Husband & Wife Articles


Preventing Marriage Drift

A guide for husbands to “suffer intimacy”

By Mike Phelan

If our anti-marriage culture affords any benefit, it is the message that even good Catholic couples should not take the strength of their relationship for granted. How many of us have been shocked to find that friends who seemingly had a solid marriage are in crisis? Seeing that no marriage is beyond a drift into loneliness and isolation is instructive, humbling. Could you find yourself there, too? Yes.

For husbands, the drift likely will become apparent long after our wives have sensed it.

Phelan Family

Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe once said, “Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” He was speaking to priests about their foundational relationship with God, and therefore to all of us about this relationship with the Lord, which provides the grounding and fuel for every other love in our lives. We can quite easily apply this wisdom to marriage.

Deacon James Keating, director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, says something very important about the moment of falling in love with another person. He insists that the experience of falling in love with God or with our wives is not a trick of psychology, after which the drudgery of duties takes over. Keating says, “One must resist the lie that the ‘falling’ was not real. In order to do so a person needs to regularly embrace the truth of falling in love in the memory. In light of human finitude and sin, the first falling is not to be jettisoned, the aroused attraction was not a mistake that now needs to be rejected. No, the falling is the most trusted part of love; in it the eyes were open to see the other, a seeing of another never known before” (Falling in Love and Staying in Love: the Gift and Labor of Prayer in the Priesthood, 2012).

The memories of falling in love with our wives are there, accessible, worth pondering again. I recall one particular moment when Sharon and I dated. We had gone to dinner, and then for a walk, and it was time to take her home. But after pulling up to her house in the pickup truck, neither of us was ready to say goodbye, so we just talked and then she lay her head on my arm, facing me. We simply gazed at each other, saying absolutely nothing for many minutes, and I reached to her face and moved her hair aside to see her whole, smiling face. “I am loved, I am trusted,” I remember thinking. “This cannot end. She is beautiful. This cannot end. We must marry.”

Is staying in love possible? Yes, although maturity brings us past the self-absorption of early erotic love, but here is where the “work” of love becomes necessary.

The cliché “Love is spelled T-I-M-E” remains well-used because it is quite true. No relationship can thrive without time together. In the case of my own marriage, with six children still at home, weeks can pass without serious time together for Sharon and me.

Thus, my wife and I have developed are a few points you may want to ponder:

1) Have a fairly regular “date night” to avoid the drift of isolation.
2) Watch at least annually your wedding video or view the photo album. Revisit the moment when you acted in full freedom while in love through the exchange of vows.
3) As a husband called to “Love your wife as Christ loved the Church,” you are called to be first lover in the home. You carve out this time, then you provide the opportunity by planning the date. A wife whose husband does this usually flowers in love and appreciation.
4) This first step of “making time” is essential to the deep need our wives have to be cherished, listened to, sacrificed for. Our wives have a deep need for our full attention. We can pack away our “A” attention game early in marriage, and this is also a cause of marital drift. On our “A” game, we gazed into our wives eyes, seeing there her soul, giving our full attention to her. This too is an essential part of staying in love.
5) Deacon Keating calls this attention “the suffering of intimacy.” We are called as the first lovers in the home to suffer the intimacy of listening, of being present, undistracted for good amounts of time.

Reading this, I know some men may be saying, “Too much work. We’re doing fine. Love changes.” Be careful. Is this how Christ, our Bridegroom, loves us? Never. His love for his disciples was demonstrably attentive, present, passionate. With his help, we husbands can grow to be true lovers, if imperfect ones, and such husbands are absolutely necessary to convince the world of the power of Christian marriage.

Mike Phelan, Director of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix, holds a master’s degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America. He and his wife of 18 years, Sharon, live with their six children in Mesa, Arizona.