“This is my body which is given for you.” “ I thirst.” “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” We’ve heard these words, felt these aches to lay ourselves bare, to quench the thirst of the Beloved, to make of ourselves a beautiful and perfect gift. The Cross and all it encompasses--body, blood, soul; heroic sacrifice and purest love; a marriage made in heaven--is one of our truest examples of spousal love: self-death and self-gift. But obvious isn’t the same as easy. What can you do when you know you’re falling short of authentic, sacrificial love, and moreover, when you don’t even particularly care to try?
Sacrifice shouldn’t make sense. Inconveniencing and emptying yourself, for no benefit of your own, directly pits our better judgment against our fallen nature. My younger self used to view sacrifice, in theory, as two people each being willing to give and take on certain matters, finding a compromise somewhere in the middle. In practice, as I navigated life with roommates and, later, with a husband, I realized how little I’d understood. Going 50/50 on some things might be good for equality, but it’s not the best for relationships. Sometimes in compromise, and all times in authentic love, one person gives (or gives up) everything, not half. It’s the ideal we vow to chase after and to live out in good times and in bad, standing before the One who gave of himself completely for love’s sake.
Yet even with eyes of faith, of knowing joy flows from putting another before yourself and wanting the good of someone else, sacrificial love is painful. Whether you’re undergoing the struggle of budgets, registries and their ensuing compromises as a bride-to-be or experiencing the growing pains of living with your husband as a newlywed, there might’ve been a time when you’ve asked yourself, how much is too much?
Watching NBC’s This Is Us a few months ago, I was struck by the reality of sacrifice upon sacrifice gone unnoticed or unfulfilled. Years into marriage and raising their children to adolescence, Jack and Rebecca Pearson express the seeming disillusionment they’ve each experienced as they’ve habitually put themselves aside for each other and for their family, the weight of their burdens boiling over into an all-out battle. He feels burned out and unappreciated by years of working a mediocre job while trying to keep family first. She mourns what feels like the loss of identity after ages of existing solely as a mother while putting her own pursuits on the back burner. They wonder and they argue: who has given up more?
Their pain is palpable because it’s real. Dismissing this couple as unwilling to take up their crosses would diminish the truth that even with the graces of marriage, even when sacrifice is a habit, even when spouses put each other (and their children) first and themselves second, the sheer effort can leave you parched and drained. That’s okay. It’s only living water that will restore. Practically speaking, here are some ways to invite the Lord into your brokenness, your tiredness, and to rest in him:
Pray for your spouse, simply as who he or she is.
My prayer often turns to asking the Father for certain virtues that will strengthen me as a wife and mother, and for the same for my husband. During more stressful or trying seasons, though, this approach tends to increase my anxiety rather than my sense of peace. Instead, try simply contemplating the reality of your beloved, in all his flaws and gifts, and thank God for who he is. Chances are, even when you aren’t feeling particularly loving, your focus will shift to a deeper, objective appreciation for the qualities you fell in love with and a diminished sense of frustration with those that are a source of trial. Cultivate a will to thanksgiving.
Say what you need.
It’s surprising how often I find myself burdened by certain obligations of marriage and parenthood and don’t even think to speak up to my husband about them. I don’t intentionally mean to keep my struggles a secret; I tend to (unhealthily) view embracing sacrifice as the more praiseworthy choice than acknowledging my limits, to the point that I end up completely overwhelmed and tired, unable to see them as something potentially fruitful. As we’ve navigated grad school and parenthood over the past few years, I’ve tried to become better about identifying and vocalizing to my husband what can ease the strain. It sounds obvious, but asking for a few hours to go to Adoration, go for a walk, or take myself out to coffee, I’ve finally realized, isn’t selfish. It's a renewal that brings me back to my vocation reenergized.
Thank each other.
In big-picture matters like working a non-dream job or joining in on each other’s extended family vacations, and in small ones like foregoing unnecessary spending when you’re on a budget and putting the dishes away, make a habit of noticing ways your spouse gives of himself or herself for the good of your marriage, and say thank you. For those whose love language is Words of Affirmation, this is particularly meaningful, but for anyone at all, recognizing and valuing what is given can only bear a deeper sense of gratitude, attention, and reverence for the person you love.
No matter how much our particular life demands, on the hardest days I remind myself how much more miserable I’d be if I were single, with fewer responsibilities, than married to my husband and caring for our children with the difficulties piling on. He is pure gift, meant to sanctify me and, God willing, accompany me to Heaven. Sometimes lightening the load is all about perspective.
“...’alone,’ the man does not completely realize [his] essence. He realizes it only by existing ‘with someone’--and, put even more deeply and completely, by existing ‘for someone.’” - Pope St. John Paul II, TOB 14:2