seventeen couples share insight about what keeps marriage strong
By Kate Wicker
Thirteen years ago I was a blushing bride dreaming of her happily ever after. After enduring a rigorous pre-Cana boot camp, I thought I knew a lot about love and marriage.
I knew squat.
Since then I’ve learned a lot — mostly the hard way — about what it takes to build a strong marriage. It takes a lot of laughter. It requires faith. It forces you to stop trying to change your spouse, instead accepting him and loving him for the person he is. It causes you to invite God into your life, allowing him to change anything he sees fit to change.
A strong marriage demands more than saying “I do” at the altar. Being married for better and for worse means living your vows every single day. It means not allowing the small stuff to snowball. And it demands making your marriage a priority — even when the everyday stress and the daily, often exhausting grind of parenthood sometimes makes that very difficult to do.
But don’t take it from always-a-marriage-newbie me. Here we share the wisdom and insight from 16 other couples — some veterans in the trenches of marriage, others newly wed — on how they have transformed “I do” into an enduring life of grace.
Katelyn and Rick McDonald
Married one year
• If we had to sum up what we have worked on in our first year of marriage, it would probably go something like this: Be a breath of fresh air for your spouse. Life is hard, and days are long, and stress happens. Try to seize every chance to be the encourager, supporter, fan, forgiver, and foot massager. Be the person your spouse wants to run to instead of away from when life gets hard. Pray for your spouse. Give a hug when he or she is least expecting one — and might even deserve an “I told you so.” Always think of yourselves as a team.
Steve and Eileen Pankow
Married 44 years
• What does it take to make it 40-plus years? It takes a whole lot, including a strong faith, regular prayer, and the ability to put struggles in God’s hands. It takes a good sense of humor and resisting the temptation to take yourself too seriously. It takes communication — sharing both good and bad feelings openly. Give mutual respect and trust. Discover your common interests, and be a friend first and a lover second.
Ben and Jenny Williams
Married eight years
• Jenny: We met as camp counselors at a YMCA camp. When we met, Ben was not Catholic. Early in our relationship, we knew this was a matter we would need to address. We decided from the beginning that, if we were going to be together forever in marriage, we would need to be on the same page faith-wise. Whatever we chose, we were going to do as a family. Once we made the decision to make faith a unifying and central part of our relationship, God did the rest. Eventually Ben was led to the Catholic faith, and we developed a deeper relationship with him in the Eucharist.
When Ben proposed on St. Patrick’s Day, he told me, “We were engaged in front of Christ (present in the tabernacle, of course), we will get married in front of Christ, and we will always have him at the center of our relationship.” This is what has kept us going and growing closer to each other and to him. It hasn’t always been easy, and there are many distractions, especially with three little ones under the age of five. But we have always approached our marriage as a covenant, with God at the center.
Kris and Jim Chatfield
Married 21 years
• Kris: “From the day we got engaged, we entered into our relationship and marriage with the idea that divorce would never be an option. My parents are divorced, and Jim was married and divorced before we met. I think when you have that mind-set, no matter what difficult issues you may face, you just find a way to work it out. I know that seems basic, but so many couples today just think they can walk away whenever it gets hard. We’ve been through some very difficult seasons in our marriage, but with prayer and lots of talking, we’ve worked through it because that was our only option.
Always try to assume the best of your spouse. If you disagree with a decision he or she has made, or you don’t like something he or she is doing, don’t automatically think your spouse is deliberately trying to annoy you or make you unhappy. When you always assume that your spouse loves you, would not do something to deliberately hurt you, and has the best interest of your marriage at heart, it makes it easier to have a conversation and resolve your differences. It forces you to look at things from the other person’s point of view.
David and Lori Odell
Married 15 years
• Lori: I first saw David at the end of eighth grade during an open house at our local high school. I was shy and not interested in having a boyfriend at the time, but when I saw him, I thought he was cute. We didn’t officially meet until we started marching band in the fall when school started. We’ve been together ever since.
Having started our relationship at 14 years old, we have essentially grown up together, and our love for one another has matured just as we have. Marriage truly is about love — love for God and love for your spouse. If we cannot show patience and forgiveness, encouragement, and helpfulness to our spouse, how can we show them our love? How can we, in turn, love God? David and I make sure that we both help each other. It’s very important for spouses to know they are valued as well as needed. We don’t keep score or worry that one of us is doing more or less than the other. We are proud to be a team, and we work hard to make our marriage and family successful.
We have been blessed with two children, and they mean the world to us. However, we want to make sure we take time for ourselves as a married couple. We’re fortunate to have wonderful family and friends to watch our children so we can go out for dinner or run errands together. It’s paramount that you don’t lose your identity as a couple simply because you become parents. Our relationship seems renewed — strengthened even — after we have had some time alone. We also try to take a weekend away by ourselves when we can. That isn’t always an option, though, so we make certain we take joy in getting coffee together, going for a walk, cuddling on the couch, or playing our favorite card game. We try to think of the things we enjoyed doing while we were dating, and we go from there. It’s often the silly, simple things that bring the two of us great pleasure. Taking time for ourselves as husband and wife has helped us feel appreciated and loved. We really believe it influences the success and strength of a marriage.
Beth and Bill Helms
Married 44 years
• Beth: We strive to keep God at the center of our marriage, whether we’re facing hard times or celebrating good times. Over the years we’ve found that everything comes full circle — being close to God strengthens our love for each other and our children; being close as a family strengthens our devotion to God. Bill wasn’t raised Catholic, but he converted when our girls were young because he recognized the power of shared faith within our family. Since then we’ve also encouraged each other to grow as Christians and surround ourselves with friends who do the same. Weekly prayer groups and special retreat opportunities like Cursillo have reminded us to love and serve Christ each and every day.
Celeste and Mike Behe
Married 31 years
• Celeste: Mike and I like to play trivia at a local sports bar, where our established team name is “Premier Fun Couple.” Having fun together has helped us to stay happy as a couple. Pope Francis said, “If love is missing, nothing is fun.” The flip side is that, when love is present, things are fun. So we would advise other Catholic couples to “be not afraid” to show your silly sides!
Michelle and Bill Reitemeyer
Married 20 years
• Bill: The old adage is that misery loves company, and the fact is that it will seek out others to join in. It is important to be there for friends and couples who are struggling amidst the difficulties that come with marriage. Our method is to emotionally inoculate ourselves from their troubles. We’ll help and offer comfort and understanding, but we try very hard to not project the attributes and actions of our friends onto each other.
Too often we’ve seen friends go down the path of divorce, and before long the marriages around them are in trouble, too. I’m sympathetic to a couple’s plight, but not so much so that I’m willing to sacrifice my marriage to join them in their misery. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my wife is my best friend. We simply enjoy being together. We don’t necessarily enjoy the same hobbies, the same topics, and definitely not the same opinions! But we find each other interesting and fun.
Michelle: “As a military family, perhaps the greatest challenge we face is the constant stress of separation or relocation. Four months ago Bill started a new job and left us behind so the kids could finish the school year. Two months ago we packed everything up and moved nearly a thousand miles to join him. He is now two states away for two weeks getting additional training.
It is extremely difficult to be emotionally intimate over the telephone, and our communication tends to be cursory and fact-based. Our relationship suffers — there is no doubt about it. But I think we both recognize what is happening; we do what we can to be patient with each other as we miscommunicate; we try extra hard to understand and be understood; and we take the long view, knowing that this is a temporary problem. And sometimes, when a face-to-face reconnection is impossible, we take the time to write a very long letter or email to calmly explain an issue or a position and seek a deeper understanding of each other.
Bill: The Army has thrown us some curveballs over the years. We never seem to be sent where we want to go, even when the Army has previously agreed to send us where we wanted. But we are always sent were we need to be. It is rare that one gets such a clear example of God giving what was needed rather than wanted. I find it comforting to know that my life is in God’s hands and my travails serve some purpose and that I can, instead, focus on us as a team.
Michelle: I once read some marriage advice that told wives to think about the transfiguration of Christ, and how Peter, James, and John saw him in his full glory, a glory so overwhelming they just knew he was divine. The rest of the time, Jesus had to seem fairly normal. So the advice was for a wife to have an image of her own husband at his best — that man who convinced you to fall in love with him — and to recall that image whenever he is not being his best and choose to see him in his best light. The only way to do this is to be constantly willing to forgive, both the big hurts and the small ones. I think forgiveness is a key ingredient to a strong marriage. On the flip side, being willing and able to make a sincere apology for one’s own failings is necessary as well.
Bill: Love is a choice. You can win every argument but lose your marriage.
Michael and Deanna Johnston
Married 2 years
• We admit there’s still a lot for us to learn, but this is what we have learned thus far:
Sometimes you’re going to go to bed angry. We’ve all heard that we “should not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26), and that’s definitely the preference. But sometimes the reality is that we need time to cool off. Instead of continuing an argument or saying hurtful words we won’t be able to take back, sometimes an overnight “time-out” is needed before we can resolve the problem. At the same time we also have to remember that humility is a must in marriage. It can be extremely difficult to be the first one to apologize or admit being wrong, but humility in marriage is part of the path to sainthood.
Laughter is a must! Laugh every day. Married life is pretty hilarious at times, and it brings so much joy when we’re living our vocation the way God designed. And don’t be afraid of laughing at yourselves, especially after realizing how silly an argument was!
Pray together. This is probably an obvious one, but it’s so true. Even though we’re both involved in ministry, finding time to pray together can be challenging. But when we’re pursuing God’s will in our lives together, it not only makes discerning God’s will for our family easier, it also brings us closer to God and to one another. It takes three to get married, and God has to be an active part of our relationship even beyond the wedding day!
Susan and Owen Lichtenwalner
Married 57 years
• We have seven children, 28 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. The family that prays together and plays together stays together. Marriage is first and foremost a sacrament. Secondly it is a work in progress. We make time for each other. God is love, and he is the source of hope for our dreams. When we ask him for help and guidance during those dysfunctional moments, he is there for us then, too.
Our Church and faith is our greatest blessing. Grateful for our blessings, we try every day to be best friends, be flexible, be patient, be kind. All apologies are accepted. We read the daily readings for Mass, pray the Rosary, and stay in “message mode” with our family. Each family member is a favorite of ours.
Our job is to pray and love the best we can and help each other go to heaven.
Judith and Colin Dunne
Married 15 years
• Colin: Live what St. Paul recommends in Ephesians 4:26 and to try to “not let the sun go down on your anger.” In other words, try your best not to go to sleep without making up after an argument.
Judith: Keep Christ first, husband next, and keep communicating — finding a way that works for you both.
Piper and Matthew Kosel
Married one year
• Piper: My husband and I have been married for one year now. We were friends for six years, then dated for six years, and are now happily married. After many trials and errors with figuring out love languages, how to communicate, balancing time for each other, compromising, yada yada yada, we’re finally figuring out how to have and maintain a healthy relationship.
My husband grew up Catholic, and I was raised in a non-denominational church. We didn’t see how our different religions could affect our future until we started dating. However, after attending the Catholic Church multiple times, I saw how similar our faiths really were. We share one similar and important thing: our faith in God. Just as I went into our relationship with an open heart, I approached the Catholic Church with an open heart as well. I haven’t converted to Catholicism but I go with my husband to Catholic Mass to help him with his faith as well as keep my faith. I have seen so many marriages fail because of religious beliefs. But if you have an open heart with God and with your spouse, you both can come out on top. Remember, as Christians, we all trust and believe in the same God. So keep God at the center of your relationship, and you’ll see all the amazing things he can do for you and your marriage.
When my husband and I were just dating, it was very rare that we went out on an actual date. That was a big problem for us, and neither of us figured that out right away. We went on a few initial dates to the movies or a sporting event, but after we became comfortable and figured out we were in a serious relationship and no longer in the “impressing” phase, going out together sort of stopped. After a few years of dating, we took a short break. We realized that we weren’t spending enough quality time together. Spending time and spending quality time are completely different. We both needed that quality time to help keep our relationship strong — it keeps that window open for some much-needed communication. I often ponder, Why do we feel the need to stop impressing our spouse just because we’re married? It’s the little things (and sometimes the big things) that go a long way.
Try to show your spouse once a day how much you love him — whether it’s leaving your spouse a nice note before you go to work, doing the laundry, cooking dinner, giving your spouse a foot rub, or sending a random text saying, “I love you,” do it! I can’t tell you how important it is to never stop trying to show your spouse how much you love him. And never stop dating each other. Take one night a week for just the two of you. Get out of the house (or if you stay home, turn off all phones, TVs, etc.) and spend quality time with each other.
Amy and Duncan Smith
Married three years
• Amy: Though three years isn’t long enough to warrant expert status in any measure, what I find most helpful is following the advice of my husband to “keep things in perspective.” As a woman who can certainly overanalyze and worry about frivolous things, this advice is often difficult. But when reminded about God’s long-term plan for us and the direction and common goals my husband and I have for our future, I’m better able to do this.
For instance, some days it’s OK to leave a chore for the next day so I can spend quality time with my husband and our daughter. Also, in the midst of a heated argument, I can begin to break down negative emotions and thoughts if I put things in perspective in terms of this moment versus tomorrow or next year.
Katie and Dave Ryan
Married nine years
• Some marriage advice that has really stuck with me is to keep important elements in balance. As a couple, you need to try to always be connected spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. If one of you is out of whack, your marriage can suffer. And always, always make laughter a part of your life. I can’t imagine being with someone who didn’t make me laugh, laugh with me, and sometimes even force me to laugh at myself.
Colleen and Philip Martin
Married 13 years
• Put the relationship with your spouse ahead of any other earthly relationship (not above God, obviously!). It’s hard to do, especially when you have a big family like ours, and kids have many immediate needs, but a happy marriage is the glue of the family. I see many people who seem to prefer spending time with their friends, or children, or coworkers than their own spouse. Just remember that you vowed to love your spouse through it all, and living that out is the best witness for kids to see. So don’t feel bad about putting them to bed early and having in-house date nights — or better yet, getting away any chance you can. Keeping the romance alive and the friendship growing is so important.
Secondly, be open to have kids as early as possible. Trying to find the perfect time to have a baby means there will never be a perfect time. Having a certain checklist of what needs to happen before kids is not a necessity. Marriage is intended to bring forth new life! If you love your spouse and trust in God, be open to God’s will in this area of your life. Trust me, we’ve had our own share of surprise babies, but once you hold that baby in your arms, nothing else matters — not plans, not timing, not money — just love. It’s amazing to be able to share in his creation. At the end of life, nobody looks back and wishes they had a smaller family. Children are such a blessing, and siblings are the best gifts you can give your child.
Aaron and Cathy Adamkiewicz
Married 29 years
• Like most couples, we didn’t set out with a clear plan for a lifelong marriage. One thing we did agree to early on — something that turned out to be quite significant — was the decision to never say “the D word.” No matter what, divorce would not be an option for us.
While marriage is about getting one another to heaven, remember that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. You are not your spouse’s parent. Encourage and support, but allow your spouse his or her own journey.
Be inflexible on faith and flexible on everything else. (This includes the proper way to wash dishes and attach the toilet paper roll.) Make the Eucharist the priority in your home. Sunday Mass is non-negotiable. The emphasis in family life is an attempt to mirror what Jesus gives us in the Eucharist — a sacrificial self-gift.
Be open to learning about relationships, health, religion, everything. Help one another to grow as individuals.
Make your family a fortress, creating a strong family identity and culture. Don’t share negative things about your spouse with your family of origin or your friends. Speak well of your spouse when he or she isn’t around.
Forgive everything — and we mean everything. You will be shocked and horrified and amazed to discover that you’re not perfect, and neither is your spouse. Catholic couples are not immune to the problems experienced by the rest of the world. In the three decades we have been together, we have experienced childbirth outside of marriage, severe health issues, job losses, extreme financial challenges, the death of a child, and much more. Faith does not inoculate us against the pain and sin that will inevitably touch our lives and our marriages. Rather, it gives us the ability to be transformed and even redeemed by it.
Finally, don’t quit. Just don’t quit!
Dave and Kate Wicker
Married 14 years
• Keep a sense of humor. For our sixth anniversary, my husband Dave and I took what we thought was going to be a relaxing trip to the beach to celebrate our marriage. First mistake: We brought our little ones with us. Turns out the kids’ idea of relaxing is a bit different than our own. The baby boycotted sleep, and the 3-year-old boycotted pooping, resulting in a stomachache and a clingy and needy preschooler.
On the way home, the baby started sobbing, even though we’d just stopped so I could nurse her, and our older child was saying she was hungry — again. I smiled in spite of it and said to Dave, “Happy anniversary! Don’t you feel so refreshed and eager to start your work week?” We both burst out laughing. Then we started singing silly songs as a family, and both kids and parents stopped fussing and were happy.
Dave and I have learned to laugh at silly stuff, things we can’t control (antsy babies, constipated preschoolers, angsty tweens, flooding basements, etc.) as well as more serious things. Sometimes laughing — even through the tears — is all you can do when life deals you a rotten hand. It’s all in how you play the cards, so we always try to keep smiling poker faces.
Be forgiving of each others’ wrongs and failures. I’m not perfect, and neither is Dave. We’re two imperfect human beings trying to perfect our love for one another, which means we fail — sometimes a lot. I’ve learned to not sweat the small stuff and to even overlook it most of the time. Does it really matter that Dave still doesn’t know where the colander goes and that I have to hunt for it a little longer? If I can’t find it, then doesn’t that mean he unloaded the dishwasher for me?
At the end of the day, we’ve had to learn to love and to accept one another as we are and to leave any big changing that needs to be done in God’s hands.