What every marriage needs

IN JULY OF 1999, A CROWD OF MARRIAGE-IMPROVEMENT GURUS will make a pilgrimage to the University of Notre Dame to celebrate 50 years of the big grandparent group of them all—the Christian Family Movement. Publisher Sheed & Ward will help mark the occasion by printing a history of this modern movement heard round the world, a revolution of a different sort that got its start on American soil.

handsThe CFM Grandmother, Patty Crowley, still holds forth in her Chicago high-rise home on the shores of Lake Michigan. She and her late husband, Pat, were co-founders of CFM.

Though she prefaces any comments about good marriages with the disclaimer that she's been a widow for years, she's quick to respond when asked to name a crucial ingredient for a strong marriage.

"Common interests," Crowley says. "If spouses are interested in many of the same things, they do things together. And when spouses do many things together, they grow together."

It wasn't always so in Catholic groups. In fact, in the beginnings of CFM, Crowley says, the men and women were separated, like the Knights of Columbus and the Daughters of Isabella. Only later did the wisdom surface that marriages might benefit by spouses actually working on projects together.

But what other wisdom has 50 years wrought?

Well, the fact that there are no guarantees, for one thing. Crowley says one of her children is going through a divorce right now, and there's no way to reverse it or take away the pain. Successful marriage is not necessarily hereditary, and decades of marriage-enrichment groups may have collected insights, understanding, and experiencebut not how-to manuals.

Second, people need to know early on that marriage requires work. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn puts it well: "We promise to work to stay together not because we think things between us will never change, but because we know they will."

As the numbers and different styles of marriage-enrichment groups increased, different flavors and emphases emerged: CFM, Cana, Pre-Cana, Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille, Rainbows for All God's Children, and other such groups brought together like-minded people to try to improve, save, resurrect, or recover from a marriage.

The common wisdom is that half of all marriages these days fail, both in and out of the church. One can ask why those that do make it succeed. What lessons have the marriage gurus learned that can be passed on to those just beginning a marriage, or perhaps to those just about to end one? After all, the church at every level (parish, diocese, national, worldwide) has given serious attention and applied serious resources to help couples succeed. Clergy, family-life ministers, and guidance counselors have struggled with struggling couples; and they do have some telling reflections, if not answers.

Invested interests
Kay and Gary Aitchison, of Ames, Iowa, are the current executive directors of the Christian Family Movement. Not surprisingly they second Patty Crowley's plea for common interests in a marriage, and Kay Aitchison says couples also have to nail down those interests on the family calendar. A marriage simply won't make it in a couple's spare time; and shared activities with just the spousesare the lifeblood of marriage growth. Also not surprisingly, the Aitchisons make a strong case for the need for a spiritual base for a Christian marriage, not just church but shared prayer at home.

Quite often, say the Aitchisons, couples' involvement in the Christian Family Movement or similar enrichment groups works in quiet and indirect ways. The small-group dynamics of workshops or parish programs can show a couple how other couples communicate, build a spiritual base, and help create shared goals and values. It's caught, as much as taught. As new couples grow in their shared values, they inevitably start to reach out to others, to share their joy and their love. And the circle just gets bigger.

Kay Aitchison also makes the point that groups such as CFM provide a comfortable and safe place for couples in interfaith marriages.

"The small group is much more inviting to the non-Catholic spouse than the larger community. We find that CFM involvement helps interfaith (or interchurch) couples feel more comfortable with the church. It provides a lot of catechesis. In many cases the non-Catholic spouse ends up joining the church."

But it takes time for that sort of small-group comfort to kick in, according to Han and Megan Huang of Evanston, Illinois.

They completed a one-day Pre-Cana session last fall before their wedding. Despite an overall positive reaction to the content of the mandatory pre-wedding training, they said there really wasn't much interaction with the other couples. And Han, who is not Catholic, said they left the topic of interfaith marriage until late in the day when everyone was pretty tired. They have not continued with any sort of group involvement since the wedding.

Group dynamics
Marilyn Zieserl, of Wilmette, Illinois, talked over a chorus of grandchildren when I asked her about all of this. ("No this isn't Zieserls. This is Jeremy!" said the preschool voice answering the phone.)

"Yes, CFM helped us a lot in the '60s, early in our marriage. It not only helped us hook up with an established community of good people, but led us into areas of communication we otherwise might have avoided or overlooked. They didn't spoon-feed us pat answers but led us to ask important questions of ourselves.

"It also gave us an appreciation of the spiritual element in our marriage as crucial for development.

"We also saw others go through what we were going through or would face someday," says Zieserl. "Any marriage of some years has learned the painful interplay of growth and suffering in a familykids, crises, sickness, deaththat both test and temper a married relationship.

"Dedicated spouses support each other through the turmoil and survive as stronger people, stronger partners, a stronger couple. That which does not kill us makes us stronger!"

A quiet but consistent lesson begins to emerge: couples who want to strengthen their marriages will take pains to seek out groups of couples who have been there, done that, and grown through the experience.

If that is so, why aren't newly married couples knocking down church doors to get into such groups?

A bunch of reasons. Father Thomas Lynch, a Stratford, Connecticut pastor and former representative for family life of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, sets up an intriguing interplay of marriage growth.

Couples, he says, begin as housemates, grow into heart-mates by sharing with each other their deepest emotions, and a very few "take the journey to become soulmates." At the spiritual level the average couple remains in a constant state of need and looks for their spouse to fill these needs.

"They do not know who their God is nor how to relate to him in ways that are life-giving for themselves and their relationship." Lynch says most couples settle "somewhere between the state of being housemates and heartmates as their only option of living together." For couples to make the leap needed to become soulmates, they simply have to surrender to the need for Jesus Christ to become real enough to them for his love to make all the difference.

Most marital problems are rooted in past hurts and within their family-of-origin story, says Lynch, "and only the power and love of Jesus Christ can heal those hurts and wounds." When couples have a distorted vision of what a marriage can be, parishes can help couples "frame a new vision and develop maps and strategies to realize this vision."

But Mary Jo Pedersen, of the Omaha, Nebraska Family Life Office, questions whether any sort of vision can enrich some marriages. She claims that anyone who has done marriage preparation knows some marriages are doomed from the start: "running away from your family of origin, rebounding from another relationship, or 'saving' your mate, etc. etc. etc.

"If you enter marriage for the wrong reason or with the wrong person there's not a chance in you-know-where that the marriage will ever be strong, no matter what you do by way of enrichment."

Pedersen says couples need to start with the right attitude, a mutual promise "to take at least as good care of this marriage relationship as we take of our cars." She tells of a couple who went through two job changes in one year, serious illness, a move across the country, the death of one spouse's brother, and a period of unemployment.

"Now that's a marriage that's been rode hard and put up wet!" But couples cannot assume that they can weather such storms automatically. "There's nothing automatic about growth in marriage," says Pedersen, and couples have to work at it and seek out enrichment opportunities.

You're the one
Sometimes the very determination to "become one" gets in the way, according to some family-life gurus. Poet Khalil Gibran, in The Prophet, directs married people to maintain "spaces in your togetherness" (anyone who has not heard this at a dozen weddings, please raise your hand), but too few folks quote the next line: "And let the winds of heaven dance between you."

Don Paglia, of the Family Life Office of Hamden, Connecticut, says, "After 20-plus years in the helping business I have stopped trying to get couples to focus on 'good communication.'"

Paglia says skills and technique will never do the job. Instead he urges each person in the relationship to work on the self, to become less reactive and more mature.

"I get each to look at how they became chronically anxious long before they met and married each other, and that pointing the finger at the other to change or blaming the other for how they make you feel is the wrong focus."

There's no quick fix, but Paglia says each partner has to "calm down and get off of the intensity of the marital relationship. The way to calm down is for each one to go back to his/her family of origin and study their family and see how each learned to get caught into the emotional triangle of his/her parents, and how the multigenerational emotional process stuff got caught or transmitted."

Instead of togetherness, these troubled couples are practicing "stuck-togetherness," says Paglia, and they "are either stealing some self from the other or they are overriding the self of the other."

The result is two incomplete selves trying to form a whole marriage. The long-range solution is to work on one's own "emotional reactivity" and work on one's own wounds by making one's family of origin "a personal research project."

Paglia urges parishes not to try to solve problems that don't exist. He says that traditional marriage preparation doesn't work well. "Until there is a crisis, we end up chasing the couple." People have to feel the pain a while to want to reach out for help, and helpers are better off waiting for the call. Paglia says it's an occupational hazard for marriage counselors to want to step in too soon.

Paglia also urges parishes to embrace a family spirituality and stop pushing a monastic one that makes most family people "feel less." People need to hear they "are already sacred and holy people not because of anything that they do, such as go to church, say prayers, or help out at the parish, but because they are living, breathing images of God in our midst." People need to come to church not to find God, but to celebrate the God they've found at home.

Sister Kay Ryan, C.S.J., director of the Family Life Office of Albany, New York and current president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers, says spouses also need to be willing to take responsibility for themselves while being there for the other. She offers four hints for couples to use daily in the home:

(1) Pray for each other daily, "for the grace to respect, honor, and love your spouse."

(2) Make your commitment to each other basic or foundational for all other decisions in the marriage.

(3) Realize that you can't be responsible for the happiness of your spouse, or vice versa.

(4) Take time to celebrate your commitment to each other, "in any way you can dream up."

Ryan suggests parishes find ways to partner with married couples, to avoid driving a wedge in marriage commitments versus parish commitments. Don't force couples to choose.

Just between us
Some marriage-improvement gurus are not big fans of the "two- or three-step approach to a better anything." David Thomas plies his trade as graduate professor of family ministry at Regis University in Denver. He and his wife, Karen, have five "more or less" grown children, two adopted 5-year-olds and a through-the-years roster of about 70 foster children.

Thomas avoids the tactical view of marriage enrichment that reduces reality to "doing things." He likes what Garrison Keillor said in an essay a few years ago.

Keillor says that between each husband and wife there lies a secret. This secret keeps them together between thick and thin. Neither would be able to describe the exact content of the secret, but each would give their lives to preserve it.

Thomas says that, as a theologian, he thinks the secret is that both are loved by God and that God takes pleasure their marriage. He also says that fear or faith tend to keep relationships together; and strong marriages are based on faith, a faith which gives great meaning to all the acts of love which build that strong marriage.

"It's something interior and probably a little different for every person. I would say it is a conviction that the marriage is important, almost on a cosmic scale, and that this faith creates enough satisfying moments to keep [people] together, whatever the costs."

Despite his distaste for paint-by-the- numbers problem solving, Thomas does have some telling reflections for couples with "problems." He says that communication as such isn't often the problem, but "misunderstandings" are.

"The marital relationship places us in a very vulnerable position vis--vis each other. We communicate in shorthand, in simple looks and gestures, in partial sentences and shortened paragraphs." It doesn't always work well.

To nip the problems in the bud, it's time for double-checks of what's going back and forth: "Here's what I thought I said, and here's what I meant." "What did you mean when you said...?"

Sometimes the problems are not part of the relationship at all.

"Both men and women can enter hard times when their bodies, minds, emotions, or spirits (or all together) can change. Many of these conditions are driven by anxieties which are not easily overcome," says Thomas. And it's a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek outside assistance, "if only to learn what's happening."

Thomas also joins the family-of-origin refrain when he says we "repeat in a thousand ways the marriages of our parentsunless we intentionally do otherwise." Take what was good and get rid of the rest.

And here is where marriage-enrichment groups can shine, but not for the reasons sometimes given.

"I don't think we learn much of personal value from others, but we can learn wonderful things about our wife or husband in these gatherings." At the parish level such gatherings can encourage couples, says Thomas, along with similar encouragement from the pulpit.

"Most marriages are a lot of work, and it's always good to be reminded that God notices and approves."

Kevin H. Axe is a writer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. This article appeared in the May 1998 (Volume 63, Number 5) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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