Your Family Matters - Get touchy with your spouse

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Drawing closer physically ‘incarnates’ your love and can strengthen your marriage

Elizabeth Jordan was unhappy in her marriage. Her husband Tony was a jerk. They argued about money. They were emotionally distant. The love between them was almost dead. Elizabeth could, justly, complain long and bitterly about her husband.

What happened to transform their marriage so that they were helpful, loving and united again? Surprisingly, it was one party’s conversion. Elizabeth’s change of heart toward her husband changed her own behavior in the relationship. Together with her intense prayer support for him, this triggered the softening of his heart toward her and his own conversion to Christ.

I recommend watching the inspiring story of how these great changes unfold in the life of Elizabeth and Tony Jordan in the movie "War Room" (2015), a film by evangelical Protestant brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick.

"War Room" portrays the power of unilateral, proactive change on the part of one spouse to change the whole dynamic of a marriage. Though Elizabeth and Tony are fictional, it is absolutely true that one spouse on his or her own is capable of effecting a positive change in their marriage by changing their own approach to the other. This is a great point, and so is the emphasis on prayer specifically for one’s spouse.

However, I think Catholic filmmakers would have made the movie sexier. We value the body. We believe humble, physical realities like water, oil, bread and wine can be sacramentally transformed into effective means of grace for our souls. In the sacrament of marriage, the union of husband and wife, which is a union of body as well as of spirit, becomes a graced icon of the nuptial mystery in which Christ, the bridegroom, unites himself forever with his bride, the church.

A Catholic culture is an earthy, passionate culture which appreciates music, art, beauty, dancing, wine, feasting and, traditionally, big families — think of The Simpsons’ “Catholic Heaven,” where Mexicans shake maracas at a fiesta, Italians enjoy pasta and wine while a couple smooches passionately at a red-checked table, and rowdy, brawling Irish drain pints of Guinness. The tone of the marriage in War Room reminded me more of The Simpsons’ country-club perfect “Protestant Heaven.” The pristine, well-appointed interior of the Jordans’ spacious home didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there was very little touching between Elizabeth and Tony, even after they were on the same spiritual page.

Did anyone else notice that? Even after Elizabeth and Tony are reconciled, they never kiss! They pray together, they talk about Jesus, grace and making moral choices, but they don’t cuddle or even hold hands.

By contrast, I’m thinking of examples of hands-on, physically affectionate sacramental marriage and family life such as Toula’s oil-rubbing aunt and very fertile sister in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002), or the flirty dynamic between Grace’s best friend Megan and her husband Joe in "Return to Me" (2000). Surrounded by their happy, noisy household of five kids, Megan and Joe make suggestive innuendos to each other about getting into trouble dancing with “Catholic rhythm.”

Affectionate touch is so important in a healthy, happy marriage, and it is part of how we “incarnate” the love we have for our spouse. After all, in God’s plan for marriage, a man shall “leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31)

Skin-to-skin contact relaxes tension: Try arguing while holding hands, or sitting on the couch nestled in the crook of your husband’s arm. It’s hard to get as angry as before! Hugs, cuddles, hand-holding, kissing and the martial embrace trigger the release of the bonding hormone, oxytocin, which makes husbands and wives feel good, lowers their stress, boosts their immune systems and makes them feel better about their relationship. (Touch is good for kids, too.) The more the better, as greater levels of touch generate a cumulative effect of oxytocin build-up and receptivity.

This means that boosting the level of affectionate touch in your marriage is an incredibly powerful way one spouse can proactively change the dynamic of the marriage. Drawing closer physically — by adding more hello and goodbye kisses into your day, sitting arm-to-arm with your spouse and holding his or her hand — will help bring you closer emotionally, too. Add a commitment to intense, daily prayer in support of your spouse’s needs, War Room-style, and you could make your own marriage a blockbuster. After all, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “grace perfects nature.”  

Northwest Catholic - June 2016

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is