This past February, my husband and I started planning the family trip to Las Vegas that will commemorate our 20-year wedding anniversary in two years. We spent a week in Sin City for our honeymoon, and think it’s only fitting that we return two decades later with our kids, having “beaten the odds” when it comes to staying married.
As we’ve approached that milestone, I’ve started thinking more and more about why our marriage has survived for so long while so many of our friends’ have crumbled. The most obvious reason we’ve survived is grace, of course; we’ve only been able to weather a failed adoption, the death of a child, chronic illness, bedridden pregnancies, four moves, seven job changes, and bouts of depression because God sustained us with His own divine life.
But there’s another factor, too, that has helped us not only stay together, but grow as a couple. When we converted together to the faith 15 years ago, our first priest emphasized that our primary job as a spouse is to help each other get to heaven.
It’s amazing how that one piece of advice completely reframed marriage in our minds. Suddenly, our marriage wasn’t just supposed to make us happier, but holier, too.
Too many women, however, were raised to believe that their primary job in marriage is to make their husband happy. No, above all, you must help him become HOLY. And sometimes, growing in holiness requires a lot of very unpleasant sacrifices and suffering, that feel anything BUT happy to us. This means that everything we do for and with (and even to) our husbands is supposed to lead him away from sin and closer to God. For that to happen though, we may be called to do things that are hard, uncomfortable, or stressful. For the good of our husband’s soul, we may be called to:
- Set appropriate boundaries. Boundaries are necessary in any relationship, including marriage. It’s saying, “I have a right to be treated with respect and there will be consequences if you don’t.”
If your husband denigrates your appearance, belittles your contribution to the household, or ignores your wishes when it comes to family decisions, then maybe it’s time to start drawing that line in the sand for the good of his soul. If you’ve requested that the disrespectful behaviors stop to no avail, then it’s time for the line to go deeper: “The next time this happens, I will be making an appointment for us with Father Smith to talk about it.” Or, “The next time this happens, I will be making an appointment for us with a marriage counselor.” Then follow through, going to the meeting alone if necessary. If your husband has developed the sinful habit of treating you disrespectfully, then love demands that you address it and try to help him stop.
It should go without saying that abuse of any kind shouldn’t be tolerated in a marriage, but I’ve met far too many women who allow it to continue under the justification that it would “hurt the children if I leave.” During one of the rough patches in our marriage, I was seeing a marriage counselor. She asked me what I’d do if my husband became physically or even emotionally abusive to me or our children. She was genuinely surprised when I told her I wouldn’t hesitate to leave him. “In my entire career, you’re the first wife I’ve ever met who didn’t have to be convinced she has the right to leave an abusive situation,” she said. (For the record, separating for safety doesn’t have to lead to divorce.)
- Deny him what he wants. Show of hands–how many wives find it difficult to tell their husband the family can’t afford that new cell phone or gun? Say no to sex? Ask him to stay home instead of going golfing or fishing with the guys (even when you’re sick?) I’m willing to bet most of us do. But being a permissive wife isn’t going to help your husband grow in holiness any more than being a permissive parent will help your child grow in self-control and selflessness.
For the first few years of our marriage, my husband and I got into many fights about money, because even after agreeing to a budget, he would ignore our goals and spend freely. One day, I informed him I was done with stressing over finances because he wouldn’t honor his commitment to our budget. I gave him our online banking passwords and copies of our bills, and told him he was solely responsible for how our money was spent. I promised to respect whatever decisions he made (and did). I was prepared to go to the bitter end…even if he’d bankrupted us, I knew that he needed to experience the reality for himself that you can’t have everything you want in life (especially on a civil servant’s salary).
A year later, he begged me to take over the finances again. He agreed to discuss any purchases with me over $25, and never again to blatantly disregard our agreed-upon financial goals. And he hasn’t. Today, he works and I spend the money and there is no more conflict.
There are many times when our husbands are called to sacrifice for us and we mustn’t be afraid to ask them to do that. I try to be as generous as I can with my husband, but sometimes I ask him to sacrifice that camping trip with his buddies because our children are sick and I need him…I ask him to drive the kids to their activities because I’m just exhausted tonight…I ask him to abstain from sex more often because I need to recover from that last difficult pregnancy. I do this not just for my benefit, but for HIS. Many husbands are willing to give up what they want for the good of their wives and children, if we’ll just ask for what we need. We do them no favors by shouldering burdens alone that are rightfully theirs to share.
- Assert your own dignity. About 10 years ago, I was a trained natural family planning (NFP) instructor through Northwest Family Services. I talked to dozens of women about the most intimate aspects of their marriages–their sex lives–and I was constantly stunned by the number of women who told me they would love to use NFP, but couldn’t because “My husband doesn’t want to abstain.” These women hated the side effects of hormonal contraception and feared its long-term health risks, but they truly believed it was their duty to be sexually available to their husband at all times. Even if it meant losing their libido, gaining weight, and risking deadly stroke and blood clots. Or going against their conscience.
As Catholic women, we talk a good talk about “the inherent dignity of every human person,” but how many of us demand that others–including our husbands–treat us like the incomparably valuable person that we are? I’m not talking about roaring feminism here, but about the simple recognition that as a child of God, you are too precious to be used, abused, or disregarded by anyone.
Loving your husband means teaching him to respect not just your inherent dignity, but that of every woman. This may mean throwing away your Pill pack, trashing his porn collection, or refusing to participate in degrading sexual practices. Will that cause tension in your marriage? Probably. But if you really love him, you’ll want what’s best for his soul above all else. Sometimes, sisters, we must be willing to die to our own desire for marital harmony if it will help our husband take a step closer to heaven.
“You get the respect you demand,” I tell my four daughters. Especially in marriage.