My dear wife and I just celebrated our 1st anniversary: 365 days of wedded bless (as my mother would say…who herself has shared 13,870 days with my old man). And while I’m the first to admit that the whole “List” phenomenon has become a pervasive and sometimes trite social media trend, and that there are already 1000 lists out there like this written by men who know more than I about marriage, and that this list isn’t exclusively about marriage, well…maybe, just maybe, this list is different…if for no other reason than that there are eleven points.
a) While I’d like to think that the content of this post could benefit both husbands and wives, it’s written from a husband’s perspective and addressed primarily to husbands and future-husbands.
2) I have no intention of commenting on recent historical events pertaining to the nature and meaning of marriage. Maybe another time.
d) Who can pretend to say everything about everything, except, maybe Thomas Aquinas or Bill Watterson? Which is to say, this list isn’t exhaustive.
Okay, enough with the caveats…
1. Guys: you don’t want a dream girl; you want a real girl.
Dream girls don’t exist in reality, as clearly indicated by the word “dream” in the phrase “dream girl.” If you have a wife, you know she has problems. If you don’t yet have a wife but are looking, know that whoever you find, also has problems. But then again, so do you. Don’t we all? Oh happy fault! And chances are, your problems outnumber and outweigh hers.
Your dream girl isn’t the one who is perfect in every way; she’s the one who desires perfection. And here, I use the word perfection exclusively to mean sanctity, true holiness, virtue: no airbrushed magazine covers required (or even allowed).
And in truth, it’s a disservice to tell your wife she’s perfect or to describe her as such. Why? Well, I can think of at least two reasons:
a) Unless she’s in heaven and appears on the Church calendar, it just ain’t true. Perfection on earth exists only in the imperfect sense. Ironic, no?
b) Telling your wife she’s perfect places upon her the burden of trying to fulfill an impossible expectation.
Instead of perfection, strive for mutual perfecting. And, let’s be honest: we husbands provide countless opportunities for our wives to grow in virtue and holiness by the mere fact that they have to spend the vast majority of their time with us. Am I right, guys? Yup. Now, go make sure both socks made it into the hamper; and hang up that wet bath towel you left on the bed. Oh, and that poopy diaper you’re pretending doesn’t exist? Change it.
And anyway, so-called dream girls are one dimensional, predictable, boring; the beauty of a real girl lies in her created mystery, in her ability to surprise you.
2. For God’s sake, and your own, and your wife’s: discern your vocation first.
It took five years of seminary and 30 days on a silent retreat in the middle of beautiful nowhere South Dakota for me to discern that I was not called to the priesthood. Hopefully, it won’t take you that long to figure out. But, if you’re a single Catholic man striving to live a life of faithful discipleship, you should — at very least — have had a serious and candid conversation with your parish priest about the possibility that God might be calling you. And even though you might not be absolutely certain…even though you might only have the slightest inkling…even if, at the deepest level, you think you should try out seminary primarily because you know you should “give God a chance,” give God the chance. He will not be outdone in generosity.
What’s more, if you never ask the question about priesthood before marriage, you might find yourself asking it throughout the life of your marriage. And this is not good. For if the “yes” to your wife is going to survive, it must be professed definitively.
3. Extended engagements are a waste of time.
To quote the sage wisdom of Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible.” If you’re ready to be engaged, then you should be ready for marriage. Engagement is not a time for considering the possibility of marriage; that’s what courtship is for. Rather, engagement is a time of preparation for marriage.
And, sorry, you can’t use wedding planning as an excuse for a long engagement. My wife and I planned a wedding in less than six months — and we lived 1000 miles apart until three weeks beforehand, and we did everything ourselves. And. it. was. beautiful. Ask our moms.
Of course, yes, please, take the requisite time to prepare well for marriage. But trust me when I tell you that getting to know your spouse only truly begins after you get married. Not only that, but the grace of the sacrament comes only with the reception thereof, not beforehand.
And, well, there’s the whole chastity thing, too; but you already knew that.
4. Extended courtships are also a waste of time.
I met my wife on catholicmatch.com. If you know anything about the site, then you’re familiar with the seven faith questions required for completing one’s profile. To these questions, one may answer either “Yes, I accept the Church’s teaching,” or “No, I do not accept the Church’s teaching.” That’s it. No explanation, no room for clarification. No fence-sitting.
The seven topics? 1) The Eucharist; 2) Contraception; 3) Sanctity of Life; 4) Papal Infallibility; 5) Premarital Sex & Marriage; 6) The Immaculate Conception; 7) Holy Orders.
The point? Be intentional about courtship; don’t waste your time with someone with whom you fundamentally disagree vis-a-vis the things that matter most. And on the flip side: don’t waste your time worrying about the little stuff. To use a bad analogy: a good engine and reliable air bags are infinitely more important than moon roofs and conveniently placed cup holders. So what if she likes beaches and you like mountains? So what if you love sushi and she doesn’t? And what if it turns out that you’re forever disagreeing about what to watch on Netflix? Meh; trivial.
If both you and your future wife can answer with definitive affirmation the following two questions, you will possess 99% of everything you need to know about one another:
a) Is Jesus Christ the most important person in my life?
b) Do I believe what Jesus Christ teaches, through His Word and His Church?
The other 1% will pan out just fine. Seek first the Kingdom, right? (Mt 6:33). And for the record, my wife enjoys House, while I prefer Parks and Recreation. But, we can always find mutual ground in The Office.
Oh, and on a related note: if you find yourself dragging out your courtship (or your engagement) because you keep thinking that she’ll change in some fundamental way, or that you’ll be able to change her in some fundamental way, it’s time to walk away.
And another thing: while your intention may be altogether noble and manly and not at all prideful or vain: don’t delay marriage until such time as you’ve eradicated sin from your own life. Here’s why:
a) You’ll never get married, sinner. (cf. Lk 18:9-14).
b) You’ll miss out on the greatest source of sanctification available to the man called to the vocation of marriage: your marriage.
Wait. Don’t judge. Keep reading.
Yes, of course, objectively speaking, the grace of the Sacraments — especially the Eucharist — is the greatest source of sanctification available to believers. However, subjectively speaking, one’s vocation is the greatest source of sanctification available for each individual believer. Maybe it would be better to put it this way: the Sacraments are the source of sanctification; one’s vocation is the path to sanctification.
In short: your married life is that provision by which God will make you a saint. Same goes for your wife and children.
* * * And now, on to more practical matters * * *
5. Even if you don’t have an opinion, have an opinion.
When your wife asks you what you think about something — a furniture arrangement, a paint swatch, vacation dates, a financial strategy, whatever — responding with the predictable “Whatever you think, dear,” is little more than indifference parading as affirmation. Whether she agrees with you or not, your wife wants to hear your opinion because she values you. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “But I really don’t care what color we paint the wall,” know that your wife does, which should be sufficient to warrant a thoughtful response.
6. Learn to interpret questions, but don’t assume you’re interpretation is correct.
If you’re upstairs, and your wife — who is downstairs — asks, “Is my phone up there?”, she’s not asking about the location of her phone: she’s asking you to bring her phone to her. If she’s up to her neck in laundry and asks, “Do you have a lot to do outside today?”, she’s not primarily concerned with the length of the lawn or the stack of wood you need to split, she’s asking you to help her with laundry — not necessarily right then, but eventually. She’s also asking you to acknowledge the ways in which she’s seeking to serve you.
It’s not just about listening, but learning to listen in a new way. That said, even when you think you’re getting good at the whole interpretation thing, it’s always prudent to ask for clarification. Because there’s a decent chance that you have no idea what she’s thinking….which is why communication is so important.
Speaking of communication: when your wife asks how your day was, “fine” is an inadequate response. This has been a difficult one for me because most days at work are like most other days at work: fine…nothing out of the ordinary, no crises averted, no epiphanies. Not only that, but I’ve already processed the day in my head on the drive home, and afterwards find that I have no particular interest in thinking much more about it. But I’ve learned that my wife wants to be a part of that process, and that it’s the communication itself — not necessarily the content thereof — that matters.
7. But for real, just listen, man. It’s not about the nail.
Nail? What nail? Have no idea what I’m talking about? Just watch this.
8. Have babies…soon.
I’ve heard some iteration of the following from far too many newlyweds: “We’re going to wait awhile to have kids because we want to spend some time, just the two of us, getting to know each other as a married couple.”
You really want to get to know your spouse? Have a baby. I can tell you from experience, our daughter brings out the best and worst in both me and my wife. Because neither of us has the energy to put up or leave up a facade. Our love has been tested in the wailing and weepy wee hours of the morning and tried in the sleep-deprived mid-afternoon meltdowns. As vulnerable as babies are, they make us vulnerable, too. And that’s a good thing. For He who did not hesitate to make himself supremely vulnerable, coming to us as a defenseless infant and dying for us on the defenseless Cross, shows us that to love is to make oneself vulnerable.
Somewhere or other in his writing, Thomas Aquinas observes that true character is revealed most authentically in how one reacts to unexpected suffering. Poopy diaper #2? Expected. Poopy diaper #7, combined with spit-up and screaming? Unexpected.
As a seminarian, I was blessed to take Dr. Janet Smith’s bioethics course. In her most famous talk, “Contraception, Why Not?”, Dr. Smith discusses the virtue parenting demands:
“You also become more patient and generous and kind and hardworking, because this baby is very demanding. It takes a lot of your time and a lot of your effort. So you become a better person, and you’re married to a better person and that makes for a better marriage.”
Another great benefit to having babies right away? You won’t ever resent your children for the time they’ve stolen from you or the money they end up costing you because you and your wife will never reminisce about the good old days when you had both time and money.
Another one? Children, demand every last ounce of energy you possess; this is especially true of babies. Remember how easy it was to bounce back from an all-night final cram session when you were in college? Not as easy at 35, trust me. That said, God caress about your baby way more than He cared about your final exam grade, which is to say He’ll provide you with the abundance of energy required to care for your child….which, in truth, is just enough energy to not die.
Last one (and my only slightly political point): God designed marriage with babies in mind.
9. Deal with your baggage.
Recognize that you and your wife will bring baggage into your marriage and that it’s foolish and unproductive to assume that the act of getting married will make that baggage magically disappear. Recognize also that your baggage will likely annoy, frustrate and sometimes upset your wife; and her’s will do the same to you.
It’s also foolish and unproductive to stuff that baggage in the back of the closet or let it gather dust and cobwebs on a storage shelf in your dimly lit Michigan basement. So deal with things: there’s little more unsettling and unproductive than a long, tense, festering silence between the only two people in the house.
And forgive — quickly, freely, and without strings attached. Don’t keep score. And know that you will seek forgiveness from her over and over, as will she from you, recalling that the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you (cf. Mt 7:2)
10. You can always be a better husband (and father).
Maybe you help with the dishes on a regular basis; maybe you take out the trash and sort the recycling without being reminded; maybe you cook more frequently than you expected; maybe you’re attentive and affectionate and appreciative and affirming. Maybe you’ve committed to purchasing less techy crap or sports crap or hunting crap and you’re perfecting the prefold.
Maybe you treat your wife with the utmost care and dignity and remember important dates and leave little post-it love notes where she’ll find them and take the baby so she can sleep in on Saturday morning. Maybe you tackle the finances and the lawn and the laundry. Maybe you sweat, without complaint, the whole year round so that she can be warm enough the whole year round…and you even remember to bring her the fleece throw blanket. Maybe you kiss her every morning and pray with her every night.
But you can always be a better husband…and father. Christ loved his bride to the end (cf. Jn 13:1), and at every moment, we’re either becoming more and more like angels or more and more like demons: sanctity has no Switzerland.
11. Jesus comes first; then your wife; then your baby(ies); then you.
This doesn’t give you license to exchange butt-changing for the breviary or conversation for contemplation. You can’t attend daily mass and not attend to the daily mess. But if Jesus Christ isn’t the most important person in your life, how can you ever expect to be a good husband and father? Jesus knows what your marriage needs; best ask him, eh?
And don’t get me wrong, I love our daughter; goodness gracious how I love her. She’s starting to coo and smile and laugh on a regular basis now; she’s figuring out sleeping and burping and tummy time; she is pure joy. But she ain’t the center of the universe. And guess what? That’s okay. You know what happens when parents treat their children as if they were the center of the universe? They start to act like they’re the center of the universe, and demand to be recognized as such. Nope; can’t happen. If our daughter thinks she’s the center of the universe, how will she ever understand that that’s where Jesus goes? And if Jesus isn’t at the center of my universe, how can I expect him to be at the center of her’s? All things were created through him; all things were created for him (cf: Col 1:16).
And that’s about the sum of it.