Can our brains handle the focus required of marriage?

By David Dawson Jr., Guest Columnist

The vocation of marriage promises great things: unity, companionship, adventure, beauty, deep intimacy, joy, gratitude. But, are our brains prepared to handle it these days?

It’s a relatively new development to watch sports and be made to feel like we are on the field with the players, as if we are actually in the game. We also now have constant access to more intensity and drama than we could ever consume in a lifetime through apps like Netflix.

These dynamics have a more powerful effect on our brains than we tend to be aware. We are naturally wired with desires for things such as adventure, beauty and progress, but these desires are very quickly trained to find their fulfillment in the types of intense experiences available to us now, all day, every day, via electronic screens.

One of our most foundational desires is for intimacy and unity, which obviously makes us very susceptible to losing ourselves in social media where we find an endless stream of what’s going on in the lives of thousands of people we care about. And, thousands of people can read and respond to the inner workings of our minds and hearts.

This makes it very difficult for our brains to focus on just one person, even if they’re standing in front of us. That person is probably demanding more of us than we want to give right now, anyway, and they probably aren’t giving us the affirmation we feel like we need, either.

It only takes a quick assessment of a couple of things to see how much our brains have been affected by these dynamics. First, what tends to be the content of most of my conversations in a typical day? What about at the dinner table or at family gatherings? If I’m honest with myself, this will give me a sense for how I understand the “meat” of my life, what I feel like is really “happening” for me.

A ‘screen’ can divide us
How much of my life is actually “lived” in a world that really has nothing to do with me but is produced for me on a screen? How much of the content of my thought revolves around people I have never met (like athletes or politicians) or who don’t actually exist (like characters in a TV series)?

Second, how do I feel when I’m just sitting with my spouse or my kids? Am I restless, stressed, unfulfilled? Usually, we don’t realize that our brains are actually dying to get back to what they’ve been trained to believe is “really important.” We usually blame that stress on just being super busy or on things not being the way they should be somehow or (most of all) on just being “so tired.”

But, maybe we feel this way because our to-do list keeps getting repopulated by the notifications on our phones. Or, maybe we’ve learned to define rest as losing ourselves in someone else’s story in a way that demands nothing from me.

How can I expect to delight in the unique beauty of my spouse when I’m aware that I can be endlessly captivated by what I find on the phone in my back pocket? How can I expect to take necessary risks when I can be made to feel like a football star, a super soldier or a brilliant politician without having to get up from the couch? How can I not feel too busy for the people in my house when thousands of people are ready to affirm my every thought online?

Our brains will require some serious TLC if we want to get them back to functioning the way they should. Research is beginning to show that it takes about a month of backing way off on screen usage to provide the brain with the sort of reset needed for us to begin to see what we’ve been missing. After this, it may take a little longer to grow in the patience, wonder and gratitude necessary to enjoy the great things that marriage promises, but it is definitely worth the effort.

David Dawson Jr. is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He can be reached at

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