Episode 8 – How to build a good Christian Marriage?

“To exclude God from marriage would be foolish.”

Christian Marriages

A Good Marriage?

Mary Sparrow on Marriage

Mary Kathryn Sparrow

Mary Kate Sparrow is a wife and a mother to four sons ages 6-14. She has been married to her husband, Justin, for 16 years and together they have helped prepare well over one thousand couples for the Sacrament of Marriage for the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia. She is also the owner of Siena Adoption Services which provides adoption services to Catholic couples for a greatly reduced rate. 

In this episode, I talk to Mary Kathryn Sparrow about building a good marriage.
Mary answers questions about:
-Why is marriage called a vocation?
-What is God’s role or His place in the life of a married couple?
-Is prayer important for married couples? If yes, how do they incorporate it into their busy lives?
-What practical tips can you give those struggling with problems/ difficult life partners?

For our listeners who’d prefer to read here’s the transcript (For the first time on this show). Let me know if you like it with a transcript.


Here’s the transcript

Mary: Okay, so, my name is Mary Kate Sparrow, and I’m a wife, first I am a wife and mother of four sons, ages 14 down to 6 years old. And I have been working for the Diocese of Arlington for, which is in Virginia, in the United States, for the last 10 years doing the Conference of Engage, which is a retreat that we run for engaged couples to prepare for marriage. We do that along with a priest and a psychologist. So, and we’ve been doing that for, as I said, about 10 years. And then I also own a non-profit adoption agency that helps parents who are looking to adopt with…actually Catholic couples that are looking to adopt with low cost adoptions. So we provide all the services at a greatly reduced rate in order to facilitate the adoption for these families. I have been married for 16 years.

Pamela: Wow. Okay. OKay.

Mary: A little while.

Pamela: Yeah. Sixteen years is a long time because in our own Arch Diocese we have, I think for the first year of marriage a 50% divorce rate, so I think it’s a big thing. Sixteen years is a long time.

Mary: Absolutely. And you know, there’s almost, there was this book out in the United States probably about five years ago called “The Starter Marriage” about how so many people were just having a marriage that lasted no more than a year, and they were calling it the starter marriage, and it was supposed to be kind of cute and funny, but obviously it was very sad.

Pamela: Yeah. Yeah. So, since you have so much of experience and you’ve been talking about this constantly at your retreats, etc., the first thing I want to ask you about this call that we have of marriage as a vocation, and now just introduce to people what a vocation is, because it’s not very common in other denominations, but we believe strongly that marriage is a vocation. So, why is that so, and explain a little about what this vocation is.

Mary: Okay, so, obviously marriage is a vocation, and a vocation is basically a calling by God, and we would be, as marriage, a calling to the state of holy matrimony. Now there’s first a universal vocation, which all of us have a universal vocation, and that is to holiness, whether you’re married, single, priest, religious life, anything. We all have that call to holiness, which is the universal vocation. But beyond the universal vocation is something called the sacraments at the service of communion, and that is, you know, in layman’s terms, it’s basically the sacrament at the service of the body of Christ, to build up the body of Christ, and this is where marriage comes in. Your end goal is obviously still holiness for yourself, but it is meant to bring others to holiness. So a priest would bring his flock to holiness, and a marriage you would bring your spouse to holiness. At the same time you are building up the universal church. So, that is how it is. And you know, it’s important to note that, that marriage is one of the very first gifts that God gave to man, and it is the greatest natural gift that God gave mankind. And when original sin was introduced so many of the gifts that God had planned for us, we forfeited. We lost when original sin was introduced, but God, in His infinite wisdom, allowed marriage to remain, and that shows that it was=…it was His design for the foundation of society since the beginning of time. That the foundation of our society should be that man and woman are joined in marriage and call each other on to holiness.

Pamela: Can you talk about this being our call towards other people and building up the church. Doesn’t it also support the fact that our goal, even in marriage, is to look outward and not inward towards, you know, what’s going on in your family, but rather to look outwards towards what the community is doing, right?

Mary: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean we are called as Christians to always be in service, and that service starts in marriage. You’re at the service to yourselves, but then that by extension, that, that goes on to the service of the community. And really, I mean so much of how you support the community is through a strong marriage. For example, the cyclical nature of life is supported through marriage. Our parents gave birth to us, and they raised us, and now as they get older we in turn, we’ll care for them until they pass away. And that, by, by being in that service and giving that service within our own family, that releases the burden on the community at large. So, a good solid marriage also releases a huge burden to society, which is also a gift as, well.

Pamela: When we talk about marriage, I know that we attend a lot of retreats here, and they always say there are three people in the marriage. One is God.

Mary: Right.

Pamela: One is you and your spouse. So, what exactly is God’s role here in a marriage?

Mary: So, God’s role in a marriage should always be paramount. It really needs to be the centerpiece of a marriage. You know, I had a…To exclude God from marriage would be foolish, really, at the end of the day, and I had a wise priest once say, and I thought this was such a great analogy…he said you have to view marriage and your relationship to God within it as a triangle, with God being the top point, and the husband and wife being each of the base points. As you move closer to God, who is at the top, you naturally move closer to each other, as well. So you have this gift of increasing your relationship with God and growing and nurturing your relationship with God, and by extension of that, by the nature of moving closer to God, you grow closer to each other, which is, creates a better marriage. And I always say that, you know, it’s amazing that God chose to…that Jesus chose to create, to perform His first miracle at a wedding. What an honor to the sacrament of holy matrimony that He would choose to perform His first miracle at a wedding. It really speaks volumes about His…the importance that He places on marriage.

Pamela: So wouldn’t you say that God basically right at the start, and all through, and even right at the end, everywhere through the marriage? Or is it when people start seeing trouble, or when something goes wrong, that’s when people say, “Okay, now it’s God’s turn.”

Mary: Absolutely. I mean this is unfortunately the fallen nature of man, that we, we have it all figured out until we don’t, and then we’re desperately clinging to God, but that’s a dangerous gamble to take because if you have God there constantly, and He needs to be a part of every day, you know, starting the day with prayer, ending the day with prayer, then you know, that’s a great thing for your marriage and your marriage will blossom.

Pamela: Prayer is important. That’s what you’re saying right? Prayer is important.

Mary: Absolutely.

Pamela: Just tell them why this prayer is important, and also tell them how do we incorporate this prayer? Because everybody today talks about working long days, and they have kids, and they’ve got parents, you know, they’ve got like multiple responsibilities, but the time for prayer has been cut short. So how do they incorporate this prayer into their busy lives?

Mary: Well, that’s so true. A prayer, I would say that prayer isn’t just important, it’s essential for marriage. When we speak to the engaged couples, we say something that can sound kind of ominous, but there’s a reason for it. We get up to the couples and we say…You know, I can look at all these couples and usually at each meeting there’s 180 people, so 90 couples. And we say, “I can get up in front of you and I can’t predict whether any of you will be happy, whether you’ll have a happy marriage, whether you’ll have a wealthy marriage, a successful marriage. The only thing I can get up here and say with absolute certainty is that your marriage…you will suffer.” And that’s sad, but it’s true. We all suffer, and Christ, in His infinite wisdom knew that we were all going to suffer. That’s why He modeled suffering for us, of how to handle suffering. But when the suffering comes, whether it be through the loss of a loved one, or illness, or infidelity, or, you know, unemployment, or loss of a job, or anything like that, if you do not have a solid prayer foundation, it is going to feel like you’re being asked to run a marathon you never trained for. It is overwhelming, but when you have that solid prayer foundation, when you’ve laid the groundwork, you know, you’ve made the field fertile, when it happens it will still be hard, but you, it won’t overtake you, you can keep pace with it and that is the difference. That is the goal.

And you know, I just, I have a dear…my niece right now is giving…unfortunately she’s in her third trimester and they found that the baby had passed away, and so she has to, you know, go through the birthing process right now, and it’s obviously…what was something that was supposed to be very, very joyful in her marriage is becoming something very tragic, and…but she had mentioned that she had been going to daily mass for the last seven weeks, and how she just… this peace was just there, and that’s only something that can come through prayer, and that she had laid foundation for that and now she’s reaping the rewards of having built up that great prayer life. But, you’re right, I mean the, we are busy, too busy, obviously. I mean, you know, I’m always bemoaning to my husband, “We’re too busy, we’re over scheduled, the kids do too much,” but this is kind of the nature of the world we live in. But you know, it’s essential to carve out a little piece of the day for prayer. I went to a priest once for some spiritual direction about…I felt frustrated with my prayer life. I didn’t feel like I was carving out enough time for it, and he said,”You have to. It’s an exercise of the will. You have to grow, you have to train the will and exercise it just like you would any muscle.” So he gave me a little challenge.

He said, “Okay, from now on every first time you get in the car in the morning, instead of turning on the radio like you want to, stop. Stop. You know? And be quiet, be still, and pray.” And he said, “You don’t have to do it every time, but do it, and then you’ll grow in strength,” or he says, “Okay, you want to reach for a cookie after dinner, or a glass of wine, every once in a while just stop and don’t do it, and that’s how we exercise our will and we become stronger. And as you become stronger, then there’s more time for prayer. You’re more able to listen to the prompts of the Holy Spirit that’s calling you to pray.” And my husband and I choose, we pray together at the end of the night, and I’m not, you know…I’d love to say that we’re sitting here praying all three, four mysteries of the rosary, but we’re not. It’s a small prayer, but it’s just the idea that you’re taking a moment of quiet together to thank God for the day, and prepare for the next day. And not everyone can do the evening, the evenings can…we happen to have jobs and families where we can do that at the end of the day, but for some people it needs to be the morning. It’s just the effort. God, I think, recognizes and celebrates the effort, not necessarily…and, you know, He responds to it. He knows how busy we are so He celebrates the fact that we took five minutes to do that.

Pamela: Would you say that, you know, there’s two parts to this. One is your own individual prayer, and one is that with your spouse or your partner. And both are necessary, I think, if you wanna grow closer, or if you, if you’re focusing on a marriage, right?

Mary: I have my own prayer that…we pray separately because obviously he works, we don’t work together or anything like that, and I spend a lot more time with the kids because he’s away at his office all day. But I try and pray the rosary every day, and when I do I feel the effects of it, I feel the peace in my life, and when I don’t, I’m keenly aware of its missing. And I don’t always hit the mark. I do not always pray the rosary every day, of course, I’m great in Advent, and I’m great in Lent, and then I get sometimes lazy in the summer, and stuff like that. I mean, obviously, the perfect prayer is the sacrifice of the mass, so to celebrate on the weekend, on Sunday, mass with your spouse, is a huge blessing to your marriage. But beyond that, if we can shoot to make maybe one daily mass a week together, we try, or…But, you know, the bulk of our prayer life is separate, but it’s that evening prayer, which really does only last three to five minutes, just connecting at the end of the day.

Pamela: So what would you suggest in terms of something practical for those who are struggling? Because there are lots of people now who are on, you know, on the very edge, and they’re not sure what they’re going to do with their problems, or their life partners. They’re thinking about, you know, annulments, and divorces, and separations. Before they head to doing all that, what would you say you should do? I mean what are the avenues you should exhaust before you think about all that?

Mary: Well, if you come to a problem in your marriage, or a difficulty, a struggle, or a difficult person that you happen to be married to, if it’s something that a conversation cannot fix, then seek help sooner rather than later. It is much easier to unpack a small suitcase than a large one, right? And my first piece of advice would be, if you…to find a trusted priest or religious sister who would be willing to meet with you. I mean we all know priests that are really gifted at interpersonal relations, that just know people, they know how to…and they have a lot of experience dealing with things like this. Even though they’ve never been married themselves, they have a lot of experience dealing with this. And the added bonus is that there’s no cost to it, so you’re not committing to any big, you know, financial costs to go meet with them. And as I said, they do have so much experience.

It’s kind of like confession. I mean there’s nothing you can say that they have not heard before. And they can give you practical tips, and the bonus of that is that if they do feel that you need actual medical help, whether it be for, you know, mental health issues, or maybe a psychiatrist or a psychologist, you need professional services, they’re a neutral party that’s suggesting it. So, it’s not one spouse suggesting it and the other feeling attacked, or threatened. It’s a priest, it’s a neutral party that’s suggesting it. And the other added bonus of that is that a lot of times parishes…I know for example our parish and in our diocese, if a couple needs counseling, professional counseling services, they have, you know, worked on a reduced rate. They secure reduced rates with some of our psychologists and psychiatrists who are willing to work with Catholic couples who are struggling but might not have the financial means to get help. So, it’s something that’s good to approach them about because they can…they can often times…you know, they can often times set that up. They don’t want any, at any time finances to preclude you from getting help with your marriage.

And truly, the number one thing I can say, especially when you’re dealing with the hard times, the difficult times, because they’re in every marriage, it’s always gonna happen, is to make sure you’re going to the sacrament of confession. It is, you know, we have so many graces that we received at our baptism, and then we received again at our confirmation. So we have all the graces to lead, you know, a good, holy life, and to be able to approach a person with a good, Christian attitude. But with sin, we, as I say I give this example. We also teach baptism class, and I’m talking to the new parents about how important confession is, and I say, “You know, you’ve kinda gotta look at confession like you threw your keys on a bed, on your bed, and then all of a sudden all the laundry that you need to fold is on top of it. Well, when you need to grab those keys because you’re running out the door because you’re late, you can’t find them, so you can’t access it and it becomes hard and complicated. Whereas the sacrament of confession, it’s like you’re clearing the bed off and the keys are sitting there, right for you, so when you need them, when your spouse does something irritating, or inappropriate, or rude, or, you know, anything like that, you can access the graces God gave you right there, the gifts that God gave you, right there, so that you can not contribute to the problem, you can solve the problem.

And a priest and a professional counselor is really going to help with that, and there’s really no shame in it, and I think that is one of the blessings we have now of where we are at. It’s not shameful to say, “You know what? We need help. Let’s get help. We care enough about this marriage that we’re working through some stuff.” And at the end of the day nobody really needs to know, but it’s…but there isn’t that stigma that it used to be. You know, everyone doesn’t have to pretend that everything’s perfect.

Pamela: Well, when exactly do you seek help? Like, for example, if you’re just starting to see a problem, whatever it may be, is that when you actually go to a priest? Do you go alone? Do you take your spouse? I mean, what exactly do you do? I mean when you just start seeing, and you, or feel uncomfortable, there’s something going on.

Mary: Well, first talk to your spouse. That would be my…as I said before, you know, just try and have a conversation with your spouse. That is the first…and if it doesn’t go well, and the spouse is coming back at you with, really feels that you’re the problem, the I would, I would set up a meeting to meet with your priest first by yourself. “Let’s see if I’m…if I’m the factor here, or I’m the issue here.” Obviously in certain situations, like infidelity and stuff like that you’re talking about, you know, it’s a much more extreme example, but, then if…you know, if you really, if you feel like you’re doing this work but it’s not getting better, there’s no healing that’s going on, then it’s time to meet together with the priest, as long as the spouse is willing.

I mean, unfortunately, we’ve all known marriages where one person wants to work on the things that are…they’re struggling with and the other person doesn’t, and that’s a real cross to bear, and in that case you can really only worry about, you just really have to work on yourself. Grow in your own holiness, go to counseling yourself. But if your spouse is willing, as I said, anything that you can do earlier is better. It will help so much more to come at the beginning of the problem instead of waiting until the problem has spiraled out of control and it’s just taken over the marriage, and the family, and there’s a lot of poison that has leaked in there, and that’s…that’s much harder, and resentment, that’s much harder to get rid of. So, yes, being kind of Johnny on the spot and realizing, “Okay, I see an issue that’s forming here. Let’s go ahead and get to the bottom of this so it doesn’t grow,” is very wise.

Pamela: I also wanted to ask you, spiritually and otherwise, how do you make or build a good a good Christian marriage? I know we have a lot of listeners who are single, so, if they’re planning, or they’re contemplating marriage what are the things that you should do to make or build a good Christian marriage?

Mary: Well, first I would recommend, just basics here, come into the marriage…When you, when you do get married, come in with a spirit of flexibility. You and your spouse have both grown up in very different situations. Maybe different cultural situations, maybe different religious situations, many different things. So come in with a spirit of flexibility in terms of, you know, do you..for example, just even something as simple…I remember my husband and I getting in an argument when we were first married, about loading the dishwasher. I mean it’s ridiculous, but we just had very different ways that we grew up doing it, and that sounds so petty, but, you know, you have to be flexible with little things like that. “Okay, well, we both grew up in very different ways, and we’re coming together to form a new family, and let’s be flexible.” I think a lot of times, unfortunately, the women view the man as needing to be flexible about everything, and the woman, “Well this is how my family did it, we did it right,” and I feel like that’s kind of a real burden that a lot of women, in my experience, have placed on a man. That, that her family, her upbringing, trumps everything, and so, then, you know, it’s a bit insulting to the husband.

And so, I think that, and then the other thing I would say is just to, you know, a lot of people view marriage as based on things you had in common, but maybe someday you won’t have in common any more. And we all know couples that have, get divorced, and they say, “Oh, well, we…you know, we drifted apart, we didn’t connect any more.” Well, that didn’t just happen one day. That was allowed to happen, slowly, bit by bit over years. So what you have to do in marriage to create a good, strong, Christian marriage, in addition to prayer, is to wake up every day and make decisions that orient yourself toward your spouse. You know, to find compatible things, to always be looking for…you know, the best marriages I see are ways that they have found new passions together. They have, you know, picked up a new sport, or a hobby they like, or found a new place that they both like to travel to together, or met new friends as a couple. You know? Those kind of things. Or got involved in…even my husband and I doing this Conference to the Engaged for engaged couples, this is something that we, we found we love to do together, so we’re…you know, you’re constantly searching for things. You’re not looking for things that you like to do separately. Of course you’ll have things that, you know, I’m a big reader, my husband’s not as big a reader, things like that. But you’re always on the lookout for ways to find new passions together, that will keep you close, and keep you both enjoying similar things that will keep you compatible.

And I had, one of the conferences that we do, we work with psychologists who really, I think…now after being married 16 years, he gave the best marital advice I have ever…the best best practical marital advice I have ever heard. What he said, “As a woman, if you want to talk to your husband, don’t force him to talk like a woman.” Women, when women talk, we sit across from each other, right? We meet at a coffee shop, or whatever. We like to face each other. He said, “Take a look at any man talking to another man. They are looking at something. They’re looking at a game. They’re looking at a television. They’re looking at a grill.” They are standing side by side because, he said, “That’s how men are comfortable speaking.” So he said, “If you want to speak with your husband, if you really want to have a good conversation, go for a walk, go for a drive in the car. You know? Even laying in bed at night, just staring up at the ceiling,” he said, “That is how you’re going to…you have to meet a man…” Because women, we can talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, right? But a man, that’s not, they’re…most men are not inclined to that. So if you want to have that, find…go do those things, don’t force a man to talk like a woman. And it was hands down the greatest piece of advice I have ever heard, because it’s so true. So I think just practically speaking, you know, that little things like that, like between finding similar passions, and just figuring out a way to meet, communicating with a man where he’s at, really help in marriage, to build a strong marriage.

Pamela: What about spiritually? I mean, other than prayer, is there anything that people should do spiritually to build a stronger marriage?

Mary: You know, getting involved. I would say getting involved in your parish. I don’t, you know, I don’t, I can’t speak to the parishes of anybody listening, but we have a very active parish, and that’s part of the reason why we belong to it because we wanted an active parish. We have something called Teams of Our Lady, where married couples get together, and have dinner, and talk about a religious topic once a month. And we, personally, we have gotten together with a few couples who we invite a priest over for dinner, you know, every six weeks, or every eight weeks. A different priest from our diocese, and just say, “Come for dinner, and talk to us about whatever you want to talk to us about.” So that’s beyond the daily prayer. We really, we love to have priests over to our house, and spend time with the sisters, and doing, you know, mission work for the church. You know, local missions because we have young children, but anything like that. The church is meant to be the centerpiece, the center of the community, of your community, right? And if you act like it is, then that’s good for your family, it’s good for your marriage. So you’re anchoring yourself to something that is greater than you.

Pamela: Tell us a little bit about your, your retreat programs, or whatever is going on right now that you want to highlight and tell, or invite people to.

Mary: Well, so we…the Conference of the Engaged as I said, is retreats, but it’s…well, I mean you can come to it if you’re engaged and you live in northern Virginia, but, you know, it’s a day long retreat where they really…our diocese has found is that people were really poorly catechized, as I’m sure you understand. And so we have…we go through the whole day, and it’s a long day, start with mass, and we talk about things like communication, parenting, finances, that kind of stuff, but then we also have…they always pick really amazing priests to give talks about, you know, the rite of marriage, first of all, but also why. The whys of all of the teaching of the church, and for, out of a group of 180 people, I would say a good 75%, this is the first time they’re hearing this, sadly. I mean it’s getting a little bit better because the younger priests, or, and our diocese is a great diocese, but for a lot of them, you know, they’re hearing these beautiful teachings of the church for the first time. So, you know, I would just, my advice…So we have one of the priests that does…his name is Father James Searby, and he’s here, and he does weekly chats, and he posts them online, kind of like this podcast, except for he’s not talking to anyone, he’s just talking to himself, you know. It’s basically like a homily, but, you know, finding a priest…you know, people love Bishop Barron. Finding a priest that you really connect to, and listening to him is, you know…you can take your own little retreat driving to work.

Pamela: Yeah.

Mary: Right? Or your podcast, right? One of the priests that we teach catechism class with, he said, “You know, if you want the people around you to have the gift of faith, you have to possess it first. It’s not possible to give a gift that you don’t possess. That makes no sense. So, you know, by working on and building up your own faith…”

Pamela: You can give it away.

Mary: You can give, yes, you can give it to other people.

Pamela: So, if people want to find you, Mary, I mean online, or they want to speak to you, or they want to get in touch with you about all of these things, where can they find you and how can they do so?

Mary: Oh, well that’s sweet. I mean the easiest way to get in touch with me is to…I have, you know, through my adoption agency, which is SienaAdoptionServices.com, named after Saint Catherine of Siena, so S-I-E-N-A Adoption Services.com, and there’s a, you know, a contact email link that you can email. But that’s the easiest way. I haven’t started posting a lot of other stuff yet, but I’m working on it. We spent the better part of two years setting up this agency and making sure we were in, you know, with state laws and all that kind of stuff. So it’s really dominated the last two years.

Pamela: Are you on Twitter, or any, on Facebook, or something?

Mary: I am on Facebook. Mary Kate Sparrow. S-P-A-R-R-O-W. See my picture with my boys up there.

Pamela: All right. So, thank you so much, Mary, for agreeing to do this because it’s really hard to get people on a podcast, and it’s even harder for people to talk about their faith for some reason. So I want to say thank you so much for coming and making time out of your busy day.

Mary: Oh, no. Thank you. I mean this is evangelization, right? This is the new evangelization. I can’t thank you enough for, for taking part in it, and taking an initiative to bring the beautiful teachings of the church to people.

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