When it comes to maintaining a healthy marriage, many of us don't know how because no one bothered to tell us
The morning after the fight that nearly ended my marriage, two questions kept echoing through the chambers of my lonely, empty heart: How and why? How had we gotten to this point, and why hadn’t we seen it coming?
The angry words we hurled at one another were far too pointed and cutting to have been accidents born of passion. No, our verbal daggers had the weight and polish of weapons engineered and honed over many years by master craftsmen. It was as if all the passive-aggressive remarks, all the dirty looks, all the stony silences of nearly a decade and a half together had merely been the base components of the ultimate superweapons we were building in our heads, which we had each unleashed on each other in a fit of rage the night before. It wasn’t that any of the individual insults we had tossed at one another were surprising … it was the overall picture we had painted with them—each casting the other in the image of the enemy, the evil one; not as our beloved, “our better half” or even just a fellow child of God. If you had asked either one of us the day before, we would have said, “Of course we love each other!” But in those terrible minutes of anger and frustration and resentment gone out of control, it was pretty obvious that we hated each other too.
In the six months of counseling we’ve had since that horrible evening, we’ve made some hard-fought steps in the right direction, back toward the promises we made to each other before God and everyone when we said “I do.” But counseling only helps us to identify our unhealthy patterns of behavior and try to replace them with new ones. It doesn’t answer the questions I asked myself the next morning: How and why did things ever get so bad in the first place?
Looking at our marriage, and those of many of our acquaintances—quite a few of whose unions haven’t survived—I think there are three main reasons couples don’t realize their relationship is gravely ill until it’s on life support and they’re fighting over whether to pull the plug. The problem is only one of those reasons can actually be fixed by couples themselves … the rest will take commitment from parents, the Church and even society if we hope to eradicate the relationship cancers that are killing our marriages.
The first major obstacle to a healthy marriage is lack of example.
Show me a couple who have it all together and I’ll show you two sets of parents—the husband’s and the wife’s—who had great relationships too. When you grow up in a household with two parents who love each other and treat one another with genuine respect, that becomes your normal, and it’s unlikely you’ll settle for anything less. What’s more, if someone isn’t treating you right, not only will you notice a problem, you’ll be able to identify it, articulate what’s bothering you and assertively address it because you’ve seen these skills modeled for you your entire life.
Unfortunately, not many of us grew up this way, leaving us at a distinct disadvantage. Maybe you grew up in a house where disrespectful speech was the norm, and it doesn’t bother you to hear it or to unleash it on your spouse. Or maybe you don’t like the way your spouse is speaking to you precisely because it reminds you of your childhood, but you don’t have the words even now to express why it bothers you so much because you were taught to repress those feelings as a kid. There are any number of reasons growing up as the child of an unhealthy marriage may set you up for failure in your own relationships, and as this emotional sickness is handed down through the generations and passed between families via marriage, it spreads just like a virus until you’re left with a culture like we have today, in which almost everyone is infected.
That leads us to the second major issue leading to troubled marriages—the Church’s failure to do its part to heal engaged couples before they marry and pass the contagion on to their children.
The sad fact is marriage prep is a joke throughout much of the Western Church, a perfunctory and awkward experience in which clergy agree to sign off on marriages as long as couples agree to pretend to listen while they’re told that the Church frowns upon cohabitation and contraception. (True fact: If you type the words “pre cana is” into Google, the very first suggestion in autocomplete—ranked by popularity—is “bullsh*t.” Like it or not, this does not speak well of its reputation.)
Since I converted to Catholicism after I had already been married for several years, I can’t personally speak to the efficacy of Catholic marriage prep, but in researching others’ experiences as I wrote this piece, it seemed that the classes most often follow one of just a few typical approaches. Most common is the “God bless them, at least they tried” approach, in which a few longsuffering lay volunteers with few resources and very little training make awkward jokes or perform hokey skits for a day or two before finally speaking enthusiastically on the joys of NFP and how they used it to space out their 15 beautiful children. Less common but far more dangerous is the “rogue” approach, in which couples are repeatedly told by presenters that “The Church says X, but really, it understands if you have to do Y instead,” with “X” referring to some virtue or teaching of the church—almost always sexual in nature—and Y referring to its opposing sin. The third most common approach I saw mentioned was the Engaged Encounter weekend program, which actually got rave reviews. (Perhaps it will be the subject of a future article, but for this piece, we’re focusing on what’s gone wrong in Catholic marriages, not the few things that are being done right.)
While it’s admirable that the Catholic Church requires couples to go through marriage prep prior to their nuptials, the execution isn’t living up to the ideal. Many couples no longer see these programs as anything more than time-wasting hoops through which they must jump to unlock access to a material desire—namely, a church wedding. Meanwhile, those who attend hoping to get something meaningful out of the process are often sorely disappointed. And for those hoping to get help from the Church after they say “I do”? They’re mostly out of luck. Priests aren’t marriage counselors, and marriage ministries aren’t really a thing at most Catholic parishes. Because admitting weaknesses in our marriages often means admitting serious sin, it’s not really the kind of thing anyone wants to bring up at weekly Bible study, or really, to anyone who isn’t protected by the seal of the confessional or doctor-patient privilege. It’s hard enough admitting that kind of stuff to ourselves. We don’t want the whole parish to know. So we suffer in silence, letting our wounds fester until infection sets in and becomes life-threatening.
That leaves most couples on their own to diagnose and treat any sickness in their marriages. Without good examples to follow or clear instruction from the Church, the task might seem impossible. But it can be achieved if we overcome the third major obstacle to a healthy marriage—lack of communication.
Learning to communicate well is the single most important thing any couple can do to inoculate themselves against hatred and divorce. In tomorrow’s installment I’ll talk more about communication—both good and bad—and its role in building and destroying our love relationships.
In the meantime, let’s pray for parents and the Church all over the world to step up their game when it comes to preparing the next generation for family life.