In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes that “the greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs.” As a clinical social worker who has counseled many married couples, I am deeply moved by the fourth chapter, Love in Marriage.
In this chapter, the Holy Father carefully and pastorally looks in depth at 1 Cor 13:4-7, a passage frequently used in wedding ceremonies. It is Saint Paul’s well-known and beautiful description of love.
Love is patient, love is kind;
love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way,
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
There are two common reasons a married couple will seek counseling. The first is if there has been a traumatic event, such as infidelity or, more so in these days, an addiction to pornography. The second is if the couple is struggling with communication. “We just don’t seem to be able to talk to each other anymore,” I will hear one or both spouses say. As a therapist, it’s my goal to help a couple learn to listen and talk to each other.
But I often wonder if the couple also needs to learn to love each other again.
Love is patient. Pope Francis points out that this means “slow to anger.” As God is patient with a sinner, a healthy married couple will be patient with each other, slow to anger. When one spouse expects everything to be perfect, or worse, to be only his/her way, impatience and anger can creep in. The punctual partner needs to be patient with the ever-tardy one. The messy partner with the OCD partner. The decisive partner with the one who struggles with decisions. Love is slow to anger.
Love is kind. Pope Francis tells us that the Greek word Saint Paul uses for “kind” is only found here in the entire Bible. It is not a passive kindness, but an action that does goodness. A healthy married couple will deliberately, consciously perform acts of kindness toward each other out of love for the other. Opening doors for the other, cooking dinner and also doing the dishes, cleaning the oven or the bathroom even when it’s not your turn, doing the week’s grocery shopping, listening attentively when the other is troubled or upset — these kind acts are demonstrable and active signs of love.
Love is not rude. Pope Francis teaches us that the Greek word used here is that love is gentle and thoughtful. I like taking married couples who are in trouble back to when they were dating. We explore what were the traits in each other that led them to fall in love. How did they behave in each other’s presence back then. Couples in therapy learn that they aren’t being as thoughtful, as gentle today as they were when they were dating.
Love is not irritable or resentful. Saint Paul chooses a word that indicates interior indignation. We all encounter people who spark annoyance in us. But when that happens between a couple that is supposed to love each other, it is an unhealthy sign. I remind people in therapy that others cannot make us happy or sad or angry. Those feelings come up from within us. We can choose to be happy or sad or angry. When we experience an interior indignation in the presence of our spouse, we have to look deep at its cause. Pope Francis encourages us at this time to ask for God’s blessing, to pray for healing.
Love rejoices. Pope Frances writes that “when a loving person can do good for others, or sees that others are happy, they themselves live happily and in this way give glory to God.” Healthy married couples find the time to nurture each other, to enjoy each other’s presence, to perform acts of kindness, to give words of encouragement. In strengthening their relationship, they strengthen the family.
If writing today, Saint Paul might add, “Love is listening (get off the TV or your smart phone), love does not get in the last word (stop arguing . . . it’s not worth it), love sees only the good (and not the little, petty things).”
When the beautiful words of Saint Paul’s letter are selected as one of the readings in the marriage ceremony, the couple needs to know those words aren’t just for the day of the wedding. They are words that inspire, challenge and fulfill a sacramental bond. They are words to live by in our marriage today and for always.
Rod J. Herrera, LCSW is director, Office of Child & Youth Protection, and a therapist who works with married couples in a private office setting.