The new year follows Advent, a time to look forward and back, and Christmas, a time to celebrate the birth of hope and love. These holy seasons are meant for joyous celebration, yet for many they are seasons of stress, sharply contrasting darkness and pain, with twinkling lights and festive merrymaking. During this period, many look to the past and futures of their marriages and assume hope and love have died and cannot be resurrected. This results in more divorces being filed during the month of January than in any other month.
Beginning long before Advent, holiday pressure increased as we were bombarded by commercials showing how life should be. We saw handsome men presenting the perfect piece of jewelry to squealing lady friends and women, every hair in place, presenting scrumptious feasts to families looking adoringly up at them from perfectly set tables. In those 30 second commercials we concluded that each perfect looking couple is, or will soon be, married and will thrive forever in picture perfect marriages. Some commercials took promises of temporal happiness further by selling, not teddy bears and pajamas given to the receiver, but sexual gratification awarded to the sender.
We then vigorously applied conclusions gained from those 30 second commercials to everyone who is not us. We assumed everyone else has wonderful relationships, everyone else has a spouse who chooses thoughtful gifts, everyone else is appreciative of gifts a spouse brings to the home, and everyone else is “getting lucky” in love. We forget that what happens on screen is scripted, while life is spontaneous. We ignore the fact that advertisements offer snapshots of fictional individuals. We forget that snapshots, even if true, cannot offer enough information to credibly judge a relationship. We forget that judgments about universal happiness inside marriage cannot be applied to all of humanity, and exclude us.
New Year’s Resolutions Too Often Damage Unhappy Marriages
Further complicating issues is the call to make New Year resolutions. Inner voices tell struggling spouses that everyone has better relationships than they do. This makes it easy for them to look at their lives, feel unlucky, and vow to change. Unfortunately, we live in a throw-away society and believe the only way to change is to terminate what appears to be the problem. While we pretend to take responsibility for some challenges in our relationships, and claim to know other relationships are not truly picture-perfect, we act in ways that contrast such claims.
To make matters worse, movies and television give false hope. They portray a single parent or divorcee who struggles for a while but finds love at Christmas. We assume these characters, like those in the commercials, will live happily ever after, but forget they’re fictional. Statistics show such happily-ever-after scenarios are not true for many, but we assume we will beat the odds. We simultaneously look at the best of everyone else’s marriages and assume our relationships are the loveless exception, while looking at the hardships of everyone else’s divorces, and the instability of subsequent marriages, and assume we are the happy exception.
This forms the perfect storm as the new year approaches and resolutions are made. We look in the mirror and know we cannot go on like this. We congratulate ourselves for being a martyr through Christmas and believe we deserve something new. We resolve to make a change, and the only change we can see is through divorce.
The Thrill of Divorce
Just like a struggling couple, Advent and Christmas are over, and many see the new year as time to start something new. This thinking often leads to an affair or a divorce. Adults think divorcing after the holidays will make divorce less painful. They mistakenly think that children will not miss their intact families next Christmas if they have a year to “adjust.” Many rationalize actions begun in January by saying they gave their children the gift of a happy family Christmas, and the season is now complete. But Christmas, like marriage, is meant to be carried on in our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions.
Couples feel cheated by the brilliance of what they imagined Christmas would be, and the reality of what it was. They forget that holidays are about hope and love, which demand work and sacrifice, rather than twinkling lights and sultry commercials. They face the cold, sunless winter ahead congratulating themselves on making it through the holidays, but neglecting to carry meaningful hope and love from those holy days into the rest of the year. Instead they infuse the year with the chill of divorce.
Many stuck in loveless marriages think the only option is to pick up and move. Getting unstuck is exhilarating. When you’ve been stuck in an unhappy relationship for a long time, doing something, anything, feels good. Movement makes you alive again. Endorphins pump through your system. Adrenaline gives you the push you need. They can also cloud your judgment and affect your ability to see long term.
Catholics are called to move differently. We are called to love unconditionally and to serve in marriage, even in loveless marriages. Catholics are called to love, honor, and cherish the first person they exchanged vows with until death. But Catholics are not immune to temptation, darkness, or wondering how to love when loving is difficult or makes one vulnerable. Many wonder what a Catholic can do to rebuild love when divorce is looming.
10 Ways to Resolve to Love in a Loveless Marriage
A marriage can only be loveless is if neither party chooses to love. There may be a marriage where only one chooses to love, but there cannot be lovelessness unless both parties choose to be unloving. It is challenging to love your spouse when you feel no love for him or her, but it can be done, and doing so has nothing to do with changing your spouse!
- Love Better – Christmas is not about expensive gifts or about picking up and finding someone new. It is about the gift of self-sacrifice given to us by the Innocent. It is about leaving the world’s definition of love to give of yourself without seeking a return. It is in doing little things each day that we learn to love even the supposedly unlovable. The movie Fireproof and book The Resolution for Men (or its partner The Resolution for Women) give specific examples on little things you can do today to love better until loving becomes more natural.
- Embrace Vulnerability – Jesus could have come as a powerful and mighty destroyer of evil. Instead He came as a Baby in a manger. He made Himself vulnerable and changed God’s family for generations. Trust your vulnerability to Him.
- Look Up – Avoid bright, shiny object syndrome, especially when the bright, shiny object is divorce. There were no twinkling lights in the manger, but there was a star overhead. When daily struggles weigh you down, remember your joy does not come from ease of life, or what another gives you, but from God above.
- Look Inward – We are not made new in terminating marital vows. When two flesh are joined as one and then torn apart, scars remain, especially on children. Read the Bible to discover the many ways we are made new only in Christ. Make yourself a new creation each day. Choosing love heals what choosing to divorce cannot.
- Accept Newness – Don’t see yourself as a new creation while questioning the newness of others. If your spouse does something positive, don’t look for ulterior motives or reflect on how bad he has been. Thank the Lord for the gift of that moment.
- Start Again – New Year’s resolutions are popular but short lived. Many give up goals and fail to restart. Just as we are made new creations in Christ, the Church gives us new starting points, not just at Christmas or New Year’s. Resolve to start loving better on Saint Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, throughout Lent, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descends on Pentacost, a saint’s feast day or other time. Resolve to love better no matter how loving you already think you are! Resolving to love better is not a one time event!
- Limit Outsiders – When Love was born in the manger, only Jesus and Mary were present. Slowly, over weeks, others came to see the newborn King. Visitors were rich and poor, educated and not, noblemen and shepherds. The one thing they had in common was their belief in Love. Be sure those you invite into your circles also believe in Love.
- Close Ranks – When Herod wanted to attack and kill Love, the Holy Family closed ranks and moved from destruction. Today, outsiders see wounded love and jump in for the kill. Question the motives of those who hint that you should leave your marriage. Beware of taking advice from those who do not share consequences. Those who do not seek to build your spouse seek, intentionally or otherwise, to harm him or her. Protect your family by protecting your spouse. Move away from those who would cause harm.
- Don’t Quit – True love was given to you 2000 years ago and every day before and after. Your spouse may be incapable of showing love the way you wish, but you are also incapable of showing Christ love the way He wishes, yet Christ never stops loving you. His ability to love you does not rely on your ability to love just as your ability to love your spouse does not rely on your spouse’s ability to love.
- Love God – When you feel you cannot go on, that you are incapable of loving this much, or your spouse is unworthy of your love, love God by loving His creation. Put Jesus between you and your spouse. See your spouse through the filter the Lord creates. Seek the Holy Spirit’s power over your own understanding and desire to move.
Divorce is commonplace, but it’s not predetermined. Even while struggling in marriage, or after your spouse has uttered the dreaded “D” word, divorce is not a given. Read Hosea. Read Proverbs. Read the Psalms, Song of Solomon, the Gospels, Romans, Corinthians, and so many examples of how to love better. Identify with the Scriptural Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. See your Savior dying on the Cross for your suffering and your spouse’s sins and vice versa. Look at yourself. Heal yourself. Love yourself, your spouse, and your God in all circumstances.
Remember, even in divorce, the Catholic call to love continues. If you think it is difficult to love the person you married, imagine how difficult it will be to love the person you divorce. Think of how difficult it will be to love next Christmas when one of you is alone. Think of how difficult it will be for children to love when they are forced to settle for a Christmas phone call to the parent they love no matter how you feel about each other. Imagine looking into Jesus’ wounds while explaining your rejection of the Holy Spirit’s power and rationalizing your inability to love His Father’s creation.
The Lord does not tell us to love our spouses until the new year. He tells us to love, and He never asks us to do what we cannot. Don’t let the true hope and love of Christmas die this year. Let love be born anew within you even if is dying in your spouse. Cherish sacrificial love. Nurture growing love. Grow marital love patiently and gently. Allow choosing love to change your family for generations.
A loveless marriage is not a reality unless both parties stop loving. Divorce is not an option unless you make it one; neither is love. Choose Love.