In the oft quoted words of St. John Chrysostom we read, “For there is no relationship between man and woman so close as that between man and wife, if they be joined together as they should be.” How do we apply this timeless principle during a time when marriage is being challenged in unimaginable ways and we move toward a “new normal” beyond the pandemic?
In recent years the divorce rate in the US has plateaued and even decreased. However, according to some statistics, filings for divorce took a sharp upward turn of about 30% in 2020, and marriage therapists are having difficulty keeping up with their increased client load.
Why are marriage difficulties amplified right now? The simplest explanation? Couples are experiencing more relational strain as they navigate the challenges and stressors of Covid.
Thus, a typically financially stable family may now face financial difficulties for the first time due to Covid. Perhaps one spouse has lost his/her job. Or, husband and wife who under normal circumstances tend to live parallel lives, with the husband working very long hours and spending little time at home, are now working in close proximity at home due to workplace Covid restrictions. Additionally, they have gone months with minimal in-person contact with family and friends. With more face-to-face daily interactions, they have more conflicts. Perhaps one spouse withdraws, while the other pursues to resolve issues that arise.
More significant, however--issues in marriage, previously masked and covered under more normal circumstances, have surfaced, creating increased distress in the marriage. For instance, if one spouse is more of an introvert and the other an extrovert, even under “normal” circumstances, this personality difference likely creates some tension. Come Covid—the introvert may feel much more in his/her element with the pressure of fellowship/socializing lifted. However, the extroverted spouse who is energized by being around people is really suffering. The extroverted spouse may seek more socialization and engagement from the his/her spouse during Covid, because of limited to no outlets for socializing, while the introverted spouse wants to be left alone.
No matter how a marriage is normally characterized—growing and dynamic, stagnant but stable, or troubled and distressed—the pandemic affords us a unique opportunity to pause, recognize the underlying issues that have surfaced, and attend to them. Most importantly, the increased physical closeness we are experiencing as we continue to spend more time at home reminds us that our spouse is our closest neighbor, and we are responsible to love him/her with the love of Jesus Christ.
What are some ways in which we can utilize this opportunity to more faithfully and deliberately attend to our spouse and use this opportunity to build a stronger marriage? Below you will find some “tried and true” practical suggestions for building a healthy, holy marriage. Though the list is far from exhaustive, it provides a starting point for couples to consider.
Take time to reflect on, name, and discuss the strength and growth areas in your marriage. Then together choose one strength and one growth area and discuss how each of you contributes to it. For the strength area, consider how you will continue to cultivate it. For the growth area, decide on how each of you will repent/change and allow Christ to begin to transform it to a strength. Crucial to this discussion is prayerfully looking inward and not pointing the finger at your spouse.
For example: Perhaps you have difficulty navigating conflict. One of you may process more in your head and silently, while the other prefers to process verbally, making it very difficult to work through conflict since your communication styles are so different. How do you each move toward the other so that you both feel honored and respected as you work through issues?
Commit to 15 minutes of meaningful conversation daily, where you interact “heart to heart.” In the words of William Doherty, author of Take Back Your Marriage and The Intentional Family, “If a married couple with children has 15 minutes of uninterrupted, non-logistical, non-problem-solving talk every day, I would put them in the top 5% of all couples. It’s an extraordinary achievement.” Think about this—an extraordinary achievement for husband and wife, in the most intimate of all human relationships, to spend 15 minutes in meaningful conversation daily?
Pray together. Some couples consider mutual attendance at worship services to constitute couple prayer. Those with children in the home who have an established rhythm of family prayer (before/after meals, morning/evening prayer) consider this prayer time to constitute couple prayer. However, as faithful Christians being joined as we “should be,” prayer of husband and wife in the intimacy of the home is important for cultivating a marriage in Christ. We can begin very small and simple with the Lord’s Prayer or Trisagion prayers at an appointed time weekly, then build on it. If husband and wife are in different places in their personal prayer life, it is important that neither impose his/her practice/s on the other, but rather, as a couple, mutually agree on how they will pray together.
Play together--whatever that means for you as a couple. Playfulness is an important element of a healthy, whole marriage. Playfulness can include anything from exercising together, reading a book out loud to one another, playing board games, doing puzzles, turning on the “oldies” and dancing…
Make requests of one another, not demands (“You have to/must”); and, avoid the use of “you” at the beginning of any statement you speak to your spouse, as “you” statements often point the finger at the other. “I” statements are much gentler…” I would love for you to….”; or, “I feel hurt/dismissed/disrespected when…”
Yes, Covid has brought unimaginable challenges to our personal, marriage, family and parish life. Yet, for those who believe, God works good in all things. Let us take this continued opportunity of reduced commitments, responsibilities, and activities to cultivate the closest and most intimate human relationship in our lives. Then will our marriage be a beacon of light for the “life of the world.”
Presvytera Kerry Pappas is the Seminarian and Clergy Couple Care Coordinator.