How Catholics can have a happy marriage

Having blogged earlier about that eloquent defence of a dedicated single life, Single for a Greater Purpose, by Luanne D. Zurlo (Sophia Institute Press), it only seems fair to now draw attention to a wise and insightful book on marriage: Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples, by Richard P. Fitzgibbons M.D. (Ignatius Press).

After all, though Zurlo is right to suggest that recognising that God wants certain people to remain single, yet in the world, and to regard this as their vocation within the Christian community, the fact is that most Catholics do marry. Given that statistics generally show Catholic marriages today to be as vulnerable to difficulties as secular marriages, Fitzgibbons’ book – he has written about the psychological conflicts in marriages and families for forty years – is very necessary.

At the start of his book he defines the nature of marriage, distinguishing between the “traditional Judeo-Christian view” and the “newer, now more prevalent “soul-mate” model.” We all know what this latter model means, as our culture promotes it to the exclusion of every other consideration. The author describes it as when “the primary obligation of marriage is not to care for one’s family well but to achieve self-fulfilment through an emotionally satisfying relationship with a partner.” 

In contrast, the unchanging Judeo-Christian – i.e. the religious – understanding of marriage is that it is “a sacred, lifelong union of husband and wife with the common aim of deepening their mutual love, raising children, and helping each other to attain eternal life in God.” How many young Catholics today know this or are taught it in school?

The remainder of the book provides sound psychological and spiritual advice to Catholic couples, who enter marriage with the grace of the Sacrament to help them, but who are also flawed human beings bringing their childhood wounds and attendant emotional baggage to their union.

Using real-life examples and situations from his medical experience, Fitzgibbons gives sound advice on dealing with anger, how to learn to forgive and – particularly useful for single people planning to marry – a chapter titled “Generosity conquers Selfishness”. He cites a study showing that generosity “as defined by small acts of kindness, displays of respect and affection, and a willingness to forgive faults and failings” is a constant ingredient of happy marriages.

Another chapter emphasises the practice of gratitude, as well as remembering that “spousal love cannot fully heal deep insecurities.” This realisation can lead “to a greater openness to dependence on God.” The author includes lists, such as ways of increasing communication and recognising the usual obstacles to it; these are suggestive and adaptable rather than clinical or formulaic.

St John Paul II is often quoted. Fitzgibbons thinks the Pope’s love for Our Lady helped him to overcome the traumas of his own childhood: the loss of his mother and his beloved older brother, as well as his father’s death later on. This brings us to the underlying message of the book: however severe marital problems are, a deepening prayer life helps give the strength to face up to them with courage and resolution. Prayer, as well as skilled professional help, can reveal the necessary, though painful, self-knowledge that has contributed to the relational wounds or impasse.

I recommend this book unreservedly to priests preparing couples for marriage, to bishops deciding on diocesan resources for marriage – and to all couples preparing to marry.