|Interview With Father Michael Ryan, Philosophy Dean
ROME, 16 APRIL 2006 (ZENIT)
Within a happy marriage the positive
comments should outnumber the negative about 5 to 1, says an experienced
Legionary Father Michael Ryan, who is also dean of philosophy at the
Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, spells out other points of advice
in his book, "The Last Straw: Ways to Overcome the Stumbling Blocks in
Communication Towards a Stronger and Happier Marriage" (Circle Press).
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Ryan touched on some of the advice
he gives married couples.
Q: In your book you say that many marriages break up because of
misunderstandings and comparatively small things which could have been
avoided. What are these things and what should be done in order to
resolve them in time?
Father Ryan: Marriages break up when there is hurting going on in the
relationship. It is very difficult to persevere in the company of
somebody who is sour and unpleasant.
In a nutshell I would say that we must avoid in every way possible
hurting others with words or actions. Second, we must foster the
atmosphere in which one can express to the other what is hurting. And,
finally, we must accept the fact that we can hurt others even when we
don't intend to do so.
As a general rule we must monitor frequently our relationship in order
to cure as soon as possible any problem that may arise, even in spite of
our good will. Each person is different and the sensitivity of each
person is different.
Therefore, there is no set list of things that can cause problems to a
marriage. Each man and women must become aware of what hurts a spouse.
The dangerous aspect of all this consists in the fact that we can hurt
others without us realizing that we are doing so. This leads to the
accumulation of pain which then can easily spill over.
Q: How can married persons cultivate a form of dialogue necessary for
addressing problems or disagreements in an open but delicate way? When
is the right time to speak about difficulties? How can you say the truth
without hurting another?
Father Ryan: First, we should not be "complaining" all the time about
everything. It is important to reserve our complaints for really
important issues or for issues that have hurt us in a special way.
Remember that the proportion between positive and negative moments in
marriage must be always about 5 to 1. For each negative moment, for each
criticism I allow myself to issue, there should be another five positive
inputs. Our toleration for negativity is very short.
Then, when I must address a negative subject I should always begin
stating my love for the other person. This is like stretching a safety
net below us before we begin our delicate act of complaining, opening a
With this I am saying that however we may get engaged in a discussion,
there must be no doubt about our love for each other. That will not be
Third, we should treat one subject at a time. Sometimes when we get
angry we spit out many issues and this only confuses the whole
relationship. One critical issue at a time!
Finally, try not to get personal in the sense of accusations. Try to use
what is called the "I messages." Instead of saying that "you are a
horrible person," say, "I feel that you are a horrible person."
The difference might seem small, but the second way is much better
because you are stating what you feel and not hammering the other on the
Q: Love and pain go together. The more one loves, the more one gets hurt
if the loved one doesn't seem to react in the expected way. How can love
prevail over pain? How can each other's understanding become more
sensitive? How can one stop being selfish and egoistic?
Father Ryan: This is certainly the greatest challenge for love. I don't
think it is always a question of being selfish or egoistic.
It is a fact that we can love others when we feel that we too are loved.
Even with God this is the way and this is what St. John says to us in
his Letter: It is God that loves us first.
Q: But how do we get beyond this vicious circle, when love in the other
Father Ryan: If we were only instinct, then there would be no way out.
But we are also intellect and we can understand what the good of the
other person means and we can love that good for him or for her.
But we will be able to overcome our own pain more fully if we get
inspiration for love from above, from the source of love. This reminds
us of what John Paul II says in his "Letter to Families": If we want to
love, we must be united to the source of Love, with the big "L."
Q: How can the deep feelings for each other felt in the beginnings keep
growing instead of dying down? How can they transform into true love?
Father Ryan: The couple must become aware of the phenomena of change and
growth. It is very important to get off to a good start.
This means that the first years of marriage must be intense and full of
loving commitment. Then they should renew their commitment often, every
year or at least every time that life is going to change in an important
In other words, they should prepare for each stage of marriage: the
arrival of children, the long years of raising the family, the
seven-year itch period, when their children are adolescent and the
couple are midway in their lives, etc.
Each stage should sum up the positives and negatives of the previous
stage, make new commitments, let go of certain things that will never
be, and strive to be interdependent in a healthy way.
Q: In your opinion, what's the real secret of happy marriages?
Father Ryan: To answer that question I refer to the results of an
extensive inquiry made in more that 20 countries, with more than 40
researchers asking questions to more that 17,000 families.
The results tells us that a happy marriage has the following
characteristics: The couple spend time together, in quantity and
quality; they know how to express their affection for each other; they
show commitment to family life; they know how to discuss in a
constructive way; they have shared spiritual values.
This is the recipe I would give any couple who want to build a happy
Q: What's the difference between a Christian marriage and other ones?
Father Ryan: I would say that it is the horizon that the Christian faith
gives to marriage
a horizon that help me understand the design of God the Creator when he
The knowledge of this design tells us that we are created in the image
of God, with the capacity of love. Faith also tells us that we have the
grace of a sacrament to help us live our lives in love.
When marriage or families express all this in their prayer life, then
they can feel its efficacy. It is shown that the practice of religion is
an important factor in keeping families together and growing in
Q: What's the meaning and the significance of the sacrament of marriage?
Father Ryan: When a man loves a woman he will surely feel that he is not
capable by himself of giving that woman all he would like for her in
terms of complete happiness. Then he asks God for help.
Then God says to him: How nice, you and I love that same woman; we must
make an alliance, a pact, to love her together.
This is the sacrament: God joins his love to our love. In this way every
husband and every wife can say to each other: "I love you, with my human
love, with all the characteristics proper to a human and sexual love,
but my love has been enriched by the love that God has for you."
Q: What's the will of God for married persons?
Father Ryan: I would like to summarize in the following way: To care for
each other in the everyday things live, to make that person as happy as
humanly possible, to raise a family, and to help each other and their
children to strive for and reach the final destination of heaven.
Q: What can the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph tell a wife and husband?
Father Ryan: That life is made up of the small things but that these
ordinary things can be lived in an extraordinary way.
Q: What would you advise young couples heading for a new form of life
with each other?
Father Ryan: I would tell them to make sure that they begin their
married life well. I believe in the saying that a good start is half the
Therefore they must be aware that the wedding is only the beginning.
From that moment onward they must build a new unity, gradually leaving
behind many of the things to which they were accustomed.
They must be very sincere and tell one another what is happening in
their hearts, especially if they perceive any clouds on the horizon.
They should not be frightened if such clouds appear, because it is
natural to find some difficulties on the way.
Finally, if any couple has a problem that they are not solving
satisfactorily, then they should look for external help as early as
Many a marriage could have been saved if they had looked for help in a
timely fashion. To look for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of