These simple ideas can transform a relationship, and they're not complicated.
“Every time couples come to see me,” a priest once told me, “I leave them with three little words: talk, forgive, pray.”
These three words are essentially a program for conjugal life. They provide points of reference to help a couple advance, to question themselves, and to take stock: Where are we in our communication as a couple? Is there still something I need to ask forgiveness for? Is prayer at the heart of our life?
We all know we can sometimes talk without saying much of anything, and that communication between a couple isn’t proportional to the number of words exchanged. Take for example the extreme case of some couples in which one, for reasons of illness or an accident, cannot speak, but who nevertheless communicate deeply.
In order for talk to promote love, we have to start by listening to each other. Many couples complain of a lack of dialogue, but few about the lack of listening. But it’s just that absence of listening that cancels out dialogue: you hardly have to open your mouth before the other, knowing what they’re going to hear, takes on an aggrieved look before you even get to the end of your sentence. So you look for another subject to talk about, and then another, until there are no subjects left. You fade into anonymity and a leaden silence that is foreign to a listening heart.
It’s by once again taking the time to savor one another’s presence that a word of love can rise to the lips, followed by an exchange about a topic that, though perhaps difficult, is still welcome when love is at a low ebb. Authentic sharing can be rediscovered. It takes time to talk to each other. One has to know how to “waste time” just chatting about this and that, to take the time to be truly there for each other. Between spouses, you don’t make a date to talk about the most important subjects — that often happens spontaneously, as one talks, just because one’s taken the time to train an authentically listening ear.
What Jean Vanier had to say in general about community life could equally apply tomarriage: “If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to learn to forgive and be forgiven seven times seventy-seven times, we will soon be disappointed.”
Many divorces probably result from the fact that most engaged couples have no idea that marriage is doubtlessly the state in which one has the most forgiveness to offer and to receive. Many, on the contrary, imagine that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” as Erich Segal wrote in Love Story. When grievances arise — as they will, sooner or later, because you love one another and love makes one vulnerable — couples begin by pretending they don’t exist and end by thinking they no longer love one another.
Saying you’re sorry is not a failure of love; it’s exactly the opposite: it’s the sign of true love.
I recall a priest who, on seeing an old couple walking hand in hand, marveled at “how many hundreds and hundreds of ‘sorrys’ a love that long must represent!”
A couple married about 50 years received this advice once day: “Every evening without fail, say the Our Father and the Hail Mary together, hand in hand, and offer up your day and your night to God for a peaceful sleep.” A little skeptical of such a simple request, the husband nevertheless agreed and a few years later said, “Our marriage has been transformed … It’s to this abandonment of ourselves into the hands of God that we owe the ease we now enjoy in our life as a couple.”
Many couples don’t manage to pray together because they make resolutions impossible to sustain over the long term. To pray together — and to make conjugal prayer enduring — there’s no need to complicate things: what could be more simple than reciting an Our Father and Hail Mary? It’s hardly anything, and yet it changes everything. Because “hardly anything” is like the five loaves and two fish in the Gospel: the Lord multiplies it to infinity.