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  • Writer's pictureMary Shivanandan

The Secret of Affirmation

By Dr. Pat Fagan.

The Church offers two models of marriage to Catholic couples: Christ and his relationship to the Church and the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Though Catholic couples accept, even wholeheartedly accept, the doctrines and exhortations involved, nonetheless, there is such a distance between the fallen, struggling state of most married couples and these two models, that, in effect, they are not a practical help.

The absence of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary, and all that comes with it --- fallen children, not God the Son --- is no small impediment to seeing Mary and Joseph as a model couple. Add to that the fact that Joseph had Mary (without sin) as his spouse. My poor wife has me! The distance is so great the ability of the model to inspire does not work for most.

"a spouse’s capacity to affirm the other spouse is one of the great secrets, maybe the greatest secret, of the power to form a happy marriage"

Such were my interior dispositions. Having come to this conclusion I pushed this disturbing lack of devotion into a corner of my mind, and there it lay until Mary Shivinandan’s book provoked anxiety and guilt all over again. Discussing it with her led me to realize there was a dimension of the marriage of Joseph and Mary -- the heart of all great marriages --- that I could contemplate and maybe even emulate: How Mary and Joseph affirmed each other. I was hooked because a spouse’s capacity to affirm the other spouse is one of the great secrets, maybe the greatest secret, of the power to form a happy marriage.

Though we have no record of conversations between Mary and Joseph we have Mary on record with Gabriel, Elizabeth and Jesus (and a few of Jesus to Mary). From these we see that her way of thinking and speaking is replete with affirmations --- of self, of the other and of God.

Meditating on this unique couple, we can quickly deduce that both Joseph and Mary were likely the world’s greatest practitioners of the affirmation of each other. The practical model is there – once contemplated. This pearl of great price takes a bit of digging and meditating to find (just like Our Lord said about such pearls).

Consider Mary’s words at the wedding feast at Cana, and the thinking behind them. Imagine the look in her eye (I bet there was a twinkle in it) as she tells the servants, while looking at Our Lord: “Do whatever He tells you.” She affirms Him and by affirming changes Him and hastens unveiling of His capacity to work miracles. She prepares the servants. She affirms her own place in God’s economy – and what a place she claims! Every dimension of what she has said is positive, looking to a blessed future and causing it by speaking the right words. Her affirmation of Christ in His new role is done in a way that must have astounded the angels looking on. If God the Father enjoys the exercise of our freedom and if He laughs, the heavens must have rocked. What confidence! How she must have similarly affected the apostles after Christ ascended to heaven. No wonder she is present at the founding moment of the Church at Pentecost. How she loves to work with others in turning an opportunity for good into a reality.

We can imagine how she must have encouraged Joseph to accomplish what he may have thought beyond him. She likely saw opportunities he would have missed. How affirming Mary was of Joseph is evident even in his doubts about what to do when he realized she was pregnant. Two impossibilities were present in one person: total purity and all that goes with it and an out of wedlock pregnancy! How Mary’s look would have affirmed his estimation of her: total peace combined with loving compassion, confidently leaving it to him to come to his own conclusion.

Such imagining on our part will lead easily to intimate prayer with God and Mary and Joseph in the Holy Family.

A spouse’s capacity to affirm the other spouse is one of the great secrets (the greatest secret?) of a happy marriage. The wife who affirms her husband will have a great provider. He will walk on water, if need be, to take care of her. By entering his heart and psyche and learning how to build him up, by knowing his strengths and nurturing them, many a wife has turned a weakling into a lion. The same holds for husbands: by mirroring the goodness he delights in seeing within her (even when she thinks it is so small) she gradually blossoms out into the kind, powerful, beautiful queen she knows she is in his heart. Together they build a joyful blessed kingdom in their home by building a much-traveled hallway of affirmations. Such was the bridal suite of the Holy Couple. Such is the bedroom every couple aspires to create. With the example of Joseph and Mary and their constant companionship, it is within reach. They can be imitated.

Modern couples --- without a culture to help them --- need this so much. For them the great artists and poets of our time must explore the countless facets of Mary and Joseph’s life together. May God send these talents quickly to help His children contemplate so as to imitate the greatest of all marriages ever.


Dr. Pat Fagan has been a grade school and college teacher, a therapist specializing in child, family and marital issues, executive director of a small think tank, a Senate staffer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Family and Social Policy at HHS under President George Herbert Bush, a Senior Fellow of Family and Culture at the Heritage Foundation, and founder and Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative ( ) first at Family Research Council, now at The Catholic University of America. The thread of continuity has been a pursuit of ways to help the family thrive. He is publisher and editor of, and the weekly Faith and Family Findings, and has authored over thirty synthesis papers and has commissioned from others dozens of original research projects in marriage, family, child development and religious practice. His work has appeared in or covered by Time Magazine, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Globe and Mail, USA Today, and The Guardian. He and his wife Theresa have eight children and thirteen grandchildren.

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