Sunday, July 6, 2014
The Spouse: The Ultimate Mortification
Once when I finished a talk on parenting mortification, a woman informed me that what I said had been very valuable for her........in thinking about how to deal with her husband!
Given the examples I had used, and the subject at hand, I was quite surprised.
But should I have been?
Let's be honest that our spouses provide our first mortifications of family life; we deal with them before the kiddos come along. Moreover, these mortifications continue right alongside of parenting mortifications such as sleep deprivation, kid tantrums, physical pain, and so on. I mean no disrespect to the institution or sacrament of marriage (and certainly no offense to my own wonderful husband). Marriage is a blessing with many consolations. But that does not change the fact that our spouses (and we!) are human and can make mistakes or sometimes be just plain annoying and even difficult to live with. I have one friend who tries to explain to her college students that marriage is a lot like living permanently with your college roommate...except there is no summer break. What she means is that things like your spouse putting clothes on the floor instead of in the laundry hamper or interrupting you in the middle of a sentence can become daily annoyances with no end in sight.
With our children we have an important responsibility for their character formation, and hence we have a duty to correct and improve their behavior. Of course spouses may sometimes need a charitable correction and we must be willing to do this, but our relationship with them is of a different sort, characterized more by equality than is the parent-child relationship.
And yet spouses do provide a crucial opportunity for parenting mortification, in part because our willingness to live with and forgive the faults of others, most especially our spouse, is a wonderful model for our children. Marriage, in and of itself (even before or without children) enables us the situation of having to die to ourselves to live for God in particular ways that may be contrary to our personal preferences and opinions. We sacrifice for our spouses sometimes in big ways - choosing locations to live, sacrificing career advances for the good of the relationship, negotiating where to spend family holidays, compromising on a budget, etc. But we also sacrifice for our spouses in little ways - living with the hair in the bathroom sink, the coffee cup left on the counter instead of placed in the dishwasher, the occasional sarcastic comment or complaint.
To get practical here, we often have to make a choice. Can we accept something as a mortification and offer it to God so as to die to self and live more fully for God? Or do we need to address the spouse out of charity and suggest a correction? Sometimes the answer to this choice is obvious. When a spouse is sick or injured and cannot assist in housework or childcare, we are best off accepting it as a mortification, offering it to God, and embracing the death to self such that it encourages in a spirit of generosity and even gratitude for the opportunity. (This may take continued effort and perseverance through the years, and trying again after failure.) As with children, there are many times we are faced with these mortifications that we simply cannot avoid or change. Hence, as with parenting mortification, the best thing we can do for our soul is to embrace the mortification, die to self, and live for God.
Or maybe the spouse has a slightly annoying habit, such as having long pauses before finishing a sentence in the midst of a conversation. For rapid thinkers and quick talkers, dealing with a spouse like this can be truly frustrating. But is the spouse sinning by taking a long time to communicate a thought? No, probably not. And so it's best to accept it as a mortification, striving for patience out of charity. Failure in this terrain is likely as we all have our little pet peeves that bother us, whether or not it's the spouse who is doing them! But the potential for growth is also amazing. With the grace of the vocation of marriage and the willingness to accept each other's faults, the habit of mortifying one's self with regard to a spouse's annoying habits becomes a gift to the relationship and the family as a whole.
At other times, however, mortification may not be the only solution. We may need to communicate honestly about something for the good of the spouse and the marriage. Is the frequent putting away of a spouse's shoes a problem or a mortification? It can be either or both; it may be simply a small nuisance easily offered as a prayer each day and forgotten. Or it may become a huge annoyance and cause for anger and resentment. It may begin as a prayer and end in sinful anger! We may strive to embrace an attitude of helpfulness and generosity, using this as an occasion for mortification, only to find that we have ended in bitterness. Moreover, it certainly is not a bad thing to ask spouses to be responsible for their belongings. The commitment to this little act of love may actually aid the spouse's sanctity more than your resentfully doing the work unnoticed aids your own sanctity.
Or perhaps there may be an instance when a spouse doesn't seem to be listening well, but rather turns the conversation back to an earlier topic that the spouse finds more interesting or important. Even if this doesn't happen frequently, it might be better to address it directly rather than offer it as a mortification, especially if it will detract in the future from maintaining good communication for the marriage relationship.
One thing is certain, though, and that's if you ask a spouse to do something and then criticize the way the spouse does it, you are becoming a mortification for your spouse. Sometimes gentle guidance is needed ("um, the diaper goes on this way; you put it on backwards, no worries, you'll get the hang of it"). But rarely are complaints warranted unless your spouse is actively trying to spite you. So if your spouse makes the bed one morning...and is not quite as good at it as you are...you are better off saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the effort and living with the wrinkles as a mortification (or, if it really bothers you, you could remake it when your spouse leaves the room for the day...). If you criticize and complain about the efforts, you'll be discouraging your spouse from future efforts and mortifying your spouse. And while it's good to accept mortifications, it's not good to choose to mortify others. The goal is to embrace the cross, not to strive to be a cross.
Moreover, if you know your spouse is working on something - for example, not being so critical or smiling more frequently or not looking at a phone during a conversation - it's best to try to appreciate that progress and be grateful for the spouse's efforts, rather than continuing to complain or offer corrections on the matter. When you know your spouse is making a concerted effort in a particular area, it's especially important to accept their failures as a mortification for yourself, offering it in prayer for their perseverance in the struggle.
Someone once told me that you can't get married expecting to change the person you love. But on the other hand, marriage does change people, especially when it is lived out as a vocation that involves sacrifice - the death to self in order to live for God in the marriage. The demands of marriage provide a crucial opportunity for growth in holiness. If you embrace your spouse as your cross - both your greatest struggle and yet your greatest joy - then you will be changed for the better. So don't miss this opportunity.