The secret of marriage is talking to one another. Immediately I hear some joker say, “We must have a successful marriage – my wife talks all the time!” Another, more bitterly, says, “My wife’s talking has ruined our marriage.”

Wives, for their part, complain that the silence of their husbands exasperates them. Attempts at conversation and discussion, meet stony silence. Yet, with other women, their husbands are animated and lively. To observe this is like a knife in their hearts. Apart from these cases, there are different levels of talking.

The first is the curious one, in which the parties are not friends with each other, and neither are they enemies. Conversation is limited to whatever is necessary to carry on the ordinary business of life. The relationship never gets any better, and yet it never gets worse. This is part of the curious thing about it. It is also curious in that the marriage lasts a lifetime without any sign of discontent in either partner. It seems to resemble those unions in nature in which certain animals and birds retain the same partner throughout their lives by an instinct proper to themselves.

The basis of these permanent unions seems to be the resonance of male and female. They complement each other by each other’s presence. The man likes to have the woman around, while the woman feels safe if the man is there. However, the relationship stops there. Such marriages seem to be confined to very simple temperaments; hard-working, non-intellectual and unreflective characters. They are found in traditional, rural communities, or among uneducated labouring classes in certain countries. One might envy the relative calm of these marriages, but they could never satisfy a desire for personal fulfilment once a man or woman has become conscious of desire. The other partner cannot respond and does not understand.

The second level of talking is practised in those marriages that are long lasting, but unsuccessful – often achieved in cases where the partners are completely opposed to divorce from religious or personal conditions. The male/female resonance is experienced and the sexual life is relatively satisfying, but conversation remains on a superficial level. It is confined to business, money, food, politics, the children, the weather – anything except what concerns the intimate thoughts and feelings of the parties.

Some couples claim, when asked about this matter, that they are talking all the time; “they discuss everything”. However, it is not noticeable that they lack ‘togetherness’. At times, one may not even know the other’s whereabouts. They are certainly not always seen together. When together, they do not look at each other, as lovers do. They are, in fact, not in love with each other. The marriage is an amicable arrangement, which is satisfactory as far as it goes. However, it is not successful, because it is not fulfilling; it lacks intimacy. Their sexual life is and remains only biological. They have not achieved the level of exchange with each other that promotes the secret satisfaction of love.

The third level of talking has been indicated. If the subject matter of the conversation is something of everyday life, it is elevated from a ‘business’ level to being also a channel of understanding and acceptance of each other’s viewpoint. In almost every conversation, there is an undercurrent of intimacy that is a union of mind and spirit. There is a continuous desire to share feelings with the other, whether of joy or sadness, simply to describe “how I feel”. One knows also that the other is receptive and willing to listen to “how I feel”, and there is no resentment, scorn or contempt. There may be amusement and both can laugh, but there is never rejection. These are some of the facets of intimacy.

Since only God can completely satisfy the human heart, and He does this only after this life, there are depths to be explored and vistas to be viewed that are foreshadowings of Heaven. Literature and art are correct in their estimate that human love is a paradise on earth. It is intended, in fact, to be an introduction to paradise.

After all our praise of intimacy, the problem remains: how to achieve it? The answer lies in talking; conversation; dialogue. The boy and girl in love before their marriage are captivated by the wonder of romance. It is an experience of discovery: I am not isolated; there is another who responds to my spirit. From this discovery arises the desire to share. It can be the beginning of intimacy. Some attain it immediately. Courtship is almost an ecstasy. Too often, however, they are too young to discriminate among the topics that affect them deeply. Their sharing is too superficial and about things that do not matter – films, entertainment and sport. They are easily distracted by sexual stirrings, especially the boy.

A distinct danger lies here. Premarital sex, intimate as it is, is often the death of intimacy, precisely because it is physical. It shows lack of self-mastery and generally exploits the girl; innocent and trusting. It consumes attention, and crowds out the possibility of sharing at a higher level.

Pregnancy and the hasty marriage or the abortion which follows, heap tragedy on the vision of what had promised to be an earthly paradise. Pre-marriage courses are so necessary to save young people from the risks of ignorant romance, something of which their parents should have warned them, but of which they, too, had probably been ignorant.

Sometimes intimacy is learned gradually, in the first years of marriage, when their ‘bonding’ either becomes deeper or they begin to take each other for granted – one of the worst enemies of marriage and intimacy. Here, too, outside help should be available, but unfortunately it is not.

It is not yet realised how vulnerable the young marrieds are. If the secret of intimacy is learned early, and the parties are ready to work at it, increasing maturity aids them to realise what a treasure they possess. If this is reinforced by Marriage Encounter, they are on the way to a satisfying marriage which bring personal maturity and fulfilment, enriching each other and equipping them for a long responsible parenthood. Intimacy may be stumbled upon, as when, almost accidentally, one party realises the depth of feelings enjoyed or suffered by the other. If the opportunity is realised and seized, it may lead to a renewal of the marriage.

Again, Marriage Encounter sometimes provides this opportunity. Intimacy, not surprisingly, is a reward. The good marriage does not arrive automatically. It needs to have been preceded by ‘normal’ parenting and youth. Unhappy families seem to perpetuate themselves. The courtship should be a conscious preparation for the marriage; not a reckless sowing of wild oats. Both parties need an extensive preparation to help them to cope with this career, for which they are ill-prepared. Indeed, preparation is largely the duty of parents, who generally neglect it, and of the community to which they belong.

If these matters have been provided for, the young couple have a chance to work at deepening their intimacy, and this in turn involves a panoply of virtues whose reward intimacy becomes. If they practise tenderness towards each other, repressing the desire to dominate and control, accepting each other without resentment, and above all, literally listening to each other without interruption, there is a strong basis for the intimacy they seek, to deepen the tender roots put out during the time of courtship. This is beginning of a fulfilling and rewarding marriage intended by nature and the Creator: It is not good for man to be alone.

The practical end to this discussion is that those who have discovered the secret to intimacy should, with discretion, pass it on to others – a couple to couple apostolate.