“What’s the most important factor in a successful marriage?”
Over the years, I’ve posed that question to hundreds of couples attending marriage preparation classes. These couples were there, after all (aside from the need to meet diocesan requirements), for that reason: to learn how to build successful marriages and to be sure their own relationships were on track.
Of course, engaged couples always envision happy marriages for themselves. Nobody ever sets out to fail. But inside, they worry. Is it really possible?
All too often, couples would tell me, their own parents were perfect models … of marriages they didn’t want. Others saw how quickly the marriages of a favorite uncle, older sister or college buddy spiraled into failure, marred by cheating, abuse or bitterness.
Because marriage looks so risky to young couples, finding the “success factor” matters a lot.
So, what did these couples think was most important for a successful marriage? Invariably, communication topped the list. Certainly, relationship experts emphasize the importance of good communication in marriage. Good communication skills foster mutual understanding and build intimacy. And when emotions run high, good communication skills help a couple navigate differences and resolve conflicts constructively.
But communication is not the essential ingredient for a successful marriage; commitment is.
Why? Because marriage, though similar to other relationships, is unique. Sure, it includes friendship, common interests, passion, emotional intimacy and sexual attraction. But marriage doesn’t depend on these things. Marriage depends on the couple’s commitment to love — to love each other just as God loves his people, that is: permanently, faithfully and fruitfully.
Commitment is easy to say but tough to live. But it opens the window to enduring love. I think of a woman whose marriage broke up after many years and many children. Her husband met someone new and left his wife and family. The woman, who knew her marriage was real and enduring despite her husband’s infidelity, prayed daily for her husband’s reconciliation with God. She modeled charity and forgiveness toward him to her children. Led by grace, her husband eventually repented and returned to the Faith — and his family. His wife’s commitment to love “no matter what,” and to forgive in spite of the painful wounds inflicted by her husband’s betrayal, became a powerful witness to others about what marriage means.
I think, too, of the Iraqi War vet who returned home without his legs — no doubt fearing that his wife would no longer love him. Her steadfast commitment to their marriage instead brought him healing and helped them discover new purpose in their lives.
What makes such deep, unreserved commitment possible? God’s grace, which allows us to love in the face of ordinary struggles and impossible challenges. Couples sometimes treat the sacramental graces of marriage like a generous check received on their wedding day. They fear that once it’s cashed, it’s gone, so they don’t use it, saving it instead for something really big. Or they forget they ever received it and never cash it at all. God’s grace in marriage is a credit line (a lifeline, really) meant to be drawn upon daily. Unlimited, it’s available on request.
So what’s our part? Our task is to cultivate virtues — habits — that will help us live out our commitment to love. What we do shapes who we become. When we build up habits that help us love better, we become better wives and husbands.
Two virtues, in particular, are essential for a successful marriage: chastity and mercy. Chastity means integrating our sexuality so that it becomes an expression of love and holiness. It means seeing our spouse always as a person — not an object to be used. Chastity helps us practice self-control and self-denial, and to direct our sexual love always toward our spouse, not others — even in our imagination. Chastity frees us to love our spouse as a person and to forsake all others.
Similarly, mercy frees us from being controlled by our own feelings and desires (anger, resentment, bitterness) in the face of hurt or injustice. No one likes to apologize for wrongdoing. Forgiveness, or practicing mercy, toward our spouse on a daily basis helps us remember our own sinfulness and dependence on God’s mercy. God, in his mercy, doesn’t struggle to accept an apology. He doesn’t exact revenge or get in a final word to prove he was right and we were wrong. He forgives and forgets … and continues loving us.
So, what’s most important for a successful marriage? Commitment, fortified by God giving us grace through the sacrament; and by our actions of cultivating the virtues of chastity and mercy. Possible? Absolutely.
“I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13).
Mary Rice Hasson is an author, lawyer and Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.