My wife and I have been married for seven years—about the same time I have served as a canon lawyer investigating the validity of marriages. I have found that marriages break down for many reasons, and that practicing Catholics are not immune from today’s culture of instant gratification and no-fault divorce.
Working at the tribunal, I see a lot of failed marriages. Not all them will be declared invalid (or "annulled," as common parlance incorrectly has it). But each of them represents a broken relationship. The tragedy is multiplied when children are involved. They see their home torn in two and the stability of family life cut from under them. They wrestle with whether each parent still loves them.
While marital breakdown is not always preventable, my experience as both a canon lawyer and a married man have taught me five things Catholic couples can do to strengthen their marriage.
The first thing a couple must do if they wish a strong marriage is pray together. One the biggest surprises I encountered in tribunal work is that many couples, including those who are active in the Church and the pro-life movement, do not pray together as couples. When children come along, this evolves into failure to pray as a family.
A gentleman once approached me after a talk and explained he was going through a rough patch in his marriage. He was active in the Knights of Columbus, the local pro-life movement, and a men’s prayer circle to which I belonged. His wife headed both the parish’s rosary society and the local society for Catholic women, and she brought Holy Communion to the sick after Mass each Sunday.
"You’ve prayed together about your marriage problems, right?" I asked.
"We’ve prayed about them," he replied, "but not together."
He then shared that their extra-curricular church activities ate up a lot of the schedule. He and his wife seldom found time to pray together. They often prayed, but not as a couple. She faithfully led the rosary at the parish every Thursday, which left her too tired to pray when she got home. Instead of staying for a drink with the boys, he would stop at the perpetual adoration chapel on his way home from the Knights of Columbus. She was in bed when he finally walked through the door. The only time the couple prayed together was at Sunday Mass—assuming no conflicts were present in their schedule.
Assisting at the parish or with a local Catholic apostolate is good. However, it should never replace time with one’s spouse. Apart from our relationship with God, marriage is the most important relationship we will enter (if it is the vocation to which God calls us). The marriage covenant mirrors the covenant between God and His people. Several passages throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament make reference to this.
A couple cannot become one in flesh unless they also strive to become one in spirit. Thus a couple should make time to pray together—not just pray, not just for each other, but together as a couple.
Prayer reinforces the sacramental bond God has created between the couple. It reminds them that God stands at the center of their relationship. Additionally, it teaches them to rely upon God and trust in his providence as they face the many difficulties life throws at them.
Prayer as a couple becomes all the more important when children are born into the marriage. "The family that prays together, stays together," was a favorite saying of the late Fr. Patrick Peyton. Marriage is the foundation of the family. Children learn from the example of their parents. A child’s greatest incentive to prayer is watching mom and dad pray. Prayer as a married couple is an essential building block to family prayer.
Fast food, T.V. dinners, microwave meals, nutrition drinks—as a society we seem to have forgotten what real food looks like. What's even more disturbing is that, in the name of convenience, we have forgotten what real food tastes like. This is unfortunate: Nothing brings together friends and family like a delicious home-cooked meal. We have forgotten about real food because we have forgotten about the family meal.
Time and time again at the tribunal I have seen this simple fact: Long before a married couple stops living together, their schedule gets the better of their day and they stop eating together. The family meal is becoming a museum piece.
Children can become more susceptible to a culture of sex and violence simply because supper is no longer a sacred time in which families come together to share their day. The meal offers a family the perfect opportunity to pull together as one, to combine talents, to converse, and to enjoy the fruits of a common labor. Family meals are not just about nutrition; they are fundamental to family life.
Take a good look at the Gospels. Jesus uses meals to mark important events in his life and to impart his more important teachings. For example, his first public miracle took place over a meal. At the wedding feast of Cana, the bride and groom ran out of wine. Jesus’ first public miracle, at the urging of our Blessed Mother, was to keep the meal going by changing water into wine. Thus Christ blessed the marriage by blessing the meal.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes is another good example. Having fed the multitudes, our Lord chose this moment to reveal that he is the Bread of Life, that his flesh is real food and that his blood is real drink. Our Lord reveals one of his most profound theological truths—the mystery of transubstantiation—over a meal. Additionally, he institutes the sacrament to which this truth applies most directly, the Eucharist, during the Last Supper. Thus the Mass is modeled on the family meal, with our fellow Catholics being brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sitting around the table and sharing a good meal, especially one the family has prepared together, helps build a strong marriage and a strong family life.
"We stopped communicating." This is by far the most common answer when tribunal petitioners are asked why their marriage fell apart. Communication is key to every marriage. Through communication, spouses say "I love you," discover each other’s needs and wants, learn the other person’s likes and dislikes. When communication breaks down, a marriage begins to falter.
The best example I recall comes not from the tribunal, but from the campaign of an.aspiring pro-life politician who approached me for help with his communication strategy. The first thing I advised him was to take at least a half-hour a day out of the campaign schedule to communicate with his wife.
Spending 18 hours a day in public eye, going door-to-door, encouraging campaign workers, and preparing for town hall debates were taking a toll on his marriage. His wife was overwhelmed from having to assume all the responsibilities for the children and the home while maintaining full-time employment. She wanted to talk when he arrived home late at night, but he crawled into bed and fell asleep. He was always too busy or too tired to make time for his wife until, late one night, he came home to discover she had changed the locks.
"I need you to help me write a speech for the media," he said to me the next morning. "I don’t care how it ends, but the opening line has to be: ‘I love my wife. I love her more than anyone else on earth. I know I’m not good at expressing my feelings, but I would rather lose the campaign than lose her.’"
The speech made the front page of the local paper. It became the talk of the local coffee shops, and his numbers began to rise in the polls. More importantly, when his wife saw the paper, she marched into the campaign office, looked her husband in the eye, and said in front of the volunteers: "Why didn’t you tell me these things before? I made an appointment this morning to file for divorce."
"I assumed you knew how much I love you," my friend replied. "That’s why I’m running. I don’t like how government is destroying marriage and the family. I want our children to have what we have when they grow up. If you’re serious about divorce, I’ll quit the campaign now."
That was the last time the candidate assumed his wife knew what was in his heart. From then on, he took time out of the campaign each day to meet her for lunch or picked up some flowers for her. Sometimes it was just a two-minute call to ask for her prayers and tell her how much he appreciated the stability she provided to the family. Most importantly, he told her each day that he loved her.
Today, they teach communication skills to engaged and newlywed couples. They share how lack of communication nearly destroyed their marriage and how learning to communicate brought God’s blessing upon their marriage.
One of the first patterns I noticed in marriage tribunals concerned adultery: The third party was usually a co-worker, and the adulterous relationship usually began after a period of conflicting work schedules between the married couple. When a person spends more time with a co-worker than with his spouse, it becomes easier to relate to the co-worker.
Conversely, the strongest marriages are those in which the spouses make time for each other. After communicating with God and communicating with each other, it is important that couples play together. This is why both sets of my grandparents had strong marriages.
As a child, I spent one week of my summer vacation every year with each set of grandparents. My maternal grandparents were upper-class and of British Protestant extraction, while my paternal grandparents were blue-collar, Catholic, and immigrants. One thing they had in common, though, was no television in the living room. They kept the television in the den.
My grandparents had arranged their living room so that the couches, love seats, and armchairs formed a semicircle around the fireplace. The same is true with the living room layout of my wife’s grandparents and many older people I have met throughout my life. Years later, a priest pointed out to me that this arrangement compels you to look at the person sitting across from you. This in turn leads to conversation, board games, storytelling, and other family activities. In short, rather than vegetate in front of the television, my grandparents spent their evenings entertaining each other.
Our marriage is like our spiritual life: the more effort we put into it, the more God can work His grace. Similarly, the more time we spend with our spouse, the more we learn about him or her, the more we open the marriage to God’s blessing. Thus it is important that couples find activities where they can relax and have fun together. These games can even be tied to household chores.
"Don’t let me catch you again," said Fr. Joe.
I jumped. My wife and I, newlyweds, were watching the sunset from the boardwalk. Fr. Joe, a canon lawyer with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, had snuck up behind us.
"Doing what, Father?" I asked.
"Not holding hands. You ought to be holding hands in public. Otherwise how will people know that you’re married and love each other?"
My wife smiled. She had told me the same thing earlier in the evening. I laughed. I was starting my first tribunal job the next morning and holding hands was the last thing on my mind.
Now I know better. Lack of visible affection is almost always noticeable in troubled marriages. I spent the next month reading witness testimony that stated the couple never held hands, never kissed, and never showed affection in public. Seven years later, I can confirm that witnesses to a broken marriage most often point to a lack of visible affection.
Affection is important because God created us as physical beings with the capacity to feel. Quite often, a hug is more reassuring to our spouse than mere words. Affection allows a couple to physically express their love for each other.
Affection should not be confused with sex. The conjugal act is a physical expression of love that should be limited to the privacy of the marital bed. Affection, on the other hand, encompasses all expressions of physical love between a married couple—including those suitable for public witness.
Holding hands, hugging, and kissing hello and goodbye strengthen a marriage. Marriage is a sacrament, and these little acts of affection are the sacramentals. They permit a couple to reaffirm their love for one another, reminding them of the vows that led to their covenant. Through these actions, the couple provide public witness to their love, their relationship, and God’s grace in their lives.
Marriage is a wonderful institution. Through the marriage covenant, a man and a woman are brought together to love one another. Marriage forms the basis of the family unit and of society. When both husband and wife are baptized, the marriage is also a sacrament, meaning it becomes a source of God’s grace. So, take the time to pray together, eat together, talk together, play together, and to hold hands! It’s worth it.
- The Catholic Family Handbook by Fr. Lawrence Lovasik (available from Catholic Answers)
- Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West (available from Catholic Answers)
- Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla (Ignatius)
- Marriage: the Mystery of Faithful Love by Dietrich von Hildebrand (Sophia Institute)
- Three to Get Married by Fulton J. Sheen (Scepter)