Marriage as a Covenant of Love

Fr. Ruben M. Tanseco, S.J.
Marriage as a Covenant of Love

A young husband shared with me what marriage is all about. “Marriage,” he said, “is when two people become one. The problem arises when they start deciding which one!”

Another husband, in his forties, came to me one day with this revelation. “Father, now I know what they mean when they say that to have many wives is polygamy, to have two wives is bigamy, and to have one wife is monotony!”

I presume you and I know better than that, although quite a number of us here are professional celibates. All joking aside, allow me to single out three simple questions regarding our subject: Marriage as a Covenant of Love. The WHAT? The WHY? And the HOW? I will dwell only briefly on the first two, since we are all knowledgeable about them theoretically and theologically. I will focus more on the experiential, psycho-spiritual skills of the HOW, for practical and pastoral reasons.


The WHAT of covenant as a lifelong commitment between the spouses is well-expressed in their mutual vows to each other and to God: “Grant us, O Lord, to be one heart and one soul, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

And going as far back as St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, spouses are reminded that they are to love each other as Christ loved his people and gave his very life for them (Eph 5:21-33).

The WHY?

This precisely brings us to the WHY of the marital vows, which is the mutual presences of authentic, mature love - tested through time and process.

What is the difference between authentic, mature love and its opposite? Take these two young couples pronouncing their marital vows in two different churches.

Observe the first couple. Each spouse is now whispering silently to himself/herself: “Ah, ngayong mag-asawa na tayo, halika, paligayahin mo ako.” (Now that we are married – come, make me happy). This is what I call the “disaster formula.”

What about the other couple? Each spouse silently whispers to himself/herself: “Ah, ngayong mag-asawa na tayo, halika, papaano kita mapaliligaya?” (Now that we are married – come, tell me how can I make you happy?) The “success formula.” St. Paul’s description of love (1Co 13) is known to us all.

The HOW? 

Let us now move to the HOW of the “success formula”: the psycho-spiritual skills of sustainable love. Due to our limited time, allow me to just describe briefly some foundational skills of marital relationship that are indispensable for a lifelong covenant of love. I am basing this on my more than 30 years of pastoral ministry as a professional marriage counselor, and on having conducted numerous seminars, workshops and retreats for married couples.

Finding God in All Things

Sustainable love through creation-centered spirituality is a way of life.

To fall in love is easy. No sweat. But to stay in love and grow in love – there’s the rub.

What is the secret of sustainable love?

The initial experience of falling in love is euphoric. But from experience we know that this does not last. We give our love-energy to our loved one(s), and this energy is depleted. How, then, do we re-energize ourselves?

The more common tendency is to expect our loved one(s) to love us in return. This expectation is a trap, for both the lover and the loved one. In the name of love, this unspoken expectation becomes a demand, be it aggressive or passive; a kind of clinging, grasping, manipulative behavior. The lover is trapped, because his/her happiness (energy replacement) now depends on the other.

And the “loved one” is equally trapped – in an experience of being controlled and sapped of his/her energy until the lover discovers another source of love-energy that is inexhaustible, which he/she can tap at will. The lover can then send out his/her energy to the other without demanding the other’s energy in return. In other words, the lover gives without expecting to receive. Such a climate moves the loved one to respond in kind – freely, without threat – and the cycle of sustainable love goes on.

This is the way of the wise. This is the way of the mystics. And that inexhaustible source of energy is none other than the all-loving God. How to connect and keep connected with this Giant Energy System is the secret of sustainable love.

This is really a contemporary expression of the age-old experience of the mystics, like Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century, Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the twentieth century.

Each of us has this potential of being a mystic – the contemplative power of the heart – by which we learn to love the universe, all of creation and mankind, in a deeply personal way, by constantly receiving God’s love-energy.

Take just one example. Sit under a tree and really quiet down. Slowly and gently, allow the tree – its trunk, branches, and leaves – to “speak” to you. In a simple and humble way, allow the tree to give you energy, as you see and hear and smell and taste and touch it. And as you continue to appreciate and admire its specialness with deeper intensity, feel the love that comes into you. And then send it back to the tree. You can stay there for a long time and feel greatly energized at the end of it all. Drawing love-energy from the tree, and then sending it back to the tree, without feeling depleted in the process.

The tree could be some other part of creation at other times. It could be the sky, the sea, or the birds. It could be your spouse, or your children. Indeed, it could be any and every human person who breathes the breath of life, the life of God.

Now we can understand St. Francis’ love for Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and his constant philosophy of life: “It is in giving that we receive.” Now we can understand St. Ignatius’ lifelong experience of “finding God in all things.” Now we understand the inexhaustible giving that Mother Teresa lived for, even into her eighties.

This is what husband and wife can develop as their spirituality. Each spouse gives love to the other without expecting a return. And each one receives without demanding anything. Each one is filled without grasping.

Mutual Empathy

This is the core, psycho-spiritual attitude – skill which is indispensable in husband-wife intimacy, mutual affirmation, dialogue, conflict-resolution, problem-solving, decision-making, and spiritual discernment.

What is empathy? And what does it mean for a husband or wife to be an empathetic listener. Briefly, to listen with empathy means to set aside my own thoughts and feelings about what is being expressed or explained by my spouse – and instead enter my spouse’s world and perspective, putting myself in his/her place, so that I can BE-WITH, THINK-WITH, and FEEL-WITH, my spouse. Non-judgmental and proactive, rather than reactive or inactive. To understand my spouse with my heart, more than with logic or rationality.

To understand the hurt, pain, fear, anger, confusion, etc. of my spouse as if they were my own, without my own hurt, pain, anger, etc. getting bound up with them. To understand, moreover, the meaning underneath these feelings – from my spouse’s perspective, not mine.

I do this by drawing my spouse out of himself/herself; by asking clarificatory questions; by verbally reflecting in my own words what has been said, by accepting (without agreeing or disagreeing) the world of my spouse. As an empathetic listener, I am proactive rather than reactive or inactive. In this way, my spouse begins to feel that he/she is really understood by me. As a consequence, my spouse will begin to trust me more, and will open up to me even more.

It is after this that my spouse will be open to listen to me in return and will try to understand me likewise with empathy. The deepest meaning, then, of empathy is none other than compassion“cum pati” – meaning to suffer-with, or go-through-with, my spouse what he/she is going through.

After an experience of mutual empathy, we as a couple may discern where God is calling us in terms of a win-win conflict resolution (where each one wins a little and loses a little), or a mutually agreed decision that gives us inner peace.

Friendship in Marriage

Mutual empathy, as described above, flows into marital friendship and companionship, which are often taken for granted or neglected by many couples. It is as though when two people got married, this companionship and friendship would just come about as a matter of course.

Well, it never does. It needs explicit attention, care, and nurturing. Most of all, it needs time, which the couple must be willing to invest.

Husband and wife must be willing to “waste time” with each other on a regular basis, if they are to be close friends, or the closest of friends. Otherwise, what they experienced during courtship simply dies a natural death, due to their preoccupation with their children, their work, and other duties and functions. The romance, tenderness, and playfulness tend to be less and less. Karinyo (sweetness), the balik-ligaw (as in a courting stage) approach, does more wonders than sessions with a marriage counselor. Spouses can often become each other’s friend-counselor.

For a couple to grow old together gracefully, their God-centered lifestyle must be committed to a few more values that cannot be bought by money.

Marital Psychodynamics

Equality in dignity and human rights between man and woman – This is fully supported by both the Philippine Constitution (State Policies, Sec. 14), and Church teaching (Familiaris Consortio, n.22). A double standard of morality is non-defensible.

Mutual Acceptance and Mutual Adjustment: Psycho-Emotional Differences of Man and Woman – Each spouse responds to the needs of the other, even when such needs may not be his/her own needs. Such needs are related to their feminine or masculine psychodynamics.

Typical patterns:

·      Man tends to be essential-minded, woman tends to be detail-minded.

·      Man tends to be more logical, woman tends to be more intuitive.

·      Man tends to express his love in slightly different ways than a woman does. Her need for physical demonstrativeness is often more than his.

·      In sex life, woman tends to be more romantic, needing more sensitivity and foreplay.

Liberation from Stereotyped Male-Female Roles – Instead, based on mutual love, roles are assumed/assigned according to personal capability and God-given gifts. Sharing of certain roles as a manifestation of gender equality and mutual love is likewise deeply appreciated in our times and may serve as an opportunity for husband-wife intimacy and friendship.

Sensuality, Sexuality, Spirituality – A Wholistic, Integrated Approach to Marital Sex Life

·      Sensuality and Spirituality – Our five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting) are entry points of God’s presence. Five sensual ways of receiving God’s presence and love-energy. Deeply meaningful for husband and wife.

·      Sexuality and Spirituality – “The nuptial meaning of the human body” (John Paul II). Every human person has as his/her need and longing the desire to “marry God” – to be completed by God in order to find happiness. Your spouse is that human representation of that desire for God.

Sexual intimacy between husband and wife is the complementarity achieved in the ecstatic abandonment of one’s own person. This mutual self-abandon is what spouses experience in a highly dramatic moment of orgasm. A mystical experience.

Coupleness as You-I-We – Three distinct identities, each one having a life of its own. Speaking of marriage, let us end with the famous description of Kahlil Gibran’s in The Prophet:

           You were born together,

           and together you shall be

           forever more.

           You shall be together

           when the white winds of death

           scatter your days.

           Ay, you shall be together

           even in the silent memory of God.

            But let there be spaces

           in your togetherness.

           And let the winds of the heavens

           dance between the shores

           of your souls.

           Fill each other’s cup

           but drink not from one cup.

           Give one another of your bread

           but eat not

           from the same loaf.

           Sing and dance together

           and be joyous,

           but let each one of you be alone,

           even as the strings

           of a lute are alone

           though they quiver

           with the same music. 

           Give your hearts,

           but not into each other’s keeping.

           For only the hand of Life

           can contain your hearts.

           And stand together

           yet not too near together.

           For the pillars of the temple

           stand apart,

           and the oak tree and the cypress

           grow not in each other’s shadow.