As published in the Catholic Moment by Mike O'Connell
Adults tend to become really good at making little “sacrifices” when children are around, and expect nothing in return. Those “sacrifices” might not be very big, it might be as small as uncle Jim using a little less foul language when his niece is around, or maybe giving up that last donut in the parish hall after mass to the kid who wouldn’t stop moving in the pew, even though you really wanted it. They also may be larger “sacrifices”, like parents giving up sleep because their child doesn’t feel well, even though they need to go to work the next day. Typically, there would be no expectation to receive anything back from these “sacrifices” besides maybe good behavior, or a hug. These “sacrifices” are an altruistic expression of love. They communicate to the other person that they are worthy and good. In these expressions of altruistic love, we are able to recognize that we are people of great worth and dignity. With children, this is easy to see. But what about with my spouse? What about when things feel unfair? When I feel like I’ve been the only one making sacrifices, or maybe that I am owed or entitled to these sacrifices. With a child, I may have low expectations, precisely because an adult and child do not share balanced expectations. But with my spouse, the stakes are higher because we share equal expectations of how we should be loved and express love. As we journey through this lenten time, we are challenged to focus on prayer, almsgiving, and sacrifice. In the Gospel, we hear the ultimate expression of altruistic love in Christ’s journey to the cross. So in lent, we make sacrifices to refocus our love and devotion to God, and to refocus on what nourishes us, and what sustains us on the Christian journey. This lent, how can I also refocus on what nourishes and sustains me, with the person I love the most, and rebalance expectations?
In Making Marriage Simple, Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt explain, “Often what we need most from our partner is what they are least capable of giving (which also means that we’re the least capable of giving them what they most need from us).” Here they are referring to those expectations we may build up about what I expect from my spouse, and that all couples then find themselves locked in a power struggle. It is in these moments that I can only see my spouse’s negative qualities, and I in turn will only change if he or she changes. But the root of real and more intimate love lies in these power struggles. These moments of challenge offer real moments of increased intimacy and growing to know one another in a new, deeper way. In the moment however, they sure do feel like a desert.
Instead of focusing on my partner to give me what I need, I need to be able to flip the script and focus instead on what is not nourishing me. I’m expecting my partner to solve something for me that they have no power to solve. What if I solved it for me and in doing so made a little “sacrifice” to prove it and build new emotional muscle. For example, if I expect appreciation from my spouse, but am not equally giving appreciation, then I am only going to notice those moments where I feel unappreciated, and won’t be able to notice all the moments where I am actually appreciated. Harville and Helen go on to say, “Because growth requires both partners to stretch into new ways of being. It’s about using emotional muscles that we haven’t used before.” So, I need to stretch a little, and build some muscle. Instead of just expecting change, I can start making little stretches towards getting the love I expect. Maybe that looks like purposely going out of my way to say thank you every time he/she cleans the dishes, without requiring a thank you in return. In the same way “sacrificing” chocolate for lent, may remind me to focus on God, little moments of offering altruistic love to my spouse offers that recognition of worthiness and goodness that we all need to come to know for love to grow.
Altruistic love is essential because all couples, regardless of where they come from or how passionately they love, are going to experience bumps in the road. There are going to be days where one person doesn’t feel well, and needs some special care. There are going to be days when one person feels weak and needy because work has been overwhelming. There are going to be days when the kids are out of control and destroying everything in the house and the best mom and dad can do is manage the chaos. These moments when we can stretch a little bit for one another, and offer myself confidently even while feeling vulnerable proves to the other that they are worthy, and our shared vision is meaningful. That moments of suffering and struggle are really moments for learning, connection, and growth. In Amoris Lætitia, Pope Francis offers, “Few human joys are as deep and thrilling as those experienced by two people who love one another and have achieved something as the result of a great, shared effort. ” This lent, as you make sacrifices in your spiritual life to strengthen and refocus your relationship with God, how might you also offer little expressions of altruistic love to your spouse? How can these little moments of love, build to something greater as we journey together towards the easter season?