How to divorce-proof your marriage
Michael J. Rayes
Clearly, traditional Catholics are affected by the modern divorce epidemic.
Divorce is scary, unnecessary, costly, and traumatizing. And I should repeat the unnecessary part. The only possible reason for separation (not necessarily divorce) is the physical danger of one of the spouses. Other than that, things can be worked out.
Catholics should completely remove the word "divorce" from their vocabulary. It should not even be a thought. "Annulment" should neither be considered if the couple is still living together. In 1968 there were 338 annulments in the US. By 1998—one generation later—there were 50,498. That's not a typo: annulments really went from around 300 to more than 50,000 in 30 years.
How can you, as a practicing Catholic, ensure your own marriage stays healthy and lasts until death do you part?
There are two methods that need to be used together. These two methods, if followed faithfully every day, will make your marriage absolutely divorce-proof.
Method one: pray together
Do not just assume you'll stay together in your old age like your parents did. There are plenty of couples who break up when the youngest child graduates from high school! Think of your marriage as a high-maintenance investment. It must have regular deposits of love credits from both spouses.
This basically means that each partner in the marriage should make an effort to do loving things for the other. "Love credits" are simply loving acts, whether taking out the garbage in the rain or massaging tired muscles, that endear your spouse to you. Love credits aren't the only way to invest in your marriage, however. The best way to invest in your marriage is to pray together.
Do not rely on your own efforts to have a long-lasting marriage. You and your spouse need a relationship with God. The prayer a marriage needs is not to simply ask God for something. No, your Catholic marriage must be consecrated to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you already did this on your wedding day, that's great! You can renew the consecration yourself, in your own home. Just use your own words and pray together with your spouse, offering up your relationship to Jesus and Mary. Better yet, ask a Catholic priest to bless your marriage and your home.
I will give you two practical examples that involve a priest. One is the enthronement of Christ the King in your home. This is done by having the priest bless an image of Christ the King that you have prominently displayed in your house. The entire family should be present for the enthronement and a celebration should follow.
Another example is a ritual called the "churching of women" in the old missal. After the arrival of a new baby, the husband kneels beside his wife while the priest prays over her. Getting back to the idea of consecrating your marriage, a consecration is more than a prayer. It is a total offering, a gift of something that is now owned by the one who receives the gift. Your marriage belongs to Jesus and Mary if you consecrate it to Them. The Blessed Virgin Mary gave us a sneak peek at how she operates at the wedding at Cana.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre explained in one of his sermons that she "deemed it right to discreetly intervene" when the stewards ran out of wine. She will also discreetly intervene when you run out of something needed in your marriage, whether it is patience, charity, or any other virtue.
St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote about this idea of offering our lives to Christ in his Spiritual Exercises.
"Man is created," wrote the saint, "to praise, reverence, and worship God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill the end for which he is created."
What does this mean for your Catholic marriage? Naturally, marriage is "created for man to help him" get to Heaven. This is why it should be consecrated.
After your marriage is consecrated, you also need to spend time in prayer with your spouse every day. This is separate from, or in addition to, prayer with your children. When you pray, end your prayer by thanking God for your spouse.
The husband should always lead spousal prayer, no matter what his temperament or personality inclines him to do. The man of the family is the spiritual leader of the house, regardless of his ability to speak in public or be a leader in other areas of his life. St. Paul writes that "the husband is the head of the wife" (Eph. 5:23), and he exhorts men to love their wives.
The sacramental goal of marriage
If you've studied a little theology on marriage, you may know that there are two purposes or "ends" of marriage: to procreate children, and to unite the spouses in love. But let's spend a minute thinking about the sacramental end of marriage. Dr. Rudolph Allers, one of the first Catholic psychologists to reject Freud and form a true psychology consistent with the teachings of the Church, wrote:
The purpose of matrimony is not only the procreation and education of children and the satisfaction of natural desires...it is the mutual sanctification of the married couple."
The sacraments are ways to get to Heaven. They are visible signs of invisible grace acting in the soul to make men holy. The sacraments are means we use on earth to acquire sanctifying grace (baptism), renew that grace (penance), or sustain grace (the Eucharist).
Now for the good news: Marriage is a sacrament! This means your Catholic marriage can get you to Heaven. How? By the life-long process of loving another person and completely giving of yourself for your family. St. Thomas Aquinas once said that "perfect married life means the complete dedication of the parents for the benefit of their children." This is enough to sanctify anybody, if he or she keeps trying to do better and remembers that God is the final goal.
Remember the catechism:
Who made you?—God made me. Why did God make you?—To know, love, and serve Him in this life, and to be forever happy with Him in the next."
This means, as St. Paul said, your purpose in life is to "with fear and trembling work out your salvation" (Phil. 2:12) that "you may be blameless" (v.15).
To work out your salvation. For those of us who are married, it means your relationship with your spouse, and the duties you have toward your family, can get you to Heaven. But you must keep trying so one day you will be "blameless." God wants you to keep up the fight.
Make a daily habit of praying together with your spouse. At first it may seem awkward, but keep it up! Eventually you may want to add a few prayers or pray together more than once a day. The important thing is to make it a daily habit and to adapt a new attitude right now about your spouse. You are serving Christ by loving, praying, practicing patience, and communicating with your spouse.
Method two: mutual understanding
Married couples do not drift together. But they do drift apart. Why? Three reasons:
- They don't spend enough time together.
- They don't communicate.
- They don't have mutual interests.
To divorce-proof your marriage, you and your spouse must gain mutual understanding. In other words, the two of you must be able to understand each other's emotional needs. The three reasons cited above are all symptoms of not meeting each other's emotional needs. Let's take a look at each reason and see how, once they are fulfilled, their combination forms a mutual understanding between husband and wife.
Holly Pierlot, a popular Catholic speaker and expert on motherhood and homeschooling, quoted an old priest in her book A Mother's Rule of Life. The priest once told her:
[H]usbands tend to place their provider role above all else, often spending too much time (in mind as well as in body) at the office, while women tend to place their parenting role above all else, often not leaving enough time for their own needs, or their husbands.
These are good-willed errors of excess. In other words, the husband and wife try so hard to do the right thing, they end up not having the proper balance in life they need to maintain a healthy and happy marriage and family life.
Oftentimes, bickering and a lack of trust can be resolved simply by spending more time together. When a man is gone a long time, his wife begins to wonder. Seeds of doubt and mistrust enter the feminine mind. A woman needs continual reassurance that her husband loves her. If the couple is away from each other for a long time–say, the husband works a lot of overtime—one way to compensate is to talk on the phone. A husband who works a lot should call his wife every day, and perhaps more than once a day. The husband should ask how she is doing, or even simply say the following when she answers the phone: "Hi, Honey, it's me. I was thinking about you and I've got a minute or two before I have to get back to work. How are you feeling?"
This reassures her that her husband loves her. The call may only take a couple minutes, but it breaks up her long day and maintains the bond of marriage.
Busy couples should also plan for time together. Do not just let life happen. Plan to spend time together. Set aside an evening where the two of you stay at home together. If you have a lot of vacation time accrued at work, don't keep waiting to take a week off all at once. Start using it now by taking a day or even a half-day every two weeks. (Even better are four-day weekends.) Spend that time with your spouse! Time together lays the foundation for a mutual understanding between the marriage partners. The continual, recurring patches of time together are better for a marriage than a week or two of vacation after hardly seeing each other for months.
When you hear about communication as the key to a healthy marriage, it isn't about simply talking to each other. Communication means for each spouse to tell the other his or her feelings, dreams, and needs, and for the other spouse to listen without interruption. Here is what communication looks like:
|Image graph interpretation|
|Circular arrow from top left to bottom right||Feelings / Dreams / Needs||Circular arrow from bottom right to top left|
|Spoken to spouse|
|Spouse listens without interruption|
When each spouse feels that what is important to him or her has been communicated to the other, and the marriage partner understands what is important, true communication and mutual understanding have taken place.
Listening is a skill. It comes easier to some than to others. It also comes easier in certain circumstances. It is a lot easier to listen to your wife after you've eaten a good meal than when you are hungry. It's a lot easier to listen to your husband at a small table in a coffee shop than in your own kitchen, with little hands tugging at your skirt.
Communication also means you do not make assumptions about what your spouse is thinking or what their needs are. You must ask. You must both actually speak to each other and explain what your needs are, even if you've already been married for 20 years. (The next 20 years will be a lot more fulfilling if each of you learns to speak your needs and listen to one another, I promise!)
Once upon a time, Boyfriend and Girlfriend had a lot of fun together. Their time together was filled with mutual activities that were fun for them both. Girlfriend looked up to Boyfriend, and Boyfriend thought Girlfriend was a lot of fun. So they got married and became Husband and Wife.
Now, Husband and Wife spend time together bickering about the bills. They don't spend a lot of time with each other, but when they are together, they only talk about what is stressful because they have responsibilities. Husband tells Wife what she isn't doing right. Wife nags Husband about all the things he should be doing. When they want to have fun, they do it with "the guys" or "the gals" or they go off alone for "alone time."
Boyfriend and Girlfriend liked each other and then they fell in love. Husband and Wife love each other, but they don't like each other. They didn't fall out of love, but they fell out of like.
Men and women form emotional attachments to members of the opposite sex with whom they spend enjoyable time together. In other words, your tennis partner should be your spouse, not someone else. As the Catholic psychologist Rudolph Allers put it,"Marriage is life companionship. Therefore an education for marriage is an education for companionship in general."
It is ludicrous to divorce someone you really enjoy being with. No one ever says, "We really liked each other, so we divorced." Find a mutually agreeable hobby or activity and enjoy it together. Think about it: you have some form of legitimate and wholesome escape that you rely on to mitigate the stress of life. A problem may be that the recreational escape is done alone, without nurturing the marriage. For all practical purposes, this means that Husband and Wife only spend stressful time together. Fun time is spent away from the spouse.
Change your recreational habits and come to a mutual understanding of each other through a rewarding activity. You'll rediscover your spouse and will be well on your way to reawakening the love and respect your marriage once enjoyed.
Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote that mutual understanding of the spouses is possible because of the complementary nature of the two sexes.
The fact that the two natures are ordered toward each other enables a mutual understanding of the deepest kind. A man will accomplish more in the spiritual transformation of a woman, as will a woman with a man....It is precisely the general dissimilarity in the nature of both which enables this deeper penetration into the soul of the other, a stronger seeing-from-the-inside, an ultimate openness toward the other, a real complementary relationship....[T]hey have been given the specific ability to understand each other. This fact not only constitutes the spiritual foundation for marriage but also...the possibility for deeper, closer, more radiant communions of a purely spiritual nature than are ever possible within one sex.
Coming to this mutual understanding is not difficult. Yes, it takes work, but so does anything worthwhile. Use the three areas in this article to meet each other's emotional needs and you will realize one day that you and your wife have reached a mutual understanding you did not posses before. That, and prayer together, will divorce-proof your marriage.
What About NFP?
Some say that the best way to divorce-proof your marriage is to utilize Natural Family Planning (NFP). This is a very popular viewpoint put forth by many in the Novus Ordo and especially in family-life programs in Catholic dioceses across the country. It is true that the divorce rate among NFP couples is lower than among couples using artificial contraception. Why? I believe this phenomenon is not so much because of NFP itself, but because of the sincerity of the couples. A couple who tries NFP is interested in following the teachings of the Church. This means they are willing to try harder than most couples to make their marriage work. Also, NFP forces a couple to communicate about their needs. This communication does strengthen the marriage.
Nevertheless, changing to NFP is often stressful to a marriage. This is because in most cases the contraceptive mentality is still present when couples utilize NFP: they are still trying to avoid birth. Their method may be different from artificial forms of contraception, but the intent is often the same.
Most Catholic couples in the U.S. today, especially if the wife is healthy, do not have a serious enough reason to warrant abstention from the marital embrace during the woman's fertile cycle. They would be better off not using any method of birth control, natural or unnatural family planning, abstention, or other means and instead let the babies come whenever God and nature blesses them. This is the traditional way of married life: it is the most noble, it gives the man a morally correct outlet for his physical tension regardless of the time of month, and it fulfills a deep, unspoken emotional need in the woman.
If a Catholic couple believes that NFP is a necessity for them due to their situation, they must discuss the issue with their pastor. It is a decision not to be made lightly, and the training and objectivity of a priest is therefore necessary. Under no circumstances should a Catholic couple decide to travel the road of NFP on their own deliberation.
If both partners in the marriage are of good will and they are at a functional level of mental health, the two methods I described in this article remain the best way to ensure a lifelong, divorce-proof marriage.
Michael J. Rayes writes from Arizona, where he lives with his wife of 21 years and their seven children. He is the author of Bank Robbery!, a Catholic children's mystery story.
1 Kenneth C. Jones, Index of Leading Catholic Indicators (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 2003) pp. 70-71.
2 Homily of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1972.
3 Anthony Mottola, Ph.D., trans., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1964) p. 47.
4 For a good discussion of the differences between the sexes and the role of the husband, cf. Ed Willock, "The Family Has Lost its Head" in Fatherhood and Family, Volume 3 from Integrity Magazine (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 1999), pp. 60-61.
5 Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, 7-10. Also cf. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12. N.B.: Pope Paul did not make it clear in his encyclical that the procreative end is primary and the unitive end is secondary, which is the traditional teaching of the Church.
6 Rudolph Allers, M.D., Ph.D., Sex Psychology (1937; reprint, Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.) pp. 263-64.
7 Nicholas Halligan, O.P., The Administration of the Sacraments (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1964), p. 3.
8 Francis Johnston, The Voice of the Saints (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1986), p. 102.
9 Willard F. Harley, Ph.D., His Needs, Her Needs (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell/Baker Book House Company, 2002), pp. 17-19.
10 Holly Pierlot, A Mother's Rule of Life (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2004), p.18.
11 Willard F. Harley Jr., Ph.D., "The Recreation Enjoyment Inventory" (online at Marriage Builders).
12 Allers, Sex Psychology, p. 259.
13 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Man and Woman: Love and the Meaning of Intimacy (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1992), pp. 91-92.