One of the most difficult things I have ever done was to force myself to sit down and answer my annulment questionnaire.
I did it about two and a half years after my civil divorce, and it was beyond grueling. Questions about me. Questions about him. Questions about our families, our careers, our courtship, our wedding day. And the question, “What did it mean to you to be in love?”
Dredging up those ugly, painful memories I had tried so hard to put behind me was agonizing, and reliving my divorce was a very bitter pill to swallow.
Yet, there was a brilliance in it all. Those 107 essay questions shed light on more than just how horrible it all was. The intensely personal inquiries opened my eyes to the truth of what had happened and revealed an entirely new perspective on my story. It helped me recognize the many poor choices I made going into the relationship, and despite the fact I married for life and tried to be a good wife, I came face to face with a very sad truth: choosing the right man to marry took a back seat to attaining the coveted title of “Mrs.”
When it was all over and the final question had been answered, I couldn’t help but think, “Why didn’t anyone ask me these questions before? I never would have married him in the first place!”
As a Catholic who was divorced, received an annulment and has now been married for 15 years, I found the annulment process was far better preparation for marriage than the pre-Cana programs I went through before going to the altar either time. Why does the real, substantive marriage preparation come after it’s too late?
Now that the Synod on the Family is behind us, one of the positive aspects emerging is the consensus that Catholic marriage preparation as we know it needs to be scrapped, and something much more substantial should be put in place. I’ve heard talk about fashioning pre-Cana programs with a model similar to the catechumenate process, which I think it a great start. But if all we do is make the process longer and don’t change the formation we provide, we’re not doing anyone any favors.
Let’s face it. These days, people aren’t marrying the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did. Society has placed many different kinds of pressures on singles and impressed ideas upon them that are not conducive to making a marriage last. So it is critical that we approach the formation of couples differently too.
That’s why I believe we should turn things around and utilize the wisdom found in the annulment questionnaire to prepare couples for marriage. For anyone who is unfamiliar with an annulment questionnaire, its purpose is to offer the tribunal judges both a worm’s-eye view and an eagle’s-eye view of a couple’s relationship, with special emphasis placed on the dating and engagement period and the day of the wedding. The goal is to determine whether the couple brought a valid marriage into being on that day. The questions are intense and cover a wide range of aspects for the petitioner, the respondent and the witnesses.
Why are we doing this after a marriage has failed? Wouldn’t it make sense for such personal scrutiny to take place before the couple ever gets near the altar?
There are two areas of the annulment questionnaire that provide excellent content to create a marriage preparation program. One of those is the exploration of the childhood and family life of each partner, because it offers insight into if they have right ideas about what marriage is. Discussions about religious upbringing; problems in the parents’ marriage; any treatment for emotional, psychological or psychiatric problems; any history of alcohol or drug abuse and any history of physical, mental or sexual abuse can begin to paint the bigger picture needed to know if one or both are suitable for marriage.
A second area of focus should be detailed discussions about the dating and engagement period of the couple, which also reveals a lot about their maturity level and whether there might be any impediments already in existence, such as ignorance of the fact that marriage is meant to be a permanent, exclusive, life-long commitment that is open to new life. From what I’ve heard from priests and marriage and family therapists, this is the area that is most lacking in couples being ready for marriage.
And with that, I rest my case. But one closing thought…. Despite all the stories of divorce I’ve heard working with divorced Catholics for many years, the pain is fresh each time I hear another one. I would do anything to prevent another divorce, another family torn apart, another emotionally devastated child. If we teach our children divorce is not an option, we must also give them the tools they need to have a good marriage. It’s time we take responsibility for giving our children real, substantive formation so their marriages can last. And I believe the annulment questionnaire can point us in the right direction.
Lisa Duffy, blogger, speaker and author of The Catholic Guide to Dating after Divorce writes from Charleston, SC. She welcomes your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.