Last summer, Fr. Dennis Paez, head of Don Bosco's family ministry for Luzon, held a recollection for the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals (BCBP) Catholic community, with the theme "How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage."
Such a theme could be embarrassing to the attendees. But showing up and taking the time to sit through the day-long session meant humility, an acknowledgement and acceptance of one's fallibility, or at least an openness to learning.
Incidentally, Fr. Dennis was the priest who officiated at our wedding. Aside from the Discovery Weekend that my husband Jason and I attended, we went through six months of counseling with Fr. Dennis before he agreed to marry us.
One of the questions he asked during our meetings was, "What is one thing the other can do to you that would make you want out?"
Both of us answered, "Infidelity." At the BCBP recollection, Fr. Dennis confirmed that this was the most common answer he would get from couples undergoing the same pre-marital counseling.
After five years of marriage, Jason and I are with BCBP, and we have learned a lot from the community members' brave and generous sharing of stories, some of which are on how their marriages survived even that proverbial deal-breaker: affairs.
"Invest in your relationship with your spouse," advised Fr. Dennis. He spoke about how some couples he counseled would profess only love for their children, but were indifferent or even hateful of their spouse. He countered that love for children is just instinctive; we can only love someone we really know.
"Crappily ever after" is a more realistic view of marriage, he said, and his audience of couples nodded knowingly. And yet, there we were, a hodgepodge of couples of various ages and stages in life who still chose to stay together.
Fr. Dennis emphasised that an affair is only the consequence of something else. "Marriage is the vow to commit to meeting each other's needs exclusively," he said. Work, children, your parents-these can all be a betrayal, a form of an affair.
How are couples able to bounce back from such betrayal? "Infidelity comes from a lack of respect, not from a lack of love. It is only a symptom, not the cause; therefore, it can be fixed. Don't miss the message," he stressed.
If it isn't an absence of love, what then causes an affair? "Ignorance of the needs of your spouse," said Fr. Dennis. He enumerated the needs of both men and women that absolutely have to be met. These are not nice-to-haves or can-do-withouts; meeting all needs is essential to keeping couples together.
A woman's needs
What are the needs of a woman?
1) Affection. Your wife needs security, protection, comfort and approval. Showing affection by holding her hand or the like affirms that you still care for her. When women beg off from sex, men usually don't think much of it and try again next time. But if the husband doesn't like sex when the wife initiates, the man needs to be able to commit to (more or less) a definite date and time and keep it; otherwise, she might think you are getting freaky with someone else.
Meet your spouse's needs as you want your spouse to meet yours. Never chase love, affection or attention. If it isn't given freely, it isn't worth having.
2) Conversation. Your wife needs you to talk to her, never talk down at her or rush her stories. She needs you to listen and not automatically jump in with solutions, especially if they are unsolicited. Caring partners converse in a caring way. No eyes straying to phones or gadget screens; turn the TV off, keep your focus on her and truly listen.
3) Honesty and openness. Your wife needs to be able to trust you totally. Share infatuations you may have to nip it in the bud. "What she doesn't know won't hurt her" is a lie; the truth will always come out.
If there is money trouble, come clean and don't hide it; she needs to know to be able to help or at least be ready and not be caught off-guard. Hiding things from her does not protect her; it belittles and devalues her capacity. Honesty is the best insurance policy.
4) Financial support. Your wife needs enough money to live comfortably. The family should live within the means of what the husband is able to provide for food, clothing, shelter, basic necessities. Whatever the wife makes should be considered extra. She should be free to create a home. Less may be more when it comes to money in marriage.
5) Family commitment. Your wife needs you to be a good father, and you become one by being the best husband. She needs to be able to rely on you to be there for her and your children. When you model a good relationship with your wife, you are teaching your children to honour her and to be the same and look for the same in their future spouses.
A man's needs
What are the needs of a man?
1) Sexual fulfillment. When it comes to sex and affection, you can't have one without the other. Attachment parenting advocates may fret, but children do not belong in the marital bed. The children must be trained not to interrupt your time together and to knock before entering your bedroom. Their toys and belongings do not have a place there.
2) Recreational companionship. Your husband needs you to be his playmate. The couple that plays together stays together; share in his interests and hobbies-not necessarily all, but at least one. You may not be able to perform or be knowledgeable at the same intensity, but he will love that you bother to try on a regular basis and give you more reasons to spend time together.
3) An attractive spouse. Your husband needs a good-looking wife. An attractive woman is made, not born. Make the effort not to look losyang because you are not only your own person, but also his wife. He needs to be able to be proud of you. He may not do so great among his peers whether at work or play, but if he is able to show you off, everything evens out in his head.
4) Domestic support. Your husband needs peace and quiet. A good home encourages him to stay home. When he gets home from work, the home must be neat and tidy and your attention must be on him. When you make your abode a relaxing place to come home to, instead of a madhouse to avoid, he'll think twice about happy hour and other temptations.
5) Admiration. Your husband needs you to be proud of him. Behind every great man is an admiring woman. He will rise to the occasion and even to seemingly daunting expectations when he is fueled by his wife's belief in him.
Fr. Dennis reminded us that what we focus on expands, so be purposeful in choosing to see the good points of your spouse. If we always dwell on our spouse's shortcomings, that will be all we see.
He said, "Marriage is the lifelong journey of learning to love Christ and to love like Him. The love of Christ is symbolized not by the priesthood, but by marriage."
Fr. Dennis added that when there are priests who need inspiration while at the seminary, he asks them to attend marriage encounters/couples' retreats to witness the true work it entails to sustain love and commitment between husband and wife.
"Commitment defies all logic," he said. "It is impossible… without God. A cord of three strands is not easily broken." If you want your marriage to be affair-free, God has to be part of your relationship.
"The couples that are 'meant to be' are the ones who go through everything designed to tear them apart and come out even stronger," he noted.