New research shows that a “happy marriage” depends less on whether a couple is actually close and more on whether the couple is as close as they care to be.
I often run into this with the couples I counsel. One spouse wants more emotional/spiritual/psychological intimacy and the other is fine with the way things are. They then challenge me to tell them who is right, while simultaneously asserting that no one has the right to tell them how they should live their marriage. This is where Catholic approaches to marital counseling differ significantly from secular approaches.
The secular counselor would try to split the difference, saying that there is no objective ideal of what a good marriage looks like and that the couple just, basically, has to find a level of intimacy they can both tolerate and try their best to just camp out there. That makes sense if marriage serves no greater purpose than the mutual comfort of the couple. But, as a Catholic counselor working primarily with Catholic couples, I think this approach is deeply flawed.
MARITAL HAPPINESS AND MARITAL VOWS. THE CATHOLIC DIFFERENCE:
For me, it all comes down to who gets to define what a happy marriage looks like. For most couples–especially those who get married by a JP or in a denomination with a limited theology of marriage–the answer is, “they do.” For these couples, as long as they fulfill the basic, civil, commitments of financially providing for each other and raising whatever kids they have, they are allowed to define their subjective union however they like based on whatever makes them comfortable.
Catholic couples (or at least Catholic couples who marry in the Church) don’t have this option. When a couple gets married in the Catholic church (whether the couple realizes it or not) the couple is promising to live up to the Catholic Church’s definition of what a marriage ought to look like–not their definition. When you get married in the Church, you surrender your “right” to define what your marriage ought to look like. That’s why the Church doesn’t allow couples to write their own vows. The vows you say define what you have a right to expect of each other and the marriage. When you get married in the Church, the vows you make commit you to becoming a living, breathing example–not of your vision of love and marriage–but the Church’s vision of love and marriage. Choosing to be married by the Church and in the Church means that you want to bear witness to the rightness and value of the Catholic vision of love–not yours.
The Catholic Vision of Marriage.
Living up to the Catholic vision of love is a tall order. Catholics believe that marriage is a sign of the intimate union Christ desires with the Church (c.f., Eph 5:32), and we know from the saints that God desires a complete, total, all-consuming union with us. He wants a free, total, faithful, and fruitful love with his bride and he wants the world to know it. It falls to Catholic couples to be a witness to the world of the kind of love Christ desires with each of us by being a physical representation of that love. The world needs to be able to look at any Catholic couple and see–not perfection–but a consistent striving toward a one flesh, intimate partnership that inspires and reminds them that the Church is the place to turn to discover the love everyone aches for, but few believe is possible. Catholic couples are challenged by the Church to stand out in the world as a prophetic witness to a love that never fails, that welcomes children as a sign of love and hope, that makes two into one.
So when Catholic couples come to me with different desires about the degree of closeness they want to experience in marriage and say, “Who’s to say which of us is right” I am able to competently answer, “The Church does. And by marrying in the Church, you agreed to apprentice her definition of what your marriage should look like. So let’s all get the chips off our shoulders and get to work building the prophetic union you promised to build when you stood at the altar and signed on the dotted line by saying, ‘I do.’”
The Catholic Difference in Marital Counseling
Granted, no couple is going to totally achieve that kind of intimacy this side of Heaven, but we have an obligation as Catholic couples to, well, die trying. That’s why, when Catholic couples are struggling in their vocation, it is so important to seek a counselor who understands the Catholic vision of love and marriage (incidentally, it isn’t enough that your counselor is Catholic. He or she really has to have a practical understanding of the Catholic vision of love and personhood). A secular marriage counselor can only get you to the place where you cobble-together a marriage that fits inside your comfort zone. A well-formed, Catholic marriage counselor is going to give you the tools and support you need to pursue that Catholic ideal of intimacy and partnership in every aspect of your lives together. A well-formed Catholic marriage counselor will give you the tools to overcome the challenge you are facing presently, but he or she will also remind you of your destiny as a Catholic couple to be intimate partners to one another–the kind of partners that show the world what love really is and what love can really do.
For more information on living out the Catholic vision of love and marriage. Check out these resources.
~The Pastoral Solutions Institute Catholic Tele-Counseling Practice–for Catholic-integrated telephone-based counseling/psychotherapy services
~Retrouvaille– A healing retreat for couples who are struggling in their marriage.