MY WIFE, MY BEST FRIEND
Friendship Supports Love
|Aaron Kheriaty, M.D.|
Aaron Kheriaty, M.D., is the founding director of the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum at the University of California, Irvine, and the associate director of residency training in the UCI department of psychiatry. Fathers for Good talked to Dr. Kheriaty, a married man with three sons, about marital friendship.
Fathers for Good: How would you define/describe “spousal friendship” – how is it similar to or different from other types of friendship?
Dr. Kheriaty: Spousal friendship is unique because it is strengthened and complemented by other forms of spousal love.
The ancient Greeks had four words to describe love: sexual and romantic love (eros), the love of friendship (philia), familiar everyday love for ordinary things (storge), and generous self-sacrificing love (agape). Marriage is unique because, besides our relationship with God, it is the one relationship where all four of these types of love can and should be present.
So spousal friendship is indeed a special kind of friendship (philia), distinguished by its more passionate elements (eros), its everyday familiarity (storge), and above all, by a self-sacrificing love (agape) that puts the spouse and her needs above one’s own.
Our Lord himself taught by his words, and demonstrated in his passion and death, that the greatest love is that in which a man lays down his life for his friends. St. Paul described a man’s friendship with his wife in precisely the same terms – husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself up for her.
FFG: What Is a common barrier to friendship?
Dr. Kheriaty: In his excellent book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes some of the difficulties encountered in spousal friendships. He considers the situation of a wife who stays at home doing domestic work and rearing the children, while the husband is involved in the world of professional life outside the home. Lewis reminds us that friendship is always based upon common interests and common projects.
When one spouse works professionally outside of the home and the other does not, he argues that friendship tends to wane – the wife, no matter how hard she tries to “keep up,” will eventually feel alienated from the husband’s professional interests. He moves in different circles, from which she inevitably feels excluded. Try as she might, she cannot “talk the talk” with him in the same way his colleagues can. Thus, Lewis argues, friendship between spouses in these circumstances becomes progressively more difficult with time. He does not offer much in the way of a solution to this difficulty.
Without denying the potential problem he describes, I am more optimistic about the possibility of friendship between spouses, even those who, in their daily professional work, move in different circles. First of all, consider the spouses’ common interests and projects, upon which a solid friendship can be built. For most married couples, God blesses their union with children. What could be a more important, fascinating, and demanding common project than parenthood? Good parenting requires constant communication, cooperation, and mutual support between spouses – the very stuff upon which a friendship can develop.
Of course, the foundation for their friendship needs to go beyond parenting – otherwise, when the children are out of the house, the spouses run the risk of losing their only common project. So their friendship should include other common interests and activities – politics, hobbies, projects, reading together, discussions and conversations about cultural topics.
Finally, if the man who works outside the home does not try to include his wife in his professional interests and activities, if he does not attempt to speak with her about his daily joys, sorrows, and concerns, then he is not treating her as an equal, as a true friend. She will feel this and resent it, as Lewis noted.
To avoid this problem, men should be ready to talk with their wives about their work when they get home, even if they are tired from a busy day, and would prefer to sit with the TV or newspaper. Likewise, wives should attempt to show interest in their husband’s professional life – if not for an interest in the work itself, then for his sake.
FFG: How important is “spousal friendship” to happy marriage?
Dr. Kheriaty: It is indispensable. Perhaps the most common cause of divorce is the lack of a solid and constant friendship between spouses. This foundation of friendship remains firm when the emotions and passions of eros wax and wane.
The antidote to the proverbial “seven-year itch” is real friendship that continues to be cultivated year after year. This takes work – it often requires sacrifice and always requires effort.
A well-known psychologist has done studies comparing successful marriage relationships with those that end in divorce. The worst sign of a troubled marriage is what he calls “stonewalling” – a total lack of engagement between the spouses.
When the lives of a husband and wife begin to run on parallel tracks that never meet, the marriage is likely doomed if things do not change. Interestingly, this psychologist argues that for spouses who are “stonewalled,” even getting them to argue with one another is a step in the right direction; at least in arguing they are engaging with one another.
Friends sometimes have disagreements, so spouses will have occasional arguments (of course, this should never be done in front of the children, and attempts to reconcile should come quickly). What should be avoided at all costs is a lack of daily engagement, a distance or coldness between spouses. This kills friendship; and when the spousal friendship dies, the marriage is in trouble.
FFG: What are some practical “everyday” things a husband can do to achieve “spousal friendship”?
Dr. Kheriaty: 1. A husband should pray with his wife daily. This can take many forms – the family rosary, night time prayers with the children, quiet mental prayer together before the Blessed Sacrament, vocal prayers. The husband should be the spiritual leader in the family (giving good example to the children), and the spiritual leader in the marriage (helping his wife on her way to heaven).
2. He must demonstrate his love with words and deeds. Women need to hear, and to be shown, “I love you” many times a day. Just as Our Lady never tires of hearing the repeated prayers of the rosary, so our wife never tires of hearing how much we love her.
Tender and affectionate words are never boring or repetitious when love is present. So we say it (over and over – with phone calls, e-mails, or text messages during the workday), and then we show it.
Take care of the Saturday “honey-do” list without complaint. Try to anticipate her needs. Come up with projects that you can do together. Love is deeds, not sweet words (but the sweet words are necessary as well).
Finally: It sounds clichéd, but flowers work every time. Bring her flowers often – for no apparent reason, and without the need of a “special occasion.” They are a great way to diffuse arguments or tensions: swallow your pride, and be the first to apologize.