The Power of “Family Stories” –What Story Does YOUR FAMILY LIFE Tell Your Kids about Faith, Life and Relationship?

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

If you ever want to know what your kids will grow up to think about media use, alcohol, sex, faith, managing conflict, and a host of other important issues, don’t ask yourself what you believe, or what other people are telling them.  Ask, “What story does our family life tell about X?”

Once Upon A Time…

It isn’t unusual for me to have conversations with a parent (usually a mom) who is concerned that she and her husband aren’t on the same page about a particular issue.  “What do the kids make of the fact that we don’t see eye-to-eye?”

The answer to that question is that kids resolve any disagreements between their parents (and other outside influences) by looking at the story their family lives tell about relating to those things. For instance, one mom asked me if it was OK that her husband, a casual drinker, occasionally let their 14yo take the last sip of his beer.  She was, personally, appalled. Further, the teen had recently come home with a handout from his youth group stating that underage drinking was a sin.  She was worried what her son would make about the various conflicting messages he would get about alcohol.

I asked her to tell me the story her family life is writing about alcohol.  I explained that I wasn’t interested in what she and her husband believed about drinking or what she thought her kids were hearing about alcohol but rather, what the narrative her family life told about their household’s relationship with alcohol.  What do the kids see?  She told me that her kids see that mom and dad have a drink at special dinners, that dad will have a beer sometimes either after the kids are in bed and they are watching a movie together, or if they get together with friends they might have a drink or two but never to the point of even getting buzzed much less drunk.  I asked her to write these things into a brief narrative.  “In our family, drinking alcohol is something that grown-ups sometimes do as part of certain social situations and never to get buzzed or drunk.”  When I asked her, she emphatically agreed that she would be comfortable with her children internalizing this “story” that her family life told about alcohol.  Even though she had specific concerns that she could certainly continue to discuss and discern with her husband, she could have that ongoing conversation feeling confident that the general message her kids were getting about alcohol was a healthy one.

The Power of Story

We often worry about specific details while missing the big picture.  The stories we tell with the lives we live at home are the most important catechesis we put our kids through.  The overall way we live around our disagreements is more important than even the need to resolve the disagreements.  Parents will never be on the same page about everything, but that can be alright if the way they relate to those differences creates a functional narrative that their children can use as the script for guiding their own behavior around that issue.  Although the example above was about responsible drinking, it could just as easily be about sexuality, faith & prayer, conflict management, or anything else.

See For Yourself

If you wonder what attitude your children will have about the things that are most important to you, try this exercise.  Ask yourself to describe, in two or three sentences, the story your life at home tells about prayer, or sex and romance, or handling disputes, or any other topic.  Describe in a short paragraph the story that your children are “hearing” as they watch you and your spouse relate to and around that issue.

Getting Your Story Straight

More than anything you tell them that is the family story that will guide their own relationship with that issue as adults.  To learn more about telling the family stories that can help your children have healthy attitudes about life, faith, and relationship, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn how our Catholic tele-counseling practice can help you live a more abundant marriage, family, or personal life.

Are Your Relationships “Frozen”? What Disney Can Teach Us About A Common Relationship Problem


There is a terrific article at The Science of Relationships on what Disney’s Frozen can teach us about a common relationship problem and how it can negatively impact even our physical health!

While the Disney animated film “Frozen” is most famous for its lovable characters and award-winning song “Let it Go”, this kids’ movie can teach us a thing or two about attachment styles in close relationships and the important interplay between partners’ preferences for intimacy versus independence. In “Frozen,” the relationship difficulties that occur when these preferences clash are most evident between the two protagonists, sisters Elsa and Anna.

Anxious Anna and Avoidant Elsa: Attachment in “Frozen”

Attachment style describes the degree to which we perceive our relationships (usually romantic partnerships) as being secure, capable of meeting our needs, and a source of comfort in times of distress. People who are securely attached are comfortable depending on others as well as having others depend on them. Some people, however, have negative expectations in relationships, leading to insecure attachment styles. For example, individuals with an anxious attachment style fear rejection and abandonment, yet their cravings for closeness may inadvertently drive others away. In “Frozen”, Anna is anxiously attached. Her parents’ death and her sister’s abandonment leave her alone and desperate for love – so desperate, in fact, that she almost married a man she just met (Prince Hans). Whenever Elsa seeks distance in the movie, Anna continues to pursue her and ends up getting hurt in the process. Anxiously attached people may engage in behavior like this because they over-rely on their attachment figures for reassurance. 

On the other hand, avoidant attachment is characterized by feeling uncomfortable with closeness in relationships and a desire to maintain emotional distance. A person high in avoidant attachment would find it difficult to depend on others. In “Frozen”, Elsa exemplifies avoidant attachment. As a child, she was encouraged to “conceal, don’t feel” after her magical ability to create snow and ice accidentally injures Anna. From that moment on, Elsa increasingly pulls away from her sister both physically and emotionally. When Anna finally confronts Elsa about her habit of shutting everyone out, Elsa responds by lashing out with her powers and running away (self-protective strategies, such as defensiveness and withdrawal, are how avoidantly-attached people typically respond to relationship stressors).1 People high in avoidance also tend to underestimate others’ care and support for them. For instance, even after Anna communicates her desire to help Elsa, Elsa rejects her sister’s support and insists on being alone.

It’s easy to see how an anxious-avoidant pairing could snowball into relationship dysfunction: in the face of an attachment threat, such as an argument or confrontation, anxious individuals are likely to pursue their attachment figures in an attempt to reestablish feelings of closeness, just as Anna did when she ventured out into the blizzard to chase after Elsa. When the avoidant partner responds by pulling away – as Elsa did when she told Anna her intention of never returning home – the anxious person’s fears are reinforced and the relationship is likely to suffer (i.e., Anna feels abandoned yet clings to her hope of reconnecting with her sister; Elsa feels overwhelmed and inadvertently strikes her sister with a nearly-fatal blast of ice).

Attachment and Physical Health

“Frozen” conveyed the disastrous consequences of attachment style mismatch when Anna was physically injured after continually provoking Elsa. But what are the effects of anxious-avoidant pairings in relationships in the real world? Can being with a romantic partner who has conflicting attachment goals actually harm you? A number of studies have found evidence that yes, insecure attachment styles are associated with physiological stress responses and lifestyle behaviors that put people at risk for health problems….CONTINUE READING.


4 Ways Parents and Adult Children Can Get Along


Relationships between parents and adult children–and vice versa–can be tricky.  Today, on More2Life Radio, we discussed the challenges that these relationships face and how to negotiate them more effectively.  In particular, we focused on four action-steps that help parents relate more effectively with their adult children and, for that matter, allow adult children to relate more effectively to their parents.  We used the acronym RISE.



In general, parents and adult children tend to assume too much about their relationship with one another.  Parents assume that their adult children owe them a relationship and often treat their adult children in a rude or heavy-handed manner that they would never use with their real friends.  In turn, adult children often take their parents for granted assuming that their parents should always be there for them but they shouldn’t have to give anything back to the relationship.

Parents and adult children need to be intentional about creating a good bond.  To that end, both parties need to ask themselves–on an ongoing basis–simple questions like…

     What have I done lately (or what might I need to do) to build rapport and good feeling between us?

     Are there any offenses I need to repent of (past or present) and seek forgiveness/reconciliation for?

     Are there limits I need to set to make a mutually generous, mutually respectful adult friendship possible? (Or at least to stop one party from treating the other as a vending machine or mere extension of their ego?)

Being mindful about the relationship–not making assumptions about what each party owes to the other–is key to transitioning from a parent-child dynamic to a parent-adult child friendship.


Parents:  Are you praying daily for your adult children?  Don’t just pray that they would change or that God would bless them.   Pray that God would help you be the parent/true friend your adult child needs you to be.  That you would be given the grace to support and disciple your children well as they try to make their way in the world.

Adult Children:  Are you praying for your parents?  Don’t just pray that they would stop doing annoying things.  Pray that God would strengthen you to be a true, respectful, adult in the relationship; one who knows how to give back to the relationship in appropriately generous ways and set respectful limits when necessary.

BONUS POINTS:  Do you pray about your relationship together?  Christians should bring all their relationships before God and ask him for his ongoing guidance. Create opportunities to pray together and ask God to help all of you be what you need to be for each other, that God’s will might be done in your lives and that your family would give him glory in all the ways you treat each other and all the things you do together.


Parents and adult children are often good at criticizing each other, but perhaps not quite as good at offering practical support for those positive choices each other is making.

Parents:  What things are your adult children doing that you can support or be proud of?   Have you asked your child what they want or need from you to support them in these actions or choices?  Don’t just do.  Ask what they need and be willing to do what you can to provide practical, welcome assistance.

Adult Children: Your parents still want and need your support. Keeping in mind that your primary obligation is to your spouse and children, are you challenging yourself to make time to help out your folks, encourage them, and ask what they might need from you?


Parents:  Adult children never stop wanting their parents’ approval or needing mentors for living a full and healthy Christian life.  Encourage by example.  Remember to focus on your personal, relational and spiritual growth.  Face your shortcomings.  Continue to develop your capacity to live a meaningful, intimate, and virtuous life.  Go deeper in your own marriage.  Don’t lecture.  Give your children a reason to follow your example and encourage them to live a godly life by letting them see the benefits of doing so in your life and relationships.

Adult Children: Parents know they aren’t perfect, but they would like to know that they did somethings right.  Don’t forget to thank them for the things they did well.  Even if you are living your life or parenting your children differently than your parents did, are there some areas you can seek their counsel in?  Keep in mind, too, that transitioning from being a family to being “just a couple” can be a little scary for your folks.  Encourage them to take time for each other and to continue to explore ways that they can live meaningful lives.  And don’t forget that by facing the challenges in your own life like the responsible adult you are, you enable your parents to carve out the time and energy they need to live their own meaningful lives.


These action steps don’t cover every scenario, but they can serve as a guide to establishing a healthy adult friendship between parents and their adult children.  Ask yourself, “What are we already doing and how could we do more of it?” and also, “What of the above is missing from our relationship and what steps do we need to take to include these action steps?”  For additional suggestions on managing the complications that often arise in relationships between parents and adult children (and vice-versa) check out God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts!  Making Peace with Difficult People.  

Want Better Sex? Talking Together More Effective Than “Female Viagra”, New Study Says


A hormone treatment with oxytocin improves the sexual experience of women suffering from sexual dysfunction. This is the finding of a study conducted at MedUni Vienna, which has now been published in the journal Fertility and Sterility. However, a control group that only received a placebo via a nasal spray, showed similar improvements. Sexual dysfunction in women is therefore not merely a question of a chemical hormone deficiency but is often also a sign of a lack of communication with a partner and an expression of everyday stress, emphasizes Michaela Bayerle-Eder, specialist in internal medicine and sexual medicine at MedUni Vienna.

Oxytocin, which is known as the “bonding hormone,” is also thought to enhance sexuality. In order to investigate this, 30 women taking part in an eight-month long-term study conducted by the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at MedUni Vienna used an oxytocin nasal spray immediately before in
tercourse. The test subjects were women with sexual dysfunction (arousal problems, inorgasmia, painful intercourse etc.). Together with their partners, the women kept a diary and used a questionnaire to assess how sexual function changed for them during the treatment. A control group was given a placebo for the same period of time.

The result: although the sex lives and sexual satisfaction of the women receiving oxytocin treatment improved significantly, the group that only received a placebo also had significantly improved scores.

Sexuality as the “highest” form of communication between two people

For project leader Michaela Bayerle-Eder, doctor of internal medicine and sexual medicine at MedUni Vienna (currently working in the Endocrinology Division of the University Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology), this proves just how important communication with one’s partner is to sexual satisfaction: “Clearly the fact that the women thought more about their sexuality and spoke with their partners about sex during the course of the study in itself brought about measurable improvements.” This therefore suggests that it is often only misunderstandings that prevent couples from fully expressing and enjoying their sexuality. “Sexual problems are often caused by the stress of everyday life rather than any chemical deficiency in a woman’s hormone balance.” If sexual problems arise, it is therefore advisable to seek medical advice as soon as possible to try to track down the cause.

“Female Viagra” is not a wonder drug

A drug called flibanserin, which was only approved by the US FDA (Federal Drug Administration) at the third attempt and is being marketed in the US in October 2015 under the name “Addyi,” produced similar results in clinical trials. This drug, which is being called a sex pill for women or “Female Viagra” changes the hormone balance in the brain and in this way increases a woman’s sexual desire, thus resulting in more enjoyable sex. But, once again, clear improvements in sexual function were also found in the placebo group. Moreover, this drug has unpleasant side-effects such as dizziness, fatigue and nausea and can only be prescribed by doctors who have been trained in its use and are authorized to do so by the FDA. “So we are still a long way from a sex pill for women,” explains Bayerle-Eder and makes the plea: “Up to 40% of women and more than 30% of men suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction, which detracts from their quality of life, and this figure is even as high as 90% amongst chronically ill patients. In order to meet the “WHO criteria 2006″ for maintaining health, it is important that sexual medicine should be an important part of medical training and advanced training.”

If you’d like to discover how you can experience the kind of connection that leads to a more joyful, passionate, fulfilling marital sexuality, check out Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Mind Blowing, Toe-Curling, Infallible Loving TODAY!

Bad Parenting: Why The Ban Against Communion for Divorced and Remarried Catholics Is Unjust and 3 Ways to Fix It.



In all the debate about what should be done to help those Catholics who have divorced and remarried without the benefit of an annulment, there is one solution I have not heard debated.

Let’s Be Honest… 

I agree that it is seriously problematic to allow those who have remarried without the benefit of an annulment to receive communion for the reasons I have mentioned elsewhere.   But let’s face it, Did the vast majority of people who are on this path choose it knowingly and consciously?  Did the vast majority of people who were struggling with the pain of divorce really one day say, “Screw it.  I am going to choose to live an adulterous life in an invalid second marriage.  I don’t care if it means that I can’t take communion again!  BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Of course not.

Bad Parenting

Most people who find themselves on this path got there because of poor formation, terrible catechesis, and simple ignorance about how the Church really thinks about marriage, why it thinks that way, and the practical significance of all this high-level thinking to their actual daily lives as Christians.  Is it really just to hold them accountable for failing to live out principles that were never communicated to them–or at least were never communicated adequately to them–in the first place?  To bar these couples from communion is a bit like a neglectful parent refusing to communicate the house rules to her children only to impose a consequences after the fact.  “You shouldn’t have been playing ball in the house.  You’re grounded for two weeks and you lose your ball!”  “But mom! You never told me I couldn’t play in the house!”  “Tough.  You should have known better.”

Such lousy parenting is unbecoming of any parent, including our Spiritual Mother, the Church.  I think many of the Synod Fathers intuit this, and their sense of guilt around the poor catechesis and formation they have given the faithful drives a desire to be lenient on the back end of the process to make up for the Church’s failures to communicate on the front end of the process.  But this too is terrible parenting.  It’s the equivalent of telling a child, “Well, you shouldn’t have been playing in the house but I never told you that so I can’t give you a consequence for it.  For that matter, I can never  ask you to refrain from playing in the house in the future.”

So what can be done?

(Spiritual) Parent Effectiveness Training

To return to our parenting analogy, in the above example, the only just solution is for the parent to go to the misbehaving child and say, “Listen, I am truly sorry for not having told you what my expectations are.  Because of that, I can’t punish you for breaking the window by playing ball in the house.  In fact, I am going to clean up this mess with you.  But moving forward, I promise to do a much better job telling you what my expectations are and why.  In return,  you will need to do a really good job of listening so that if you mess up again, you’ll understand what the consequences are all about.”

In this scenario, 95% of the responsibility falls to the parent to apologize for his or her neglect, map out a plan for the future and communicate that plan along with any future consequences that might need to be imposed to maintain a peaceful and orderly home.

What does this mean to the Church’s approach to divorced and remarried persons.  I would suggest the following.

3 Steps to Bringing Our Children Home.

1.  Share Responsibility for Cleaning Up the Mess.  Allow fast-track annulments on the (newly developed) grounds of poor catechesis/inadequate formation. A valid marriage requires consent but you can’t give full consent if you don’t know what you’re consenting to.  If a couple could demonstrate that they really were not taught by their pastors, catechists, or parents how to practically understand and live the Catholic vision of love, sex and marriage and/or they had no intention of living this Catholic difference in their own marriage then they should be granted a speedy annulment of their first marriage.   Pope Benedict XVI recommended something similar to this.  Frankly, while I am not a canonist (and at the risk of irritating those who are) I imagine that this could potentially be handled similarly to “lack of form” annulments (e.g., when a Catholic gets married in a non-Catholic church without permission f the bishop) which are typically the easiest and fastest annulments to grant. All the couple would have to do is fill out a form that describes their understanding of marriage at the time of their first wedding.  It would be pretty easy to assess their capacity to live what the Church means by marriage.  Validity wouldn’t necessarily require some theologically developed answer on the part of couples.   Something along the lines of “I understood that God chose this person for me so that we could help each other be better Christians and help each other get to heaven.”  would be sufficient to establish an ability to consent to the Church’s vision of marriage.

Following this, they would need to go through a marriage catechumenate (see #3 below) in order to have their second marriage convalidated.

As far as communion goes, to maintain both the integrity of the sacrament and to be as generous as possible to couples who were in this process, bishops could grant permission to couples to be admitted to communion even before the annulment process was complete based upon their own assessment and/or the pastor’s recommendation of the sincerity of the couple and the veracity  and validity of their response to the initial assessment.  The determination by a bishop or designated pastor of a “founded hope” that the annulment would be granted  would be sufficient grounds for readmission to communion.    This places the responsibility on the Church to move the process along instead of making the faithful responsible for delays in the juridical process.

2.  Formators Called to Penance.  The fact that so many couples are completely ignorant of the Catholic vision of marriage and would not be able to articulate the basic statement I wrote above is–quite simply–the fault of our spiritual “parents”: our bishops, pastors, catechists, and family life ministers.  The church should ask all people who are responsible for marriage preparation to do  penance for failing the faithful.  They should be asked to fast and engage in other mortifications in order to make reparations for their dereliction of duty and to remind themselves that they must do better in the future.  Their penance would be an act of generosity to married couples, a display of authentic mercy, and it would communicate a commitment to do a better job forming the next generation of Catholic families.  Most importantly, it would place the responsibility for the current mess squarely where it belongs.  Not on the poorly formed faithful, but the failed formators.

3.  Initiate Marriage Catechumenate.  Marriage prep as we know it should be scrapped and replaced with a marriage catechumenate.  This is one of the best ideas I have heard coming out of the synod. NCRegister explains this idea here but the short version is that a marriage catechumenate is a longer period of preparation that emphasizes the role of marriage in living a Christian life.  This would be a HUGE gift to couples and would contribute mightily to challenging the divorce culture in and outside of the Church. It would also go a long way to helping to form “intentional disciples” that is, adults who understood how to bring their faith into their homes and out into the world so that God could both open their hearts to his grace and enable Catholic couples to be an effective witness in the world.

I don’t pretend to have the final and/or best answer to the serious challenges the Synod Fathers are facing.  But I believe that the above represents a more authentic approach to merciful pastoral care than is being presented by some of the more progressive elements in the Synod.

In the meantime, if you would like to undergo your own marriage catechumenate and learn what it takes to fully and joyfully live the Catholic difference in your marriage, check out the all new, revised and expanded edition of For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage, Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage, and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.


Sloth at the Synod? OR…Why Cardinal Johnny Can’t (be bothered to) Read

"Got no time to read stuff. I'm just hangin'"

Some years back, Rudolph Flesch wrote a book called, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” about the poor state of literacy among children.  As I listen to the various conversations going on at the Synod on the Family in Rome, I wonder if Flesch could be persuaded to write a sequel for Catholic Cardinals and Archbishops.

During the synod, there have been many discussions about how to handle various challenges such as what can be done to help Catholics who have remarried after divorce without the benefit of an annulment.  It is a vigorous discussion and while many people are expressing dark and foreboding concerns about what these conversations mean for the future of the Church, I’m trying hard to sit back and trust that the Holy Spirit knows what he is doing.

Sloth at the Synod?

And yet, there is at least one thing that could impede the Holy Spirit’s will from being done–sloth.  As I point out in my book, Broken Gods:  Hope, Healing and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart, sloth is not mere laziness.  Rather, it is a distortion of the Divine Longing for Peace.  When a person wants a conflict or injustice to just go away and, instead of  addressing the problem in a forthright, honest manner, simply ignores the problem or takes the easy way out, he is committing the sin of sloth (aka “acedia”).  Sloth is pursuing peace at the cost of justice.  True peace, by contrast, is peace that results from authentic justice.  It is, as Augustine put it, “Peace is the tranquility that results from right order.”

How does this tie into the Synod?  Well, to be honest, I am concerned, by the appearance, at least, that so many of the synod fathers–progressives in particular– could seem to simply not be bothered to read anything written in the last 40 years on the spiritual significance of marriage. Their apparent simple ignorance (God forbid it would be willful ignorance) of things like the Theology of the Body and Pope St. John Paul II’s general writings on the spiritual dignity of marriage and the family life is stunning if not outright slothful.  As Archbishop Chaput noted, Pope St. John Paul II wrote almost 2/3’s of everything the Church has ever produced on marriage and family life and how it relates to the Universal Call to Holiness. Why are so many of the Synod fathers–especially the progressives–speaking as if the last 40 years never happened?   (Note:  Prominent  Catholic speaker Mary Beth Bonnacci has observed the same thing recently).

Bad Form

If I write a scholarly paper, or present at a professional conference, to have any credibility, I am required to familiarize myself with the most relevant literature on the subject. I don’t have to agree with it, but I need to know the arguments inside and out so that I can either support them with additional evidence or find holes and propose ways forward. What I can’t do is just pretend a whole body of articles just never got published and blithely ignore it. Theology, as the erstwhile “Queen of the Sciences” is supposed to work the same way.

I obviously have no idea what the Synod Fathers’ personal reading habits are and I trust that they are all learned men in their own way, but for the most part, the progressives’ interventions (especially) read as if they are still in reaction-formation to the manualist moral theology tradition where everything comes down to how far the collection of arbitrary rules can be stretched while still coloring,  more or less, inside the lines. Much of what they write comes off as if they are completely ignorant of the last 40 years of theological reflection on the dignity of marriage and sexuality and the role both play in the universal call to holiness.  When Cardinal Kasper can say that “heroism is not for the average Christian” and then be lauded by other prominent church leaders as he proposes ideas for damning the faithful with the soft clericalism of low expectations something is puzzling at best.  Any proposals rooted in the idea that somehow the call to holiness isn’t universal cannot possibly be considered “spiritually rich.”  Why?  because such proposals would appear to not only be ignorant of the entire point of all St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s writings on marriage and family (which were all about how marriage facilitates the Universal Call to Holiness) but they also stand in direct defiance of the entire point of Vatican II (which spelled out the idea of the Universal Call to Holiness in the first place).

Stop Insulting Married Couples

Why is this important?  Well, especially in light of the recent, historic, twin canonization of St. Louis and Zelie Martin (the first married couple canonized together)  the Synod Fathers really ought to be doing more to recognize the spiritual significance of  marriage as God’s “little way of holiness” for the masses.  God’s love for us is nuptial and God gives the world the gift of marriage to remind everyone of the kind of love he has in his heart for us; love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.  When people struggle to live out this reality in their marriages, we must do whatever we can to support and assist them on making these ideals a reality in their life.  But we can neither deny nor simply fudge the very existence of these ideals for anyone.  It is not merciful to simply say “Well, these ideals don’t apply to the likes of you poor, unwashed lay people.”  What it is is insulting and demeaning.

It’s Not About “The Rules”

The question isn’t “how close do we have to hew to the rules in order to still uphold a superficial sense of ‘Catholic marriage’ –whatever that is?”   Rather, the question SHOULD be, “What are the best ways we can articulate the incredible spiritual power of marriage to be an instrument of sanctification and a sign to the world or God’s free, total, and faithful love while simultaneously supporting those who struggle to live that witness?”

For the last 40 years, both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict wrote A LOT of really thought-provoking stuff on these questions.  The fact that all of this writing seems to be being ignored is not only unbelievable, it also undermines the credibility of the Synod Fathers who seem to think so little of marriage and the family that they couldn’t be bothered to prepare to discuss the issues in the light of what’s been published on the topic in the last two generations.

To learn more about how YOU can experience all the joy of the Catholic vision of marriage, check out our book, Holy Sex! as well as the brand new, completely revised and expanded edition of For Better…FOREVER!

OUTRAGE! Divorce, Remarriage and Getting Kicked Out of the Catholic Hospital.



I had a conversation with a reporter yesterday from a prominent newspaper about the ongoing Synod on the Family.  We had a great discussion and I appreciated her time.  In particular, we talked a lot about people who felt alienated from the Church (and those who are divorced and remarried in particular).  The conversation left me in a thoughtful mood. In particular, I was left reflecting on the question, “Why, exactly, do so many people feel excluded by the Church–especially those who are divorced and remarried–and what can we do about it?”

Missing the Mission.

People’s anger at the Church is real and deserves to be met with respect and compassion.  At the same time, it appears to me that a lot of the anger and pain is caused by confusion about what Church is and what it’s meant to do.  In order to appropriately address people’s hurt, I think we, as Church, need to do a better job of communicating our mission.  What does that mean?

The Church as Hospital

Pope Francis noted that the Church is a hospital.  That sounds very affirming and it is. But what people forget is that you only need to go to the hospital if you’re sick.  At the point when you think you’re healthy, you either don’t need the hospital or you have to leave it.

The problem–in our metaphor of Church as hospital–is that, these days, a lot of people come to the hospital because they think it is a nice building with a lot of interesting equipment in it and they want to explore the various rooms. Eventually, they bump into a doctor. Mistaking them for a patient, he asks what’s wrong with them.  They become offended and exclaim,  “How dare you say there is something wrong with me?!?”  The doctor stares at the erstwhile patient and, in all innocence, says, “Well then, if you aren’t sick, then what are you doing here? You’re not just trespassing are you?”  And the person screams, “How dare you try to exclude me!”

What’s Your Diagnosis?

The Church is far from perfect, but too often people who assert that they are alienated from the Church feel that way primarily because the Church necessarily insists that to be a member you have to be willing to admit that you (1) are spiritually sick, (2) that you need a diagnosis (i.e., “sinner”),  and (3) that you must be willing to participate in the treatment.  If you aren’t willing to do those things, you really have no business taking beds and food away from the patients who are lining up in the hall waiting to be admitted.  If you’re really so healthy, what are you doing playing with the IV’s?  Go, live your life! Be happy!

It isn’t that people’s anger at the Church isn’t real and doesn’t deserve to be respected, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Church is really only for people who are willing to see it as the place where they get diagnosed and treated for the spiritual diseases that are preventing them from receiving the gift of eternal life.

Marriage:  Here’s Your Sign…

As I mentioned above, much of my conversation with the reporter focused, specifically, on the fact that Catholics who have remarried after divorce feel excluded from the Church.  This is a profoundly sad and painful reality.  But to understand why these couples are not admitted to communion, you need to understand that the Church thinks of marriage differently than the world does.  While the Church certainly values the earthly benefits of marriage, the Church primarily values marriage because of what it points toward.  Marriage is meant to be an icon to the world;  a physical sign of the kind of unconditional, committed love God wants to share with each of us (Eph 5:31-32).  The fact that God wants this kind of relationship with us is a mind-blowing concept.  It’s hard to get our heads around it.  We need some kind of experience–some physical sign– that shows us this sort of love is even possible.  This is where marriage comes in.  The Church intends sacramental marriage to be a sign to the world that the kind of love God wants to share with us really is possible.

A Broken Sign

When the Church says that there is something wrong with remarriage after divorce (without the benefit of an annulment) it isn’t saying that the couple can’t somehow manage to be happy together or that there is anything (necessarily) wrong with that couple’s relationship from a worldly POV.  It is,  however,  saying that that the couples’ “sign” is broken.  That is, they cannot adequately represent to the world the faithful love that Bridegroom Christ has for the his Bride, the Church.    That really isn’t a judgment against the couple.  It is a spiritual diagnosis.  Having broken communion in their marriage, the divorced and remarried Catholic (who has not sought the benefit of an annulment) now becomes a de facto sign of the broken communion that exists when we are unfaithful to the Christ, the Bridegroom.  People who have remarried after divorce without the benefit of an annulment are still very much welcome in church, but their lives now becomes a visible sign of the alienation we experience when we are unfaithful to the Bridegroom–as we often are.  This is a very painful reality but it is not a judgment on divorced and remarried couples.  Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the sign they are attempting to live through their remarriage is, in fact, seriously broken and that they are in need of healing.  The Church is eager to do whatever is possible to facilitate that healing and so she welcomes the divorce and remarried person just like she welcomes any other patient to the hospital, not with judgment, but with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

A Painful Course of Treatment

Because it cuts right through the heart of the primary image God uses to reveal his love for the Church, remarriage after divorce (without the benefit of an annulment) is a particularly serious spiritual disorder.  Currently, there are only two treatment options; either the couple can embrace the penance of living as brother and sister unless or until they can receive a declaration of nullity for the original and still valid marriage, or the couple can embrace the penance of being that broken sign and refrain from communion.  These are painful treatments, but as any cancer patient can tell you, treatments for serious illnesses are often quite painful.  Again, the treatment is not a judgment on the couple.  It is a recognition of the seriousness of the spiritual disorder.

Asking Important Questions

I understand that a lot of people don’t get this.  They feel judged, and that’s a very serious problem.  Frankly, the Church has done a horrible job communicating these truths and this is one thing the Synod is attempting to address.   One importnat question the Synod Fathers are asking is, “Is there a way that we can continue to do our job of diagnosing and providing treatment for spiritual disorders–such as remarriage after divorce–without making people feel judged by our diagnoses?” Another question is, “Are there treatments for this disorder (of remarriage after divorce) that could work as well but be less painful?”   These are important but challenging questions, and there aren’t an easy answers to either of them–hence all the sturm und drang around the synod.   But one thing the Church cannot do is say that a spiritual sickness is actually a sign of health, and a broken sign is, actually, not broken.

To learn more about how you can experience a more joyful, loving, passionate, grace-filled marriage, please check out the brand new, revised and expanded 2nd edition or For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.

In-Law Conflict? New Study Suggests a Simple Solution



The key to dealing with future in-laws who disapprove of your relationship may involve showing them what a good influence you are on their child.  In the Springer journal Human Nature, Menelaos Apostolou shares the results of interviews with Greek- Cypriot children and parents and also finds that mothers may be more easily won over than fathers.

Children frequently choose mates who do not appeal to their parents. For instance, they may choose individuals who are physically attractive, even though parents are more concerned with social standing and family background.

“Parents do not always find their children’s mate choices to comply with their own preferences and engage in manipulation in order to drive away undesirable boyfriends and girlfriends,” comments Apostolou. “To avoid this situation, individuals engage in counter manipulation in order to change their prospective parents-in-law’s minds to accept them as mates for their children.”

Parents can employ various tactics to dissolve the relationship, including bribery or threatening their children’s mate. Meanwhile, children also have a battery of manipulation tactics they employ on their parents to make them accept their mates, including showing them that their mates are right for them and make them happy. However, little is known about how children’s partners try to manipulate their prospective parents-in-law and which tactics are most successful.

The first part of the study involved 106 Greek-Cypriots answering an open-ended questionnaire. This revealed 41 separate acts that individuals employed on their partners’ parents.

These acts included showing the parents how appropriate they are for their child, inviting them for dinner, buying gifts, and even standing up to the parents by telling them they were not worthy of their behaviour.

The second part of the study involved 738 Greek- Cypriots identifying the acts that were most likely to be employed, which Apostolou grouped into seven broader manipulation tactics.

The most likely tactic to be used is labelled “I am right for your child,” in which they demonstrate to the prospective parents-in-law how good they are as mates for their children. Following this comes the “I do not deserve this!” tactic, where they show their mates’ parents that they do not deserve their rejection. Third most common is the “Why don’t you like me?” tactic, where individuals try to determine why the parents disapprove and try to change their minds.

Other tactics include “No confrontation”; “You have to accept the situation!” where they can threaten the parents by saying they risk never seeing their grandchildren; and the “Approach” tactic, where individuals try to grow closer to the parents by inviting them for dinner and buying gifts. Least common is the “Tell them I am good!” tactic in which they ask their mates to persuade their parents.

In the third part of the study, Apostolou questioned 414 Greek-Cypriot parents to find out the effectiveness of these tactics in altering parents’ minds.

The “I am right for your child” and “No confrontation” tactics were found to be most likely to be successful, whereas “Approach” and “Tell them I am good!” were least likely to be successful.

The results also suggest that mothers may be more likely to be influenced by some of these tactics than fathers.

The limitations of the study include its reliance on self-report data, and it being based on a single culture, which means its results may not readily apply to different cultural settings.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by SpringerNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Menelaos Apostolou. I Am Right for Your Child!Human Nature, 2015; DOI: 10.1007/s12110-015-9241-8

Are You Getting The Help You Need? 5 Ways Seeking Help Can Make Things Worse

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission

Are your attempts to seek help actually making things worse?

Earlier today, Simcha Fisher featured a guest post titled Married to An Angry Man written by Monica More (a pseudonym).  It’s a story about a woman who is struggling in her marriage and who feels that all of her efforts to seek help have failed.  My heart broke when I read it because it is a story I encounter so often.  I am grateful to Monica for sharing her story because it is an opportunity to highlight the things every couple can do to get the help they need–especially when things seem hopeless.

Getting the Right Kind of Help


Sometimes it can feel like nothing you try works, but that doesn’t have to be the case.  One of the 8 habits that separates so-called “marriage masters” from “marriage disasters” is that successful couples tend to have a knack for knowing when, where and how to get competent help. By contrast, couples who are struggling often don’t know how to find healthy supports.  Like a drowning man desperately flailing around for something–anything–to hold onto whether it would be helpful or not, the pain struggling couples experience often causes them to inadvertently reject things that could be helpful and latch onto things that aren’t.

The following illustrates some common mistakes spouses make in seeking help  and offers some ways to overcome these obstacles to marital healing.

1.  “I read books that told me to love more and give more… but they just made things worse.”

Inspirational books written by well-meaning people who have gone through the normal ups and downs of married life are often of little use to couples struggling with serious problems. Moreover, these kinds of inspirational, personal anecdote-driven, quasi-advice books can actually make a struggling marriage worse because they typically ask readers to adopt an even more vulnerable posture (love more, give more, be more patient and understanding).  Being more generous and vulnerable are great recommendations for a basically good marriage that has gone a little stale, but if a marriage is challenged, and especially if there is any kind of abuse, adopting such a posture will create an increasingly toxic environment.

If you are having difficulties–and especially if you are dealing with consistent disrespect, cruelty, or abuse of any kind–it is terribly important to seek out self-help resources (books, programs) developed by professional counselors that are trained to offer strategies for handling complicated relationship problems.  Not all of these books are great, but even an average book written by a professional marriage counselor is going to be more helpful than a more inspirational/personal witness-type book.  Inspirational books are fine if all you need to do is find the strength to keep doing what you’re doing, but if what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to get new tools and you need to learn how to use those new tools under pressure.  It is exactly in those times that you need to look for resources (a book, a program) written by an expert with the education and experience necessary to help you find a new path forward.

2.  “My Spouse Doesn’t Want To Go To Counseling”

Asking one’s spouse’s permission to seek professional help is another one of the most common mistakes couples make.  No one wants to have to go to counseling and many people would prefer to delay it as long as possible.  Studies show that couples tend to wait 4-6 years from the onset of problems to the time they even begin to seek professional help. On top of this, if one’s spouse is abusive, emotionally or otherwise, there is even less of a motivation for the offending spouse to want to seek help even if they say they would like to stop.  Why?  Because, sadly, the marriage actually works for them.  The angry, emotionally manipulative, or abusive spouse has all kinds of strategies for getting what he or she wants out of the relationship. Going to therapy means risking giving up all that control and risking NOT getting what he or she wants.  If you are miserable and your spouse is persistently resistant to therapy despite your misery,  9 times out of 10 it is because the marriage works as far as your spouse is concerned.

So what do you do?  Make the appointment anyway. If you had cancer, you wouldn’t ask your spouse’s permission to seek treatment.  If your marriage has cancer but your spouse is too stubborn or clueless to know it, get help anyway.  The best way to get your spouse into therapy is to let them know you are going with or without them.  When they know you are absolutely serious about getting help, most spouses will come along if for no other reason than they want to make sure the therapist gets their side of the story.  But even if your spouse never accompanies you to counseling, a therapist trained in one-person marital therapy can still help you make huge improvements in your marriage even working on your own.  One person marital therapy involves learning to set respectful boundaries that thwart unhealthy marital behaviors and encourage healthy ones.  Often it results in the offending spouse willing joining in the process at a later date,  but even when it doesn’t, a solo-spouse can make big changes in the marriage.

The key, however–and this is critical–is seeking help from a trained marital therapist.  Many therapists say they do marital therapy but have absolutely no training in it.  Their success rates tend to be around 30% while trained marital therapists have success rates over 90%. Make sure your counselor has had specific training and supervision in marital therapy.  Specifically, ask if they have training in systems theory and/or Gottman Relationship Therapy, two of the most successful, empirically-validated approaches to marital therapy.

3.  “We went to a couple of session, but it didn’t do anything.”

Of course, going to therapy isn’t a guarantee for success but there are a few common reasons a couples’ attempts at therapy don’t work.

The first reason, as I noted above, is that the couple may be seeking help from an individual therapist who is doing marital counseling without proper training.  These therapists’ success rates are abysmal compared to therapists who have undergone specific training and supervision in effective approaches to marital therapy.  (incidentally, all therapists with the Pastoral Solutions Institute tele-counseling practice are required to commit to ongoing training and supervision in the latest, empirically-based approaches to marital therapy).

Second, research shows that serious marital problems often require a commitment of at least 12-24 sessions.  That can feel like a long time, but 3-6 mos is not a long time compared to the fact–again–that most couples wait 4-6 years before seeking help.  Couples who get help sooner get better faster.  Generally speaking, the longer you wait, the bigger the problem gets.  Regardless, it takes time to heal.  It is important to keep in mind that there is no point of beginning therapy if you can’t commit to the full process.  Think of it this way, if you don’t finish a course of antibiotics and you get sick again, that doesn’t mean antibiotics don’t work on you.  It means you didn’t complete the treatment.

Third, couples often become demoralized when one spouse seems to be undermining the process by constantly complaining about the expense, not doing the homework, or incessantly pouting about having to go.  All of these are simply tactics to maintain the status quo because–again–the marriage works for this recalcitrant spouse.   Usually, this behavior will stop in a few weeks once the offending spouse realizes that it won’t stop their mate from making the next appointment. But, even if one’s spouse’s foot-dragging begins to seriously compromise progress, a shift to One-Person Marital Therapy can make all the difference as that solo-spouse begins to learn ways to set effective boundaries that spoil the games the offending spouse is playing.

The bottom line, make sure you are working with a trained marital therapist, then stick with it even if your spouse resists.  Again, marital counseling is successful over 90% of the time when working with a therapist who actually knows what he or she is doing.

4.  “Counseling was too expensive.”

I am, of course sympathetic to this concern.   Unfortunately, medical treatment, including psychological help, is expensive.  The good news is, most insurers do have some mental health benefit and you should take advantage of it when possible.  But even if you don’t have good health insurance, as of 2013, the average divorce costs between $15,000-$20,000 plus a lifetime of hassle negotiating childcare, support, house rules, etc.   By contrast, an entire year’s worth of marital therapy (should you even need that much) would cost about $5,000-$6,000.  That’s not cheap, but it is up to 75% less expensive than the alternative on the high end of both duration and cost.
5.  “I went to spiritual direction/counseling with my pastor”

Most people do not understand that there is a HUGE difference between spiritual direction and counseling (Note, I teach college courses in both counseling and spiritual direction).  Simply put, a spiritual director’s job is to help you find God in the situation you find yourself whatever it is, while a therapist’s job is to help you change your situation.  Spiritual direction, in short, is really not about changing anything so much as it is about being able to understand how God is relating to you through your present circumstances.

A woman in an abusive relationship might experience her spiritual director telling her to “join her sufferings to the cross of Christ” while her therapist is telling her to “stand up to your husband and set boundaries.”  This is not conflicting advice.  It is complementary.  Someone who is experiencing a spouse’s cruelty needs to be able to both change their situation and experience God’s love in their present trials.  Unfortunately, less experience spiritual directors often do not inform directees of this distinction between therapy and spiritual direction and many therapists don’t understand anything about the nature spiritual direction.  And the public suffers from the confusion that results.

There is Good Help.  You Can Find It.

These are just a few of the common mistakes couples make that cause them to be deprived of competent and effective help.  I discuss many more ways to ensure you get the help you need in my book, When Divorce Is NOT An Option:  How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love.  Likewise, if you feel that it’s time to get professional marriage counseling help from a therapist with actual training and supervisions in marital therapy but don’t know where to look, I’d invite you to learn more about how we can help you through the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s pastoral tele-counseling practice.

Just know that regardless of your situation, competent help is available to you.  Don’t be afraid to seek it out and don’t be afraid to commit to it when you find it.  I pray that God will lead you to the healing you seek.

Pphubb You.


Yesterday on More2Life Radio, Bill Donaghy of the Theology of the Body Institute spoke of what he called, “Digital Contraception”; times when we let screens (phones, tablets, laptops, etc) come between us and opportunities for communion with others.  I didn’t discover this in time for yesterday’s show, but psychology actually has a name for this phenomenon, “Partner Phone Snubbing” or “Pphubbing.”  A new study by Baylor University examines the frequency and impact of Pphubbing on intimate relationships….

A provocative new study suggests our trusted partner and confidant — the cell phone — can harm interpersonal relationships and lead to higher levels of depression.

Baylor University researchers James A. Roberts, Ph.D., and Meredith David, Ph.D., conducted two separate surveys, accounting for a total of 453 adults in the U.S., with the intention of learning the relational effects of “Pphubbing,” or “partner phone snubbing.” 

Pphubbing is described in the study as the extent to which people use or are distracted by their cellphones while in the company of their relationship partners.

“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” Roberts said.

“These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”

The first survey of 308 adults helped Roberts and David develop a “Partner Phubbing Scale,” a nine-item scale of common smartphone behaviors that respondents identified as snubbing behaviors.

The resulting scale includes statements such as:

  • My partner places his or her cellphone where they can see it when we are together;
  • My partner keeps his or her cellphone in their hand when he or she is with me;
  • My partner glances at his/her cellphone when talking to me;
  • If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his or her cellphone.

The development of the scale is significant, the study states, because it demonstrates that “Pphubbing is conceptually and empirically different from attitude toward cellphones, partner’s cellphone involvement, cellphone conflict, and cellphone addiction.”

The second survey of 145 adults measured Pphubbing among romantic couples. This was done, in part, by asking those surveyed to respond to the nine-item scale developed in the first survey.

Other areas of measurement in the second survey included cellphone conflict, relationship satisfaction, life satisfaction, depression, and interpersonal attachment style (e.g., “anxious attachment” describes people who are less secure in their relationship).

Results of the survey showed that:

    • 46.3 percent of the respondents reported being phubbed by their partner;
    • 22.6 percent said this phubbing caused conflict in their relationships;
    • 36.6 percent reported feeling depressed at least some of the time.

Overall, only 32 percent of respondents stated that they were very satisfied with their relationship, the study shows.

“In everyday interactions with significant others, people often assume that momentary distractions by their cell phones are not a big deal,” David said. “However, our findings suggest that the more often a couple’s time spent together is interrupted by one individual attending to his/her cellphone, the less likely it is that the other individual is satisfied in the overall relationship.

“Specifically, momentary distractions by one’s cellphone during time spent with a significant other likely lowers the significant other’s satisfaction with their relationship, and could lead to enhanced feelings of depression and lower well-being of that individual.

“Thus, when spending time with one’s significant other, we encourage individuals to be cognizant of the interruptions caused by their cellphones, as these may well be harmful to their relationship.”

Roberts explained that those with anxious attachment styles (less secure in their relationship) were more bothered (reported higher levels of cellphone conflict) than those with more secure attachment styles (more secure in their relationship). In addition, lower levels of relationship satisfaction — stemming, in part, from being Pphubbed — led to decreased life satisfaction that, in turn, led to higher levels of depression.

Given the ever-increasing use of smartphones to communicate between romantic partners, the study helps to understand how the use of smartphones can impact not only satisfaction with romantic relationships, but also personal well-being, Roberts said.

“When you think about the results, they are astounding,” Roberts said. “Something as common as cellphone use can undermine the bedrock of our happiness: our relationships with our romantic partners.”

The study is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

For more great tips on how you can experience greater love in your life, check out the new, revised and expanded edition of For Better…FOREVER! The Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage (2nd Ed. Revised and Expanded). It offers TONS of new tips, techniques and insights including several new chapters on what makes Catholic marriage unique and how you can experience the fullness of the Catholic vision of love!

Source: Baylor University/EurekAlert