In my 34 years of working with Catholic couples, I have observed seven major conflicts that create severe marital stress. The good news is that these weaknesses can be overcome.
The sacrament of marriage is a fulfilling and challenging vocation that requires cheerful, self-giving love and sacrifice. An understanding of this call to self-giving, its support from the Lord's love, the weaknesses that can interfere with marital love, and their resolution is vital for the health of Catholic marriages.
Before he became pope, John Paul II wrote a book titled Love and Responsibility, in which he presented the importance of self-gift in marital friendship and betrothed love. He said in this kind of love – which includes, but is more than, sexual intimacy – the spouse surrenders him or herself to the other so that one no longer thinks primarily of "me" but of "we."
This oneness and flow of love between a husband and wife are in some ways called to model the love and openness within the heart of God, the Trinity. John Paul II later wrote, "God is revealed in the communion between man and woman, for this communion images the love that God himself is" (Letter to Women, 7).
Unfortunately, too few Catholic couples are aware of the weaknesses that harm their personalities and of the habits, virtues and graces that can assist in their healing. Marital self-giving and happiness can be limited by a number of emotional or character weaknesses that enter the marriage or develop during years of married life.
In my 34 years of working with Catholic couples, I have observed seven major conflicts that create severe marital stress: excessive anger, selfishness, controlling behaviors, emotionally distant behaviors, anxiety/mistrust, weaknesses in confidence, and sadness/loneliness. The good news is that these weaknesses can be overcome through growth in self-knowledge, virtues and grace.
Forgiveness for Excessive Anger
Excessive anger is one of the major sources of marital and family stress. Couples benefit from knowing that they have basically three options for dealing with anger: denial, expression and forgiveness. Forgiveness is the most effective for diminishing marital anger.
An immediate forgiveness exercise can be used whenever one feels overly angry. Here, a person thinks repeatedly, "Understand and forgive, understand and forgive." This exercise usually diminishes feelings of anger, and only then should one begin to discuss the hurt or disappointment that caused the anger initially.
Likewise, past forgiveness exercises are important to resolve anger from previous hurts in the marriage or in the family background. Here, the spouse might imagine oneself as a child thinking, "I want to understand and forgive the parent who hurt me the most." This forgiveness is essential for marital happiness because most couples bring into their adult life unresolved anger that, under stress, can be misdirected at each other.
Every time a spouse forgives, a certain amount of anger is removed from his or her heart. The virtue of patience is also essential in this process, as it is required to gain mastery over the passion of anger.
Generosity for selfishness
Selfishness harms marriages severely because it turns a spouse inward and interferes with cheerful self-giving. The selfish spouse thinks "me" not "we" and regularly overreacts in anger. Selfishness is the major cause of separation and divorce, and many popes have written that selfishness is the major enemy of marital love.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which selfishness is epidemic. The use of contraception further intensifies the negative attributes of self-centeredness and mistrust and should be avoided for the good of the marriage.
Instead, a commitment to grow daily in generosity, humility, chastity and temperance is helpful in diminishing this personality conflict. The sacrament of reconciliation is also helpful in resolving selfishness and excessive anger.
Respect for controlling behaviors
Controlling behaviors harm marriages in numerous ways. They can cause one's spouse to feel sad, angry, insecure, anxious, exhausted and discouraged. These behaviors can be caused by modeling a controlling parent, selfishness and pride, or compensation for strong feelings of insecurity.
The controlling spouse needs to understand how he or she is harming the marriage and family. Prayer, respect and a greater love for the goodness in one's spouse are helpful in putting an end to the repetition of a controlling weakness. The "victim" spouse can also work to correct this behavior by communicating regularly that the Lord is in control.
Cheerful self-giving for emotionally distant behaviors
One of the most common complaints that I hear in marital therapy is that a spouse is emotionally distant, most often the husband. This weakness can be the result of hurt feelings in the marriage or in previous relationships. However, the major conflict that we typically uncover is a parent who was not affectionate or complimentary. Current neuroscience suggests that such modeling begins in early childhood and is difficult to overcome without a strong commitment to do so.
Healing occurs by making a commitment to repeat a parent's good qualities but not his or her emotionally distant behaviors. Forgiveness of the parent and a daily decision to show more vulnerability and compassion can help to break this control from the past, and a commitment to making five positive comments for each negative comment can strengthen marital friendship.
The regular reception of the Eucharist and meditation upon the Lord's loving heart are also very helpful.
Trust for anxiety
Every time a spouse forgives, a certain amount of anger is removed from his or her heart.
Excessive anxiety can result in significant stress and sadness in married life. Unhealthy anxiety, as with other emotional conflicts, can pull a spouse away from his or her marriage and family. This can be the result of a number of factors, including a weakness in trust, strong insecurities, financial worries or weaknesses in faith.
In a conference for priests many years ago, an archbishop stated that he believed the major source of emotional stress in the priests of that archdiocese was the feeling of being overly responsible. His advice was that one should work hard in fulfilling God's will but take mini-breaks to give back to the Lord all of one's responsibilities and worries. This unburdening process is very effective in diminishing anxiety.
Anxiety in marriage can diminish by setting aside time daily to talk, preferably after dinner for a half hour while the kids do chores or their homework. Setting aside time for date nights and fighting against materialism by growth in the virtue of temperance are also important.
Gratitude for weaknesses in confidence
Weaknesses in confidence are major causes of irritability, a tendency to be critical and conflicts with pornography. Women are more fortunate than men in that the majority of them have experienced more affirmation and affection from their mothers than men have from their fathers.
Confidence can be fostered by being grateful for one's God-given gifts, by forgiving those who have damaged confidence, by receiving fraternal support from groups such as the Knights of Columbus, and by being thankful for one's work and trusting the Lord with it.
Hope and love for sadness
All of the conflicts presented thus far can result in marital unhappiness and loneliness. A commitment to grow in self-knowledge and to develop virtues can protect spouses from unhappiness. A common source of sadness is the failure to rely upon God's love in a culture that is increasingly driven to exclude God.
For those spouses with unresolved loneliness with a parent, the Catholic faith can be enormously helpful with its teaching that one always has Our Lady as another loving mother, St. Joseph as another loving father and the Lord as one's best friend. Working with a spiritual director in these areas has resolved sadness in many spouses.
Healthy Catholic marriages and families are dependent upon spouses working to maintain healthy personalities. This can occur through a daily commitment to overcome weaknesses by growth in good habits, virtues and graces that can strengthen romantic love, the marital friendship, and the openness and oneness that is meant to image God.
Richard Fitzgibbons, M.D. "Habits for a Happy Marriage." Columbia Magazine (November, 2010): 17-19.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Read this issue of Columbia online here.
To find out more about the Knights of Columbus and why all Catholic men should join the Knights, go here.
Rick Fitzgibbons is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia. He has coauthored Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope with Dr. Robert D. Enright. APA Books also offers a DVD on forgiveness by him and Dr. Enright. Dr. Fitzgibbons has served as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University and has been a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican. He has authored a number of articles on gender dysphoria. His websites are maritalhealing.com and childhealing.com.Copyright © 2010 Columbia magazine
back to top