By: Gregory Popcak
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?
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
CatholicTherapists.com: Provides local referrals for state-licensed therapists who are also faithful to and supportive of Catholic teaching.
MarriageFriendlyTherapists.com: 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.)