Last week, I wrote about a couple who was having financial problems because of the husband’s inability to work. Here’s what I wrote at the end of the article:
I’ve been a lawyer for more than 35 years. I’ve dealt with hundreds of couples who, after years of marriage, are facing an unexpected crisis. You would think that after being married for 20 or more years, married couples would be more patient and forgiving of each other than they were when they were newly married. But that’s usually not the case. The fact that they’ve spent years together seems to somehow inhibit their ability to practice real patience and forgiveness toward each other.
Instead of being patient and forgiving, they’re extremely frustrated and angry with each other. Why?
When couples get married, there’s always great hope for the future. With that hope comes the expectation that they will be able to work out all their problems. There is also an expectation that they will someday be able to overcome whatever bad habits or deficiencies they have.
Unfortunately, as each year passes, nothing really changes. Husbands and wives stop making the effort that is required to please each other. It’s almost as if they’ve been through too much together. They’re worn out and exhausted. They’ve run out of patience.
I’ve written before about a saying that is common in the business world: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” This saying stands for the proposition that the more familiar you are with a person, the more contemptible that person becomes.
Over time, as people in the business world become more familiar with each other, their defects and weaknesses become more evident. They are exposed to and become tired of each other’s excuses, bad habits, broken promises, lack of respect, mood swings, angry outbursts, and lack of appreciation. Before long, their patience wears thin, and the slightest infraction causes them to treat each other with contempt.
The word “contempt” is defined as “the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn.”
There is some truth to the familiarity breeds contempt saying. In addition to applying to long-term business relationships, it also applies to long-term marriages. Couples who have been married for several years can easily slip into the habit of treating each other with contempt.
As couples grow older together, they are forced to deal with unexpected personal setbacks and medical problems. They become discouraged because they tire easily and no longer have the energy and drive they had in their youth. They realize that many of the dreams they once had for themselves will never materialize. They no longer have young children around the house to make them feel youthful and needed. They long for the “good old days” when life was simpler and more rewarding.
It is difficult to remain upbeat, patient, and forgiving when, in addition to having an intimate knowledge of your spouse’s faults, you’re dealing with physical and emotional age-related problems yourself. It’s easy to adopt the attitude, “I’ve put up with him (or her) all these years and I’m not going to take it anymore.” You decide that the time for allowing your spouse to get away with hurting your feelings is over. You finally get to the point that you’re going to say what’s on your mind, regardless of how insulting or hurtful your comments may be.
This type of attitude leads to disrespectful, cruel, and contemptuous behavior, which can easily spiral out of control.
My own personal experience of more than 37 years of marriage, combined with my experience of dealing with married couples in my law practice, has taught me that the best way to avoid treating your spouse with contempt is to become a master at perfecting the one spiritual work of mercy that is the most difficult to practice — to bear wrongs patiently.
But there’s a problem with that so-called work of mercy. The last thing most of us want to do is to bear wrongs patiently. If our spouses say or do something to us that is wrong or unjustified, we want to let them know exactly how we feel. Why should we have to put up with their inappropriate and uncalled-for behavior? If we let them get away with bad behavior, what’s going to keep them from continuing — and accelerating — their abusive behavior?
Isn’t patiently putting up with the wrongs of your spouse surrendering? Isn’t it giving your spouse permission to continue his or her abusive behavior? But if we are devout Catholics, we have no other choice but to remind ourselves that Christ told us that if we want to follow Him, we must imitate Him. That’s not easy to do, especially in light of the fact that He patiently and heroically allowed evil men to torture and murder Him in front of His mother and friends.
Considering what our Savior was willing to do to gain salvation for each one of us, I suppose we should at least attempt to understand what it means to bear wrongs patiently. The key word in the work of mercy — to bear wrongs patiently — is the word “patiently.” Here’s how the Modern Catholic Dictionary defines the word “patience”:
A form of the moral virtue of fortitude. It enables one to endure present evils without sadness or resentment in conformity with the will of God. Patience is mainly concerned with bearing the evils caused by another. The three grades of patience are: to bear difficulties without interior complaint, to use hardships to make progress in virtue, and even to desire the cross and afflictions out of love for God and accept them with spiritual joy.
Did you know that there were three grades of patience? Rather than get angry and work ourselves up by playing the bad behavior of our spouses over and over in our minds, we’re supposed to “bear difficulties without interior complaint.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m angry with my spouse, there’s a lot of interior complaining that goes on in my mind.
And although we don’t think about it very often, God allows us to experience hardships with our spouses, so we can use those hardships as opportunities to make progress in virtue. Without hardships, there’s ordinarily no reason or incentive to grow in virtue. When our spouses mistreat us, we are gifted with an opportunity to practice and grow in the virtues of humility, fortitude, wisdom, understanding, mercy, temperance, mortification, charity, kindness, forgiveness, and patience.
Not only does God expect us to bear difficulties without interior complaint and to use hardships to make progress in virtue, He also expects us to desire and accept with spiritual joy the cross and afflictions that come our way. Why would we want to do that? The simple but profound answer is, because we love Him.
Next week, I’m going to explain why the virtue of patience is so difficult to put into practice.