By Dr. Mark Krejci/Director of the Office of Marriage, Family and Life
Perhaps you know of a married couple like one I knew some years ago. They seemed more interested in pointing out what each other did wrong than thinking about complimenting or thanking each other when they did something right. The husband would say something and his wife would respond “that is silly.” She would misunderstand something about the news and he would gleefully point out her error and say “don’t you pay attention.” When they were out in public they regularly pointed out when each other would make a mistake to the point that it made others feel uncomfortable in their presence. Again and again this pattern of picking on each would occur to the point that they experienced so much resentment towards each other that hostility had become the primary emotion in their marriage.
I once witnessed a “classic” (and sad) argument between them. The wife said to the husband, “why do you keep making the same mistake over and over” to which the husband responded “Why do you keep picking on me!” “Keep picking on you!” the wife replied, “you pick on me all of the time and I am getting tired of this.”
This story brings us to the first phrase from 1 Cor. 13:4-7 that Pope Francis reviews in chapter 4 of “The Joy of Love:” Love is patient. The previous couple had little patience with each other and their marriage had descended into a verbal shouting match of two self-centered persons who wanted more to bring down the other than to lift them to God. The Holy Father writes:
“We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the center and expect things to turn out our way. Then everything (that doesn’t go our way) makes us impatient, everything makes us react aggressively. Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. ... our families become battlegrounds.”
This couple had no patience with each other and the Holy Father’s words were played out in their marriage. Their marriage had become a “battleground” of two self-centered people not wanting to back down, to show any signs of “weakness,” to admit that they were wrong, to say “I am sorry” and ask for forgiveness.
Contrast this with the following couple who demonstrated something quite different. One time a wife said something to her husband that was mean and hurtful. Instead of saying something, he let things go for a time because she was upset and said this hurtful thing in the midst of her frustration. To help calm himself, he said a string of Hail Mary’s because, as he later admitted, he thought it was better to put a prayer in his mind than to think the words he could have said to his wife at that time. His patience reflected God who, in the Old Testament, is said to be “slow to anger.” Pope Francis said that the patient love of God was a restraint in order to “(leave) open the possibility of repentance.” God loves us so much that he accepts that we will make mistakes. He does not move immediately to judgement but gives us the opportunity to repent – to say I am sorry to God. In part, this is why he gave us the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation – to give us the means to say “I am sorry” while he patiently waits for our contrition.
We should do the same for our spouse. We should not match their mistake with retribution, but have the patience to allow for their reconciliation. And so, after calming down, this wife recognized what she had done and she approached her husband with sorrow that he graciously received and their reconciliation was complete. He did not think “I am going to get back at you some time” but rather “I have you back in our love.” There are limits, which is why Pope Francis writes: “Being patient does not mean letting ourselves be constantly mistreated, tolerating physical aggression or allowing other people to use us.” We should not respond to another’s violence with violence or passivity but should protect ourselves into the future.
For the vast majority of couples, we should recognize that we are blessed when we can again and again and again give the gift of patience to our marriage because “Love is patient.” What is this Love that is patient? “God is Love” and so when we share patience in our marriage we are sharing love and when we share love we do our best to reflect God.