On Valentine’s day, communication, and not getting kicked in the nuts

Several years ago, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.  For so many years, the poor man had been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him.

I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing, which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted. Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster.

Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.  So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap and price tag off before giving them to me, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!

Having taken this huge leap forward in our communication skills, I decided to hunt around to see what normal human beings do on Valentine’s Day.

If you want to feel like you’ve got your act together, just ask the internet a question.  Okay, maybe not in all circumstances.  If you’re rewiring your living room, for instance, or trying to remove the Spaghetti-o decoupage from an angry cat, you may very well have lots to learn.

But if you need help with your relationships?  A quick trip down Google lane will have you feeling like an expert, a champion, a genius, a hero of common sense and decency.  For instance, if you Google “What do guys want for Valentine’s Day?” you will come across this depressing paen to modern love, written by a man:

One of my favorite presents was a trip to the grocery store.

I remember the clear, cloudless day, sun shining down on me proudly pushing my cart into Central Market. Rachel was with me, and some friends who came along.

I picked up a steak and set it in the cart. Rachel said, “That’s great, Doug!”

I grabbed some chips. Rachel said, “That’s really great, Doug!”

I picked up some really expensive jam. Rachel said, “Yum, that will be really great, Doug!”

In fact everything I picked up got the same response from her (or very close to it), and that was my present: I could choose anything I wanted, and she could only say how great everything was. What an awesome gift that was, a trip to the grocery store.

So what did I get, besides some red AND yellow peppers?

I got what most men want. I was accepted.

I weep for America.  I weep for mankind.  I weep for myself, because this is the saddest, stupidest thing I’ve ever read, and I read it three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  What is Doug going to get for Christmas from the gracious lady Rachel?  A coupon for Not Getting Kicked In the Nuts?

You know, I probably treat my husband this way sometimes.  But the difference is, neither one of us is okay with it.  We don’t assume that relentless criticism and belittling is part of a normal relationship. If it starts to become a pattern, we go to confession, make amends, and start fresh, because we like each other, and want each other to be happy. 

This reminds me of the story of the man who had invented a brilliant method for saving money on the farm.  “On the first week,” he says, “I fed my  horse a bale of hay.  On the second week, I fed him half a bale of hay.  On the third week, I fed him a quarter of a bale.  I was damn near to teaching the horse to live on nothing at all, but on the fourth week, the ungrateful sonofabitch died on me!”

This whole communication thing isn’t as lame as it sounds. I hope that, sometime after that article was printed, Doug found a way to tell his wife, “What I really want is for you to stop treating me like I’m some kind of moron. Save the correction for really important stuff, and talk to me like you see me as a full human. Let me know what makes you feel important, and I’ll do the same for you.” I hope they figure out that this kind of thing shouldn’t be for special days, but should be the baseline of their relationship, and once the basic respect is a given, then special holidays won’t feel so fraught. 

Happy stupid Valentine’s Day, folks.  I hope you get something nice.  Or if you get nothing, I hope at least it doesn’t feel like a gift!

****

(This post first ran in 2011.)

Horse skeleton photo by James St. John [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Three-year marriage preparation?

The Catholic Church in Spain is offering a new marriage preparation course. The startling part: It’s three years long.

My first thought was that the last thing the Church needs to be doing is making marriage harder. Few enough people are seeking out the sacraments, so let’s not give them even more hoops to jump through! But it turns out they’re not making anyone do anything. The course isn’t mandatory; it’s for people who are serious about marriage and want help and preparation to do it well.

According to an article in The Guardian UK, the program was developed in response to skyrocketing divorce rates, which increased dramatically after the socialist government made the divorce process fast and easy. According to the article, there was an astonishing 74.3 per cent increase in divorces from 2006 to 2007 in Spain, and “In 2017, there were 57.2 divorces for every 100 marriages in Spain”.

The article quotes Monsignor Mario Iceta, the bishop of Bilbao:

“You can’t prepare for marriage in 20 hours. To be a priest, you need to spend seven years in the seminary so what about being a husband, wife mother or father? Just 20 hours? 

It’s hard to quibble with this point. My own marriage preparation class gave me exactly zero useful information or preparation for the life we were committing to, and I know my experience isn’t unique. I certainly don’t regret getting married to my husband, but we did get thrown into the deep end, and we did flounder.

In the United States, debates over how to support marriage often falls into some timeworn patterns: One camp bemoans the way decrees of annulment are given out like candy, and remind the world that, in their grandparents’ time, people used to take their vows seriously, and weren’t counting on all this ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfillment’ nonsense.

The other camps recalls that their grandmothers often stayed married for life less because they so respected the institution of marriage and more because they didn’t really have another choice, and they just had to put up with being beaten and cheated on and treated like a work horse; and if they did leave, they and their kids would probably starve, or at least be ostracized.

So no, we can’t really improve marriage by simply insisting that people are stuck no matter what. That doesn’t make marriage better; it just hides suffering more effectively.

It’s true that everyone who makes a marriage vow is taking something of a risk, but it’s possible to make the risk smaller by making true discernment a part of the preparation process.

If fewer people who don’t understand marriage have weddings, then fewer people will need annulments. Increasing the preparation time combines the best of both worlds: An understanding that marriage is a serious undertaking that’s supposed to last a lifetime, and not something you can shuck off easily if it doesn’t work out; but also an understanding that it ought to be a partnership of mutual respect, not just something it’s hard to escape.

Ideally, a couple who’ve discerned that they truly do belong together for life will be given some useful tools to act on that intention.

But simply increasing the “training” and discernment period brings predictable problems of its own . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels

The doctrine of the trinity describes love

So, how was Heresy Sunday at your parish? Maybe you know it better as “Trinity Sunday,” but, well, you know. One minute, you’re standing there sweating behind the pulpit, trying to give your flock something solid to chew on, and then next minute, you’re a modalist. Or an arian, or a partialist. (If you’ve somehow never watched St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies, take a few minutes! It’s funny and good.)
 
On the other hand, you also have people complaining on Twitter that they’re pretty tired of hearing from their pastors that they’re just too dumb to understand the trinity, so he won’t even try. 
 
On the other hand . . . wait, that’s three hands now, and we’re about to veer into heresy again. What I’m trying to say is that the theology of the Trinity is pretty intense, and I have a lot of sympathy for priests who are trying to steer a way in between teaching something false, and just performing some vague hand-waving about the mysterious mystery of it all.
 
However, the theology of the trinity is a lot more knowable than I was led to believe as a child. I had the impression that it was simply so far beyond our human experience, it would break my brain if I even tried to figure it out. This is false. If you want to know more about the Trinity — and you should! It’s VERY COOL — I most ardently recommend Frank Sheed’s Theology for Beginners. I intend to read it again this summer with my teenagers. It’s very lucid and exciting, and, surprise surprise, it leads to a better understanding of, well, everything. Because it’s about who and what God is.
 
However however, it would be hard to get into it in a single sermon. Some of the best sermons I’ve heard are less about defining doctrine and more about helping us understand why it’s important and what it has to do with us. As Chris Damian says in another context
 
We tend to think of arriving at belief as a straightforward process. We think of belief as something that exists on the level of syllogism, where my rational assent is always the result of a clear logic unfolding from the circuitry of my mind. But coming into deep belief does not involve a mere continuation of syllogistic progression. Rather, it involves the mysterious integration of a complex constellation of experience, context, affection, habit, longing, rationale, and choice. Often the assertion of belief is a last step, the articulation of something which already exists within the person but which has taken time to develop into words.
So yesterday, Trinity Sunday, we heard a sermon with less doctrine but plenty of the rest of that complex constellation, and I appreciated it. The pastor at this church tends to deliver shaggy dog sermons, and sometimes you never do arrive at the punchline. But when you do, it’s always about the immensity of God’s love, and how personal it all is. Which is why we keep going back to this church, even though it’s forty minutes away! Here’s how I remember it:

He described how his grandmother and grandfather met at a town dance in 1922. They spotted each other across the room, and she thought he looked like a troublemaker and he thought she looked stuck up. But somehow they got together anyway, fell in love, got married, and came to know each other as they learned how to love each other. They had children, and those children had children, including the pastor himself; and by the time they had been married for several decades, they could complete each other’s thoughts. Gradually, over the years, they revealed themselves to each other more and more.
 
We sometimes think God has changed since the Old Testament. It seems like God used to be so harsh and angry, always smiting and getting vengeance; but then Jesus came, and taught us about love, even loving your enemy — and this seemed like something so new and different. But then we heard in the first reading how God has always been:
 
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth. . . 
There are some intimations of the Trinity here, of a God who isn’t lonely and solitary, but is in a fruitful relationship. And it was a relationship not only of love between the persons of the Trinity, but between God and us:
 
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.
 
The pastor reminded us that God was perfectly content in himself, perfectly complete. He didn’t need anything, certainly not human beings. But because of his overflowing love, he did want something . . . and so he made us. The responsorial psalm says:
 
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?
R. O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!
 
God made us to love us — and, as you do when you are in love, to reveal himself to us.  That that is what you do when you love someone: You open yourself, you reveal yourself to them, just as the priest’s grandparents did with each other over the course of many, many years of fruitful marriage. And that is what God has done for us.  He is fruitful, and he reveals himself because He loves us. 
 
The Gospel reading from John was very short, and quite Greek:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”
 

To me, this speaks of the hope we can have of coming to know God more and more, as we become more and more confident in his love for us.

Knowing God better is . . . well, it’s not always a delight. Sometimes it’s terrible, for a while, just like marriage can be, as you come to know each other better and better. But unlike in a human marriage, we can know  with complete certainty that there is always delight on the other side, if we keep pushing through. Or at least we can hope, until we know.

 
So we should not be afraid of trying to understand mysteries. God wants to reveal himself to us. But we have to start by consenting to be in a relationship with him. Doctrine is simply the description of how it is that God loves us.
 
***
 
Image: Detail of 17th century Holy Trinity Russian icon, painter unknown, from Icon Museum Recklinghausen [Public domain]

Your boyfriend is not your husband

I’m not saying we should hold out for the perfect spouse; and I’m not saying you should flee from a relationship the first time conflict crops up. It’s very good to test how well the two of you can work through problems together. And every human being brings a certain amount of imperfection into a relationship: Bad habits, personality flaws, unsavory pasts, immaturity, selfishness, and so on. Everyone’s got something — probably several things — wrong with them; and every good relationship will have conflict at some point.

But there are some flaws that should make us pause, think hard, and possibly back away before we make any vows. 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Skedonk [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

 

But will my husband suffer enough this Lent?

Like most lifelong Catholics, my husband and I have no idea what the rules of fasting are, so we have to look it up every year. And every year, I tell my husband, “But that’s how you eat every day anyway.” This is why he is within a single stomach virus’ distance of fitting into the pants he got married in over two decades ago, while I . . . well, let’s just say that marriage is an opportunity for growth, and I have not squandered that opportunity. No, indeedbaconator, I have not.

So I have my work cut out for me, but there’s a real danger my husband will skate by these next forty days without suffering at all! In case you’re in a similar position, here are some ways to make your husband miserable help your husband draw closer to Christ this Lent, which is your job:

1. Keep it spirituelle. Complain incessantly about all the things that make it especially hard for housewives to fast, like having to be around food all day, and being hungrier than most people anyway because your attitudes toward food and hunger and body image are all out of whack because of all the sacrifices of pregnancy and childbirth you’ve made throughout your married life. I mean, I don’t even know when I’m hungry anymore, you know? I can’t tell if I’m actually hungry, or just frustrated with how frustrating my life is, or if my body is telling my I’m deficient in something, because I’m so depleted, or what!

Then when he sympathetically suggests that you might go easy on yourself because of your state in life, give him a pitying look and murmur in a Holy Spirit kind of voice, “I don’t know, that just seems kind of . . . contrary to the spirit of the season, you know?”

2. Practice catecheticriticism. This is when you send a message to an adult in the next room by way of instructing children who are in front of you. Like this: “And so, kids, there are a lot of ways you can show God that you are sorry for your sins. Giving up Minecraft or candy OR OLD CROW is good, but you could also do things, like keeping your room clean or BRINGING THAT RIDICULOUS BROKEN DISHWASHER TO THE DUMP ALREADY or sharing your toys. These are all good things to do for Lent, and here is a nice coloring page of the stations of the cross, because I GUESS I HAVE TO BE THE SPIRITUAL HEAD OF THE FAMILY SINCE NO ONE ELSE IS STEPPING UP. Here are some crayons.”

3. Cry, and refuse to say why, because it’s nothing, just nothing. This one isn’t specific to Lent. It’s just pretty much the worst thing you can do to a guy.

4. If he persists in his concern, admit that you’ve just been feeling low lately, that’s all, and it would just be nice to get away from these same four walls and this kitchen and these kids and just feel like a woman, you know? Just for one time. Then when he reminds you that he asked you five times if you wanted to go to Chili’s, say, “Oh, I know, I know, but it’s Lent . . .”

5. Complain about female bloggers who talk about fasting when they really mean dieting, and how sick it is that, in society today, all we care about is women’s bodies, and what about their souls? Talk about Cosmo, armpit airbrushing, and how much the actresses in Star Wars got paid. Go into your room to be alone and pray for a while. When he comes in to search for the socks you claim there are plenty of in his drawer if he would just look, let him find you standing there, just gazing at that clingy red sundress you wore to your friend’s wedding two decades ago, back when you considered ice cubes an indulgent snack. Just gazing at it. Then say, “You know, in the Middle Ages, they fasted all the time, all through Lent. Did you know that? Ugh, we’re such wimps nowadays. People really were holier then. Society today really makes me sick.”

You know what, the $5 ‘Rita at Chilis is not half bad. I’ll meet you there, right after confession.

If You Haven’t Read Humanae Vitae, What Are You Waiting For?

You may imagine it’s a stern and solemn doctrinal harangue, fusty with misogyny, larded with theological jargon, cluttered with impractical, abstract ideals. In short, something you’d write if you’ve never had sex and have no idea what marriage is really like.

But Humanae Vitae is not like that.

Humanae Vitae, which is Latin for “On Human Life,” doesn’t bring the authoritarian fist of the Church crashing down on individual, authentic human lives. Instead, it invites us to recall two things . . .

Read the rest of my latest for Parable Magazine.

 

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

How the Church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages

When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.

But a third priest listened to her story . . .

Read the my latest for America Magazine.

This is one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I’m very grateful to the courageous and honest women who shared their stories with me.

Photo by George Hodan (Creative Commons)

Anniversary Podcast!

And here it is! Our 20th anniversary podcast, which we’re making free to all comers. OF COURSE we had some equipment trouble and ended up having to share a microphone. Made me a little uncomfortable sitting so close to this virtual stranger, but we muddled through.

We answered, sorta, the following questions generously provided by Facebook friends:

How did you meet?
What is one thing that you didn’t know/realize about each other when you got married, but now it’s your favorite thing?
What is the name of the podcast?
What’s the funniest thing that went wrong at your wedding?
Are you going to be doing anything special for your anniversary?
What had been your biggest “why did no one tell us this!?” revelation about marriage?
When did we realize you don’t know nearly as much about marriage as you thought you did?
What were some of our hardest times?
Why it is OK to have a big family and not a seven-figure income?
How do you keep that spark sparkling when children and work take all your time and energy?
And I read a poem by Adam Zagajewski.

Thanks for all the happy anniversary wishes! I’m so grateful for the support of my patrons and all my readers. Cheers!

Marriage advice from two who know

YES, it’s our twentieth anniversary! We’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Here are none of them:

People think marriage is expensive, but there are so many costs you can halve when you become one flesh. Hello, one toothbrush. Hello savings! And thriftiness can be sexy, too. Take turns with it and watch each other brush. Up and down, up and down, side-side-side-side-side! This is hot.

Communication is at the heart of unity, and many people are most comfortable communicating constant expressions of disappointment. Start there, then work your way up to berating each other in the Wendy’s drive thru because why the hell would a grown man truly need that much ketchup, until you’re known far and wide as They’re At It Again. Eventually, the police dispatcher will have a special code just for you two. Embroider it on a pillow.

If you would like to broadcast your love to the world, pose often with your hands touching each other in claw-like fashion, or I guess it’s a heart shape. Grr! Love! Grrrr! I’ll scratch your eyes out!

Compromise, compromise, compromise. Try only being an irrational son of a bitch half the time.

Frequently tell your beloved that you cherish every tiny bit of them, from head to toe. Then, on a milestone anniversary, prove it by presenting them with a romantic pillow stuffed with years of carefully gathered toenail clippings, belly button lint, and drain hair. Pinterest has some good ideas for how to make this project happen. Tip: Don’t spend too much time on Pinterest. It’s not healthy.

When you take a picture of the two of you, hold up an empty frame in front of you. People are doing this. There must be a reason. It can’t be meaningless, can it?

Try to find hobbies you can do together. Accrue debt in both your names. Develop contagious skin conditions you can share. Work your way through vast quantities of cheese and meet in the middle. Grow identical beards.

Cultivate pet names for each other. Consider “sweet cheeks,” “sugar lips,” “xylitol assy cheeks,” or “partially-hydrogenated-palm-oil-me-lad.”

Keep a sense of mystery alive in your marriage. One woman was mad at her husband for forty-three years and refused to say why! And he kept up his end, too. She had no idea what was going on in that basement bathroom the whole time, with the rolled-up towel stuffed under the door and the scuffling noises.

Mason jars aren’t just de rigeur for the wedding reception; they must be carefully featured and maintained throughout your entire marriage. Commute to work in a mason jar if you have to. Tout pour l’amour! Tout, I say!

Romantic: Getting matching tattoos.
Even more romantic: Surprising each other with the tattoos you give your spouse while he or she is unconscious.
Even more romantic: Discovering what kind of tattoos you thought it was a good idea to surprise each other with while you were unconscious. How is it even physically possible for the Tasmanian Devil to accomplish . . . that . . . with a dolphin? Only your id knows.

Never underestimate the power of “pillow talk.” Try, “Mphhh grphhh umph bhh.” Also very evocative: Pillow screaming.

***

Happy anniversary, man. You know I don’t mean it. But I meant it when I said “I do.”

***
Image by Stephan Nakatani via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Marriage warriors, look to your own homes

I recall arguing and arguing that marriage is special because the whole of society depends on its strength and integrity; and I recall my gay friends rolling their eyes and pointing to statistics about heterosexual marriage—statistics on fornication, on out-of-wedlock births, on domestic abuse, on adultery, and on divorce—and letting them speak for themselves. Straight people have not made a good case for marriage. We, as a nation, have not behaved as if it’s worth preserving.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Ian MacKenzie via Flickr (Creative Commons)