Furnace of charity melts marital loneliness
In the beginning, God declared it was not good for man to be alone, so he fashioned from his side a helpmate and an equal. She, Woman, the bone of his bone and the flesh of his flesh, would become his wife, and the two would “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:18-24). Marriage was God’s original remedy for human loneliness, and since Adam and Eve were married before the Fall, marriage is literally older than sin!
In our time, however, social scientists warn of a looming epidemic of loneliness affecting people of all ages, including married people. In the mid1980s researchers found that one in ten Americans reported he had no one close to confide in, while 20 years later it had risen to one person in four – one quarter of the population has no one close in whom to confide! Now, over one-third of middle-aged and older adults report that they are lonely. While being single or having lost a spouse through death or divorce are risk factors for loneliness, nearly a third of married people report feeling lonely, too. And this can be serious business. Loneliness is a risk factor for chronic disease and decreased life expectancy, roughly equivalent to obesity or smoking. So what has gone awry and how can stronger, holier marriages help stem the tide of loneliness?
Loneliness is defined as a“perceived isolation” at the intimate emotional or the broader social level. The lonely person perceives a significant discrepancy between the relationships he or she desires and those he or she actually has. The lonely person may be alone or feel a lack of connectedness even within a crowd. A wife, for example, may feel emotional closeness to her husband and yet feel lonely at the broader social level if they have just moved to a new city for her husband’s work and she no longer has access to her familiar network of friends, co-workers, or parishioners. The same situation could hold for a husband, as well.
The most serious and tragic kind of marital loneliness, of course, is the emotional isolation that may arise between a husband and wife when one or both feel they are not appreciated or heard by the other. The busyness of modern life brings so many commitments and distractions that many married couples live separate lives within the same four walls. For decades now, excessive television viewing has decreased social connectedness, and social media and smartphones have produced broader networks of “friends” while diverting people’s attention away from those closest to them. Many need to retrain themselves to slow down, limit commitments, turn off computers, and stow cell phones in a drawer to tend to the needs of spouses, and cherish the limited time on earth with them.
St. Paul told us of God’s great gifts of faith, hope and love; that the greatest of them is love (1 Cor. 13:13). St. Thomas Aquinas compared the love of charity to the heat of a powerful furnace. When our hearts burn with the fires of charity, their far-reaching flames serve to warm strangers and even our enemies. But since those closest to the furnace receive the most heat, true charity should begin at home, and be directed most intensely toward the person with whom we are of “of one flesh.”
Let us beseech God that our eyes be opened to the faces of all the lonely people among us, perhaps even the one we wake up to every morning. Let us see the face of Christ in the person with whom He joined us as one flesh in the bonds of matrimony. Then, let’s turn up our furnaces of love to perform simple acts of thoughtfulness and kindness for our spouse daily. It’s possible for every man and wife to feel the heat of loving charity within every home, a heat that will warm the whole family, a heat they will carry out the front door to help warm a cold, lonely world.
KEVIN VOST, PSY.D. has taught psychology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee and the University of Illinois at Springfield. His most recent book is The Catholic Guide to Loneliness. Kevin and Kathy Vost recently celebrated their 33rd anniversary.