Helping troubled marriages; making good marriages stronger
With Pope Francis and the recent Synod of Bishops attempting to place marriage and the family at the heart of evangelization, it is an excellent time to consider the ways in which we can strengthen and protect our marriages against the stresses, misunderstandings and conflicts that tend to break them apart. The focus of this particular discussion is a remarkable new book from Sophia Institute Press by Dr. Gregory K. Popcak, entitled When Divorce Is Not an Option and subtitled “How to heal your marriage and nurture lasting love”.
Before we get to Dr Popcak’s extraordinarily useful book, however, I would like to emphasize a critical point which even many good Catholic couples do not understand properly. There is a very common idea among Catholics that separation and divorce are fine as long as the divorced man and woman do not enter into second marriages without their first marriage being declared null by the Church. This is a very dangerous mistake which arises from focusing too much on the supernatural aspect of a sacramental marriage.
A Natural Foundation
We must always remember that the Sacrament of Matrimony is designed to perfect, not supplant, natural marriage—the life-long exclusive commitment of a man and a woman for the purposes of mutual support and the raising of a family. What Matrimony does is provide the grace necessary to perfect this natural institution, drawing a marriage firmly into relationship with God, providing additional strength and wisdom to the couple, and enabling marriage to take on that mutually sacrificial aspect which makes it a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church.
What is sometimes missed is that, in the foundational nature of marriage, permanent separation of spouses is already a grave evil which can be undertaken without sin only when there is significant physical, psychological or moral danger to spouse or children. In days gone by (and still, I believe, in law), Church tribunals were expected to issue a “go home” decree to any spouse who, without sufficient justification, had moved out of the family home into a separate domicile. Divorce is a further step down this same road, which is in itself seriously sinful except in similar circumstances, and which always gives scandal. In addition, separation and divorce are without exception damaging to children. This is one more reason they are sinful actions except in particularly hard cases.
Separation and civil divorce are also moral if a marriage is declared null, if it cannot be made valid, and if there are no children. What the Church binds on earth is bound in heaven (even if the grounds for the decision are faulty). But the common tribunal practice now, at least in the United States, is to expect that a couple will be both separated and divorced before the Church will examine their case. While understandable in terms of case load (in the modern world, tribunals simply cannot be the first source of marriage counseling), this is in some ways an inversion of what we would expect. It further erodes our grasp of the moral obligations of marriage under the natural law.
By the time a case comes before a tribunal, then, we are usually dealing not with couples whose doubts about validity have preceded the total deterioration of their marital relationships, but rather with couples who have already decided not to fulfill their marriage vows, and are looking for a way to nullify those vows so that they can marry again. I repeat that this situation is understandable, but it is also unhealthy, since a breakdown in a relationship is not, in itself, a sign of nullity.
In any case, once the breakdown of a marriage reaches a psychological state of no return, it will usually be impossible for the couple to rebuild their relationship even if the tribunal should uphold the validity of their bond. In many cases, in fact, they have already moved on to new relationships. Even if we back up chronologically to a point at which a couple has not yet separated, the relationship problems may have already become so severe that the couple will need outside spiritual and professional help if they are to reverse the trend.
But when we back up still further to the point at which a couple is beginning to realize that their union is experiencing damaging stresses, we find the territory in which the message of Dr. Gregory Popcak can work its magic. In fact, I strongly recommend that all young couples study When Divorce Is not an Option together, even before significant problems set in.
Dr. Popcak is the Founder and Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems. He is an experienced marriage counselor who directs a group of pastoral tele-counselors providing pastoral psychotherapy services to Catholic couples, individuals and families. As such, Popcak understands the natural habits and virtues which must be formed—and can be formed under the influence of grace—to make marriages strong.
The purpose of When Divorce is Not an Option is to help couples develop eight marriage-friendly habits which can enable them to resolve relationship difficulties in ways that ultimately make their marriages stronger. Before explaining these habits, he discusses the reasons marriages fail and the ways in which different personality types typically respond to stress. It is these typical responses which create the unproductive habits which need to be changed.
The eight marriage-friendly habits include (1) Rituals of Connection; (2) Emotional Rapport and Benevolence; (3) Self-regulation; (4) A Positive Intention Frame; (5) Caretaking in Conflict; (6) Mutual Respect, Accountability, and Boundaries; (7) Reviewing and learning from mistakes; and (8) Getting good support. Their names give some idea of the relationship area in which each habit operates.
While I do not have the space to detail these habits here, it is worth noting that one spouse can begin developing them without the participation of the other spouse, if necessary, creating a distinct possibility that practicing them will alter the other spouse’s perception of the marriage and eventually get him or her on board. So there is great hope offered here for marriages that are already significantly strained.
The book offers a chapter on each habit, including little tests the reader can take to get an idea about whether he or she needs work in developing particular habits, and practical guidance on how the habits can be used to change the negative response patterns of both spouses. Dr. Popcak also supplies an appendix containing a number of exercises which can help both spouses to understand their deficiencies and see how they and their marriage can benefit from further progress in each habit.
Finally, the book concludes with an epilogue entitled “Marriage and the Cross: ‘It is consummated.’” This, of course, highlights the sacrificial nature of marriage which is so central to the New Covenant. It brings us back to its sacramental quality, from which we derive the grace to transform not only ourselves but our marriage and family life.
Dr. Popcak’s eight habits are usually acquired eventually in long and successful marriages, but they are seldom completely present at the beginning. Successful couples learn them by experience, reflection, sensitivity to each other’s needs, and of course spiritual growth. But the difference between success and failure will often depend on getting help in identifying and cultivating these habits sooner rather than later. When Divorce Is Not an Option can provide that help.
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