In 2016, Pope Francis released a 256-page document called "Amoris Laetitia," or "The Joy of Love." In it, he calls for the Catholic Church to approach issues of sex, marriage, family planning and divorce with less emphasis on dogmatic law and more emphasis on individual conscience.
While the post-synodal apostolic exhortation doesn't directly alter any church doctrine, its shift in tone is significant for Catholic families around the world.
But even if you're not Catholic, you might find some inspiration in the document. Because in addition to addressing questions of pastoral care, Francis muses on sex, communication, commitment and love in general — and for a 79-year-old man who has taken a lifelong vow of celibacy, the pontiff has some pretty solid relationship tips:
Make Time For One Another, Even If You're Busy
"Love needs time and space; everything else is secondary. Time is needed to talk things over, to embrace leisurely, to share plans, to listen to one other and gaze in each other's eyes, to appreciate one another and to build a stronger relationship. Sometimes the frenetic pace of our society and the pressures of the workplace create problems. At other times, the problem is the lack of quality time together, sharing the same room without one even noticing the other."
"Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard." -Pope Francis
Sometimes, Just Listen
"Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say. ... Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard, to feel that someone has acknowledged their pain, their disappointment, their fear, their anger, their hopes and their dreams."
Accept Your Partner's Shortcomings
"It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like."
"The fact that love is imperfect does not mean that it is untrue or unreal." -Pope Francis
... And Be Generous With Their Imperfections
"We have to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me. Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but the fact that love is imperfect does not mean that it is untrue or unreal."
Never Go To Bed Angry: Hugs Can Help
"My advice is never to let the day end without making peace in the family," Francis writes, then quotes himself from 2015: "And how am I going to make peace? By getting down on my knees? No! Just by a small gesture, a little something, and harmony within your family will be restored. Just a little caress, no words are necessary."
Try To Find Your Partner Beautiful And Lovable ... Even When They Make It Hard
"Loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs. This enables me to seek their good even when they cannot belong to me, or when they are no longer physically appealing but intrusive and annoying."
Don't Hold Grudges
"[Irritableness or resentment is] a violent reaction within, a hidden irritation that sets us on edge where others are concerned, as if they were troublesome or threatening and thus to be avoided. To nurture such interior hostility helps no one. It only causes hurt and alienation."
Say Please, Thank You And Sorry
"Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything." -Pope Francis
"Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day." -Pope Francis
Trust Is Key
"This goes beyond simply presuming that the other is not lying or cheating. ... It means we do not have to control the other person, to follow their every step lest they escape our grip. Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything. This freedom, which fosters independence, an openness to the world around us and to new experiences, can only enrich and expand relationships."
Remember: Love Takes Work
"It is not helpful to dream of an idyllic and perfect love needing no stimulus to grow. A celestial notion of earthly love forgets that the best is yet to come, that fine wine matures with age. ... It is much healthier to be realistic about our limits, defects and imperfections, and to respond to the call to grow together, to bring love to maturity and to strengthen the union, come what may."
When You Argue, Acknowledge Your Partner's Perspective
"Never downplay what they say or think, even if you need to express your own point of view. ... We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person's truth, the value of his or her deepest concerns, and what it is that they are trying to communicate, however aggressively."
"Making a point should never involve venting anger and inflicting hurt." -Pope Francis
Aim To Disagree Without Being Hurtful
"Making a point should never involve venting anger and inflicting hurt. A patronizing tone only serves to hurt, ridicule, accuse and offend others. Many disagreements between couples are not about important things. Mostly they are about trivial matters. What alters the mood, however, is the way things are said or the attitude with which they are said."
Think Thoughts, Read Books: It's Important To Be Interesting.
"For a worthwhile dialogue we have to have something to say. This can only be the fruit of an interior richness nourished by reading, personal reflection, prayer and openness to the world around us. Otherwise, conversations become boring and trivial. When neither of the spouses works at this, and has little real contact with other people, family life becomes stifling and dialogue impoverished."
Sex is Good.
"God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures," Francis writes.
Sex should never be pursued for just one person's pleasure, or in a way that treats your partner as "an object to be used," Francis writes, and should always involve freely given consent.
And — a point he makes several times — mutual pleasure.
Sexuality is "meant to aid the fulfillment of the other," he writes, but "personal satisfaction" is involved as well — not just self-sacrificing service to your partner's needs.
"As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a 'pure, unadulterated affirmation' revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that 'life has turned out good and happy,' " he says, quoting the German philosopher Josef Pieper.