Growing Together in Virtue

Several readers have asked us questions about how we find benefit from being together in a partnership rather than living as celibate singles. We’re not ones to sound our own trumpets, and we know that we’re very much works in progress. Over the time we’ve been together, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as individuals, each other, and us as a couple. We think being able to make a commitment to be there 100% whatever life throws our way does help us grow together and individually. By attempting to cultivate virtues in our vocation together, we’re able to be more present, open, and respectful. We hope that in time we continue to grow towards holiness. Today, because we’ve been asked specifically about growing together in virtue, we want to present some ways we’ve seen virtues manifesting in our lives together thus far in our partnership.

We give each other space to process difficult questions and life issues, but we’re also learning how to support each other effectively during these times. As we grow in our capacity to love one another and God, we experience moments of compassion that were not as present earlier in our relationship. We notice each other being able to extend empathy in new ways when one of us is faced with a challenging situation. When Lindsey suddenly lost a job in December 2013, we began managing a great deal of additional stress and uncertainty. Job loss is hard for any number of reasons: there’s a blow to a person’s confidence, financial stresses go without saying, a job seeker needs to put significant energy into the search even before getting the first email reply back, a family has new questions about what kinds of job searches are honestly in bounds, people ask for lots of support from extended family and friends, etc. It would be all too easy for Lindsey’s frustration to bubble up into anger and for Sarah’s full schedule to produce exasperation. However, being together has helped us stay the course. Sarah can help Lindsey decide when it’s best to put more letters out there and when it’s best to wait and see if a solid lead is going to produce a favorable outcome. Lindsey can help Sarah manage affairs of the house even amid completing job applications. We can remind one another that God is at work even when we seem lost. Sarah gives Lindsey a listening ear to process what is happening. Lindsey can always remember to greet Sarah with a hug. Together, we can offer one another a kind of emotional stability that makes trusting God easier. Sarah can read Lindsey and discern when advice would be welcome or when it’s best to practice compassion.

We have made a commitment to cultivate charitable speech toward one another, even when it doesn’t come naturally. That includes when one of us is having a bad day, when we’re arguing, and when we’re feeling impatient with each other. In all our friendships and other relationships, there are times when it seems easier and even more cathartic to express thoughts and feelings forcefully and indignantly. We think most people probably experience moments when it feels better to sound off like a bullhorn than to communicate difficult emotions with kindness, and we know this is true at times in our interactions with each other. Sarah often becomes irritated at Lindsey’s tendency to leave empty soda cans and bottles lying around the apartment, and it doesn’t help that Sarah considers Lindsey’s soda habit annoying in and of itself. Therefore, it takes little effort for Sarah to announce snarkily, “I’d like to see one evening when I can come home and not have to pick up a soda bottle in the living room!” In the same way, Lindsey finds it frustrating how frequently Sarah forgets that it’s her job to clean the cats’ litter box. It can be tempting for Lindsey to remark, “You can’t ever seem to be responsible with this.” It’s much more of a struggle for both of us to challenge ourselves toward kind, loving communication that addresses problems while also extending grace and empathy, but we make a daily commitment to doing so anyway. We don’t always get it right, but the more we practice saying, “I know you’ve had a busy day, but could you please take a few minutes to clean the litter box/tidy the living room?” the more natural it becomes for us to use charitable language in our relationship and also in our interactions with other human beings.

We encourage one another to say “yes” and “no” in healthy ways. Like many other people, we both oscillate between thinking that we can conquer the world and wanting never to get out of bed ever again. Learning how to say “yes” and “no” in healthy ways involves cultivating humility. When Lindsey lost a job, it was easy for Sarah to spring into action and look for extra work everywhere possible. Lindsey nudged Sarah to consider that the only real solution was both of us earning an income. We consistently urge each other to attend to our mental health, acknowledging whatever limits we may encounter. Like many couples, we have times where one of us is very excited about doing something when the other has serious misgivings. We have learned to balance when it’s time to compromise and when it’s time to advocate for our own needs. Frequently, extroverted Sarah wants to stay out far longer than introverted Lindsey can handle. We’ve learned to communicate about our different needs. Sometimes Sarah will take a moment to people-watch, sitting on a quiet bench to give Lindsey a few minutes to recharge. Other times, Lindsey will see that Sarah has a significant energy need that can only be met by getting around a lot of people. We have learned a lot about each other’s complexities that affect our preferences for social activities and activities together. Just as Lindsey needs to sit on a quiet bench to re-energize, Sarah also needs to sit calmly for a bit with her inhaler before venturing outside in cold weather to ward off any asthma attacks. In both circumstances, we need to be able to say and hear “yes” and “no,” and talk about disagreements that may arise. Learning to say “yes” and “no” in healthy ways has shown us quite a bit about cultivating patience.

We are learning to offer correction to each other lovingly. Caring about another person means helping him or her grow. Open and honest communication means acknowledging when you’ve said something hurtful. We’re quick to apologize when we have offended one another and try to observe a general rule of not going to bed when we are still in conflict. We choose to continue communicating in love even when we’re exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed. When Sarah gets overwhelmed, Sarah can be very terse and critical. Lindsey has learned how to highlight these communication patterns in a respectful way that enables Sarah to make appropriate changes. Since Lindsey is an engineer, Sarah knows to watch out for when Lindsey slips into “engineer mode,” trying to fix all the problems. Sarah is able to nudge Lindsey from a space of “fix-it” to a space of listening. We’ve learned when it’s best to encourage the other to sit down, stay still, and talk more openly about what is going on with us. Regularly practicing empathy for one another helps us grow in charity, a growth that affects the wide array of our relationships with others.

We encourage each other to enjoy life. Faith, hope, and charity are three often-named theological virtues. We’re both predisposed to taking life rather seriously. We have a lot of responsibilities on our plate. Lindsey knows Sarah is an extrovert and benefits from having fun around a lot of different people. Therefore, Lindsey is constantly on the lookout for different social activities to share with Sarah. Similarly, Sarah knows that Lindsey finds a great deal of enjoyment during special times at home. Lindsey enjoys the occasional excursion to one of our favorite nearby markets where we can find an interesting culinary experiment in the making. We’ve learned that enjoying life together produces hope, even when things look very dark.

In closing, we are not trying to present ourselves as models of sanctity and faithful living. We wanted to share some of the positive fruits we’ve seen in our relationship thus far, noting how these fruits help us live more fully into our first calling of putting on Christ and imaging Him to the rest of the world through our lives. We pray that God continues to help us grow closer to Him through the relationship we have with each other.

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4 thoughts on “Growing Together in Virtue

  1. Thank you for being so honest about your struggles in life and how you help each other manage those. I admire both of you for putting yourselves out there. Since I read both your pieces on eating disorders and also the piece on addiction, I was wondering if dealing with those issues also affects the ways you grow in virtue together. In the addictions world, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on detaching and focusing on your own healing, whether your the addict or the loved one. “Detaching with love” is sometimes needed, but sometimes people are quick to detach when in reality tackling these problems together as a team would be good and healthy. How do you all deal with this, and does it affect the ways you grow in virtue?

    • Hi Candy, this is a really great question. Thanks for raising it.

      From my perspective as a person providing support, I think it’s essential that people in recovery have real support. To me, providing real support requires knowing what you are willing and able to do, what you are willing but not yet able to do, and what you are neither willing nor able to do. Sarah and I actively discuss the need for broad support networks. If there’s a particular area where Sarah needs support, but I don’t think I can provide that kind of support, we look for alternative venues.

      I’ve heard a lot about detaching in love. Some support people can get so enmeshed that they don’t realize they are blocking a person from seeking support he or she needs in recovery. Often, detachment requires a support person learns to appreciate his or her limits. Alternately, support people can develop maladaptive coping strategies because it can be difficult to live with the downsides of addictive behaviors. I make an effort to monitor how I’m dealing with stresses that emerge from supporting Sarah’s recovery and seek resources for myself as needed. That’s one of the primary reasons Sarah and I sought a couples’ therapist when we started living together. I appreciate having a sounding board to make sure I’m providing appropriate support for Sarah. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

      Relative to the virtues, I’ve certainly learned a lot about temperance and courage along the way. –Lindsey

    • Hi Jenny. Our relationship does have some similarities to the relationships that married people have with their spouses. I’m sure that growing together in virtue is something many married people experience. We do not intend to say that these ways of challenging each other to become better people are exclusive to celibate relationships.

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