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‘Til Death Do Us Part’ Is It Possible Today?
By Jim and Susan Vogt

Some of the most important insights we’ve learned about marriage have come from those who have been through divorce.What can those who have divorced know about building a lasting marriage? Sometimes the most hard-earned knowledge can be the most insightful.

For many years, in addition to leading marriage preparation and enrichment programs, we were responsible for divorce ministry in two dioceses. It’s a humbling experience to listen to the painful experiences of men and women who expected to have a lasting marriage yet saw their hopes and lives crumble. Following are some lessons we learned from them and from reflecting on our own marriage.

The three most important things to keep a marriage healthy are commitment, commitment and commitment.With the divorce rate hovering around 50%, it may seem that commitment is out of style. Has human nature changed that much? Well, human nature may not have changed, but the culture we live in has. No longer is there as strong a cultural support for lifelong marriage.We live in a throwaway society; if something breaks, our first impulse is to get a new one rather than fix the old.

Our society also has more temptations than previous generations.With men and women working as colleagues, spouses spend a lot of time in the company of people of the opposite sex who share common interests and are on their best behavior. (Workplace morals may not always be high, but at least colleagues don’t have spit-up on their clothes or wear raggedy t-shirts.) Your spouse may have been alluring and exciting during courtship, but someone who shares your life’s work can be a strong temptation. This reality contributes to making commitment harder than it used to be.

Now there is an expectation that couples will communicate on a deep level, share their hopes and dreams, be life partners and best friends. This is a tall order, but worthy of the Sacrament of Matrimony—it just takes more effort and intentionality.

So how does a couple sustain commitment amidst higher expectations for marriage? With skill and grace. Determination to stay together needs to be accompanied by the skills of commitment—the primary skill being communication. If a couple is not willing to learn the basic skills of speaking honestly, speaking for self, listening, sharing feelings appropriately and resolving conflict, their commitment is hollow.

Another quality that supports commitment is having common values. A couple doesn’t always need to agree on which restaurant to go to, but if one values a simple lifestyle and the other wants to accumulate wealth, there will be constant tension. If faith and morals are important to one and not to the other, most important decisions will be reasons to argue.

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Church wisdom

So what does the Church say about marriage that offers more than the conventional wisdom of commit, communicate and seek someone with common values? The Church says, of course, what Jesus said: “Love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). The bottom line is that couples must love each other with their whole mind, heart and soul. God promises to be with them in this holy love. The Church also realizes, however, how easy it is to say “I love you” and how hard it is to live those words. The wedding vows take a lifetime to live out. Let’s try to unpack the grace behind the vows.

ExclusivityI, ______, take you, ______, to be my (wife/husband). It’s significant that the bride and groom’s names are used. It indicates that this is an exclusive commitment between this man and this woman.

FidelityI promise to be true to you…. Fidelity often gets translated as sexual fidelity—neither of us will commit adultery. In healthy marriages, however, fidelity extends to all the daily ways couples “affair-proof” their marriage. There can be many “mistresses” in a marriage that don’t always take human form.Work, a hobby, the children, even volunteer activities can cut into romance time and the attention a couple needs to devote to each other.

Unconditional lovein good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. To love unconditionally is a promise for the future. It has more to do with the decision to love than merely the feeling of love. Can I love you when your body has lost its vigor and beauty? Can I love you through annoying habits and when you hurt me? Not knowing what changes the future will bring, can I love you if you become old, ugly, fat or senile? That’s a lot to say a blind yes to.

CovenantI will love you and honor you... A covenant is a promise that goes deeper than a contract. Contracts are legal documents that spell out rights and duties. Contracts can be broken if one party doesn’t hold up their end. A covenant, on the other hand, goes beyond a 50/50 agreement. Sometimes one spouse will need to bend 75% while the other only gives 25%. It’s not always fair, but it’s a promise that doesn’t count the cost.

Permanenceall the days of my life. Traditionally, permanence is understood as not getting divorced. Yet, that sells it short, for divorce happens way before papers are served. A commitment to permanence means daily attentiveness to the relationship. It might mean a nightly walk, not just for exercise but to keep communication flowing. It’s preventive maintenance.

PrayerAmen. “Amen” is a short prayer, but it’s the couple’s way of saying yes to each other and to God. Their wedding celebration shouldn’t be the last time they invite God into their marriage.

Jim and Susan Vogt have four adult children and live in Covington, Kentucky. Jim directs the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative. Susan speaks and writes on marriage, parenting and spirituality and is content editor of the U.S. Bishops’ website: www.foryourmarriage.org.

Making Connections

What insights have you gained from a difficult or failed relationship?

How are you most challenged to live the love you feel for another? What does the statement “Love is a decision” mean to you?

Have you truly invited God into your love relationships? What difference does/might this make?

Rate your communication abilities. Commit to one action to improve communication with a loved one.

 
Movie Moments
Two for the Road
By Frank Frost

The opening scene of the 1967 cinema classic,Two for the Road, sets up marriage as an odyssey—for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. Apparently rich at this point, Mark (Albert Finney) and Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) find their way temporarily blocked as a wedding flows out of a church onto the narrow street of a European town. Joanna observes of the newlyweds, “They don’t look very happy.”Mark rejoins, “Why should they? They just got married.”

Two for the Road exploits the road metaphor to examine Mark and Joanna’s marriage by deftly intercutting four road trips at different times in their lives and relationship. One trip traces their first meeting as free and adventurous vagabonds who fall in love. Another follows them after they are first married, a third after they have a child, and the fourth—in “present time”—is when each faces the decision to stick with the marriage or abandon it.

Revisiting the same places on their road trips allows for clear contrasts in their economic status and happiness with one another. Early on, when the young couple, fresh in love, head up the stairs in a romantic hotel, they look back down into the dining room where they see an older couple sitting silently across the table from one another. “What kind of people just sit like that without a word to say to each other?” Mark asks. “Married people?” Joanna replies. This scene recurs in different settings and becomes a mirror held up to their own behavior—behavior which will include not only emotional distance, but also infidelity and conflicts over money, work and childcare.At one point Mark vows, “We’re not going on like this for the rest of our lives.” But at movie’s end, it appears that commitment does count.

Next time you watch Two for the Road, ASK YOURSELF:

How do Joanna and Mark’s expectations change over time? What keeps them together?

An enduring union is the sum of many individual decisions. What decisions affect the course of Joanna and Mark’s marriage?

Which scenes resonate most with your experience?

 
Putting Shoes on the Gospel
Dick and Mary McConn
By Judy Ball

This is a story with a happy ending because Dick and Mary McConn of Cincinnati, Ohio, were determined to make it turn out that way.

It all started two decades ago, when they had been married for 28 years. At that point, both had their respective roles, and both took them seriously. He was the breadwinner; she focused on raising their four children. On the surface, everything was working. But at another level, theirs was an arrangement that allowed them to avoid one another and go separate ways.

After reading an article in St. Anthony Messenger about Retrouvaille (retro-VIE), a Church ministry for couples in severely troubled marriages, Dick and Mary faced the truth they had long avoided: Their marriage desperately needed help.

Within a short time, they arranged to join other couples for a Retrouvaille weekend. They committed themselves to the follow-up sessions as well. Retrouvaille, named for the French word meaning “rediscovery,” is designed by professionals, couples and priests.

Recalling that first weekend, Mary told Every Day Catholic: “I felt like a steel wall had been cracked open. I got to know Dick in a way that had been missing for a long time.” Dick chimed in, “Until that weekend I had never really shared my feelings. I wasn’t even sure what they were.”

Like many Retrouvaille couples, Dick and Mary experienced an early high until they got down to the serious work of rebuilding their relationship. “Marriages don’t break down or heal in a weekend,” Mary explained. Over time, at the follow-up sessions, she let go of her initial desire to change Dick, while he worked on his lack of trust.

Now, both retired—he from the insurance business, she from the social service field—the McConns serve as a “presenting couple” for Retrouvaille retreat weekends. It’s a peer ministry that allows them to help other couples who need to address their at-risk marriages; working alongside them is a priest. In the follow-up sessions, Dick and Mary address such issues as forgiveness, humility, communication and listening. (They also serve as Cincinnati area coordinators.)

“Retrouvaille works only if the participating couple is open to the process,” said Dick. “The man and the woman both have to work on the marriage.” Meanwhile, the presenting couple simply invites them to tackle the concrete issues confronting that relationship. If needed, “we encourage them at the end of the weekend to go to or continue to see a counselor,” Mary said.

Retrouvaille offers a path to recovery, Dick and Mary agree. “Frankly,” said Dick, “I think it’s the only thing on the horizon that has the success that it does.” A recent survey the McConns conducted of 1,000 couples who have gone through the program revealed that 73% are still together. Even some couples who reported being separated or divorced “said they would still recommend Retrouvaille,” Dick added.

In just a few years, Dick and Mary McConn will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with their children and grandchildren. Some happy ending.

 
Passing on the Faith
Starting Again
By Jeanne Hunt

Scenario

Grace and John are finally married. After a painful divorce and a long annulment process, John was free to marry Grace. They were “meant for each other,” and the promise of a long and sacred marriage lies before them. But there are scars from John’s first marriage that both of them carry: John’s three sons need him and struggle with Grace’s presence in their lives, the divorce settlement left John financially burdened, and Grace is “haunted” by the presence of John’s first wife in their home. How can these scars be healed to allow John and Grace to unite in a healthy marriage—for themselves and the children?

A response

The days of Ozzie and Harriet and the Cleavers have been replaced by remarried and blended families. It can take a player’s list to figure out who is who. These complex relationships require extra care. We cannot assume that a marriage will prosper without real work. It is vital that a couple starting a second marriage begin their journey by dealing with what went wrong the first time.

I received some advice from couples who are in second marriages:

“Put your partner’s needs before your own.” Love prospers when the happiness and wellness of another means as much as one’s own. Marriages endure when they are formed in mutual care, respect, awareness and the intention to act in love.

“At all costs, keep talking.” No matter how tough the conversation, honesty will bring resolution and reconciliation. This communication must be grounded in a desire to forgive and be forgiven. A good marriage teaches us that failure is human and forgiveness comes in love.

“Be patient and begin again.” Every day is a chance to start fresh. Nothing is set in stone, and a couple can have a fresh start whenever they need it. It takes a long time to create a good relationship. A loving relationship is a work in progress, and we simply cannot presume the masterpiece is complete until “death do us part.”

“Accept things that you can’t change.” Second marriages and blended families require adapting to many factors that are beyond one’s control. Being flexible and looking for solutions outside of the norm can offer peace in trying situations, especially when dealing with the stresses of children and extended family.

 
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