Getting Help: Finding the Counselor You Deserve

By: Francine and Byron Pirola

couples counseling

If your marriage is in strife and you need some help, it’s important to make sure you get the right help.  Unfortunately, many counsellors and therapists will accept couples for couples counselling without having any specific training. Couples therapy is a unique and one of the most difficult counselling tasks and you deserve a therapist that is fully qualified.  Another common pitfall is a therapist who is ‘neutral’ towards saving the marriage. This position often comes about because counsellors are trained to not impose their values on their clients. The problem is, it’s an inhuman expectation — we all have values about marriage and we bring those values into the work we do and the conversations we have. Regrettably, many counsellors are themselves divorced and will have a bias towards marriage dissolution. If you are looking for support in rebuilding your marriage, this is not the right kind of therapist for you.

So how do you find a marriage-friendly therapist?

  1. Ask around for recommendations, and importantly, ask why that person is being recommended.
  2. Before committing to therapy, ask the counsellor some questions about his attitude to saving a marriage when there are problems, his specific training in couples therapy, what his success rate is.
  3. If you’re not happy with your counsellor and feel that your values are being compromised, find another one!
  4. Keep in mind that many marital problems can be successfully ‘treated’ with marriage education. In fact for some issues, marriage education has been shown to be more effective than counselling. For more information on whether the  SmartLoving Marriage  seminar would be of help to you, click  here  for your local contact.

For more information and suggestions, we recommend Dr Bill Doherty’s work on  ‘Take back your Marriage”,  Questions to Ask your Therapist, What to  Look for in a Therapist.


By: Francine and Byron Pirola



Love means more than saying “I’m sorry”.

There’s a difference between the ‘I’-centered statement, “I’m sorry,” and the other-centered statement, “Will you please forgive me?”  The ‘I’-centered statement simply acknowledges a fact. A person might recognize that they behaved poorly, inconsiderately, insensitively, thoughtlessly or carelessly. They might also just want to move on or be done with it without a change of heart. One can say “I’m sorry” and remain self-centered and unrepentant.  “Will you forgive me” on the other hand, means that a person wants to be back in relationship with the other. It requires vulnerability and trust because it risks rejection for the good of the other and for the relationship. Vulnerability and repentance open the door to intimacy. You can grow in love powerfully when you humbly ask forgiveness of your spouse. It is your concern for the one you love that brings about your repentance. Your willingness to be vulnerable demonstrates sincere love and builds the trust between you.  Pride, on the other hand, is always divisive. Asking for forgiveness requires humility, and humility will endear you to each other and draw you into unity.

Essential Aspects of Reconciliation

Some couples are ‘natural’ reconcilers because of their conflict-avoidant personalities or deep formation in virtue. For most couples, some concrete direction is helpful. Here are the steps we use to reconcile.

Acknowledging the damage. Most times, both you and your spouse will have been wounded. In order for you to be free to release your interior wounds, it is necessary for you to carefully articulate your feelings of hurt. This process requires both a willingness to vulnerably self-reveal by the sharing spouse, and a firm commitment to self-restraint by the listening spouse so that a trusting atmosphere can be established.

Expressing sorrow. Saying “I’m sorry” and expressing genuine regret is an important statement that reassures your spouse of your sincerity. Expressing your sorrow is a vulnerable sharing of your feelings as you accept responsibility for the damage you have caused.

Asking for forgiveness is different and more difficult than expressing sorrow. “Please forgive me” is a request that willingly surrenders all power to your injured spouse. It takes great humility to ask for forgiveness. When this is mutually expressed by you and your spouse when there is hurt on both sides, it is a powerfully bonding experience.
Committing to change not only safeguards against further injury, it is a further indication of your sincerity. For some people, this is essential before they feel capable of trusting again in the relationship.

Granting forgiveness is a decision by the injured spouse to release all feelings of ill-will toward the other. For many it is accompanied by a distinctive experience of healing, though healing often comes later for some people. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and doesn’t depend on your feelings.

Rebuilding trust. The rebuilding of trust in your relationship may be immediate or take several months if the offense was substantial. The injured spouse will naturally feel anxious about further hurt and so the responsibility for re-establishing trust requires a sustained commitment by both of you.

Credit to Francine and Byron Pirola of SmartLoving.

The Anatomy of An Argument

By: Francine and Byron Pirola

brainn  Have you ever found that you seem to be having the same argument over and over?

Sometimes this may be because you didn’t resolve the issue in the previous argument, and so inevitably, it comes up again. But sometimes, there is a déjà vu sense when the issue is new — that comes about because the pattern, what we call the anatomy, of an argument is essentially unchanged; every argument has some predictable elements.

1.     Preconditions

Preconditions are the things that make you or your spouse particularly sensitive or reactive before the argument even starts. This includes things such as,

    • Physical discomfort — being tired, hungry, unwell or in pain — these things put us ‘on edge’
    • Mental distractions — such as stress, interruptions, being late for an engagement, visitors
    • Emotional distance — from inadequate time together or an unresolved hurt from an previous argument
    • Psychological stress — for example, feeling vulnerable from a recent unpleasant encounter, such as at work or with a friend.  Also  mood-altering substances such as alcohol or drugs can be triggers for some people.

Some preconditions vary over time and can be managed with more thoughtful timing. For example, we avoid raising a difficult topic when one or both of us are tired or stressed. Before raising a potentially inflammatory topic, if we are emotionally distant, we try to spend some positive time together first.  It’s helpful to recognise which preconditions make you particularly reactive and to learn how to manage them. For example, I am particularly sensitive to tiredness, becoming irritable and headache prone. So I take care to get sleep and avoid overtaxing myself when I am sleep-deprived.  A major sensitivity for all of us arises from our childhood frustrations — experiences from our childhood that left us with deep wounds and unmet needs.  These childhood frustrations continue to influence us into our adult relationships where we subconsciously seek to resolve them. For example, if you did not receive adequate attention and approval from your father, you will subconsciously be driven by this childhood frustration to seek it from father/authority figures in your adult life. This will precondition your expectations of your spouse and other relationships and set you up for hurt and disappointment.

2.     Value Divergence & the need for Value Validation

Arguments usually begin with simple disagreements. At the heart of a disagreement is a divergence in values: we each attach a different importance to the issue under discussion. A simple decision, like deciding what to watch on TV, can escalate to an argument if we fail to appreciate the values each person is bringing to the discussion.  For example, one might value the activity as an opportunity to de-stress — so he or she wants something mindless and purely entertaining. The other may see the activity as a time to do something together and will therefore look for a show that invites connection and dialogue. Soon they are arguing about whether to watch a rugby game or a romantic comedy. If they fail to appreciate the value divergence, they will get fixated on what to watch and who gets their way and neither will be satisfied — it won’t be relaxing and it won’t be bonding.  Alternatively, if they are able to recognize and name their differing values, they are in a better position to validate each other’s values and find a solution that honors both — for example, an action movie may enable them to both de-stress and connect.

3.     Escalation triggers

We’ve all had the experience where a conversation suddenly turns sour in a nano-second; one minute we’re discussing something quite rationally, the next we in a full blown argument. Escalation triggers are the things that you or your spouse do or say that ‘hit a hot button’ and step up the intensity of the argument, or transform a lively conversation into a heated debate. Escalation triggers include things like:

  • harsh start up, going on the attack, badgering/nagging, criticism
  • name calling, contemptuous comments, contradicting or belittling the other
  • disrespectful comments or gestures, unloving gestures, rudeness
  • globalisation (exaggerating the offence), bringing up old wounds
  • defensiveness, denying the issue or responsibility
  • stonewalling, refusing to engage, walking out, withdrawing, indifference
  • rejecting repair attempts, resisting attempts to de-escalate the argument
  • not listening properly, ignoring the other or switching off, apathy
  • angry outbursts, real or threatened violence, threats of punishment or ultimatums

Research by Dr John & Julie Gottman has identified seven of these escalation triggers as being particularly destructive to relationships. For a more detailed discussion, see the Seven Deadly Habits:  here

4.     The Amygdala hijack

The amygdala is in the primitive part of the brain and concerned with survival. It works by comparing incoming information with emotional memories. It does this very quickly to assess whether a threat is present. The threat may be physical or emotional and if detected, the amygdala will ‘hijack’ the brain and initiate a fight, flight or freeze reaction within milliseconds. This happens before the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex, has had time to evaluate the threat.  In the case of a physical threat, the amygdala hijack can be life-saving; catch a fast moving object coming towards you in the corner of your eye, and you don’t really want to wait for your neocortex to decide if is a rock or a ping pong ball — your amygdala will galvanize your body to action. Adrenaline is released as well as a number of other hormones that readies your body for fast action. These hormones can take several hours to clear and for the body to recover its normal state.  In this highly aroused state, the brain’s capacity for rational thinking is reduced, and instinct often takes over.  The problem is that the amygdala doesn’t differentiate between a physical threat and an emotional one. So a simple, careless comment by your spouse can be enough to trigger an amygdala hijack and initiate a disproportionate reaction.  If you are prone to ‘over react’, there are strategies that you can employ to manage an amygdala hijack; do deep breathing, self-soothe and engage your thinking brain by consciously and deliberately thinking appreciative thoughts of your spouse.

5.     Flooding

The phenomenon of feeling emotionally overwhelmed is called ‘flooding’. It is associated with the activation of the fight-flight response which causes a number of physiological events including increased heart rate and blood pressure, high adrenaline, prioritisation of blood supply to large muscle groups.  When we are in this state, it is virtually impossible to rationally and calmly discuss the issue. All our valuable communication skills evaporate as we struggle to keep our emotions under control. Our good intentions to have a civil discussion are simply overwhelmed by the intense emotions  There is really only one sensible action when one or both of you are flooded — take a ‘time out’ and cool off. There can be no good gained from pursuing the discussion in this state.

 Credit to Francine and Byron Pirola of SmartLoving.

Money Madness: Getting to the Bottom of “Dollar Debates”

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

money matters

About halfway through their first tele-counseling session with me, Mack and Kara brought our conversation around to money. “He is totally controlling about what we spend.” Kara complained. “I really am careful about our budget, but he is constantly on me with his, ‘Do we really need this? Do we need that?’ He drives me crazy.”  Mack interrupted, “That’s not it at all! I just think we need to save.”  “Well, of course we need to save. But he gets crazy about it. It seems like every penny we don’t absolutely have to spend has to be squirreled away. He never wants to take a vacation; he couldn’t care less what our home looks like. It’s all about sockin’ it away.”  Not every couple is as polarized about money as Mack and Kara are, but finances are among the most contentious issues couples face. In fact, 37% of couples report that arguments about money represent a significant source of marital stress. Certainly they are the most common problems couples bring up in counseling, especially when financial times turn tough.  So what’s the secret to resolving these maddening money matters? Here are a few tips to get you over the hurdles.

1. Start by Giving Your Money Back to God.

Do you and your mate pray about your money? You should. No matter who brings home the bacon in your home, God is the provider. If He is giving you the money, then he has a purpose in mind for it. It is your job to discern that purpose by regularly asking God for his guidance. Here are a few suggestions for how to do this. First, every time you get a paycheck, sit down with your mate to thank God for it. Literally, pray over it, and to ask Him to help you know how to be a good steward of this gift. Second, when it comes to paying bills, go to the Lord first. Ask him to calm your nerves, give you wisdom, and to make your dollar go further (remember the loaves and the fishes!) and if you are fortunate enough to have anything left after, thank him for it, and keep point #2 in mind.

2. Remember the Purpose of Money.

As Catholics, we recognize that everything that God gives us is intended to work for the good of people. The accumulation of money cannot be an end in itself. Money is only good to the degree that it serves us and those who depend upon us. Couples must learn to be comfortable living in a healthy tension between saving for the future, making the home a hospitable place for the family, and taking care of those less fortunate. Before you allocate any money remaining after bills, consider the needs of everyone in the family, not just your own plans.

3. Everybody Has to Win.

Most money madness results from fights in which husbands and wives disagree over whose spending/saving vision rules the day. This is entirely wrongheaded. God called you and your spouse together because he knew that by responding generously to the needs he has placed on each of your hearts, you will both grow in ways that are essential to God’s plan for your life; ways in which you would never grow if you were on your own.  In order to do this, you must both be willing to give the other what he or she requires, but you must both also be willing to be flexible about how and when you get it. Do you want to go on a vacation this year? Great, but be sure to plan a vacation that respects your mate’s need to save. Need to save for retirement or college? Great. Just be flexible enough to develop a plan that enables you to meet reasonable savings goals in a timeframe that is respectful of your family’s need to have a hospitable home-life today. Everybody can get what they need as long as husband and wife are willing to be flexible about the method used to get it and the timeframe in which it is gotten.

4. Get Professional Help.

If you can’t figure out how to bring your different financial visions together into one coherent plan, seek the help of a financial planner who has tools and information that can help you solve the practical aspects of your problem.  Remember, though, sometimes money problems aren’t just about money. Often, arguments about money are really just a sign of a serious weakness in a couple’s general problem-solving and communication abilities, or a sign that there is just not as much respect in the relationship as there needs to be. The latter is especially true when one spouse consistently bullies the other to seeing things his or her way.  If resentment over money persists even after you have tried financial planning don’t simmer in silence. Seek the help of a marriage-friendly counselor who can help you get to the bottom of what is really bothering you. If you find that there is still tension between you and your spouse over money matters, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and get the solutions you are searching for. Call us and get the skills you need to succeed!

6 Stages of Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts

By: Gregory Popcak

ashamed man

The Painful Truth of Addiction

Sex addiction statistics show that 25 million Americans visit cyber-sex sites between 1-10 hours per week. Another 4.7 million in excess of 11 hours per week. (MSNBC/Stanford/Duquesne Study, Washington Times, 1/26/2000). According to Datamonitor, over half of all time spent on the Internet is related to sexual activity, with 30 million people logging on to pornographic Web sites daily. According to some estimates, sex addiction affects about 3-5% of Americans, but that number is also considered to be hopelessly low because it is based upon the number of people who seek treatment, not the probable hundreds of thousands of people who never ever look for help. Of course, this is all terribly devastating to the spouse of the sex addict who is almost always completely surprised by the revelation of the addiction and goes through his or her own stages of healing. There is help though, for people who are ready to heal. Patrick Carnes, who spearheaded most of what we know today about defining and treating sexual addiction, has identified 6 stages of recovery for partners of sex addicts.

6 Stages of Recover

Developing/Pre-discovery—This is where the partner of the sex addict has a sense that something is not right, but she can’t quite put a finger on it. Things aren’t adding up, but she isn’t sure why.

Crisis/Decision/Information Gathering—The truth is out now. Phone records or credit card statements or internet histories or other signs have been discovered. There is no denying that there is a real problem here. The partner will respond by trying to micromanage the addict. It won’t work. This is a good time to involve programs like Sexaholics Anonymous.

Shock—A hopelessness can start to set in as the partner realizes that they have been living with a stranger.

Grief/Ambivalence— The partner begins to mourn the old relationship and the lost innocence. This leads to a new honesty and a new willingness to face what is still good and worth saving in the relationship combined with an honest assessment of the work that needs to be done. This can lead the partner to wonder if its worth going on in the relationship.

Repair—Now the partner commits to the work of healing themselves and the relationship. They are learning how to hold their mate accountable without getting sucked into the drama or the con games. The spouse is honestly seeking treatment and working a program. That makes it safe for the couple to begin working on making the marriage healthy.

Growth— A new honesty and authenticity is blooming in the relationship as the couple relates to each other on a level they never have before. There are still a lot of hard conversations ahead, but each talk brings out something new and good to work with. It can be devastating to find that one’s partner is struggling with their sexuality through porn, adultery or other sexual acting out. But there is hope and healing to be found. And it is worth hanging in there.


If you would like more information on working to heal a relationship damaged by sexual addictions, contact your PaxCare Tele-Coach today. Call us to get the support you need in this most difficult situation.

Healing The Broken Covenant: Recovering from Infidelity

By: Gregory Popcak

disputing couple

Infidelity is a fairly common problem.   Various studies show that infidelity affects between 20%-25% of all marriages.   Although presumably less frequent with couples who practice Natural Family Planning, affairs still happen. It can feel like a double failure when one has double burden of putting the pieces back together and the burden of wondering, “Why didn’t what was ‘supposed to happen’ happen for us?”  

What Causes It?

Whether an affair is purely emotional or becomes sexual, it can have a devastating effect on a marriage. Most people think that marital dissatisfaction causes affairs, but not all struggling couples experience infidelity.   Other variables must come into play.   A recent study found that when a spouse is both unhappy in a marriage and exhibits either low self-esteem and/or a tendency to be easily given to feelings of anger and despair, that spouse is at significantly higher risk for having an affair.   Pregnancy also adds to the risk.

Relationship as Self-Medication

The cheating spouse, generally speaking, is someone who is not very good at (a) making needs known in relationship, (b) following-through on advocating for those needs even if they do manage to articulate them, and (c) usually avoids interpersonal conflict.  Such a spouse may say to his or her mate, “I would really like X.”   But if the mate doesn’t immediately jump up and down and say, “Oh, yes!   That sounds like a wonderful idea!” the spouse who made the request will usually give up and assume that the mate doesn’t care to meet his or her needs.  Multiply this interaction by thousands of times over the course of several years, and the spouse who consistently gives up much and too easily begins getting depressed because he or she feels powerless to get any of his or her needs met in the marital relationship.   Over time, the depression and frustration builds and the spouse, who blames his or her mate for being “insensitive” feels almost driven to seek someone else who can make him or her feel better.   The affair, then,   is primarily an attempt to self-medicate for an underlying depression.


When infidelity is discovered, the couple often thinks that simply calling off the extramarital relationship, being generally nicer to each other, and going out on more regular dates will solve all their problems.   But if this is all the couple does to address their issues, the couple runs an extraordinarily high of dooming the marriage either to another affair down the line, or divorce, as the wounded mate’s unresolved and squelched pain festers.  Couples can resolve the problems related to infidelity and go on to have an outstanding relationship.   According to research, upwards of 20% of couples who presently report high levels of marital happiness have at one time in their past weathered infidelity, but it takes real work.   Assuming the extramarital relationship is over, successfully recovering from an affair involves the following steps that usually require the support of a competent therapist to negotiate effectively.

1. Confession

I do, of course, mean the Sacrament of Confession, but I also mean confession to the  wounded spouse. The wounded spouse has a right to all the information about the affair that he or she wishes to have. The wounded spouse should never be put in the position of pulling information out of the cheater. The offending spouse must willingly offer all the details and information the wounded spouse wishes to hear. While forgiveness is absolutely essential to recovery, the wounded spouse cannot forgive what he or she does not know.   Full confession is not only good for the soul, it is essential for reconciliation of the marriage.

2. Rebuilding the Marriage

In this step, the couple must work to create a marriage that is far better than they
have ever experienced before. They will need to spend more time on the marriage than they are used to.   They will need to spend time each evening reviewing what they have done to attend to each other’s spiritual and emotional needs.   They will need to be honest with each other about their needs and learn ways to keep arguments productive.  Returning to the way things were before is not an option because the wounded spouse believed everything was fine then.   If things just go back to the way things were, the wounded spouse will always wonder if what he or she missed the first time is still happening.   In order to overcome the suspicion, the marriage cannot be just like it was.   It must become better than it has ever been.

3. The Offending Spouse Must Address His or Her Personal Problems

This is the hardest step.   The offending spouse, being conflict-avoidant and fearing  vulnerability, just wants to have a superficially happy relationship and leave his or hatred of conflict and difficulties being emotionally vulnerable out of it.   But remember, these are the problems that actually caused the affair in the first place.   If the couple only had marital problems but not these other issues in the offending spouse’s personality, then the couple would simply have worked out their problems directly.   But because the offending spouse didn’t know how to address disappointment and frustrations directly–and still doesn’t–the couple remains at high risk for repeating the cycle in the future, regardless of what the offending spouse might say today.

4. Overcome Irrational Fears, Doubts and Guilt that Remain.

Even after the marriage is better than ever and the offending spouse is more open and  competent at conflict management and vulnerable than ever, lingering doubts may still remain in the wounded spouse and persistent feelings of unworthiness and guilt may afflict the offending spouse.   The couple may need the benefit of cognitive therapy strategies to help them learn how to evaluate and resolve these irrational and undesirable emotional roadblocks to full recovery.

Healing Is Possible

As I mentioned at the outset, making a full recovery from infidelity is certainly possible, but it is never a do-it-yourself project.   Infidelity is marital cancer that requires competent, multi-stage, multi-modal treatment by a marriage-friendly therapist.   Additionally, organizations such as Retrouvaille can offer peer support as an adjunct (though NEVER a replacement) to competent marital counseling.  Regardless of where you turn for help, know that there is healing for your injured heart and troubled marriage.   Faithfully work at the recovery tasks in front of you, and trust that the Lord will guide you to the peace and wholeness that is your right to expect from your marriage.

If your marriage has been wounded by infidelity, don’t wait, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and let us provide the support you need in your struggles. Call us to get the skills you need to succeed in your marriage.

When a Catholic Marriage is in Trouble

By: Gregory Popcak

 man and woman sad

No one gets married with the intention of getting divorced, and as Catholics, we place an even higher premium on staying together than most.  But what happens when things take a turn for the worse?   The Sacrament of Marriage is supposed to be an institution that helps the couple become their best selves–the people God created them to be–and help each other get to Heaven.   But what happens when, rather being an occasion of blessing, the marriage becomes an occasion of sin in which two people can’t be in the same room for more than a minute without things turning ugly?   How can we respond faithfully–and realistically–to the challenges of a troubled Catholic marriage?
Take Stock
Ironically, too many people don’t even recognize they’re having difficulties until their situation has become unbearable, and then all they can think of is getting out.   A couple may feel a growing distance and increased tension and initially excuse it.   “We’ve been busy lately.”   Or, “That’s just what happens with time.”   They think they’re excusing the petty slights, but really, they’re storing them up.   And when the attic becomes too full of those old resentments the house simply collapses under the weight of past pains.  According to marriage researcher, John Gottman, there are four progressive stages of relationship collapse; Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.   The good news is that couples can recover from any of these stages, but the further down the path couples go, the harder it is to turn back.   Recognizing the signs early, and knowing that there is help for each stage, can help couples change their destructive patterns before it feels like it’s too late.
The Criticism Stage
Every husband and wife complain about each other from time to time, but when complaints stop being occasional and situational, and start being habitual and personal, the couple may be falling into Criticism,   the first stage of marital decline. It’s one thing to say, “I’m really upset that you forgot to make dinner reservations (situational complaint).” It’s another thing to say, “You’re so irresponsible ( personal criticism)!”     Similarly, there is a difference between saying, “I’m frustrated that we don’t make love more often.”   And saying, “You don’t have an affectionate bone in your body!”  These comments illustrate the difference between normal complaints and the first sign that there might be trouble on the marital horizon.   Couples who find themselves making a habit out of personal, global criticism need to overcome the habit of rubbing their mate’s nose in his or her shortcomings and work toward solutions instead.   If you are unable to stop being critical despite your best efforts, it’s time to get help.
The Contempt Stage
In the contempt stage, the seeds of criticism have taken root and become a vine that, left unchecked, could choke out the couple’s love and rapport.   In the contempt stage, couples no longer wait for a serious slight before showing their irritation with one another.   They regularly engage in habitual, contemptuous behaviors such as hostile humor (often followed by,   “Lighten up!   I was just joking”), mockery (“sure you did. Riiigggght.”), name-calling, and the regular and frequent appearance of disgusted body language (eye-rolling, heavy-sighing, sneering, smirking).  By this time, the couple almost always needs some kind of structured support (e.g., Retrouvaille, spiritual direction) and probably professional counseling as well, to break the ingrained habits of disgust and frustration.
The Defensive Stage
Having lived in a contemptuous environment for at least a little while, the couple now reacts to every statement as if it was an accusation.

“Ugh! I can never find anything around here!   Where are the keys!?”

                      “How am I supposed to know?   You’re the one who had them last.”

                      “Well, you’re the one who never puts stuff back where it belongs!”

                      “Well, maybe if you picked up after yourself in the first place, you wouldn’t have to start screaming at me every time you couldn’t find something!”

Couples in this stage should seek professional help immediately to learn more effective strategies for problem solving and discover ways overcome the hurts that have led to their defensive hostility.
The Stonewalling Stage
In the final stage of martial decline, spouses barely have the energy to argue anymore.   If one spouse starts to complain, the other just keeps reading, or watching TV, or walks out of the room.   At this stage husbands and wives may spend much of their time thinking about escaping the marriage.  Couples at this stage need to know it’s still not too late to make things work, but professional assistance from a faithful and marriage-friendly therapist must be sought immediately.   Couples may require much more intensive counseling at this stage because by now, the marital problems may also be affecting the husband’s and wife’s mental health.   Moderate depression and anxiety as well as substance abuse issues are not uncommon at this stage. In addition to support and basic communication enhancement strategies, the couple will need the help of a counselor who can help them take control of their negative emotions and overcome the angry thoughts that seem to flood their minds every time they find themselves breathing the same air as their mate.
When to Say When: What are the Facts?
The most important thing for couples to remember is that, with proper guidance and hard work, even marriages that have gone deep into stonewalling territory can become healthy and rewarding.   Even so, there comes a point in every relationship when at least one spouse begins to ask the question, “How do I know if it’s time to end this?”  It used to be that Catholicism was almost unique for its strong discouragement of divorce, but after over thirty years of research on the effects of divorce on the ex-spouses, the children, and society, almost every responsible social scientist agrees with what the Church has been saying all along.   Even a “good divorce” is bad news. (See Elizabeth Marquardt’s groundbreaking book Between Two Worlds for an excellent analysis the effects of even “good divorces” on families and children.)

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church does allow for divorce.   The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2383 states, If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.”   Couples who pursue this option, however, must remember that while civil divorce may revoke certain legal promises a couple makes to each other, family court does not have the power to undo the sacred commitment a couple made to each other to help each other become the people God created them to be and help each other get to heaven.

So while divorce is permissible for Catholics, evaluating its necessity is a multi-layered, complex question that is the source of a great deal of agonizing for the spouse of couple facing it.   How do you know whether to stay or go?
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
The first thing to realize is that this is the wrong question.   Or rather, if the answer isn’t absolutely obvious to you, then you are probably asking a question that is too big to answer with the limited information you have available to you.   That’s why you need to ask a different question, or rather, two different questions.  First you need to ask, “What qualities (i.e. patience, courage, assertiveness, honesty, love, etc.) do I need to develop in order to respond with strength, integrity, and charity, to the way my spouse is behaving?”   Second, “If I were to apply those qualities to the most irritating things my spouse says or does, how would I need to behave differently?”   It goes without saying that these questions should be accompanied by a lot of prayer that God would help you be the man or woman he wants you to be in the face of this challenge.

How can this help?   Once you begin living out the answers to these questions (and if you can’t answer them on your own, please seek a faithful counselor who can help you) then several important changes will occur.   First, you will be able to evaluate the viability of your relationship from a position of personal strength and grace rather than a position of powerless and spiritual dryness.   Second, one of two things will begin to happen in your marriage.   Either your relationship will improve because your spouse will be inspired by your display of greater mindfulness, maturity, and grace (people hate to be shown up by someone with whom they are irritated).   Or, your spouse will act crazier and crazier in an attempt (hopefully futile) to drag you back into the ineffective ways you used to respond so that he or she can maintain dominance.   Either way, the answer to the question of whether you should stay or go will become abundantly clear without you ever having to ask it.   When you respond more prayerfully, thoughtfully, and competently to the day-to-day marital crises you will begin to more effectively cooperate with the graces of marriage.   As a result, God will help you set up a chain of events that will either make you personally stronger and heal your marriage, or make you personally stronger and clarify his will for the future of the relationship once and for all. Either way, you’ll be better off personally and have a clearer sense of God’s plan for your next step.
Don’t Go It Alone
All of this considered, you should never attempt to evaluate the viability of your marriage alone. And no, consulting your golfing buddies or the other soccer moms doesn’t count.   They don’t know any more than you do, and chances are, they’ll just tell you what they think you want to hear.   That’s no basis upon which to make decisions that will permanently affect your life and the lives of those who depend upon you.

Preferably, if you’re struggling the possibility of divorce, you should seek the objective counsel of both a wise spiritual director/pastor and a faithful Catholic counselor (e.g., one who is both clinically competent and trained in Church teaching on marriage and family life).   Why?   Because no matter what, divorce always does violence to the conscience and the spirit.   In order for a spouse to deal effectively with the feelings of guilt and failure that accompany even the most clear-cut case for divorce, a husband or wife needs to be able to look themselves in the mirror and say two things to themselves:   (1) “I did everything that could have objectively and reasonably been done to save this marriage” and     (2)   “I evaluated my options seriously, prayerfully, and with objective, faithful counsel.”     Making this decision alone dooms you to doubt.   Don’t make things harder on yourself than they need to be.
Running the Race.
Ask any marathon runner. The last mile is the hardest.   In fact, many people quit just in sight of the finish line.   But those who push through the pain get to experience the joy of victory.  No matter how bad things seem today, remember that studies show that five years after contemplating divorce, a majority of the couples who stick it out report that their marriages are better than ever.   Run the race. Fight the good fight, and know that God is running alongside of you all the while.

Not every counselor who does marital counseling is a qualified marriage counselor.   More remarkably, many marriage counselors don’t see it as their jobs to save marriages.   They think it’s their job to ease the transition to divorce.   The following are some places you can turn for faithful, marriage-friendly, professional help.  One more suggestion.   If you think you need marriage counseling, don’t  ask  your spouse if he or she  wants  to go.   Nobody  wants  to go to counseling.   Just tell your mate   that you feel that it is necessary and it would mean the world to you if he or she would come with you.   If your mate resists, make the appointment anyway.   A good marriage counselor knows how to do “one-person marriage counseling” and good things can still happen.   Plus, when you’re spouse realizes you’re serious, he or she just might join you to make sure the counselor is getting both sides of the story.

Getting the Help You Need   Provides local referrals for state-licensed therapists who are also faithful to and supportive of Catholic teaching.   Non-Catholic source for local, state-licensed marriage counselors who are pro-marriage.

The Pastoral Solutions Institute:   A national pastoral counseling practice that provides marital, family, and personal counseling services by phone to religiously committed Catholics worldwide. Staff therapists are state-licensed, pro-marriage, trained in Catholic theology.   A professional advisory board is available for consultation on difficult faith, moral, and canon law issues. (Disclosure: the author is executive director of The Pastoral Solutions Institute.)

Does Contraception Foster Love?

By: Christopher West

 all you need is love

We continue a series of reflections on the issue of contraception.   When Pope Paul VI issued this document on July 25, 1968, it fell like a bomb.   Many people wish the issue would just go away.   It hasn’t.   And it won’t.   In fact, it can’t “go away.”   This encyclical takes us to the very foundations of human life (humanae vitae).  In the last article we looked at how contraception has played a key role in the cultural chaos in which we’re now immersed.   Here we’ll look briefly at what seems to be at the heart of the matter —   love.   It all comes down to this:   What is love?   Does the mere exchange of sexual pleasure offer any surety of love?   Our culture is sated with sexual indulgence but remains starved for love.   Perhaps contraception has had something to do with this sad state of affairs.

Passing on the Love of God

It seems what we often call “love,” when submitted to honest examination, amounts to little more than mutual using for pleasure.   In the language of John Paul II, the opposite of love is not hatred.   The opposite of love is using  another person as a means to an end.   I know this is a cliche, but why do so many wives claim “headache” when their husbands want sex?   Might they feel used rather than loved?  The Catholic teaching on sex is an invitation to embrace the love that really corresponds to the deepest desires of the human heart.   That is a demanding love, to be sure.   Should we expect it to be otherwise as followers of Christ?   “Love one another,” Jesus says, “as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12).   This means it’s going to hurt.   It’s going to demand sacrifice.

St. Paul says it plainly: husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25).   Then he concludes this marvelous passage with the most exalted presentation of sexual love in all of human history: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’   This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).  The Church, so often accused of devaluing sex, ascribes to sexual love the highest possible value — it is meant to be a merging of the human and the divine.   Anything less, the Church proposes, is a counterfeit for the love we yearn for at the deepest level of our being.   Sexual love is meant to image the mysterious and eternal “exchange of love” within the Holy Trinity.   In the normal course of events, the mutual exchange of husband and wife leads to a “third” — a new human life conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of life.”

The Poisonous Effects of Contraception

Contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the very life and love of God.   In short, whether they realize this or not, contracepting couples are saying, “We prefer the momentary pleasure of sterlized sex over the opportunity of participating in the eternal love of the Trinity.”   To which I respond …bad choice!   But do you think if couples really knew they were saying this, that they would continue to do so?   “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Most couples simply have no idea what they’re getting themselves into when they sterilize their sexual acts.   So none of this is about assigning culpability.   If I drink a cup of poison — but don’t know it’s poison — I haven’t committed suicide; I’m not culpable for my own death.   But it will still kill me, because whether I think it’s poison or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is poison or not.  Furthermore, if you know it’s poison and I don’t, what would be the loving thing to do if you saw me reaching out to drink it?  The Church is not trying to impose  her morality on us.   Like any loving mother, she is trying to prevent her children from unwittingly ingesting a very dangerous “poison to love.”

Healing Our Withered Loins

By: Christopher West


Recently passed the 40th anniversary of perhaps the most contested papal document in all of history.   On July 25,1968, Pope Paul VI shocked the world with his reaffirmation of the constant teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception in his encyclical Humanae Vitae.  Two generations later, most American Catholics have made their peace with contraception.   If they have even been told the official teaching of their Church — and many have not — most have politely declined it, like they would a serving of liver.   What has this broad embrace of contraception turned our Church into?   Steve Patton, Family Life Director for the Diocese of St. Augustine, offers some penetrating insights in a recent talk, “Why Contraception Matters.”

Contraception & Divorce

Speaking to Catholics who agree with the Church about abortion and divorce, but who don’t about contraception, Patton shows how the three are intertwined.   Bottom line: By our Church’s broad popular participation in the contraceptive revolution we are, despite our pro-life and pro-marriage efforts, also participating unwittingly in the pro-abortion and pro-divorce revolutions.  How does contraception contribute to divorce?   Patton observes that one of the key bonders holding a marriage together is intimate, meaningful sexual union.   As that meaningfulness weakens, so does the “glue” that holds spouses together.   Contraception robs sex of its procreative meaning.   The sex might remain physically pleasurable for the married couple.   But something vital has been taken from their emotional and spiritual bond.

Patton cites in support a recent article from the Journal of Reproductive Medicine.   Noting that women who have been sterilized (a permanent form of contraception) are more likely to complain to their doctors of stress in their sexual lives, the authors conclude that “tubal ligation in some way disrupts the emotional bond between the partners.”  It is a tragic and ironic outcome.   A couple will get sterilized or use contraception, Patton concludes, “because they think it will enhance their emotional bond.   But like drinking salt water to try to quench one’s thirst, engaging in sterilized sex will not quench the human thirst for love.   Not only is the deep need not met, it is worsened.   Our contraceptive culture has left us bloated with sex, and dehydrated for love.   And thereby inclined toward divorce.”

Healing our Withered Loins

There is a similar backfire effect with abortion.   Despite whatever good intentions one might have, contraception, in whatever form it takes, “is a kind of violence done to the human body, and mind you, violence done to very special parts of the human body at the very moment when they are eagerly trying to carry out a very sacred function: to create new human life.”  Once this logic of violence has taken root in the heart of a nation, it creeps onward: “Do you think that our nation’s common pattern of rejecting our fertility might have a spill-over effect in how we treat our surprise pregnancies?   Is it not reasonable that violence regularly done against the life-giving potential of sex could lead toward violence done against life itself?”

Patton summons our contracepting Church to see herself for what she is.   He points out that the Roget’s Thesaurus groups the word “contraception” into the category, “Unproductiveness,” along with dozens of other parched and desolate terms.   He rattles off a number of them, concluding with the kicker, “withered loins.”  He then contrasts this “Church of withered loins” that we have become, with what God calls us to be: “a Church of teeming loins.”   It may be among the most searing and provocative litanies you might ever hear.  This well-researched, entertaining one-hour talk was directed to priests and laity who sincerely don’t understand what the big deal is about contraception.   If you know such a person, please get him or her a copy.   But even if you already see contraception as the important moral and cultural issue that it is, I think you will find this talk enlightening and inspiring.   It was for me.   (Available through One More Soul,

Are Condoms the World’s Cure-All?

By: Christopher West

color condom

The Curt Jester ( recently reported that some students at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, VA have organized a campaign they call Food Not Condoms.   “The name says it all,” according to Brittany Shankle, a student at Mary Washington who is coordinating the campaign.   “Last year International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) dispensed 103.4 million condoms to starving people.   The problem,” Shankle observed, is that “you can’t eat condoms.”  Shankle calculates that the cost of those condoms could have paid for over 200 million meals for the hungry. “We want to raise awareness of the fact that people in Africa, Honduras, and other parts of the world are starving while organizations and governments are shipping millions of dollars worth of condoms every year instead of food or aid.   Food Not Condoms is their wake up call.”

Shankle is correct to challenge the “condoms as a cure-all” mentality.   Condoms — we’re taught to believe — are the great savior of humanity.   Condoms will solve the problem of poverty in South America; they’ll solve the problem of AIDS in Africa; and they’ll solve the problem of unwanted pregnancies in the good ol’ USA.   When this is the reigning mentality, the Catholic Church is then accused of promoting poverty, AIDS, and abortions because of her refusal to endorse condoms.  But why does the world suffer from poverty, AIDS, and so-called “unwanted” pregnancies?   Obviously, the causes are multiple and complex.   But if we take a look at the common denominator in all these problems, it becomes very clear why condoms are not the true solution.   In fact, it is not difficult to demonstrate that condoms actually foster these problems.

The Undeniable Link between Contraception and Other Sex Issues

The number one profile of people in poverty across the globe is single women with children.   What does this tell us?   In most cases, some man came, had his selfish pleasure, and left.   In other words, while there are many factors that cause and contribute to poverty, the leading cause across the globe is failure to respect the seriousness of sex and its consequences.   Do condoms help this problem or foster it?  There are several ways of acquiring AIDS, but what is the number one cause of this disease?   Sexual promiscuity.   This is not a judgement laden statement, just the observation of a politically inconvenient fact.   Those who save sex for marriage and are faithful within marriage are not at risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases.   If sexual promiscuity is the number one cause of AIDS, will condoms help this problem or foster it?

And why do we have “unwanted” pregnancies?   Generally speaking, it’s because people are under the grand illusion that they can have sex and avoid the consequences.   Will condoms help this problem or foster it?  In the final analysis, there is one reason we have abortion — because men and women are having sex without being open to life.   Those who understand this can see that trying to solve the abortion problem by getting more contraception out there is like throwing gasoline on a fire to try to put it out.  Even the US Supreme Court recognizes the inherent connection between contraception and abortion.   As it stated in the 1993 case Planned Parenthood versus Casey: “In some critical respects abortion is of the same character as the decision to use contraception….   For two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.”

Alternative Solutions

Perhaps an analogy might help.   If the problem is that people are pounding each other’s toes with sledge hammers, you can give them steel-toe shoes, or you can help them to respect their feet and find a better use for sledge hammers.   What’s the real solution?   If you choose the former, shoe companies will love you for it.   If you choose the later, there’s a lot of educational work to be done, and John Paul II “theology of the body” would be a great place to start.