A healthy marriage as much about faith as intimacy

I remember how, when I was still engaged, I asked a lot of married couples for advice, and how, after a while, I started feeling a little disappointed. People always gave good advice, but it was always the same sort of platitudes, which were things I had already figured out on my own just from watching people and using common sense.

Obviously, I always wanted to make my spouse feel loved; obviously, if we had a problem, I hoped we would be able to talk it out instead of letting it grow into mutual resentment; but how would I know how to do those things?

In her award-winning book, And the Two Shall Be Forever One: A Faith-Filled Reflection on Marriage, Dr. Mona-Lee Feehan also offers a lot of good advice, drawn from both her own experience as a married person and from the stories of those she and her husband have journeyed with in their involvement with marriage preparation and marriage enhancement.

But not only does she offer practical suggestions for married couples to grow in intimacy with each other, she also frames her counsel as something almost like spiritual direction: it is about faith just as much as it is about marriage.

Dr. Mona-Lee Feehan draws on her own experience as well as marriage preparation classes she hosts with her husband.Grandin Media file photo

Part of the book’s strength is that Dr. Feehan has a gift for writing pithy sentences that, like the Wisdom literature of the Scriptures, communicate worlds of meaning with just a few meaningful words.  A beautiful example of this is when she explains to men why physical intimacy is a lower priority for a new mother because “her body is not her own” (an interesting phrase in and of itself in our political culture): “Whether pregnant, nursing, or simply consoling her child, a woman’s physical body is the lifeblood of her child.”

This statement is almost a straightforward, literal description of the truth, but it is phrased in an unforgettable way that may make it easier for husbands to understand their wives’ situation.  Another example is this maxim: “If you constantly ask yourself, ‘What can I do to help my spouse become the person that God intended them to be?’ you are living conflict resolution.” She admits that this sounds simple, but this little book is full of these simple profundities.

Another strength is how honest Dr. Feehan is.  She is frank about her own insecurities and faults; she describes the somewhat manipulative tactics she once realized that she would use in marital squabbles, and tells us about her dreams that expressed her deepest fears about her husband.  This bravery makes the book much more effective. It can be hard to confront our own faults; reading someone candidly confessing these same faults (and offering advice about them!) is probably exactly what a lot of readers need.

But there is another component here.  In a way, this book is not really “about” marriage, in the way that marriage itself is “about” more than itself.  This isn’t a book about simply “having a better marriage”: it’s a book about how to grow in deeper self-awareness, so that you can find more of yourself to offer to your spouse, and offer it more joyfully – and not just to your spouse, but, through them, to God.

As the opening of the book thoughtfully notes, Genesis 1 shows all creation living in relationship. Relationship is how we exist as creatures, and marriage is the highest creaturely relationship, so the deeper we grow in intimacy with our spouse, the more we become who we are.  Combining anecdotes and theological reflection, And the Two Shall Be Forever One can almost be described as a pastoral apologetic for the sacrament of matrimony as described by the catechism as a mutual, willing, definitive gift of two persons to one other.

What this means is that, when she talks about communication, she does not so much see communication as “part” of marriage, so much as she sees marriage itself as a total communication between two people (“communication on steroids”, as she memorably defines intimacy).  This means that communication means a lot more than just talking.

One of the most striking pieces of advice she offers (which I began discussing with my wife almost immediately after I read it) is to reach out and physically touch your spouse during a fight. This communicates love; it is a self-gift in the midst of anger. Similarly, rather than just talking about “sex”, Dr. Feehan prefers to speak of sexuality, and because “sexuality is intimately linked with our personal identity, incorporating everything we are,” as she puts it, all of our communication with our spouse is permeated with our sexuality.

“When we phone in the middle of the day just to say, ‘I love you’…we are living out our sexuality.”

Every little act of love and self-gift, whether or not any words are exchanged, is, to use the old-fashioned and altogether apt term, “love-making”.

A telling analogy she uses to make her point is to the famous principle attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.”  The Church defines marriage as a sacramental “means of grace”, and Dr. Feehan explores this in fascinating ways by framing marital love as a form of spirituality. As she puts it, “that giving of ourselves–our time, our talents, and our hearts–is also prayer. When we focus on our spouse and do everything we can to show that we love them…we are praying and living out our relationship, our spirituality.”

Marital love means living out the Gospel, and her advice on sacrifice in marriage (“sacrifice for our spouse is not so much giving up something for them; rather, it is giving to our spouse that which we hold dear to ourselves”) is not only a brilliant way of understanding self-denial in marriage, but is also useful for understanding what it means to turn the other cheek in general.

A book like this is so important because, as Dr. Feehan notes, the media is a lot more prone to depict relationship conflicts and strife than a successful marriage. (It has been a long time since Hollywood released a movie like 1955’s A Man Called Peter, a glowing depiction of the real-life marriage of U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall that explicitly portrayed Peter’s love for his wife as a channel for the love of Christ.)

We all know about the kinds of problems that arise in marriage, and a lot of resources for married couples focus on fixing or avoiding those problems. This book very intentionally tries not to do that, deliberately saving the discussion of “conflict resolution” for the penultimate chapter.  It focuses instead on what marriage can and should be, and for that reason it is a much more exhilarating and encouraging reading experience.

Our culture often separates “love”, which it understands a spontaneous and emotional sort of feeling, from marriage, sometimes seen as a restrictive and archaic institution, in the same way that it separates “spirituality” (equally seen as spontaneous and authentic) from religion (also seen as suffocating and oppressive).

Dr. Feehan challenges all these dichotomies: marriage and love, spirituality and religion all find their fulfilment in each other, if only we open ourselves up fully to them. And the Two Shall Be Forever One contains a lot of wisdom about how to do that, and for that reason couples at any stage of engagement or marriage would be well advised to prayerfully read it together.

 -Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist.  He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.

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