My parents are a really bad example of marriage, so I have always approached my vocation with an attitude that goes like “God is having a laugh”. Aside from seeing a partner as a way to soothe my insecurities for a long time, only to eventually get so comfortable in being single I can’t believe I am giving it up for the privilege of someone taking up 2/3 of the bed whenever I get up for the loo in the middle of the night. Anyway, the biggest baggage I brought with me is not having a clue what demarcates a normal relationship issue from something you should be worried about, all the way up to an actual red flag. It doesn’t help either how shy we all are about discussing relationship issues, and how it feels like there is something wrong if you aren’t 100% on the same page 100% of the time. So I read a lot of books, and I got to the diocesan marriage preparation day effectively ready to stand up and do the presentation myself, in fact (thanks to the advice of a wise faithful woman a few years into the whole marriage thing) I even felt I could have done an even better one. Still, here are 3 things I have learnt:
You need to address self-doubt and self-esteem issues
I have been there. Heck, I am still firmly there. I used to think everything would go away and be perfect once I had someone who liked me, that it would make all the years of bullying and abuse go away because at last I, too, could say that someone liked me as I am. Not a chance: he liked and put a ring on it, but I still look at myself in the mirror and cry. But this isn’t the only self-esteem issue that comes up in a relationship. Any argument can send you into a spiral of wondering if you just are wrong, which can go from something small to the moments of unfounded doubt from this article. One thing that I found helpful when looking at triggers was to first identify whether they were reasonable issues or potential red flags, then ask myself whether those things have bothered me all along; if they hadn’t, then look at what changed; if they had, then look at what could change; and, finally, to be completely honest with myself about whether I was scared of being alone, or of what people would say. These questions all helped to build on a foundation of self-assurance: I chose freely to be in this relationship, no issue was something that couldn’t be solved either through working on myself or us working together on us through honest and committed dialogue. It also helped me to individuate how past gaslighting and emotional abuse has made it difficult for me to see what is a healthy conflict, so I assume it also works the other way: people need to be wary of unhealthy patterns as early as possible.
Sex is a greater marker of a healthy marriage than Catholics are comfortable to admit
For a Church that has been fighting the Gnostic heresy since pretty much day one, we are really quite bad at the whole holistic view of mind, soul and body. From observation of a very awkward exchange between the people running our marriage preparation as well as what was written between the line of that section of the presentation and workbook, sex affects a relationship in more ways than whether it’s actually there and a total gift of self. I can’t really speak much for what people can do in practice since I have no idea, but it seems that communication is key (as touted by the NFP adverts promising all the intimacy), and what’s key to communication is, once again, not letting self-esteem get in the way and create a pre-emptive view of what the other person needs, wants or is trying to say. Also, for me there is no shame in speaking to a sex and relationship counsellorto see where the problem could be, and have professional knowledge to support you while solving it (the one in the link even offers free initial consultations to see if that’s right for you).
You have to be willing to admit you’re wrong and ask for forgiveness
No one ever finds it easy to admit they’re wrong. Especially not me, or my mother. I’m rewatching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries wondering what it would be like if I had a Youtubeshow that largely revolves around me making impressions of my mother, who by the way is always right. I was raised really unable to show any weakness, especially towards men, which makes it oh so easy to fall into seeing relationships as a power play. However, that was not what St Paul meant when talking about wifely submission. Admitting I’m wrong doesn’t make me a doormat. By the same token, if my partner admits he is wrong (as he often is), it doesn’t give me any power to lord over him. Still, what I learnt from marriage prep is that not only admitting one’s wrongs and being sorry is a mark of a healthy grown up relationships. You need to ask for forgiveness too. This requires something of the other person: if you only say sorry, resentment can grow. If you ask for forgiveness, you ask the other person to meet you in the middle and be open to letting go of the negative feelings for the sake of the relationship.
Relationships are never going to be easy, but being equipped for dealing with the difficulties makes me feel much less inadequate than I was before, and with a big dollop of God’s grace we’ll be just fine.