Love Notes: A Catechesis for Marriage on the Brink


The king of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

-From “The King of Love my Shepherd Is” by Henry Williams Baker

Marriage is an image of Christ and His bride, the Church. It is a sanctuary for love, for the bringing up of children, for the care of souls. It is a good and holy vocation blessed by God and protected by the moral teachings and sacramental witness of the Church.

But what if you are in unbearable pain, as I once was, because your married life is a complete disaster?

No one marries in order to be unhappy. We all want to be loved in the purest sense—unconditionally, for who we really are, not for who we should be. Only God can bestow it perfectly, but we desperately long for this love from our spouses. Yet, how many of us really know how to give it, never mind obtain it? Is it even something worth hoping for?

If you are concerned in any way that your marriage is not what it ought to be, I recommend a radical program that will make you look crazy even to yourself, but will produce miracles. It is unspeakably hard and takes courage, so brace yourselves. But also prepare to discover a greater and more enduring happiness, and a life imbued with love and purpose.

This program isn’t mine. It’s the Church’s. I’m no scholar, so I won’t attempt to unpack the Catechism or any of the relevant encyclicals, but I highly recommend a wonderful interpretation for the layperson found in a book called, For Better… Forever! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage, by the Catholic family therapist, Dr. Gregory Popcak. Here’s a sample:

Every day make up your mind to serve your mate as Christ would serve him, love your mate as well as Christ would love him…Stop criticizing him… emphasize his competencies… make a list of all the things your mate ever asked you to do for him, and add to that list all the things you have ever wanted your mate to do for you. Every day do as many of these things for your mate as you can, not because he deserves it, not because you necessarily feel like it, but because your Christian dignity demands it.

Anybody else feel like whooping and throwing your hat in the air? I love this guy! My Christian dignity? Demands it? Talk about counter-cultural!

Now none of us can accomplish any of this on our own, it takes reliance on God. We need a prayer life and the sacraments of the Church, at the very least. But after reading this book, I felt galvanized and challenged in a way I never had before.

Here’s another bracing excerpt from For Better…Forever!:

Being a true Christian spouse means taking all that Crusader energy and channeling it into becoming a better servant and lover to your mate. Every time you would normally criticize your mate about something, or ask him to go to church with you, or pray with you, stop yourself and instead give him a kiss, or say, ‘I love you,’ or buy him a small token of your affection, or write him a love note, or make love to him, or cheerfully do that chore he hates to do—even if it takes you twice as long and means learning an entirely new skill.

Some people would say “This guy is nuts. Doesn’t he watch movies or read magazines? Doesn’t he know that popular culture hard-sells the idea that love is instantaneous, incendiary—and brief? That after the first explosion of lust, ‘love’ comes to an end and must seek out a new object? That sacrifice is old-fashioned, and faithful service a bore?” Ya gotta eat, pray, love, my brothers and sisters!

No wonder most marriages fail. As a nation, we have forgotten what love really is. We’ve cashed it in for endless, empty cravings, and serial relationships that can never satisfy.

Saint Augustine one said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This fulfillment we seek, then, is found in a God who willingly sacrificed Himself out of love for us. Can we do less?

In Dr. Popcak’s final comments, he writes, “Ask God for the courage to be the spouse you are called to be. Then, as St. Francis told his followers, go and preach the Gospel to your mate—using words only when absolutely necessary.”

It’s good for me to review these writings again. It’s been a few years since I first discovered them. Sharing them with you reminds me that loving my husband “as if” he were loving me back in the way that I wanted created an atmosphere of safety, in which we both learned to trust. But it took time. And, being me, I’ve had to relearn these same lessons many times. So I hope you won’t be discouraged if you have to relearn them, too.

And please understand that I am not suggesting anyone can sweep serious problems under the rug and live in peace. But we can pick our opportunities, after prayerful preparation, to address these concerns in private, with an eye to calm and kindness. If needed, we might even seek the help of a Catholic professional someone in communion with the teaching authority of the Church, or take a weekend to learn love-saving communication skills through a program such as Marriage Encounter.

In fact, with a hope inspired by the Resurrection itself, clearing the emotional decks gives the immensity of God’s love and mercy room to heal, inspire, and strengthen our broken hearts to try again to live in imitation of Christ. Easy? Nope. Awesome? You bet.

In closing, I’d like to share that one of the inspirations for this column was a moving and intimate documentary on Blessed John Paul II, whose life expressed a radical Christian love that is applicable to every aspect of our lives. I had the honor of reviewing this program at my website, Stop by and enter to win a copy of the entire ten-part series.

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About Author

Catholic wife and mom, catechist, workshop leader, author