‘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.