Friday, June 6, 2014

Seven Ways a Husband Can Support a Wife During Infertility #7 - The Last One!

For part one click here. For part two click here. For part three click here. For part four click here. For part five click here. For part six click here

Disclaimer: This post deals with a lot of issues regarding s*xual intimacy as this topic is especially important to men struggling with infertility. So I talk openly about it. However, it may be TMI for some people. Every attempt was made to keep the discussion very respectful and tasteful. I have also replaced the "e" with a star in words referring to intimate relationships in order to avoid internet spam in the comments. 

7.) Be a man of hundredfold love – Love should be our overarching goal throughout the entire struggle of infertility. In particular, a great sacrificial love toward your wife that is total. Hold nothing back. Find out what ways your wife loves to be loved throughout all of this difficult mess and keep nurturing your relationship to epic proportions. This may be as simple as a kind gesture, like making dinner after she had a hard day's work, or giving her some words of appreciation every day. Second only to the faith, the greatest gift you, as a married couple, have to give to the world, to your spouse, to others, and even to any future children is your love together in your marriage. This love together is irreplaceable. Resolve then to be a great lover! Don't let your marriage or your love grow stagnant or worse to fall only into sadness and constant bickering.

As one of my spiritual directors said to me, “You are either growing or dying as a couple.” Sometimes this “dying” isn't obvious and it is more of a slow “drifting”. So where are you as a couple – growing, drifting, or dying – or in what areas are you growing, drifting, or dying? Take this time to reflect upon that and to really cultivate a great love. Iron out those aspects of the relationship that aren't perfect and replace it with a deeper love. Given that we don't have children yet, make a weekly commitment to go on a date to kindle love and once a month to talk about how you can grow in your marriage. My wife and I set aside about 1-2 hours a month to discuss goals for our marriage in the next month and honestly ask “How can I love you better?” Then we make one concrete goal for increasing a virtue related to our marriage for the next month and discuss how we did from last month. This marital virtue is in addition to the one individual virtue you are also trying to develop as discussed in step three. These marital goals can be the same from month to month if it is a really difficult virtue for you. For example, last month I chose to work on the virtue of politeness for our marriage by including consciously the words “thank you,” “please,” “your welcome,” and “I'm sorry” into my dialogue with my wife. Now, I still have a long way to go especially on the word “please” so I have chosen it again for my virtue this month. This is an example of a small goal of marital virtue that eventually can form a great love.

Also, as a part of your great love, make sure to continue to nurture a healthy s*xual relationship. Even though love goes far beyond s*xual intimacy, I will nonetheless spend some time on this topic because it is a frequent challenge to men in an infertile relationship. As men, the advice to continue to nurture a s*xual life is a 'no brainer'. You men were probably even wondering when I was going to bring this topic up in this series! Yes, we men love s*x and it is one of our greatest emotional needs whereas for women it isn't necessarily. We are different, after all! Also and more to the point, I am highlighting and writing a lot about this aspect of love because as an infertile couple sexual intercourse can become difficult as it is now a place of great suffering. That is, as an infertile couple, you recognize that your sexual intercourse may not in all likelihood be fruitful, and this fact makes you tremendously sad since one of the two purposes of sex and love is to be fruitful. The place where a couple is supposed to be the closest in love has now become a place of suffering. Given this suffering, the natural tendency can be to run away from s*xual intercourse, but we must as a couple continue to nurture this intimacy, which is why I am emphasizing it here under the much greater virtue of love. This indeed is a great suffering, but not an insurmountable one.

The beauty about s*x is that is just as much for babies as it is for building up your marital unity. These are inseparably united as ends of the marital act. This is why the Church teaches about the joint ends of marital unity and procreation in a sexual act. By the way, when I say “procreation” here I don't mean the actual existence of a child but rather being open to life, which can occur in every s*xual act regardless of whether or not a particular child comes, provided that a couple cooperates with nature. So with this teaching of the Church in mind, a spouse should approach s*x with the mindset of “come what may from this act, I am going to love my spouse.” This is the right attitude to have in order to overcome the temptation to reduce your spouse to only pleasure or an occasion for just creating a baby.

Admittedly, this perspective is a lot easier for men. Recall here especially the difference between women and men in regard to suffering through infertility. Women have taken upon themselves the greater burden of the physical and emotional suffering due to their greater involvement with fertility, so they will undoubtedly find s*xual intercourse more difficult when struggling with infertility. Their bodies are just simply more attuned with the physical suffering related to fertility. Now, this fact shouldn't keep men and women away from having s*x and having s*x frequently because again s*xual intercourse is one of the greatest acts that builds up the bond in marriage. But as men who have a deeper need for s*xual intimacy than women, we need to especially keep this fact of unequal physical suffering in mind if our spouses are having difficulty with the s*xual relationship. I believe if we recall this fact we will be much more sympathetic, sensitive, and patient in working through any s*xual difficulty. You will slowly realize that it's not you who they are rejecting or crying about, but the suffering. Yes, you have to work through it for a healthy relationship, but I believe this compassionate approach will open up our spouses and make s*x easier for women. However, there is more you can do as well.

As a way to increase the marital unity in s*x, make sure “the oneness” of the marriage is felt beyond the bedroom in regard to a common spiritual life, sharing emotions surrounding infertility, shared activities or hobbies, dates, sharing in common work, building a peaceful and joyful home, etc. As men, we can too often fixate only on what happens in the bedroom whereas we need to see it as always connected to the entire marriage. If we are having problems in the bedroom, then we should ask “How is the oneness of our marriage elsewhere? Is there some area(s) we are lacking in?”

Also, to make s*x great we should also focus on the entire sensual experience and not just pleasurable touch as is commonly done (although that is important). So as a way to increase physical intimacy both spouses should try to really engage all five senses. Some of these suggestions are basic, but they can be forgotten over time in a relationship. So, I will list some important questions here in line with the five senses. Sight – What are you wearing? Is it something your spouse will like? Is the room romantic? Did you take time to get ready in the way your spouse likes? Smell – Are there candles? Did you remember deodorant? Have you considered a lotion your spouse likes if you are a woman? Taste - How is your breath? Have you considered experimenting with flavored lipstick if you are a woman? Hearing – Do you try to foster loving and playful dialogue? Is there music you both like that could add to the environment? Do you ever play the song you danced to at your wedding? Touch – Am I touching my spouse in a way he or she likes provided that it is in a moral way that she is comfortable with? For other great practical tips on s*xual intimacy from a Catholic perspective I recommend the book Holy S*x! by the Dr. Popcak.

Moreover, to approach sex in the right way we need to not only focus on the overall sensual experience, but also approach it as a prayer to God. If you are a Catholic, then s*xual intimacy is part of the liturgical Sacrament;  it is the physical gesture that is a visible sign of both your spoken wedding vows and invisible grace! Not just on your wedding day, but every time you come together for the rest of your life provided you are receptive to this dimension of faith. If you are not Catholic, then it should still be approached as something sacred and similar advice applies. However, I am definitely aware that this meaning of s*x must be nurtured and cultivated by men because it is either unknown, quickly forgotten, or rejected, especially the more you get to know your wife and the more ordinary s*x becomes over the relationship. We must not romanticize s*x with false expectations or ideals. To make s*x a prayer requires work on our part as a couple.

As Catholics, one way to be receptive of this aspect of the s*xual act is simply to approach it reverently, not haphazardly, with the recognition that your spouse is a living tabernacle of God, who through grace has been made indissolubly one with you. Another way is to have sacramentals in your bedroom (i.e. religions paintings, crucifix, wedding day photos, a canopy over the bed as representative of a baldachin in a church, etc - be creative!). But most importantly, if s*x is to be the prayer it was on our wedding day, then it must flow out of our spousal prayer/faith life at other times during our relationship. S*x "as a prayer" cannot happen in a vacuum. You don't just wake up one day with the right thoughts in mind and then boom it is this mystical experience. No, you must have a robust prayer life at other times in the relationship in order to make this physical act into a prayer that may or may not have great feelings attached to it. The opposite is true too. Also, yes sometimes s*x can be mundane and that's okay! It is no less a prayer or an act of love because you don't feel emotional consolations. Prayer will help you to appreciate even this mundaneness and this ordinary beauty.

Further, I really believe that if you work on the steps outlined here in this series, in particular, then difficulties in regard to physical intimacy will slowly work themselves out into the loving prayer of indissoluble oneness s*x is meant to be. I have already shown the interconnections of prayer and s*x here. But the deeper reason why, which I have alluded to, is because all of these steps build up your “oneness” in other areas of your marriage that will then bubble over into the bedroom, like a great flood! Your “oneness” will be so much that you can't imagine not having that physical oneness too on a consistently happy basis. For men, the key is to stop thinking of our "oneness" primarily only in regard to physical s*x and to see how this s*xual relationship is interconnected to so much more that we often need to work on.

Now, back to our broader and more important topic of love, we need to find out how we can cultivate joy and adventure as part of our love in a marital relationship too. In regard to joy, there are many ways to build it up. Find out what makes you both laugh and do that! It can be a silly show, silly conversations, silly activities, or whatever. Start listing off things you are grateful for in your prayer life together too. Start a gratitude journal in relation to your daily events. Share life with other people and families who make you joyful. Let the Sacraments and especially Eucharistic adoration give you joy. There are so many ways to discover joy, find what that is for you as a couple in order to increase your love. 

In regard to adventure, you don't have children yet so use this time to explore and to do things that would be harder or impossible when you have children. I don't mean just exploring new cities, new foods, new hobbies, etc (although that certainly could be a part of it within moderation!). But also consider using this time to better your financial life in order to help you adopt or simply to take away one of the main areas of stress in relationships - finances - by eliminating debt and saving money and by doing so you will be building up your "oneness" in the relationship. Or consider other opportunities in regard to education. Or consider new charitable experiences together, like helping out at a homeless shelter, serving a local charity, visiting the elderly, helping the disabled, seeing who needs concrete help at your parish, helping those who feel aloof to be more integrated at your parish, serve parish ministries such as youth ministry or marriage preparation, etc. Perhaps you are called to an even more radical adventure as a missionary couple? I know we have thought about this calling on a few occasions. Don't rule out the possibilities and remember that the greatest adventure, St. Augustine tells us, is to follow and to love God. Let God tell you where your adventure of love as a couple should be during these years! Hold nothing of your love back! Give and all will be given back . . . a hundredfold. "Amen I say to you, there is no one who has given up [insert the most precious things/needs in your life]. . . for my sake and for the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age" (Mark 10: 31). Do we believe this promise? I pray your love becomes the hundredfold love of the Gospel. Pray for us to embody this same type of hundredfold love.

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