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Marriage and discernment

December 27, 2009

By Sister Michelle

We’ve just celebrated Christmas and today, Holy Family Sunday. I feel so blessed to have the brother and sisters and parents that I have. Here is my favorite picture of my parents (and their dogs).

Yet, how often families are not happy. I know from my work just how common it is for families to be the place where children are abused and/or where spouses destroy each other in their attempts to gain the love they need.

It surprised and pleased me when couples I had worked with began referring other couples to me for their marital problems.   I had been afraid to admit I was excited about doing couples counseling much less advertise myself as a couples counselor.  I expect and have often heard that those who have not been married cannot truly understand the problems of those who are.  Now it is one of my strongest specialties.  My training in family therapy had shown me that difficulties between the parents are most often what prevents the solution of many child-focused problems that bring people to counseling.  It seemed to me that working with the couple directly was going to have benefits for the couple, their children and society as a whole.

In Catholic theology of marriage we believe that “what God has joined together” cannot be torn asunder.  Yet we have all heard that approximately 50% of marriages in the US end in divorce!  The figure is higher for second or third marriages, a bit less for first marriages- it is NOT better among Catholics!

Researchers in recent decades have found some very relevant information for us! (John Gottman and others)    Did you know that they can do a two day assessment of couples in their first year of marriage and predict, with 96% reliability which couples will divorce! AND they can predict whether the divorce will be within the first 7 years or later around 20+ years!  So here is the gist of their findings.

“The four horsemen” (as in the apocalypse!) that predict divorce:

  1. Criticism (spouse criticizes spouse with clear attack on the intentions or character of the other e.g. “you are so lazy, you never pick up after yourself”) (a “Complaint” is when the concern is presented kindly and focuses on the issue not the person- “Honey, do you mind being more careful when you carry the cup into the living room?”  can actually benefit a marriage)
  2. Defensiveness (either insisting on one’s own rightness/innocence or counter attacking)
  3. Contempt (from overt disgust and disrespect to eye rolling)
  4. Stonewalling (refusal to engage with the other, shutting him/her out)

The frequency and intensity of these kinds of interactions predicts the earliness or lateness of the divorce (conflict-avoiders who are in these patterns may make it over 20 years).

Think about this!  Within the first year of marriage, 50% of couples are found to have these harsh and unloving behaviors, even when they are being observed!  What does that say about their decision to marry?  Were they already accustomed to behaving or being treated this way before they began dating?

Some of those researchers and many of us in the mental health fields are trying to help these couples after they have married.  Often there are already children being caught in the crossfire who’s affection and discipline is being distorted by the disagreements the parents can’t resolve.  Luckily the ‘four horsemen’ are not actually or at least necessarily the result of bad character: they frequently emerge when there is insecurity about whether one’s partner is “really there for me” or “is with me” or “on my side”.  The defensive reactions we have to these kind of fears can make us lash out in anger or shut down our feelings for our partner.

Many times the insecurity partners feel is legitimate; they entered so quickly into all the levels of intimacy that they did not have time to build real trust.  They did not get to know their partner’s values, dreams, character or patterns of relating to others.  They don’t even know whether the dreams and values their partner espouses are matched by the ability to live them out.   They give their hearts (and frequently bodies) to someone they barely know. Then the fears emerge and so does the bad behavior fear generates.

I wish that more people considering marriage would look at the process of dating and the development of a relationship and the decision to marry as a “Discernment” that takes time and thoughtfulness and prayer to be successful.  (let me know in your responses if you are interested in my guidelines and principles for successful dating)

I am grateful that in Religious life we are required to take time and move step-by-step to each level of commitment. I remember several of my companions at early levels of our Incorporation process (often called Initial Formation)  were “certain” that God was calling them to this vocation. (I was NOT certain at all and I envied them)  Yet none of those ‘certain’ women is still in Religious Life (almost all left of their own volition and most are happily single or married).

Human “certainty” is a feeling; feelings need discernment and testing in the real world to help us find God’s true calling.

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