An Examination of Conscience for Spouses

Let me share with you one of the most prideful moments of my life. When I was about 18-years-old, I was doing really well…I went to daily mass, prayed every day, was very involved in my faith. I pretty much thought that I was on the fast-track to sainthood. One day I remember walking across the UNC campus and a thought came to me: “Wow, look how HOLY I am! I mean, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? I’ve pretty much reached the height of everything I can possibly be!” I’d like to be able to tell you that I am exaggerating there, but alas, pride was, and still is my predominant fault. I’m sure God had a pretty good chuckle at that one.

Yes, holiness was pretty much smooth sailing for me back then…But then I got married. And then I had kids. Five of them. I had enrolled in the School of Humility (and am still being held back in the remedial classes). I make my living counseling and advising couples. I like to think I’m good at my job, but I’m not usually all that good at taking my own advice. I often tell people that I need to hang a mirror across from me in therapy so that I can glance over at myself when I am telling couples what to do.

For many of us, marriage is the messy battle ground where holiness must be forged, broken, and then re-forged again. But because it takes place amid the daily grind of doing dishes, picking up kids from school, and remembering that we said we’d give our spouse a back rub Wednesday night, it is easy to forget that this daily life is actually the battleground for the epic war for your soul.

One practice that I train the couples I work with to do is a spousal examination of conscience. And just to be clear, this means that you explore your conscience, not your spouse’s! I came up with this tool years ago when I noticed that couples have hit a true turning point in their marriage when they stop focusing on how the other person is messing up and start focusing on themselves. When you think about why things are going wrong in your relationship, it is easy to blame the other person: “I’d spend more time with her, if she’d just keep the house clean,” or “Why should I trust him, he’s just like his deadbeat dad!” But years of marriage will (or at least it should) teach you that if there is anything in life you don’t have control over, it is your spouse. When we try to control things that we can’t, we end up feeling frustrated and helpless.

My first supervisor in couple counseling taught me to ask spouses if they would rather be right or if they would rather be happy, because in marriage, you typically don’t get both. The spouse who wants to be right is convinced that he is the “better one” in the relationship. The spouse who wants to be happy places his spouse and the marriage as a whole above his own personal pride. This is important because it reflects a fundamental shift in perspective. If you would rather be right, you are basically willing your own will, and if you would rather be happy you are oriented to willing your spouse’s joy. If you focus on controlling yourself rather than others, and if you would rather be joyful rather than right, you are beginning to live out a covenantal marriage. The couples who use this examination regularly almost always have a very powerful and lasting improvement to their relationship. If you take this practice up, real changes will begin to happen because you are being more intentional about improving your own weaknesses with the help of God’s Grace and insight from the Holy Spirit. And who knows, you may even be right…once in a while!

The examination consists of reviewing the following items nightly. This review is at its best when it is incorporated into a more holistic examen taught by St. Ignatius, but that will have to wait for another blog. As you become practiced in the examination, you can adjust it as needed, and add in specific reflections for yourself. Of course, life is crazy, and you probably won’t get to do this every single night. However, it really is important to strive to reflect daily on your conscience in general, and since marriage should be such an important part of your life, reflecting on your “performance” as a spouse regularly should always be part of this. I also strongly recommend adding in a new “particular examination” weekly that focuses on improving one area in an even more intentional way.

St. Josemaria Escrivά described the general examination as the “shield,” and the particular examination as the “sword.” The general examination is in some ways more “reactive,” while the particular examination is more “proactive.” An example of a simple particular examination would be to commit to spending 15 more minutes of quality time a day with your spouse, and then holding yourself accountable to reach that goal. So, without further ado, try reflecting on these points each night for the next week, and see just how things can improve when you focus on fixing yourself, and not your spouse!

  1. Did I make my spouse the highest priority in my life after God today? How so? How can I improve upon this tomorrow?
  2. Was I forgiving to my husband/wife, or did I harbor resentment towards his or her shortcomings? Did I make my home more like a confessional or a courthouse today? When my spouse made a mistake or was imperfect did I quickly and joyfully offer forgiveness?
  3. When I fell short today, even in small matters, did I seek forgiveness from my spouse?
  4. Did I work hard today to show my spouse just how much God loves him/her? How so?
  5. Did I truly listen to my spouse today? Did I take the time to communicate clearly and openly?
  6. When things went wrong, did I focus on how I contributed to the problem, or on how my spouse “messed up?”
  7. Did I serve my spouse today in both big and small ways?
  8. Have I prayed for my spouse today? Have I prayed with him or her today?
  9. Did I prefer to be “right” today, or did I prefer to be “happy?”
  10. Have I given my spouse the benefit of the doubt today, trusting that he/she also wants to have the best marriage possible?
  11. Did I treat my spouse like my best friend today, or simply as a partner or roommate?
  12. How have I fallen short in helping him/her get to heaven?

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