By Francine & Byron Pirola
If there is one thing that the seasons of Lent and Easter bring into focus, it’s the struggle between good and evil. At its heart, the Easter story is an epic tale of Perfect Love (Jesus Christ) facing down and conquering Evil.
It’s not just an historic struggle – it goes on every day in the heart of every person… and in the heart of every marriage.
Battles are not won or lost by accident. They take careful thought, discipline and courage.
The ‘pain points’ in a marriage are sign-posts to our underlying struggles. When we think about the difficulties in our marriage, it’s easy to blame the other person. There’s always something the other says or does not say, does or does not do, that falls short of what we’d like and need.
While understandable, falling into the habit of looking to the faults in our spouse whenever something goes wrong in our marriage is not a struggle-conquering strategy. Not only will it stagnate our marriage, it is not a pathway to the personal growth that is essential if our marriage is to flourish.
Because here’s the thing: The purpose of marriage is not to make us happy, it’s to make us HOLY.
Obviously, happiness results from succeeding in this purpose but importantly, it is not THE purpose of our marriage. In other words, marriage is a self-improvement institution; we grow as a person and we grow in relationship with God through the way we love in our marriage.
We will never get better, we’ll never grow towards the person we are called to be, if we avoid the necessary self-evaluation by holding on to our expectations for our spouse to change.
And if you haven’t already worked it out – trying to change our spouse according to our own requirements is a lost cause and indeed a false cause.
All self-growth must be chosen by the person doing the growing. Attempting to impose it on our spouse is bad for both of us: bad for our spouse because the manipulation and control that comes with it is totally counter to love, and bad for us because it justifies our prideful superiority thus putting distance between us and the God who calls us into humility.
Moreover, it’s a distraction from our primary job; that is, to be the person God created me to be. In marriage that person is the one whose vows called them to be the one person in our spouse’s life through whom they will best experience the Father’s unconditional love for them. That is our first priority. That should be the focus of our efforts.
‘Project Holiness’ is the lifetime endeavour of every person, and marriage, when properly understood, can help we who choose that vocation to get there.
The Church teaches us that ‘Family is the first school of love’. That’s not only true for our children, it’s true for adults as well.
Every day our family relationships press up against our comfort zone and test our tolerance. From simple things like annoying habits to more substantial character flaws, family members, and especially our spouse, trespass on our personal equilibrium.
We often note that it’s relatively easy to be kind, loving and patient when we are not on the edge. But when stressed or tired, the very same action from our spouse or child becomes a source of irritation…and indeed, can give rise to an angry reaction from us.
The point is, it really is more about what’s happening internally in us than the other person’s behaviour.
When we try to control things that we can’t, it leaves us frustrated and hopeless. That leads us to react in ways that fall short of the kind of person we aspire to be.
In contrast, when we focus on controlling ourselves rather than our spouse, we’re more likely to have some success and we’ll actually be doing that which we’re meant to do.
A new start
Over the coming weeks, parishes will be making it easier for us to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This magnificent practice established by Jesus has roots in ancient Jewish tradition. Things that have been preserved for thousands of years don’t just happen by accident; they are preserved because they work.
Reconciliation works because it helps us to do the necessary self-reflection, allows us to get a clean start, and then infuses us with renewed grace to grow and change. Sounds just like what we need for our marriages!
The key to a ‘good’ confession is how we prepare before it, what the Church calls an ‘Examination of Conscience’. When we need to have a difficult conversation with someone, preparation is key. The same is true for Reconciliation.
An Examination is really just a structured way to take a self-growth inventory. It’s not about self-loathing or condemning ourselves for our faults.
There are many excellent Examinations available, but we think it’s particularly helpful to use one specifically for couples.
After all, our marriage is not just one relationship among many, it is the central relationship in our life.
It is our vocation – how God calls us to live out the Christian mystery. So, our marriage really needs to be front and centre in this process.
The Easter season is an invitation to renewed life. We should seize this opportunity to undertake a structured examination of our relationship growth areas and then take this into formal Reconciliation where we seek forgiveness for our failings and receive the graces to go forward with a sense of freedom and courage.
A possible Examination we can use as a married couple is outlined below. But be warned – it’s not for the meek or the mediocre! This is for those who aspire to be the elite, to truly reach for the heights in their marriage.
Examination of Conscience for Couples
- Have I put my spouse first after God in my life, or do I prioritise other interests or people?
- Have I protected our marriage and ‘kept it holy’ by honouring my commitment to sexual fidelity?
- Have I spoken kindly of my spouse, and to my spouse, avoiding criticism and contempt?
- Have I forgiven my spouse for any hurt or have I harboured resentment?
- Have I acknowledged my errors and sought forgiveness from my spouse when I have injured him/her?
- Have I listened to my spouse and sought to truly understand his/her perspective?
- Have I been open and transparent with my spouse about how I spend my time and money, or have I kept secrets from him/her?
- Have I avoided situations of temptation that lead me to actions that I know cause hurt to my spouse?
- Have I restrained myself when frustrated with my spouse or have I lashed out in anger?
- Have I sought to punish my spouse by withholding intimacy or have I sought to be joyfully and generously available?
- Have I been of service to my spouse, willingly seeking to ease his/her burdens or have I expected to be served?
- Have I encouraged my spouse to develop his/her gifts or have I competed with my spouse?
- Have I been responsive to my spouse’s worries or have I been dismissive and indifferent?
- Have I affirmed my commitment and love for my spouse, to my spouse and to others?
- Have I prayed for my spouse and for our marriage and family?