Where modern marriage is going wrong

Selfishness, anger, controlling behaviour, emotional distance. How can couples overcome these pitfalls?

Having blogged about Habits for a Healthy Marriage, by Richard P. Fitzgibbons M.D. (Ignatius Press), I contacted the author so that he could develop his thoughts further. At first I was keen to know if, during his 40-year career helping married couples, he had noticed a change in the kinds of problems that crop up. He tells me that the leading psychological problems that interfere with mature love in marriage and family life continue to be selfishness, excessive anger, a control compulsion and emotionally distant behaviour – adding that “without forgiveness spouses will remain psychological prisoners of past hurts and anger which they unconsciously misdirect into their marriage and family.”

Dr Fitzgibbons thinks that what has changed during this period is “the greater intensity of these conflicts; this has contributed to a marked increase in anxiety and depressive disorders and in the other damaging features of mistrust, lack of hope, poor communication, infidelity, cohabitation and the retreat from marriage.”

He points out that roughly 70 per cent of adult psychological conflicts “have their origin in childhood and adolescence. Spouses are challenged to recognise humbly that there has been only one perfect family and that everyone brings weaknesses into marriage that can be uncovered and resolved. In this process of healing”, he emphasises, “Faith can also play an important role.”

What does he think is the greatest danger to married love? He responds that it is “unquestionably the well-documented epidemic of intense selfishness/narcissism. St Augustine describes the two great loves: the love of God versus the love of self. The love of self, which turns one inward and drives excessive anger and the need to dominate, is far more prevalent. It is the major reason for divorce and the massive retreat from marriage. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, when Faith decreases, selfishness increases and the heart grows cold.”

What advice would he give to engaged couples? Dr Fitzgibbons thinks they would benefit from his final chapter, that on self-knowledge, by completing the parental survey (also available at Marriages, he tells me, “can be protected by uncovering a parental weakness in marital self-giving and committing to grow in the virtues and grace to overcome it, which does not require seeing a mental health professional.” He comments that “those with a family of origin trauma of divorce, substance abuse, excessive anger or peer trauma of being used sexually, benefit from working on their damaged ability to trust by taking the step of forgiving offenders and understanding how to protect trust.”

Given the deep-rooted psychological damage that can occur during childhood, I would like to know if Dr Fitzgibbons thinks that there are some problems, such as those caused by personality disorders that cannot be healed. He suggests that some spouses “do not want to engage in the hard work of addressing personality conflicts which often can be resolved.” But he adds “There is good news: many saints had serious personality conflicts such as terrible tempers, dominating behaviour, arrogance, selfishness, severe anxiety and mistrust, hopelessness and so on, before their journey of growth in the virtues and grace to become other Christs.”

Such people, the author is convinced, “can help us engage in the very demanding but rewarding hard work of becoming more Christ-like to our spouses and children. The first step in the journey is stopping the expression of anger by inward forgiveness – seven times seventy.”

Is it harder for couples today to make a lifelong commitment in marriage? Dr Fitzgibbon answers succinctly, “Yes. A major reason is the view of marriage in which the primary obligation is not to one’s spouse and children but to one’s own happiness. Hence, marital success is defined not by successfully fulfilling one’s emotional, financial and spiritual responsibilities to a spouse and children. This view has severely harmed the sense of life-long responsibility and sacrificial self-giving for one’s spouse and children, with no thought for the consequences for each family member’s spiritual and eternal life.”

How does he define “mature love”? He responds by referring to St John Paul II, “The Saint of the family, whose luminous writing on Catholic marriage and family life has guided my work since reading The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World in 1980. The Pope wrote: “The strength of such a (mature) love emerges most clearly when the beloved stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them. For the person as such never loses his/her essential value. The emotion which attaches to the value of the person is loyal.” (Love and Responsibility n. 135).

The author reflects that in his experience “Many spouses relate that a reliance upon the sacramental bond, shared prayer and the sacraments help make such sacrificial self-giving love possible, especially during stressful times.”

I am curious to find out what situations would prompt him to advise a couple to seek marital therapy. Dr Fitzgibbons emphasises that “Couples need to be very cautious about marital therapy. One reason, cited in my chapter on divorce prevention, was a study by leading family scholars revealing that out of 600 couples, those who received marital counselling were two or three times more likely to divorce than couples who did not. Dr James Wright, one of the researchers, commented that the counselling profession too frequently tries to help their clients through divorce rather than help them to repair their marriages.”

For this reason he believes it is vitally important that “couples under severe marital stress use caution and prudence in deciding in whom they will confide in order to share their pain and to seek advice.” He counsels that first “they should consider communicating only with a spouse who has a good marriage, who supports the Church’s teaching on marriage and who has not embraced the pervasive divorce mentality. Next, they could consider attending a Church-related programme for marriages under stress, such as Retrouvaille. In addition, a Catholic couple should consider meeting with a priest to review their understanding of Catholic marriage and the benefits of Faith i.e. a close relationship with the Lord.”

He adds that if it is determined that marital therapy is necessary “The therapist’s understanding of marriage and his treatment approach should be clearly identified and evaluated.”

Dr Fitzgibbons concludes by reminding me that “The good news is that the Lord’s first miracle was for a marriage through Our Lady’s intercession. Many couples have borne witness to her protection of their flame of love that had diminished but then returned and kept burning bright.”