Renewing Gratitude: Spouses

If one’s home is the most stable object in most of our lives, one’s spouse is surely one of the most stable people. Like one’s home, one’s spouse (or partner or long-time boyfriend or girlfriend) is easy to take for granted on account of this person’s seeming permanence in our lives. Because they are there day after day when we wake up, when we go to bed, and a lot of the time in between, we gradually slip into the unspoken assumption that they will always be there.

We feel this assurance on an emotional level despite knowing on an intellectual level that this assumption is not necessarily well founded. We have all heard the statistics that half of all marriages in this country end in divorce (although some have argued that this stat is misleading)a foreboding reminder that human relationships require constant work if they are to remain healthy. Nonetheless, the truth of human nature is that we live more from the heart than we do from our heads. Our daily routines exert a much stronger force over our perceptions of reality than do statistical analyses. And so we grow accustomed to our spouse’s presence and perhaps lose sight of what made this person so desirable to us in the first place.

It seems to me that this gradual slide into (over)familiarity must be a major contributing factor to infidelity in marriages and other long-term relationships. No matter how funny, interesting, or attractive a person is, these desirable qualities will inevitably lose some of their luster as they become expected aspects of our daily interactions with this person. Conversely, the temptation to take up with someone new and more mysterious is so strong precisely because of that person’s novelty. Scientific experiments have shown that the pursuit and anticipation of a desired object is actually more pleasurable than its acquisition. Such evidence points to the fact that simply seeking a newer, more mysterious mate when we tire of the old one will only lead to a vicious cycle.

You don’t have to fall into infidelity to understand the fading of attraction and excitement in a romantic relationship. It is a virtual inevitability that spontaneous feelings of excitement and attraction will fade as one grows accustomed to the presence of one’s partner. However, that is not to say that infidelity is inevitable. Habit can contribute to the fading of attraction, but it can also contribute to the renewal of mutual appreciation in a relationship.

A few years ago a man shared this heart-wrenching story in a blog post: After an extended period of cheating on his wife, he finally told her one night that he wanted a divorce. He drafted a divorce agreement in which he offered her their house, their car, and a 30% stake in his company. She tore up the agreement and then told him that she had only two conditions—that for their last month together they carry on as normally as possible for the sake of their son and that for that month he carry her from their bedroom to the front door every morning. He thought the latter request odd, but he agreed.

Not having had any real physical contact in some time, it was awkward when he carried her to the doorstep that first morning. However, as they repeated the ritual day after day, it began to feel different. One the second day she relaxed a bit and leaned on his chest. As the month went on and the ritual continued, he felt a sense of intimacy growing.

On the last day of the month he held her in his arms for a long time before finally walking to the door. When he left, he drove straight to the home of his lover and informed her that he would not be divorcing his wife after all. He said, “My marriage life was boring probably because she and I didn’t value the details of our lives, not because we didn’t love each other anymore.”

He returned to his own home that evening after work, flowers in hand, and ran upstairs to the bedroom only to discover his wife dead. He would later learn that she had been fighting cancer for months. He had been so consumed with his affair that he hadn’t even noticed.

We human beings are a mixed bag—body and soul, flesh and spirit. We live not only by our heads but also by our hearts. Indeed, we need to use both lest we become cold, heartless machines or instinct-driven animals. When it comes to nurturing our relationships, one important way we use our brains is by identifying and choosing the habits that will form our hearts. As Christians, we participate in the Eucharist every week because over time this practice fosters gratitude in our hearts for all the blessings God has given us and trains us to open our hearts to others. As spouses, it is important that we cultivate similar practices in our marriages. For the man in this story it was carrying his wife every day that helped him rediscover love and gratitude for her. For you it might be reciting your wedding vows every month, retelling stories from your courtship, weekly dates, or simply being intentional about creating opportunities to see one another in the contexts (a book discussion, an athletic game, a service event) where you first fell in love.

Like the man in the story, many of us too often forget the gift that we have in our spouse. Our spouses know us as we yearn to be known and sacramentalize God’s unconditional love for us in a way few others can. This love and support is a gift beyond comparison and one that is worth rediscovering time and again.