner, then expects her to be ready and willing to engage in the marital embrace . . . or a wife who constantly nags her husband, then wants him to be affectionate to her? Communicate deeply with one another; treat each other with kindness, respect and love.

  1. No Pornography

Some secular marriage counselors recommend that a couple use porn to “spice up their sex life.” Instead of “enhancing” a marital sex life, viewing sexually explicit videos has the potential of destroying a marriage. St. John Paul II said: “. . . the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.” Porn trains people to be selfish about their sexuality, not selfless. It teaches them to think about sex as something they take, not something they give. Any behavior that causes a person to be self-centered or selfish is never good for marriage. And . . . pornography can be highly addictive. Mary Anne Layden, co-director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of PA’s Center for Cognitive Therapy, called porn the “most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today. . . . pornography addicts have a more difficult time recovering from their addiction than cocaine addicts, since coke users can get the drug out of their system, but pornographic images stay in the brain forever.”

  1. Date Night and Romantic Dinners (And Have Fun Together!)

I enjoy romantic, candlelit dinners with my husband. Getting out and enjoying each other’s presence is a wonderful way to relax and enjoy time together. We’ve always tried to have a date night even (and especially) when the kids were small. When we were younger and had limited finances, sometimes our date night would occur in our own kitchen or at a park for a picnic. We often played board games together. And I have always enjoyed my husband’s strange sense of humor (he still makes me laugh!)

Why candlelit dinners? Candlelight represents sacrificial love (a light burns brightly while destroying the candle). Some Renaissance painters used to put a single candlelight into paintings to symbolize Christ’s presence.

  1. Focus on Your Spouse/Sacrificial Love

“Intense love does not measure; it just gives.” This quote from St. Teresa of Calcutta is an ideal quote for marriage. Marriage isn’t all about “me.” It’s about “us.” Marriage is all about sacrificial love. What are your spouse’s needs? Think of his/her needs in all facets of your relationship. One thought I try to have when I wake up every morning is “What can I do to make my husband’s life easier today?” If he’s thinking the same thing, one can only imagine how much easier life will be for both spouses. Also, notes in your husband’s lunch, special messages left on his workbench or on her desk, daily texts are all ways to intimately connect during the day and let your spouse know you are thinking of him/her. The important thing is to focus on the other in all things.

  1.  The Importance of Marital Intimacy

Marital intimacy can seem impossible when a couple’s children are small. A couple must be willing to “think outside the box.” Attachment parenting and the family bed can usually be challenging. Consider another location for marital intimacy. Mom too tired? Perhaps Dad can take the kids out to the park while Mom gets a well-deserved rest after dinner. Dad too stressed? Mom can have a hot relaxing bath waiting for Dad when he arrives home. Even when the couple gets older and children are teens are adults, it can still be a challenge to find time for marital intimacy. The spontaneity of early marriage eventually gives way to planning for intimacy.

  1. Always Try to Give 100%

A joy-filled marriage is not 50-50. As Christian spouses, both should try to be reaching for 100%. When we were dating, my husband asked me, “Ellie, how hard do you try to be perfect? In other words, what percentage are you aiming for?”

I thought about it for a moment and said, “Oh, I guess I’m shooting for 80%. After all, no one’s perfect.”

His response surprised me: “Ellie, if you’re only trying for 80%, do you think you’ll ever get there? You may only reach 60%. But if you try for 100%, you may get to 80%.” After a while, it made sense to me. Neither of us are perfect, but we are trying our best.

Do you want to have a long-term, successful and joy-filled marriage? While there are no guarantees, couples who pray and attend Mass together, use NFP, treat each other with respect and kindness, avoid pornography, have frequent romantic dinners/date nights, have fun together, are self-sacrificial and try their best will have the greatest chance of having a joy-filled marriage.

Copyright 2017 Ellen Gable Hrkach

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Emily’s Hope FREE on Kindle Until Monday

The Kindle edition of my first book, Emily’s Hope, is FREE today through Monday on Kindle!

Some people have coined my book “NFP Fiction.” It’s based on the true stories of myself and my great-grandmother. Here are a few reviews:

“Compelling…a real page turner.”
Damon Owens, Host of EWTN’s “NFP: Embracing the Marital Gift”

“Your book is a vehicle for the whole truth behind the Theology of the Body, presented so that people can see how the teachings of the Church are to be followed.”
Joan Hon, author, “A Trip to Medjugorje”

“There is so much to love about Emily’s Hope — the innocence of young love, the beautiful, miraculous, healing power of love and the beauty of sacrificial married love and its life-giving splendor. This story is not a fantasy, but is a tender and sensitive portrayal of what makes love real and lasting.”
Jean Heimann, Catholic Fire

“This book is a must read for anyone who has ever questioned whether living the NFP lifestyle is worth it or ever been resentful of the deprivations of NFP. I loved this book!”
Christopher Blunt, author, “Passport”

“I would encourage everyone to read this book, certainly young women. It is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend.
David Beresford, Catholic Insight Magazine

“While this book is definitely about NFP, it is also about the love of husbands and wives, the love of parents for their children and the agonizing moral choices we sometimes face. It is also about real people…and about being witnesses to a culture of life in a world overshadowed by a culture of death.”
Kristie Wellman, One More Soul

To read more reviews, click here: Emily’s Hope Kindle Edition.

Emily’s Hope will be available FREE on Kindle until Monday, March 7th!

Spiritual Works of Mercy and the Theology of the Body

Photo Copyright James Hrkach

Photo Copyright James Hrkach

To further celebrate NFP Awareness Week, I’m reposting this article from last year on practicing the spiritual works of mercy with a theology of the body focus:

According to the Catholic encyclopedia, mercy is “a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune.” The spiritual works of mercy are one way Catholics can show charity and compassion to others. Since my husband and I teach Natural Family Planning, we have always tried to practice the spiritual works of mercy through our NFP ministry. Many Catholics do not understand the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge someone, you have no time to love them,” Sharing the truth with charity and without judgment is extremely important.

Admonish the Sinner and Instruct the Ignorant
I often find myself in conversations about these intimate topics with acquaintances and relatives. For example, while I was attending a First Penance meeting with one of my sons, the instructor handed out a “Examination of Conscience” pamphlet. On page three, under “Thou Shall Not Kill,” sterilization was listed correctly as a mortal sin. The woman next to me gasped and whispered, “I thought the Church changed her teaching on this. I had my tubes tied and didn’t know it was wrong.” I then gently said, “The Church has never changed this teaching. Birth control and sterilization have always been considered mortal sins.” The woman glanced away, then turned back to me, tears in her eyes. I patted her shoulder, then said, “You know, if you didn’t realize it was wrong, then it’s not a mortal sin.” I pointed out the section in the “Examination of Conscience” pamphlet which stated that all three of these conditions need to be in place for mortal sin: it must be 1) serious matter, 2) the person must know it is serious and then 3) freely commit it. I strongly encouraged her to seek spiritual direction from a faithful priest. When she left the meeting, she thanked me.

Counsel the Doubtful and Comfort the Sorrowful
A few years ago, when we were speaking at the local marriage prep course on “Sexual Honesty Within Marriage,” we talked about the importance of keeping the marital embrace free, total, faithful and “fruitful.” During the last part of the talk, we explained that contraception removes the fruitful aspect from the marital act. All of a sudden, a young woman rushed out of the meeting room, in tears. James and I continued our talk while one of the other host couples followed her, but we were concerned. After the talk, I immediately went to speak to the woman. I learned that she was the mother of a 13-year-old daughter from a teenage relationship. The young woman shared that she was currently in remission from terminal cancer. Because of the aggressive treatment, her doctors told that she would not have any more children. She told me that it upset her to hear the suggestion that her marriage might not be “fruitful” since she and her fiancé would never have children. (Of course, we didn’t say that in our talk, but this is how she interpreted it). She admitted that she had mistakenly thought she had already dealt with the fact that she and her future husband would not be having children together. But our talk seemed to bring her sadness and regret to the surface. She then sobbed and I embraced her as she released emotions that had obviously been pent up for a while. When she stopped crying, I explained that fruitfulness was much more than giving birth to children. We discussed adoption. We talked about the fruitfulness of being a good example as well as other ways she and her husband could be ‘fruitful” in their marriage. After the course finished that evening, she came up to me, hugged me and thanked me for being so “kind.”

Bear Wrongs Patiently, Forgive all Injuries
Bearing wrongs patiently has never been something I have done well. And the following example shows that not everyone I “admonish” or “instruct” has been open to the information.

Ten years ago, a woman called for NFP counseling. She and her husband had taken an NFP class years earlier. Her husband, she said, had made an appointment for a vasectomy and he had indicated the decision was not up for debate. After using NFP for many years, he no longer had any patience for the abstinence it entailed. The wife sounded like she was crying. “What can I do to stop him?” she asked. I spoke with her, then sent her information on the moral, spiritual and physical implications of sterilization. I encouraged her to seek spiritual direction from a faithful priest I knew in the area. Four different times we spoke on the phone, her tone frantic and desperate. Finally, she stopped calling. I continued to pray for this couple. Some months later, she called to inform me that her husband had indeed gone through with the vasectomy and they were now ‘very happy.’ She wanted me to know that, although she knew I didn’t agree with ‘their’ decision, she had come to accept it and that it had been the ‘right’ thing for them.

Admittedly, I have no idea what happened in between her frantic calls and the vasectomy. I suspect she never called the faithful priest I recommended. However, I calmly responded, “But sterilization is against the fifth commandment as well as the sixth, it separates a couple…it causes an increase in prostate cancer, it – ” She cut me off by angrily telling me that she only called to inform me, not to hear what the Church teaches, that she already knew that. Her husband then got on the phone and yelled at me, his tone sharp, accusing me of trying to “sabotage” his marriage. I listened, heart pounding, as he screamed at me over the phone. It took a lot of self-control not to hang up nor respond to his verbal abuse. I prayed and waited until he stopped yelling, although by that point, I was nearly in tears and my hands were trembling. Then I said, my voice breaking, “I will pray for you and I wish you both well…goodbye.” My hands shaking, I hung up the phone and cried. I forgave them long ago for their verbal abuse, and I have prayed for them from time to time, but I’ve always wondered how they are doing.

Pray for the Living and the Dead
Prayer is so powerful, more powerful than any of us can ever imagine. Even if you’re not comfortable speaking up, you can always pray for anyone at anytime. Praying for others is an important part of the spiritual works of mercy. I pray daily that more couples can discover the joy of following the Church’s teachings on sexuality by learning NFP: to be chaste before marriage, to be generous and open to life within marriage. I pray for all the student couples to whom we have taught NFP over the years. I pray for the engaged couples who have listened to our testimony and talks at marriage prep courses. I offer up many prayers for relatives and friends who have chosen to lead alternate lifestyles, and those deceased ancestors and relatives who were not faithful to the Catholic Church’s beautiful teachings of sexuality.

Practicing the spiritual works of mercy through the Theology of the Body is an ideal way to show charity and compassion to others. It’s not always easy to do. However, I know that, for me, it is the right thing to do, even if the person or persons are not open to the message. The truth is, we never know when a seed of truth will be planted and someone will experience a change of heart.

Copyright 2014 Ellen Gable Hrkach

NFP Improves Marital Communication

Photo courtesy Tim Baklinski at Two Trees Photography

Photo courtesy Tim Baklinski at Two Trees Photography

My latest article over at CatholicMom.com illustrates one of the main benefits of using NFP:

Couples using Natural Family Planning are accustomed to communicating deeply and frequently. According to researchers at Marquette University College of Nursing, use of NFP improves a couple’s overall relationship, but specifically focuses on communication. One couple said, “Since we speak about our fertility on a daily basis (my husband charts and asks my observations daily), NFP has helped our level of communication remain very deep and intimate and always above-board, open and honest.”

Lack of communication is one of the leading causes of marital breakdown. For the NFP-using couple, honest communication is essential. Procrastination isn’t an option. Each month, the NFP couple discusses whether or not they will be avoiding or planning pregnancy. In order to be successful at this, it’s necessary to discuss the woman’s signs of fertility and infertility. My husband has often said, “If you can talk about your wife’s cervical mucus, you can discuss anything.”

To briefly review how NFP works: husband and wife chart the wife’s signs of fertility and infertility. (Note: the man is fertile every day of his post-pubescent life, assuming there are no health difficulties). The couple then determines the start and end of the fertile time (we call it Phase II). If they are avoiding pregnancy, they abstain during the fertile time. If they are planning a pregnancy, they engage in relations during this time. Although it sounds simplistic, there are various scenarios, conditions and more complicated issues that arise, so formal NFP classes (either live or online) are recommended.

One of the keys to each couple’s success in using NFP is effective communication. NFP works best when the couple together study and observe the woman’s signs of fertility and infertility. Ideally, each month, the NFP couple discusses whether they will be avoiding a pregnancy or achieving a pregnancy. Because NFP can be used both to plan and to avoid pregnancy, it’s a good idea to have this conversation every month, even if the couple has decided that they will be avoiding pregnancy for a year or more. When internal shifts in emotional attitude are brought to the surface, the couple can unite in their efforts to carry out their plans regarding abstinence.

In over 30 years of using NFP, often one of us was more open to pregnancy than the other. Sometimes our monthly conversations were long and complicated; other times, short. The important point is that these types of dialogues are meant to take place well before — and not in the middle of — the marital embrace.

When the NFP couple is discussing intimate topics such as mucus and other fertility signs, it enhances their marital and sexual life, thereby increasing intimacy. This sort of communication should also continue when the couple is postpartum (after having a baby) and in post-menopause (after menopause).

When they are avoiding pregnancy, abstinence can be difficult and challenging. Being able to freely talk to your spouse helps you to understand that you are not alone in the struggles and challenges of NFP. This can help to bring a couple closer together and can promote marital stability. NFP demands the kind of intimate and deep conversations that allow the couple to grow closer.

Natural Family Planning has many benefits. One of its most significant benefits is that it promotes deep, honest and frequent marital communication.

For more information on NFP, check out these websites:
http://www.ccli.org
http://www.thebillingsovulationmethod.org/
http://www.creightonmodel.com
http://www.serena.ca
http://nfp.marquette.edu/benefits.php

Copyright 2015 Ellen Gable Hrkach
Photo by Tim Baklinski of Two Trees Photography. All rights reserved.