Father Michael Ryan, L.C.
ROME, APRIL 16, 2006 (Zenit.org/english/).- Within a happy marriage the positive comments should outnumber the negative about 5 to 1, says an experienced marriage counselor.
Legionary Father Michael Ryan, who is also dean of philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, spells out other points of advice in his book, "The Last Straw: Ways to Overcome the Stumbling Blocks in Communication Towards a Stronger and Happier Marriage" (Circle Press).
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Ryan touched on some of the advice he gives married couples.
Q: In your book you say that many marriages break up because of misunderstandings and comparatively small things which could have been avoided. What are these things and what should be done in order to resolve them in time?
Father Ryan: Marriages break up when there is hurting going on in the relationship. It is very difficult to persevere in the company of somebody who is sour and unpleasant.
In a nutshell I would say that we must avoid in every way possible hurting others with words or actions. Second, we must foster the atmosphere in which one can express to the other what is hurting. And, finally, we must accept the fact that we can hurt others even when we don’t intend to do so.
As a general rule we must monitor frequently our relationship in order to cure as soon as possible any problem that may arise, even in spite of our good will. Each person is different and the sensitivity of each person is different.
Therefore, there is no set list of things that can cause problems to a marriage. Each man and women must become aware of what hurts a spouse.
The dangerous aspect of all this consists in the fact that we can hurt others without us realizing that we are doing so. This leads to the accumulation of pain which then can easily spill over.
Q: How can married persons cultivate a form of dialogue necessary for addressing problems or disagreements in an open but delicate way? When is the right time to speak about difficulties? How can you say the truth without hurting another?
Father Ryan: First, we should not be "complaining" all the time about everything. It is important to reserve our complaints for really important issues or for issues that have hurt us in a special way.
Remember that the proportion between positive and negative moments in marriage must be always about 5 to 1. For each negative moment, for each criticism I allow myself to issue, there should be another five positive inputs. Our toleration for negativity is very short.
Then, when I must address a negative subject I should always begin stating my love for the other person. This is like stretching a safety net below us before we begin our delicate act of complaining, opening a bleeding issue.
With this I am saying that however we may get engaged in a discussion, there must be no doubt about our love for each other. That will not be touched.
Third, we should treat one subject at a time. Sometimes when we get angry we spit out many issues and this only confuses the whole relationship. One critical issue at a time!
Finally, try not to get personal in the sense of accusations. Try to use what is called the "I messages." Instead of saying that "you are a horrible person," say, "I feel that you are a horrible person."
The difference might seem small, but the second way is much better because you are stating what you feel and not hammering the other on the head directly.
Q: Love and pain go together. The more one loves, the more one gets hurt if the loved one doesn’t seem to react in the expected way. How can love prevail over pain? How can each other’s understanding become more sensitive? How can one stop being selfish and egoistic?
Father Ryan: This is certainly the greatest challenge for love. I don’t think it is always a question of being selfish or egoistic.
It is a fact that we can love others when we feel that we too are loved. Even with God this is the way and this is what St. John says to us in his Letter: It is God that loves us first.
Q: But how do we get beyond this vicious circle, when love in the other is lacking?
Father Ryan: If we were only instinct, then there would be no way out. But we are also intellect and we can understand what the good of the other person means and we can love that good for him or for her.
But we will be able to overcome our own pain more fully if we get inspiration for love from above, from the source of love. This reminds us of what John Paul II says in his "Letter to Families": If we want to love, we must be united to the source of Love, with the big "L."
Q: How can the deep feelings for each other felt in the beginnings keep growing instead of dying down? How can they transform into true love?
Father Ryan: The couple must become aware of the phenomena of change and growth. It is very important to get off to a good start.
This means that the first years of marriage must be intense and full of loving commitment. Then they should renew their commitment often, every year or at least every time that life is going to change in an important way.
In other words, they should prepare for each stage of marriage: the arrival of children, the long years of raising the family, the seven-year itch period, when their children are adolescent and the couple are midway in their lives, etc.
Each stage should sum up the positives and negatives of the previous stage, make new commitments, let go of certain things that will never be, and strive to be interdependent in a healthy way.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the real secret of happy marriages?
Father Ryan: To answer that question I refer to the results of an extensive inquiry made in more that 20 countries, with more than 40 researchers asking questions to more that 17,000 families.
The results tells us that a happy marriage has the following characteristics: The couple spend time together, in quantity and quality; they know how to express their affection for each other; they show commitment to family life; they know how to discuss in a constructive way; they have shared spiritual values.
This is the recipe I would give any couple who want to build a happy future.
Q: What’s the difference between a Christian marriage and other ones?
Father Ryan: I would say that it is the horizon that the Christian faith gives to marriage -- a horizon that help me understand the design of God the Creator when he instituted marriage.
The knowledge of this design tells us that we are created in the image of God, with the capacity of love. Faith also tells us that we have the grace of a sacrament to help us live our lives in love.
When marriage or families express all this in their prayer life, then they can feel its efficacy. It is shown that the practice of religion is an important factor in keeping families together and growing in plenitude.
Q: What’s the meaning and the significance of the sacrament of marriage?
Father Ryan: When a man loves a woman he will surely feel that he is not capable by himself of giving that woman all he would like for her in terms of complete happiness. Then he asks God for help.
Then God says to him: How nice, you and I love that same woman; we must make an alliance, a pact, to love her together.
This is the sacrament: God joins his love to our love. In this way every husband and every wife can say to each other: "I love you, with my human love, with all the characteristics proper to a human and sexual love, but my love has been enriched by the love that God has for you."
Q: What’s the will of God for married persons?
Father Ryan: I would like to summarize in the following way: To care for each other in the everyday things live, to make that person as happy as humanly possible, to raise a family, and to help each other and their children to strive for and reach the final destination of heaven.
Q: What can the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph tell a wife and husband?
Father Ryan: That life is made up of the small things but that these ordinary things can be lived in an extraordinary way.
Q: What would you advise young couples heading for a new form of life with each other?
Father Ryan: I would tell them to make sure that they begin their married life well. I believe in the saying that a good start is half the journey.
Therefore they must be aware that the wedding is only the beginning. From that moment onward they must build a new unity, gradually leaving behind many of the things to which they were accustomed.
They must be very sincere and tell one another what is happening in their hearts, especially if they perceive any clouds on the horizon. They should not be frightened if such clouds appear, because it is natural to find some difficulties on the way.
Finally, if any couple has a problem that they are not solving satisfactorily, then they should look for external help as early as possible.
Many a marriage could have been saved if they had looked for help in a timely fashion. To look for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of wisdom.