While hiking with my son, I met a new friend. I met him in a tough circumstance… he was stuck high on a hiking trail. He was a senior citizen with a bucket list who had bitten off more than he could chew. My son and I felt privileged to be able to help him down the mountain. It was an act of love. It was what he needed in that moment.
What is love? It is a giving of ourselves to another as a sacrificial offering. We deny something of ourselves so someone else may have it. In this situation with my new friend, he needed our time and concern. We gave it freely. Did it cost us? Yes. We lost all of the other plans we had made for our evening because our trek took quite a bit longer than initially intended. We made it down as the sun was setting and the day was ending. However, our love cups were filled.
My love cup isn’t filled by someone giving their love to me… it’s filled when I give love to someone else. I find joy and gratitude in receiving the love given to me. I should express my joy and gratitude to the giver of love.
The law of the Lord is love. In His love for us, God has given us our neighbors in need. “The poor [we] will always have with [us]” (Mark 14:7) because through service to them, we learn to love. — The Personal Rosary
I find this concept can be hard to understand. We all want to be loved. Yet, modern culture sees true love as unrealistic. It may be. From our own personal perspective, we can’t make a perfect relationship. A relationship requires more than one person and we can only make choices on one side of it. The other side of the relationship may make choices that don’t feel loving to us. They may be unable to love as we want them to. We feel left out. We feel betrayed. We are disappointed. Often, we even expect to be disappointed so we sabotage our relationships… it’s easier than feeling unloved. Our fear holds us back from true intimacy.
On our way down the mountain with our new friend, we spoke of many things. There was a lot we had in common though we are in very different stages of life. We spoke of love and relationships. We spoke of types of love and how the modern world tends to love things and use people rather loving people and using things. He is in a rough patch in life. He and his wife drifted apart over the years. He realized how much he missed her physical touch when the simple touch of his dentist was soothing to his core. They are divorcing. He thinks his wife may be a bit of a narcissist because she’s more concerned with her own needs than his. This was an echo of other conversations I have had with other men. Their wives are narcissists in their eyes, too. Maybe they are. Many of those wives may think their husbands are, too.
Our conversation gave me a reflection… it seems there is an epidemic of narcissism in the world—diagnosed and undiagnosed. What could be causing this? I have a theory. If love is a selfless act, how can the giver of love have his/her needs met? If our attention is focused on someone else’s needs, who is focusing on ours? It has to come from the loving selfless acts of the other person. This is relationship. This is marriage.
All relationships have similar characteristics. I want to focus here on marriage—the most significant human relationship many of us will experience in this world. It is also analogous to our relationship with God. It can be illustrative to meditate on the extremes to better understand the routine.
In the beginnings of a romantic relationship, we are often attracted by physical appearance or other superficial attributes. We sometimes call this “love at first sight.” I don’t believe this is love… not yet. We have simply found someone who delights our senses. In a way, it’s actually a selfish beginning. We see someone who pleases us. It’s about us. Love begins when we seek to get to know the other person beyond their superficial attributes. We spend time with them. We give them our attention and we learn about them. We apply that knowledge in doing things for them that they may recognize as gifts… of time, talent, and treasure. We begin to sacrifice for them. We forsake others for them and keep ourselves only for them.
If we only do these things to get their affection—for them to love us—we betray them. We can’t just be a character to them in order to attract their interest. That’s a con- game, not a relationship. It won’t last. There will be a reckoning. We have to commit. We have to give of ourselves freely. We have to be sincere. We have to let go of what we want and seek the greatest good for someone else. We have to love.
A courtship is a discerning process. The modern world seeks compatibility in superficial areas… hobbies, appearance, education, social status, et al. The greater compatibility is in the capacity for love. Couples should discern the commitment of their intended toward sacrificial love. Is their—and our—focus on what we hope to get from the relationship or on what we hope to give? It’s a self-reflection as much as an observation. If we can’t commit to sacrificial love, we’re setting the stage for broken hearts.
Our Lord said we are to love others as we love ourselves. That isn’t suggesting we should have some sort of self-adulation. How do we love ourselves? We do all that is necessary to meet our own needs. We feed ourselves and clothe ourselves. We rest when needed and see to our recreational needs. We are honest with ourselves and work to overcome weaknesses. We should forgive ourselves and move on from our mistakes. This is how we should be with others… caring, honest, and forgiving. It doesn’t require affection. It requires service.
This is how we can love our enemies. It doesn’t mean we adore them. It means we serve them as we serve our own needs.
In the best of marriages, a man sacrifices for his wife (note that I speak from a man’s perspective because that’s the only one I have). It goes beyond just providing for her physical needs… she also has emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. As husbands, we need to be there for our wives. What does she love to do? Can we join in those activities and be there with her? Who does she want to be? Can we help her achieve her goals? It’s an approach we take when we’re dating… we might see it as an opportunity to spend time with someone we would like to get to know when we show up at their favorite places and like what they like. It’s also the beginnings of a relationship. We do this instinctively with our children, too… when they’re playing with their LEGOs, we often get down on the floor with them. Why? Because we’re building a relationship with them. We can do that with our spouses at any stage of the marriage.
Ladies, does it seem your husband has a preoccupation with sex? As a primal urge, it’s easy to see how men get led astray. We’re pretty easy in this regard. If he has a preoccupation for sex with you… be glad it’s with you! His desire for you shouldn’t be a point of derision or complaint. We think we’re complimenting you in our expressed desire. His preoccupation may be because this is the easiest way he knows to try to meet your needs. It’s a need we understand. We tend to project our own needs onto other people… and frankly, this is a significant male need. If we think physical intimacy sounds nice, we hope you do, too. Between our own projections and the constant barrage of media telling us this is how men and women relate to each other, it’s tough to see beyond it. Just like you, we want to feel attractive. We want to be wanted.
It’s true… we’re clueless when it comes to understanding women. We see ourselves as open books and are disappointed our wives don’t do simple things to please us. Why would a married man turn to porn or prostitution? Usually because some need isn’t being met. The bedroom isn’t a relationship, it’s an expression of a relationship. Selfishness and self-giving can be expressed here. Spouses who are focused on their own needs are less-satisfied than those that truly give of themselves. It’s a beautiful metaphor where giving is pleasurable to both. Patience and communication are important in all aspects of the relationship.
Women may turn to movies, books, and other media where they see an idyllic representation of relationships. They see perfect men who are seemingly in love with their women and are attentive to their needs. The characters are written that way and it is an act performed by men who in real life may not have solid relationships at home. Where men are often focused on physical expression, women may turn to “relationship porn.” It isn’t bad to enjoy romantic movies… it becomes a problem in a relationship when it becomes a primary source of romantic fulfillment.
Another emotional trap is focusing on the children at the expense of our spouses. It sounds loving and seems like something our spouse should appreciate. However, the husband-wife relationship is the primary relationship in the family. We can alienate our spouses over time by neglecting the affection due to them in favor of the parent-child relationship. When the children eventually leave, spouses are left to figure out a new beginning on top of a lifetime of struggle. A growing family should multiply the love, not divide it.
Women tend to be wired for intimacy while men tend to be wired toward action. Women have relationships just being with another person while men tend to have relationships in the midst of doing things. This dichotomy can be a source of friction.
Men also have other needs beyond the physical—despite the representations of the modern world. Lusts of the flesh may include bread and wine… but man does not live by bread alone. A physical relationship isn’t enough to hold his attention for the long- term. Although all individuals are unique, most men have a need for respect. We want to be appreciated for the work we do—in the home and in the world. This is where familiarity in the marriage may breed contempt… our wives know us better than anyone else… better than we know ourselves. As we accept awards, she knows we are flawed human beings. She knows our sins. She knows our misaligned priorities. She knows what we neglect. She may be disgusted by the adulation of others especially if she believes the opposite of the praise. This opens doors of opportunity for evil. Men may be easily attracted to the attention of others who don’t see beyond the public face… those who don’t know our sins… those who don’t know our past. The praise and respect of fans may be tempting. We crave it—especially if respect is missing in our homes. Relationships with acolytes are seductive… but poisonous.
We have to learn to speak love in a language our spouse understands. We have to listen, learn, and experience them. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes an outward focus. It takes patience. Sadly, these things are in short supply.
When modern marriages dissolve, you can often tell by looking at the aggrieved spouses… they tend to shape up. They upgrade their lives. They exercise. They try to be attractive to a new mate. When they find that new mate, they do what they can to please that person to help the relationship grow. It’s instinctual… and more than a little frustrating to the former spouse. If the spouses who had grown apart had spent some of this energy on each other, they might not have had to find someone new. We know what to do, we just sometimes lose interest in doing it for each other.
May I not wear a crown of indignation for my own minor hardships but rather be humble and contrite in realization of my own sinfulness. — The Personal Rosary
There are some unfortunate slogans attached to marriage these days that can be unintentionally harmful. We say, “If mama ain’t happy, no one is happy!” and “Happy wife, happy life!”. These aren’t bad slogans from a man’s perspective but when they become a mantra for marriage, they are terribly one-sided. Both spouses have needs. Both spouses have an equal claim to the attention and concern of the other. The unhappiness of either spouse can hurt the home. How about this instead: “Happy spouse, happy house!”
This isn’t to suggest that it is our job to make anyone else happy. That is an unattainable goal. It’s a recipe for dissatisfaction. We can put their needs before our own and show them affection but happiness is up to the individual. I have seen many people happy in terrible circumstances and many others unhappy in the best of circumstances. Happiness results from the joy of giving… because we are made to love. It’s hard-wired into us owing to our creation in the image and likeness of the one who is love-personified. We weren’t made for happiness as the world defines it, we were made for love. We were made for sacrifice. We find joy in the love we give and are grateful for the love we receive.
I had the opportunity to visit with another friend who expressed with some dismay that his wife of many decades was having anxiety about their relationship. He recently started a new business and was doing work for women 20-30 years younger than him. He said she was jealous of those relationships. As we talked, I started to see a different picture.
He worked and built an amazing reputation throughout their married life. When he first retired, that reputation led to more employment. When he retired again, he was hired again. The process repeated many times. Now, at over 80 years old, he had started a business of his own. It’s possible she may be jealous of the women but it might be because they actually get to spend time with him! She supported him throughout his professional life and likely thought that he would finally be with her at each retirement— only to be repeatedly disappointed. His life was always elsewhere, not with her. Her life was constantly waiting for him. By now, she may doubt his commitment to her. It may be the cause of her anxiety.
I asked him what his wife likes to do. Of the things he mentioned, putting puzzles together sounded promising. Wait… he hates puzzles. Sorry, my friend… this isn’t about the puzzle and it isn’t about you. It’s about her. If you want a relationship with her, join her in what she loves from time to time. Unless you want to take up quilting, this seems a good option. Put away the phone and other distractions and be with her in the moment.
He said she also complains that she has put on some weight… especially during COVID. She doesn’t feel attractive anymore. He said she might consider taking up walking. I had a suggestion… rather than suggesting she take walks, he could ask her to take walks with him. Treat it like a date. Make them special. Make them routine. Make it part of their lives together.
Pray for each other. Pray together. Don’t be just a roommate. Be a soulmate.
If he wants a relationship with his wife, he has to build it. He has to be there with her. The magic of the relationship isn’t found in romantic getaways or candle light, it’s lived through ordinary days. It grows over time.
If the man spends his energy sacrificing for his wife, how are his needs met?
That’s the beauty of love… the one who loves him is supposed to be doing the same for him. His wife should give of herself in exactly the same way… sacrificing to meet his needs… joining in the things he loves. Doing for him what he would otherwise do for himself. When husbands and wives see love and marriage this way, it’s truly beautiful. Giving and receiving is a kind of marital dance.
What happens, though, when needs are not being met? Somehow, those needs must be met… they are needs, after all. If needs aren’t being met by our spouse, we find a way to meet them ourselves… or turn to others. We start focusing on meeting our own needs because someone has to. In that emotional independence, separations are made in the relationship. Things drift apart. Relationship bonds are severed. Evil exploits the fractures. Hearts are broken. Divorces occur.
What is love if not self-denial for someone else? What is self-denial without sacrifice?— The Personal Rosary
Lord, in the Transfiguration, You radiated heavenly glory yet spoke of your coming Passion. The cross is Your love revealed, not an obstacle in Your path. Help me sacrificially live my love for You. — The Personal Rosary
What if she never reciprocates our sacrificial love—or at least doesn’t seem to from our perspective? That doesn’t lift our burden to love. Jesus died loving those who rejected Him, tortured Him, and killed Him. We are called to imitate Him. Life can be stressful.
What is stress? I define stress as “unmet expectations”. Often in life, we don’t have the ability to change our circumstances. We can only change our expectations in those circumstances. Just so in our relationships. We can’t change someone else. They will be who they choose to be. They will do as they choose to do. Love is a choice. We may have to adjust our expectations of them at times… and pray.
No one can hurt us more than the person we love most. It’s painful at times. It’s part of the deal. I like to see it as a rock tumbler and spouses provide the sand. The sand in the tumbler is what polishes natural rocks into smooth gems. Our homes are schools for practicing virtue—learning to forgive and be forgiven. No one will hurt us more or more often than our spouse. As we forgive each other of the thousands of paper cuts— and worse—we receive daily, both stones are being polished for Heaven. We are told by our Lord to forgive. It starts at home.
It can be hard to forgive. Over the lifetime of a relationship, these hurts—both great and small—accumulate. They come to mind with each new hurt and form a pattern. We expect to be hurt. It becomes familiar. Minor disappointments become part of the fabric of greater issues. We regret our decisions. We regret our relationship. It’s easy to form new attachments because they don’t come with the baggage we’ve built up in our current relationship. We may see our spouse as the source of our troubles rather than someone who needs the love we have to give. Resentment grows. Love is reduced to duty. Days become drudgery.
This is why forgiveness is so important. We have to learn to forgive those we love and yet hurt us the most. Everything that has been done to us is now in the past. All of it. It can’t be changed. It can’t be denied. It can only be forgiven… or not. I have a question, though… if the past is painful and full of regret, why would we give it power over today? Why do we want those hurts to continue? Each moment we live today and each decision we make will build our future lives. By dwelling on past hurts, we rob ourselves of present and future happiness. Our days become darker and our future bleak. Every relationship needs a habit of forgiveness and a future of hope.
If we love only to be loved, it’s a selfish transaction, not a selfless one. If we want love in our lives, we simply love more and offer our sacrificial offering to God for His great love for us. The only love we can control is the love we have to give. The only love that never fails is from the one who made us in His image—the image of love. The walk can be lonely at times and there may be a need for counseling along the way— especially where communication has broken down. Couples counseling works best when both spouses are committed to solutions… committed to love. If we can truly give without expectation of reward, we can love even unrequitedly. The love we give is independent of the love we receive. In love, both spouses should want what is best for the other spouse. When we said our vows, that’s the promise we made.
We say we love each other. We commit to marriage. Marriage is a covenant bond where we are joined in one flesh—we completely give ourselves to each other. We are one person. We are inseparable unless we do great violence to this covenantal life.
We don’t truly understand the sacrifices love requires when we say our vows. Life is difficult. Life changes. We drift apart. We rush together. We hurt. We laugh. If we want to make our relationship last, we have to commit to true love… dying to self for the object of our love. We are to treat others as we would be treated—not as we are treated. When both are committed, life can be beautiful. When one or both thinks they have to focus on themselves, cracks form in the foundations of our homes.
We simply live the best life we’re able and deal with the world as we find it. It’s nearly universal to marriage vows—the promise to love. If we read our Bibles, we find that living a life of love in the image of Christ involves the cross. Very few saints had peaceful ends in the eyes of the world. Most found their joy in living in imitation of Christ—the Man of Sorrows. God doesn’t want happiness for us as the world defines it. He wants to make us holy… which is real happiness. We should expect that our relationships will take work, sacrifice, and self-giving… and it will hurt… often. We find joy in generosity. We find gladness in gratitude. We find peace in forgiveness. We find hope in trust. When we feel unloved, we will find love in giving ourselves unconditionally… especially to those who hurt us most.
Nothing here is meant to suggest that there is no such thing as mental illness or evil influences. There are situations beyond our control. Most of us promised to love in sickness and in health… so we should help as much as we are able. Professional help should be sought when needed… and we need a great deal of prayer… always.