Years ago at one of my bridal showers, friends and family wrote down marital advice that they thought was the most important for a successful marriage. As I read through them, they seemed so obvious. “Spend 20 minutes every night with your spouse”; “Compliment each other”; “Love what the other loves”; “Don’t go to bed angry.” All were simple tidbits of advice that seemed so natural and intuitive, they hardly seemed liked pieces of advice at all. That is, until my husband and I were tested. Following the simple advice, “Don’t go to bed angry,” when you’re seething mad at your spouse is not simple at all. Similarly, when you fast forward 10 years and add five kids, finding “20 minutes with your spouse” to really connect after a long day takes a concerted effort requiring an arsenal of caffeine in order to encourage more than a few grunts over a shared bowl of ice cream.
Time after time, this simple advice from wise friends and family who had already undergone the challenges of married life has proved invaluable. These veteran couples knew these tidbits were worth their treasure in gold in times of trial.
As an idealistic engaged woman in love, I naively thought our marriage would never face challenges or be tested. Then we had our first full-blown fight—in Home Depot—over paint colors. Luckily my naiveté balloon was popped by something as inane as which color our living room should be painted. The challenges of newlywed life were real and plenty: household tasks, handling finances, miscommunications, and petty annoyances unresolved that were growing into a tense undercurrent. We didn’t want to ask for help, though. We were newlyweds. We were supposed to be madly and passionately in love. The truth was that we needed support. We needed advice.
Covenant of love
Our parish recently began a marriage enrichment program called Covenant of Love. The ministry was started by Greg and Julie Alexander, a couple on the brink of divorce before a priest friend helped them restore their love by inviting God back into their relationship. Soon after, in 1999, they founded The Alexander House, which “works to educate, strengthen, promote, and advocate the splendor, beauty, and truth of God’s plan for marriage.” Each month, couples come together for a date night. The room is lit by candlelight and there is an array of delicious treats, wine, and fellowship. A “core couple” makes a presentation, followed by a video series from the Alexander House apostolate. After the video, there is a group discussion based on the month’s topic, ending with time to socialize.
During our Covenant of Love date nights, we’ve discussed a variety of topics, from the dangers of pornography to societal effects on marriage to the five love languages. Throughout the year, there are special date nights. One night was the “Not So Newlywed Game” hosted by one of the core couples, Joan and Joe Duda. The night was filled with laughter as couples tried their hardest to match each other’s answers when asked, “What is your spouse’s favorite midnight snack?” or “What’s the worst gift you gave your spouse?” During Lent, our pastor led us in a special Stations of the Cross for married couples. For Valentine’s Day weekend, a guest speaker delivered a speech on marital intimacy.
Each night, no matter what the subject, my husband and I walk away strengthened. By taking the time to enrich our marriage, we feel equipped with a fresh resolve to face the struggles in our marriage vocation with patience and steadfast dedication.
Culture of marriage
Through the Covenant of Love date nights, friendships form between couples who are all striving to deepen and better their marriages. These friendships are an important aspect of marriage enrichment programs. Hilary Towers, a psychologist who writes on marriage and spousal abandonment and was instrumental in beginning the marriage ministry at our parish, explains, “Building marriage-minded communities means, at its core, creating and sustaining authentic friendships between like-minded married couples—couples who are fully committed to living out their vows, to nurturing and protecting their own marriages and others’ marriages, through whatever challenge or crisis comes their way.”
One of the mentoring couples in our parish dedicated to helping others live out their vows faithfully is Mike and Clare Rohan. Through 23 years of marriage and eight beautiful children, they have developed a passion for helping couples discover God’s truth for marriage. By sharing the struggles in their own marriage, the Rohans hope that couples facing challenges realize they are not alone. Clare often speaks to couples about the love of our heavenly Father. As any loving father, he has left us not just a set of rules to follow but a loving plan that leads to our ultimate happiness.
Ministry to the newly married
An apostolate created by Agape Catholic Ministries is called Ministry to the Newly Married. Agape Catholic Ministries was founded by Christian and Christine Meert and is “dedicated to the building of strong, Christ-centered families.” This new program offers marriage enrichment for the first five years of marriage through a couple-to-couple mentoring program. Each newly married couple that enrolls in Ministry to the Newly Married is assigned a mentor couple within their parish. The newlywed couple meets with their mentoring couple three times a year in their home and one final meeting at the parish with all the couples in the program. Every year, the couple is assigned a different mentoring couple. There is a range of topics covered, such as Reflective Listening, Fighting and Anger, Married Spirituality, Dealing with Big Changes, and Keeping Good Communication. The program is being offered to all engaged couples in the Diocese of Colorado Springs starting in January 2015.
Ministry to the Newly Married strives to strengthen newly married couples in their parish, giving them a foundation. Mentors teach the newlywed couples how to be committed to helping each other developing the relationship skills needed to live out the sacrament of marriage. The program promotes parish life, not only by teaching the newlyweds how to serve but also establishing firm ties that will solidly anchor newlywed couples in their parish. On a personal level, Meert describes the benefit to the mentor couples that devote their time to helping the newlywed couples: “The blessings a mentor couple receive are beyond any comparison. Mentoring a couple is like becoming foster parents. It’s an incredible experience to see a young couple grow and blossom.”
Both Covenant of Love and Ministry to the Newly Married highlight the importance these programs have for parishes. Volunteer mentor couples dedicate themselves to spreading the Church’s truth on marriage, thus supporting parish priests. These stronger marriages, in turn, create stronger families, which results in stronger communities. Towers explains the value of this witness and dedication: “Their children will see this tremendous example of fidelity and perseverance, and their friends will see it, and their siblings and parents will see it, and their cousins, and their parish, and their colleagues at work will see it. This is how we will turn the marriage crisis around.”
For couples interested in becoming mentors, the Alexander House offers a program called Marriage Disciples. The basis for creating this ministry was the Scripture verse from John 8:31–32, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” With these words as inspiration, Marriage Disciples trains couples to become leaders in spreading the good news of marriage. These couples, committed to living a faithful, lifelong marriage based on Church teachings, participate in an online training program. After training, these couples devote their time, not only by sharing God’s truth for marriage, but also by sharing their own personal stories with other couples. The Alexander House compares these mentors to coaches: “Marriage Disciples, as contrasted to counselors, are not seen as experts. Rather, they are seen more as a person with a set of skills they use to support people to achieve goals. A coach can be seen more like a partner or buddy that you check in with from week to week to review your progress, your vision for the future, and help you set new goals.”
These mentoring couples not only support other couples, priests, and parishes; they support their own marriages as well. Christian Meert explains the blessings mentoring couples find. “Every married couple working in the marriage prep or marriage enrichment field is extremely rewarded. Their own marriage will grow and bear fruit in awesome ways.” Towers agrees. “[These couples] are dedicated to the reality that it is precisely getting through these challenges and crises, which come for most marriages, through both prayer and hard work, which will cause marital love to blossom and deepen in ways they never could have imagined!” Discovering the beauty and truth that God’s plan has for marriage in their own lives, they have dedicated their time to sharing this truth to enrich and promote the beautiful vocation of marriage.
Covenant of Love and Marriage Disciples
Ministry to the Newly Married
For Your Marriage (a website run by the USCCB dedicated to marriage)