Dear Dr. K:
My husband and I are both Catholic, but I go to church every Sunday by myself. He prefers to play golf, ride his bike, or just sleep in. I feel something important is missing from our marriage. What can I do to encourage him to come to church with me?
--- Wanting Spiritual Intimacy in Toledo
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First, your situation is very common. Surveys differ on the numbers, but most agree that more women attend church than men across many denominations. Nearly two out of three people in the average Catholic church on Sunday are women. So it is apparent that many married men are making the choice to stay home.
I hear about this issue often in my psychology practice. Some women hear that I’m interested in the role of spiritual intimacy in marriage and they show up for counseling hoping I will get their husbands to start attending church with them. However, in what I consider a very important study on the role of spirituality in marriage (“Marriage and the Spiritual Realm: The Role of Proximal and Distal Religious Constructs in Marital Functioning,” Journal of Family Psychology, 1999) researchers found that religious behaviors like attending church were much less powerful predictors of marital wellbeing than a “perceived sacredness” in the relationship itself. In other words, spiritual intimacy in marriage begins with seeing one’s partner and the marriage itself as sacred.
I have worked with many couples who, by their report, are pillars of their church community but who are not treating one another as sacred. Sometimes this shows up as name-calling, foul language; other times it is just a habituated distance or chronic conflict in the marriage. We seem to have two different paradigms for love, two different sets of rules. One applies to the kind of love we hear about in church (love of God and neighbor) and another applies to romantic love. I consider it unfortunate that we have such separate ideas about love. Many people to go to church to “give God his due” but don’t seem to translate the spiritual ideas of love at church into the reality of love in the home.
I’m more interested in helping couples live soulfully ever after than happily ever after. By “soulfully ever after,” I mean that marriage can be a daily spiritual companionship, a sharing of life’s joys and sorrows, a constant process of learning how to love another person deeply. This requires much more than the initial romance and passion. Spiritual virtues such as compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness are crucial, whether or not a couple attends church together.
The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner differentiated between the “Liturgy of the Word” (church service) and the “Liturgy of the World.” Rahner said that the Liturgy of the World is going on in every moment — 24/7 as we would say today.
I think you’re better off to talk about how you can increase a sense of sacredness in your relationship itself than thinking that getting your husband to church is the main objective. I like the line spoken by the character Shug in Alice Walker’s "The Color Purple":
“Tell the truth, have you ever found God in a church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”
If you are able to experience a sense of sacredness in your relationship — through daily prayer, affection, expression of gratitude for the good things in life — it might begin to make more sense to both of you to attend church together, because then you’ll be bringing a lived sense of God to church with you to celebrate in community.
Even if you increase the perceived sacredness in your marriage and your husband still does not feel motivated to go to church, your relationship would have spiritual intimacy.
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Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, and public speaker. Send your comments or question to him at KevinEAnderson7@gmail.com.