What did this 17th century Bishop know about Marriage?

A single man who has sworn off marriage in a sacred vow may seem an unlikely source for marriage advice. Yet, St. Francis de Sales has given us the best marriage advice I’ve ever read.

St. Francis de Sales was the bishop of Geneva in the 17th century, and as a bishop he was, of course, never married. He was heavily involved in the lives of his flock, however, and so learned intimately the challenges and needs of married people. In his book, Introduction to the Devout Life, he uses three areas to counsel his married readers:

  1. Union of hearts: a carpenter who glues wood together properly will create a piece that will last a lifetime—it cannot be broken. The same concept applies to marriages. We continually, intentionally unite ourselves to our spouse in every circumstance.

    1. Inviolable mark on the other’s heart and soul: Inviolable, appropriately, means divine. Our good Lord has instilled in our hearts a sacred love of our spouse. St. Francis entreats us to nurture that divine gift, because it is through that love that we will have every grace we need to be holy.


  • Expanding one’s love: The more we love, the more we are able to love. That’s the great paradox of love, isn’t it? St. Francis reminds his married readers that we have the sacred calling to conceive and raise children in the Faith through our matrimonial love. However, we also have an obligation to welcome the people Our Lord has put in our path and to treat each of those souls as we would treat Christ Himself.


How do we pragmatically practice these beautiful ideas in a very real marriage, surrounded by a very secular world, in the midst of very busy lives, though? Aside from the usual suggestion of an in-home date night after the kids are in bed, these are the things I think Saint Francis de Sales would suggest for us today:

The union of hearts

  • Remember that your spouse is your best friend—treat him as such! Remember that y’all are a sacredly-called team joined together to help each other to heaven. Remember why you married your spouse and think of it often!

  • In the same vein, this union calls us to honest, charitable communication with our spouse! This is a no-brainer, but it’s a hard one to do well. We’ve found great grace in spending a least a few moments a day without the children talking to one another.

  • Pray together! As a couple, my husband and I offer devotions together every night before bed. In the early years of marriage, though, this looked very different for us! My dear spiritual director reminded me during those years that prayer often looks like lovingly serving your spouse and family in daily duties.

Inviolable marks on each other’s hearts

  • I’d hazard to guess that St. Francis would have included a sense of humor and shared jokes in this category, because who else can find laughter in the midst of crying babies, dirty diapers, Latin homework, and burning dinner? Only two people who are divinely called to love one another.

  • Remember that marriage has ups and downs. We all know that love is willing the good of another and is not always felt. The vow to love one another was engraved on our souls at our marriage—and our marriage is an ongoing sacrament! Take advantage of those graces.

  • Pray for and think of each other throughout the day and let the other know. I’m super thankful for texting. I’m able to let my husband know I’m thinking of him often throughout the day. We are able to ask for prayers during harder moments and laugh with one another (see: a good sense of humor above).

Expanding one’s love

  • Welcoming souls into our families is the most obvious and spiritually fruitful way to expand love! Biological children are a great gift, but you may also (or instead) be called to adopting or even spiritually adopting children. This could be through saying “yes” to being godparents, loving on your nieces and nephews, or helping your children foster good, holy friendships!

  • Children aren’t the only souls needing spiritual adoption: make it an apostolate of your marriage to pray for priests, politicians, victims of abuse or an upcoming abortion, etc. Our marriage has found great fruit in spiritually adopting the souls we pray for.

  • Welcome your spouse at the end of the day as you would welcome Christ. I tend to want to shift evening responsibilities onto my husband as soon as he gets home. I forget that he, too, has been dealing with stress and deadlines and needy clients all day. This is where willing the good of another comes in handy: try to choose cheerfulness and love!

  • Forgive, forgive, forget. Forgive and forget seventy times seven. We are all humans with a fallen nature, and we will inevitably make mistakes. Rely on the graces of frequent Confession and Holy Communion to help with this if your nature is like mine, and you tend to hold a good Irish grudge. There will only be a multiplying of love and grace if this becomes an integral part of your marriage.

GK Chesterton is credited with saying, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” I think that we will find that by intentionally loving our spouses in these ordinary ways, we will make an extraordinary marriage.

  • Contributing writer, parent, and wife Melanie Behnke

What are ways that you intentionally love your spouse and nurture your marriage?