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It happens to every married couple to a lesser or greater degree. One day you look across the table at your spouse (or at the place your spouse should be, but isn’t) and you realize “the love is gone.”
Maybe you started out by being swept off your feet; maybe you started out slow and steady. In either case, you find yourself disillusioned. You might say, “We’re leading separate lives,” or, “I don’t know you anymore,” or, “I love you, I guess, but I no longer like you.”
Ouch. What do you do then? You should absolutely go to counseling. But here are five additional things to do.
First, thank God for your disillusionment.
We tend to think being “disillusioned” is a bad thing. It’s not. Think about the word: It means removing an illusion, a mistake, a lie about who someone or something is and seeing the truth.
This is exactly what the spiritual masters see as a natural part of maturing and going deeper in the spiritual life. You start out loving your idea of God; you end up having to learn to love the real God. You start out loving your idea of your spouse. In the end you have to love your real spouse.
Second, give yourself to your vow.
The Catechism acknowledges that “It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being.” The answer is in the sacramental grace of marriage, which means “Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens.”
So the first place to look for strength is the sacrament, which guarantees grace to you. Start by asking Jesus to help you fulfill your vows. Pray: “Jesus, I, took (name) to be my (wife, husband). I promised to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love (name) and to honor (name) all the days of my life. Give me the grace to say ‘I do’ each day.”
Your vow is the rock you can stand on. Live it faithfully, despite your feelings, and it will hold you up.
Third, “strengthen the things that remain.”
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus gives advice to several churches. The one in Sardis has the reputation of looking alive while actually being dead — like your marriage. His advice, “strengthen what is left,” is great advice for a marriage, too.
What’s left of your marriage? Live that to the full. Devotion to the children? Then thank your spouse for what they do and offer to help. Marital intimacy? Then live that in a more self-giving, other-centered way. Maybe a tiny shared interest in politics, or sports, or music, or hiking? Build a date around an enjoyment of that.
On that date, follow Jesus’ advice to the Church in Ephesus, which had lost its “first love,” and remind yourself and your spouse about all the reasons you fell in love in the first place.
Fourth, pray with your spouse (or in place of your spouse).
I wrote before about how my own marriage was turned around by praying together. In our case, we did Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, but added our own petitions at the end. You could do the same with the Rosary or a chaplet or at mealtime. Hearing what the other was praying for was eye opening. It destroyed the false narratives each of us had built about the other.
But what if your spouse won’t pray with you? Then pray for your spouse and, perhaps, in place of your spouse. Say, “Lord Jesus, you made (name) and me one flesh but only I am able to pray to you now. As I pray today, please consider (name) to be here. I pray on (his, her) behalf.”
Fifth, discover the cross.
Mystic saints call it “the dark night of the soul.” Marathon runners call it “hitting a wall.” Successful entrepreneurs call it “grinding it out.” At some point, you hit a point in your life where you feel like you are trying to drag a train uphill and you can only keep going through sheer willpower.
That is the cross, and no one can avoid it.
By carrying the cross and continuing the struggle, you will discover that there, once all the illusions have dissipated, you find the bedrock of reality which is Jesus Christ’s humility and obedience — on the other side of which is resurrection and joy.