‘All the research says that a good marriage has little to do with where you and your mate come from and everything to do with whether you are willing to learn the skills it takes to have a good marriage — and to learn about each other to build your unique marriage,” husband and wife Gregory and Lisa Popcak write in their new book, Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage. They are directors of an active telecounseling practice, the Pastoral Solutions Institute, dedicated to helping people work through marriage and family challenges. They discuss the realities of marriage and Just Married with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “No newly married couple knows what they are doing when it comes to marriage. No one.” Not one?
Greg Popcak: Really, no. You might know your parents’ marriage. Or your friend’s. You might know the marriage you want, but no one knows what it’s going to take to make the marriage you are trying to have with this person work.
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that they were either born to have a good marriage or not. Or they think their partner was born to have one or not. Then, when things don’t work out they say, “I married the wrong person” or “There was something wrong with me.” All the research says that a good marriage has little to do with where you and your mate come from and everything to do with whether you are willing to learn the skills it takes to have a good marriage — and to learn about each other to build your unique marriage.
Lisa Popcak: Neither of us was destined to have a great marriage. Nothing in our backgrounds would suggest that either of us has any special talent when it comes to having a wonderful relationship. But I think our faith helps us be humble enough to know what we don’t know and our commitment to each other makes us willing to learn what we need to learn to do better.
Lopez: You mention the phrase “great love story” more than once. What is such a thing? How is it possible? Does it exist in the world today? You and Lisa sound perfect, but can it exist even in marriages that may not feel perfect?
Lisa: That’s funny! I hope it doesn’t sound like we’re perfect. It’s true we’ve been blessed in our relationship, but we’ve not always been there for each other like we should, and there are times we’ve hurt each other very seriously. Not on purpose. But you can’t try to “make two into one” without the worst parts of each other mixing and blowing up in each other’s faces now and again.
Greg: A great love story isn’t a perfect love story. That’s boring. Did you ever see a good love story without some drama? Some fear? Some sense that it could all be torn apart any minute? Of course not. Don’t get me wrong. A great love story also isn’t “all drama all the time.” That’s as crazy as a perfect life is boring. But a great love story — to my mind — is any love story where two ordinary, broken, hurting people somehow find the strength to stand in the face of all the stuff life throws at them and create something powerful, long-lasting, and beautiful together. It’s about hanging in there and fighting, and loving, and being willing to be humble enough to say, “I don’t know, please teach me” when you don’t know how to reach through the walls you’ve built to protect yourselves. It’s about being willing to wake up every morning and say “I do” all over again, whether yesterday was good, bad, or otherwise.
Lopez: You also repeat in various ways that loving feelings follow from loving actions. What if I don’t feel very loving and he doesn’t deserve loving actions?
Greg: Ultimately being loving is as much about you as it is the other person. You can choose to not be loving if “he doesn’t deserve it,” but that’s going to turn you into a walled-off, bitter person in pretty short order. In my book For Better . . . Forever, I have a section called “A selfish person’s guide to love.” Spoiler alert: I’m the selfish person I’m referring to. There are days I don’t wake up feeling particularly loving, or maybe I (erroneously) think Lisa didn’t “earn” my loving effort, but I also know that if I don’t choose to act as lovingly as I can manage, then I don’t like the person I start becoming, almost immediately. I start feeling bitter and cut off. Not a great way to start any day. But if I choose to be loving anyway, more often than not I feel better both about myself and about her.
Lisa: A lot of times people withhold love to try to say, “There’s a problem. I’m not happy and we need to fix that.” But there are more effective ways to do that. If I’m frustrated about something, I could choose to still do loving things and, in the context of being loving, bring my concerns directly to Greg and say, “Hey, look, I’m really trying to take care of you, but such and such isn’t working for me.” If I do that, my attempts to address the problem will have a lot more credibility than if I first spend a couple days moping and passive-aggressively not being loving to try to make him as miserable as I am.
Lopez: How can you have the confidence to tell your readers that they can make it “happily ever after”? You don’t know them all!
Greg: Because the data show that having a good marriage isn’t about skill. It’s about a willingness to learn and remain committed. If you can learn and hang on, you have what it takes to make it to happily ever after, and just about everyone can do at least those two things.
Lopez: The magic of staying together and flourishing is “a set of teachable skills”? That doesn’t sound very romantic.
Lisa: It probably depends on what you mean by “romantic.” If romance means you want a mind reader to automatically know your every whim, then, no, I guess it isn’t. But if by romance you mean two people working to show each other how special they are to each other, and if that work involves a willingness to learn new ways to be more loving, then I think that sounds pretty terrific!
Greg: Love is an art, and every art involves a “set of teachable skills.” I don’t think that takes any of the magic out of it. I think that conveys a sense of hope. If I think that one has to be born a Michelangelo in order to be able to pick up a brush, then the thought of trying to paint a picture becomes a depressing experience. But if I can take some art lessons and learn enough teachable skills to paint a picture that makes me happy and makes others smile, that’s empowering. Just because there is science to the art doesn’t make it less magical. It just makes it more possible for more people.
Lopez: Why is having an even stronger commitment to your vows than to one another so important? That doesn’t sound very “culture of encounter,” as the pope keeps talking about.
Greg: The “culture of encounter” is the pope’s way of encouraging people who hold different views to discuss those differences in a spirit of love and faith. Kinda sounds like marriage to me!
The only way for a church or a society — or a married couple, for that matter — to experience the kind of loving encounter that takes two people and makes them one is to realize that there is something bigger going on in the relationship than your respective opinions. Committing to your vows even more than to each other means that even on the days that the “encounter” between husband and wife is something less than “cultured,” you can still count on each other to show up tomorrow and try again.
Lopez: What if you get this all but your spouse doesn’t feel the same?
Lisa: We run into that a lot in both our counseling practice and on our radio program, More2Life. This is a different sense of what Saint Paul calls being “unequally yoked,” and it’s always painful. That said, the Pastoral Solutions Institute does a great deal of solo-spouse marital counseling with some pretty tremendous results. When you commit to your vows even more than you commit to your partner, you can find the strength to make your marriage something terrific even when you find yourself having to do a lot of the work on your own.
Lopez: What if someone picks up this book and gets the skills part but thinks the praying together bit is silly?
Greg: Ha! Then you’re probably Catholic! I’m kidding, of course, but there is some truth in the humor. Lisa and I are Catholic, of course, and we work with a lot of Catholics who somehow get the idea that prayer is “private.” The truth is that the Church believes that prayer — even solitary prayer — is ordered toward communion: communion with God, the communion of saints, and communion with the entire Church. Your prayer may be personal, but it’s never private. Prayer is always an act of communion.
Lisa: Every couple hits the wall at some point. Every couple experiences times when they run out of the love they can generate in their own hearts. That’s when couples who pray together have an advantage. The couple who prays together is committed to learning from the very author of love what it means to love each other the way he wants them to. The couple who prays together gets the privilege of “borrowing” some of the love that comes from God’s own heart when their own reserves run dry. I don’t mean to imply that it’s magic, only that when you humble yourselves — in front of each other — to go before God together and say, “Lord, teach us what we don’t know,” doors open up that weren’t available to you before.
Lopez: Does the title of your book in any way suggest that married couples way beyond the first five years may be hopeless if they have not developed good habits?
Greg: Certainly not hopeless, but definitely harder. Having a good marriage on your own (as opposed to getting a good marriage after therapy) is mostly about setting good precedents that build on each other. By cultivating good habits with regard to communication, priorities, rituals, and routines, you establish the connections that hold you together and continue to strengthen even after all the commitments and responsibilities of kids, work, and life start pulling at you from all sides.
Lopez: Why is making marriage “a welcome, safe, and happy place when the storms of life are blowing hard against your home” important to more than the married couple?
Lisa: Who isn’t it important for? Even so, I can’t think of a relationship that it applies to more than marriage.
Lopez: “Even when staying committed to your marriage doesn’t make emotional sense, your long-term success, not to mention your personal integrity, depends on your ability to keep the marital promises you make to God and yourself even when you feel as if your spouse doesn’t deserve your commitment”? So when is a marriage really over?
Greg: When both people decide to give up on it. A marriage has no life of its own. It only has the life two people put into it. I always tell people who ask me how they can know if it’s over that they’re asking the wrong question. A better question is “What do I need to do to respond more effectively to the challenges my marriage presents?” If I can convince even one spouse to stop taking their cues from their mate’s bad behavior and refocus on generating their own healthy responses to their marital challenges, there is a more than good chance that their mate will change too.
Lopez: Should we feel comfortable with complaints? Do they help us keep from criticism and contempt? Can the latter be good at all – or just warning signs or worse?
Greg: A complaint is when you indicate your displeasure about some thing. A criticism is when you indicate your displeasure with your spouse. It’s the difference between “I’m tired of being late all the time” and “I’m sick of you making us late all the time.” The more responsive a couple is to each other’s complaints, the less likely it is they will fall into the patterns that lead to the four stages of marital communication collapse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Lopez: Is it possible to go through married life not being defensive?
Lisa: Of course not. We make a point of saying in the book that if a couple is defensive once in a while, that’s normal. In fact, every couple occasionally indulges in contemptuous behavior. That’s never a great thing, but it happens. As long as it’s more the exception than the rule, you’ll most likely recover. What marks a descent into the defensiveness stage (and the others that follow) of marital collapse is when almost every interaction evokes some defensive comment, as if your mate it so used to being picked at that they just assume you’re doing it again.
Greg: For example, imagine that you lost your keys and you mutter — entirely to yourself — “Where’d I put my keys?” and your spouse, from the other room, pipes up with, “Don’t look at me! I didn’t take them!” You’re talking about a completely unbidden defensive response that’s probably the result of a lot of other negative exchanges that came before. That suggests that defensiveness has become habitual and that you should probably seek help.
Lopez: What if a child comes sooner than planned?
Greg: I know it comes as a shock to people, but sex does produce children — even today. It’s going to be okay. Most people think that kids kill romance, but that’s not the case. What kills romance is when adults act like kids. Research shows that, when children come on the scene, if the father willingly steps into the relationship’s caretaker role, the marriage can actually become more intimate after the birth of children. It’s the marriages where the guy sits around waiting for his wife to get back to taking care of him that things start falling apart. That guy starts seeing the kids as competition, and his wife starts seeing him like one of the kids. Not a great recipe for romance. But that marital breakdown isn’t the kids’ fault. The response of the husband to the presence of children appears to be the largest factor in determining whether marital intimacy will soar or tank after kids.
Lopez: What if money concerns are driving us apart?
Lisa: My grandmother had a saying that “when poverty comes through the door, love flies out the window.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Money troubles are stressful, but they give a couple even more reason to stick together. In fact, that’s the most important thing to remember in all conflict: namely that the most important thing about problem-solving isn’t solving the problem at all. It’s taking care of each other so that you can find solutions together. No money problems were ever solved by a couple lashing out at each other. If any problem is driving you apart, it’s time to learn new ways to solve your problems. Get competent help.
Greg: Interestingly, research by the Gottman Institute shows that both happy and unhappy couples argue about the same amount and have a similar “solve rate” when it comes to addressing marital problems. The difference between so-called “marriage masters” and “marriage disasters” isn’t the frequency of their arguments or the number of their unsolved problems. Rather, it’s the way the couple treat each other in their disagreements. Marriage masters do a much better job of reminding each other that they care about each other more than they care about pushing their agendas on each other.
Lopez: Seriously, you have a book called Holy Sex? Aren’t you taking things a bit far?
Greg: Ha! Are you really setting up a question about sex by asking how far is too far? Seriously, most married couples don’t go far enough when it comes to the way they think about their intimate relationship. Sex isn’t just recreation. In marriage, it becomes a re-creation of the wedding day where a husband and wife repeat their vows in a language that goes beyond words. Great sex is all about bringing your whole self, your body, mind, relationship, and spiritual life to the bedroom. That’s what Pope Benedict meant when he wrote that “eros tends to rise in ecstasy toward the Divine” (Deus Caritas Est) when it’s rooted in a loving relationship that places working for each other’s good first and foremost.
There is a big difference between what we call Holy Sex and what most people think sex is. In fact, out of the 19 different books and programs we’ve authored, our most popular book is Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. That book has transformed more marriages than we can say. It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that, rather than being the “Church of ‘No,’” Catholicism really does offer some profound insights into what it takes to celebrate a passionate, sexual relationship in marriage that can last a lifetime — and, in fact, should last a lifetime, because in marriage, sex becomes a physical sign of the all-consuming passion God has in his heart for each of us, his Bride.
Lopez: What do you mean when you write that one’s marriage does not have a life of its own?
Lisa: Sometimes it can feel like marriage is something outside us, but that’s an illusion. If I challenged you to “show me what a marriage looks like,” the only way you could do it would be to show me a woman and a man. Marriage is two people. It isn’t an “it.” Marriage draws all of its energy from the life the husband and wife give to it. It’s possible for “it” to stop working only if the couple stops working on “it.”
Lopez: Is getting marriage right, acquiring these skills and habits, essential for getting some of our more contentious political debates right?
Lisa: Of course. In fact, as beleaguered as it may be, marriage is the foundational unit of society. It’s where we learn all the lessons about how to live life, solve problems, and negotiate differences. Marriage socializes adults and teaches children how to be adults. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that a lot of the reason no one seems to know how to collaborate anymore is that so many of us grew up in homes that did not model respect, collaboration, or mutual regard.
Lopez: How important is it to realize “your marriage isn’t just about you”?
Lisa: It’s everything. Of course a good marriage should meet the needs of both the husband and the wife, but if you go into marriage thinking marriage is about you, then you can’t avoid the petty scorekeeping that stops either of you from being as generous to each other as a marriage needs to become everything a marriage can be.
Greg: Ideally, when a couple practices the kind of mutual generosity that healthy marriages require, the husband and wife are so concerned with meeting the other’s needs that their own needs get met without either one’s having to make too much of a fuss about it. Of course, that’s an ideal, and it often breaks down even for the best couples. But if we can at least cultivate the mindset that “marriage isn’t about me, it’s about loving you,” then we can at least begin to get past the self-protective walls we put up to make sure that “I’m not giving more than you.”
Lopez: How is it that we “find ourselves by making a gift of ourselves”?
Greg: Toddlers build their identities around their preferences. It is not that they prefer to eat peanut butter and jelly with the crusts cut off. It is “I am the child who eats sandwiches with the crust cut off and how dare you violate my sense of self by giving me crusts! Are you mad?!?”
Unfortunately, a lot of adults never develop more than a toddler identity. They fear “losing themselves” by having to accommodate each other over silly things like how the dishes are done or how the bills get paid or whether the toilet tissue goes over or under the roll. But like Jesus said, “Anyone who loves his life will lose it.” The more we cling to these silly preferences as the source of our identity, the more we will always feel like we are losing everything.
On the other hand, adult identity is discovered through generosity. The more I serve you – the more I use my gifts, talents, time, and treasure in a way that actively tries to bless you – the more I discover the thoughtful, loving, humane person I was truly created to be. I lose my comfort zone, but I gain my humanity. Marriage gives us the opportunity to discover our true selves by challenging us to abandon our false identities — rooted in our tiny, suffocating comfort zones — and embracing the people we were created to be: people who can discover who they are only by using everything God has given them to work for the good of each other.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.