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The Spousal Secret


The secret to being a good husband.


I hate public speaking. It terrifies me to look out on a sea of faces or, worst of all, to look out and see only floodlights, knowing that behind that glare is a sea of faces, all looking at me and probably in a disapproving way — if they're awake.

It's something I have to get over, because God has made it clear to me that speaking is part of my vocation. But that struggle is not in my plans for the near term. Too many other vices and weaknesses are ahead of glossophobia in queue.

In the meantime I respond to speaking invitations with a form letter I call my "crucifix before the vampire" letter. It's supposed to drive away pastors and committees and conference organizers by making unreasonable demands of them. Most of the time it works.

Once, though, someone called with a plea. This was a friend, so I was already weakened: I couldn't send the form letter. He explained that he was in a jam, and he needed a speaker. I was so busy that I had no lime to argue, so I hastily agreed and asked him to e-mail me the topic.

I was busy, so I didn't open the e-mail until shortly before I was supposed to give the talk.

When I did, my blood ran cold. I put my head on my desk and groaned before turning to my wife: "Can you give this talk instead of me?"

"What's it about?"

"It says: 'The secret to being a good husband.'"

I was not encouraged to hear her laugh as hard as she did.

"Seriously, honey," I said, "you have to tell me what to say."

When she'd regained her composure and dried her eyes, she said, "Tell them the secret to being a good husband is ... chocolate." And she left me alone with my frightening task.

I typed the word chocolate on the page but got no further. So I decided to procrastinate and read the newspaper online.

Now, this was, on the surface, a very bad idea, because for me the newspapers usually spell the death of inspiration and the beginning of aggravation. But this time was different. It must have been a slow news day, because on the New York Times web site, I found a most remarkable feature.

Some clever writer had asked several famous scientists a leading question: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" Many answers were interesting in a nerdy sort of way, but one was a keeper. It was from David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Texas. He said that, in spite of his utter lack of proof, he believed in "true love":

I've spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I've documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I've discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women deceive and manipulate each other.... But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.

Profound self-sacrifice — sustained over many years and many decades — is what sets true love apart from mere "mesmerizing attraction" and "the desire to combine DNA."

As I read on, I was surprised and captivated by one phrase in particular, "profound self-sacrifice," which isn't in the ordinary lexicon of evolutionary psychology. Yet it rang true for me because it echoed Christian doctrine. It made sense in Dr. Buss's context as well. Profound self-sacrifice is indeed the thing that has to go beyond all barriers and boundaries, and it's most certainly something that will defy all scientific measurements.

Profound self-sacrifice — sustained over many years and many decades — is what sets true love apart from mere "mesmerizing attraction" and "the desire to combine DNA."

And, shameless exploiter that I am, it occurred to me immediately that my guardian angel was writing my good-husband talk for me. So I started typing with reckless abandon. No matter what my lovely wife may say, profound self-sacrifice trumps even chocolate on any list of the qualities of true love.

What's more, it's not just for husbands. Profound self-sacrifice is what being a good wife, being a good parent and being a good son or daughter are all about. So maybe the husbands who didn't want to change their lives would at least go home from my talk with advice they could preach at their wives.

Of course, I didn't need to learn marital self-sacrifice from the New York Times. It was waiting for me all along in the Bible: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her" (Ephesians 5:25-26). But even the Times must occasionally serve God's providence.

Self-sacrifice means that, for the sake of our marriages, we have to give up more than our bad habits. We need to give up ourselves, our wants and our preferences, our pet peeves and even our perceived needs. We need to make sacrifice our second nature.

The self-sacrifice must take place in an almost literal way. On our wedding day we made the move from I to we. In marriage the I must be sacrificed. So everything — hobbies, fascinations, cars, career goals, the desire to spend an hour reading a book beside the fire — everything in life must take on a new value relative to the good of the spouse.

Such sacrifice comes naturally to young people. We see it in all the courtship customs of the world. Men stay up all night strumming a guitar in order to serenade their beloved. The patriarch Jacob tended the flocks of his future father-in-law for seven years, and then seven more, and never uttered a word of complaint. Love inspires sacrifice. A heart madly in love demands to give itself in sacrifice.

As we grow older in a relationship, we can settle back into seeking our own comfort rather than the good of our spouse. Yet we should not let the fire die. We need to rekindle it if we have let it die, and the only way to do that is to begin to make sacrifices.

Love calls for profound self-sacrifice worked out in small details. Sometimes this will require heroism. The newspapers like to run feel-good stories about spouses donating organs for one another, and my love and yours may require such extreme forms of heroism someday. But most of the time profound self-sacrifice is more low-key.

Sometimes we'll have to stay up all night with a crying baby and then get dressed and put on a happy face for work the next day. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice will be to change the diaper as soon as we're asked — or better, before anyone else has noticed that it needs changing. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice of all will be to arrive home at the end of the day wearing a smile — just because we know that a smile will make the house and the evening much brighter than the weary expression that more accurately reflects our day. We want our first thoughts to be for our spouse rather than for ourselves.

In marriage we should, as much as possible, sacrifice our desire to criticize, our urge to complain or whine. Here's a little trick I learned: if I feel the need to complain, I go to a quiet place and complain to the Blessed Virgin Mary. If I can look Mary in the eye (so to speak) and still bring myself to grumble about my wife, then maybe — just maybe — I have something legitimate to complain about. Most times, however, as soon as I approach that perfect wife and mother — and even before I begin to formulate my prayer — she shows me that the fault is mine and not Terri's.

As we grow older in a relationship, we can settle back into seeking our own comfort rather than the good of our spouse. Yet we should not let the fire die. We need to rekindle it if we have let it die, and the only way to do that is to begin to make sacrifices.

On rare occasions, of course, I'm right in my grumbling. Even then I've found it a good policy to "complain" to Our Lady for at least two weeks before lodging the complaint with my wife. In the meantime Our Lady often will rush ahead and solve the problem for me, letting Terri know about it without my help. Other times Our Lady wins me the grace to live more patiently with the situation.

Jesus offered precious little in the way of practical advice for husbands and wives, but he did have something to say about friendship, and marriage is the deepest form of friendship. He told his apostles that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend, and then he told them a curious thing: He said that they are his friends if they keep his commands (see John 15:13-14)

Many centuries ago Saint Ambrose puzzled over this line. It's not customary, he pointed out, for friends to go around giving orders to one another. So what could Jesus have meant?

Ambrose took from Jesus' statement that we should ask ourselves: What would my friend command if he or she had such authority over me? Translation for me: I should anticipate the needs of my wife and do what she wants me to do before she asks me to do it.

My desires might be very good and wholesome, but that is precisely the sort of thing that is good for the sort of worship we call "profound sacrifice." It goes without saying that we should give up immoral habits and bad things. But the Israelites offered cattle and sheep to God because they valued cattle and sheep. God is pleased especially when we voluntarily sacrifice good things for the sake of others, especially the other to whom we're married.

Marriage is a sacrament, and so in marriage we need to imitate Jesus in the sacrament of sacraments, the holy Eucharist. We need to give ourselves entirely, as he gives himself entirely. We need to live wholly for the sake of the other.

We don't need the New York Times to tell us what Saint Paul put to poetry so long ago: that true love is identical with profound self-sacrifice, and it is always the "more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31).



aquilina Mike Aquilina. "The Spousal Secret." chapter forty from Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2007): 107-114.

Reprinted with permission of Servant Books, an imprint of St. Anthony Messenger Press, and of the author, Mike Aquilina.

The Author

aquilinasmaquilinahistory2Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author or co-author of fifty books including A History of the Church in 100 Objects, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again, Yours is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our WorldGood Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.

Copyright © 2007 Mike Aquilina
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