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The Trouble with Troubled Marriages

Marriage: it’s complicated.

That is, except in the beginning—before the wedding, when two mere mortals, both imperfect yet enamored of each other, decide it’s time to build a life together. Nothing could be clearer to them. The Church itself, in line with millennia of cultural custom, also sees marriage simply. With a few exceptions, all it takes is a man and a woman who are not close blood relations and who agree that marriage is a permanent, faithful union open to children. Every bridal magazine reinforces these basic ideas on some level.

I recently received a gift bag from a bridal show. It included a condom. But it also included a special treatment for stretch marks, indicating that children were to be expected. There was no prenup offer, because the bridal industry knows that people want to go into marriage thinking that it’s forever. The idea of an “open marriage” remains something few people entertain.

But after the wedding, when life sets in with its various challenges, many married people start to question their decision. Am I happy? Could I be happier? Why am I here? Why is this such a mess?

There are two basic categories of marital unhappiness. Into the first fall people who simply are not prepared for the normal—and sometimes serious—challenges of marriage. The scenarios in the second category are far direr. They may involve deception, serious psychological disorders, abuse, violence, or addiction. In these cases, there are valid grounds for couples separating and, not infrequently, grounds for receiving a decree of nullity, meaning that there was no marriage in the first place. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on the very frequent issues of the first (and far more common) category.

Three stages of marriage preparation

In 1981, St. John Paul II, following the first synod on marriage and the family in 1980, published his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, in which he provided his response to the various concerns discussed at the synod. One of the key issues was marriage preparation, which he described as happening in three stages (FC 66).

In the first stage, a child starts life in a healthy, functioning family and learns about marriage by seeing it lived. This is marriage prep at a very young age and, thus, John Paul II calls it remote.

The second stage he calls proximate. It should begin at a “suitable age” and continue. I take “suitable” to mean the age at which children have entered puberty and become interested in sexual matters and dating. This formation should continue, learning an integral anthropology and view of the human person, developing one’s own religious formation, understanding the nature of conjugal sexuality and the role of spouses as parents. The pope called for young people to be taught the “essential medical and biological knowledge” connected with “sexuality and responsible parenthood.” His practical recommendations continue with instructions that they be prepared with the basic skills to run a home and a household.

Not until a couple is engaged and ready to be married does John Paul II propose the third stage take place, what he calls the immediate preparation. He’s also careful to note that it’s not necessary for every couple but only for couples who “still manifest shortcomings or difficulties in Christian doctrine and practice.”

The hard reality

On the one hand, his recommendation is pretty straightforward, and it happens naturally in most families and communities. However, a plethora of sociological data and anecdotal evidence indicate that for decades many, if not most, children have not been graced with a healthy, intact family. Thus the remote stage of marriage prep is missing, because many of us don’t experience healthy marriage even in our own families. Those of us who are fortunate to do so are nevertheless surrounded by a culture in which we are a minority. The experiences of the majority impact the minority insofar as they become a dominant reality.

With regard to the second, proximate stage of preparation, few families, communities, or churches put it into practice. I recall a conversation with two men in their seventies who were ruminating on the differences in how they were raised compared to children of subsequent generations. “When I was in the eighth grade,” one told me, “we were taught that if we wanted to get married and have a family, we had to be thinking about the work we would do to support that family.” The other agreed. Suffice to say there are now myriad men (and women) much older than eighth graders who don’t have this basic sense of vocation and purpose in life.

So we are left with the third stage of preparation: the immediate, the months or weeks before the couple’s wedding. There are some laudable Catholic programs that meet these needs. Some dioceses have also extended the period that the couple must be engaged before getting married in the Church. (While I understand the principle, I don’t find it to be effective in practice. In many ways, it’s the proverbial finger stopping the leak in the proverbial dike.)

Setting aside the vision of the man whom Pope Francis has called “the pope of the family,” we are faced with a reality in which there is little marriage preparation until a couple gets engaged. If marriage prep of some sort wasn’t happening all along, then something else was—nature, after all, abhors a vacuum. Other experiences and habits, many contrary to sustaining and nourishing a healthy marriage, filled that space, bringing us to a point where we have far too many wounded individuals attempting something that should be pretty straightforward, even if there are complications along the way.

Lots of invalid marriages?

A theory has evolved in some Catholic circles that many marriages are invalid, largely because people are unprepared. In a 2014 interview with Commonweal, Cardinal Walter Kasper said he had spoken to Pope Francis who, according to the cardinal, believes “that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.” (In an interview the following year with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s The World Over, Cardinal Kasper admitted that Francis did not endorse his proposal for some of the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion as he had previously suggested.) His 2014 claim created a great deal of confusion, but in light of his subsequent admission about a related matter, I am hesitant to lend it credence.

Furthermore, in the parlance of the Catholic Church, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “invalid” marriages. The Code of Canon Law states: “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven” (can. 1060). Certainly, a member of the clergy or another expert may give an opinion that a particular marriage is invalid, that in reality it never existed. But until a bishop or a diocesan marriage tribunal verifies the facts and issues a decree of nullity, the marriage is considered valid.

The reason a married couple makes vows to one another is that each is promising to love even when he or she doesn’t feel like it, even when things are incredibly difficult and hope does a terribly good job of hiding—that same hope that gilded the wedding photos and all of the dreams with which the couple started their journey together.

The couple in the midst of a marital crisis does not think back to their wedding day and say, “Yes! This is just what I signed up for!” No one can predict the future, including its challenges. A couple engaged to be married should be envisioning a happy future together; otherwise, there’s no sense in making the commitment in the first place.

Not always irreparable

To my mind, as a Church we make a mistake when we encourage someone in a troubled marriage by essentially saying, “You can get out of it.” In fact, I would argue that most spouses don’t want out of the marriage; they want the marriage to be improved, even if it means addressing their own shortcomings. They want the tools and a plan to do the work.

Remember, for most Catholics in developed countries, marriage prep as described by St. John Paul II never happens. Instead, they acquire a complicated collection of baggage throughout their lives, and then, a short time before the wedding, someone sits them down and says, “This is what the Church teaches.” All well and good, but it doesn’t teach the couple how to live what the Church teaches. And if they haven’t had a lived example, they will be greatly challenged in their attempts.

Couples are agreeing to a permanent, exclusive union that will be open to at least some children. But they don’t realize that they don’t know how to do it. And if they don’t know how to do it in their first marriage, chances are that they won’t know how to do it in their second or third marriages. In fact, based on anecdotal evidence, I’d argue that the main reason some subsequent marriages are better is because the individuals finally start to learn some of the basic human skills they lacked in the first marriage. They are the same individuals, with the same goals and dreams, only now they have the means to set about achieving the goals.

People in troubled marriages can do incredible damage to each other and to themselves, but it’s not clear to me that it’s always irreparable. As Christians, I think this has a direct correlation to our spiritual well being. We are all wounded, even broken, daughters and sons of God, called to experience his forgiveness. But if we ourselves are not able to forgive and heal, I wonder how much we are able to experience God’s forgiveness and healing.

Forgiveness and love

St. Augustine noted—and I like to picture him here with a somewhat droll expression—that God could redeem us but he could not save us. In other words, it’s not enough for God to be willing; we have to be willing too. We have to be willing to allow him to love us, to ask his forgiveness, to seek his healing. He can’t do it for us.

The sacrament of confession demonstrates this perfectly. God already knows what we did, why we did it, and whether we’ll do it again. His love, mercy, and understanding are all there waiting for us, but we don’t have access to them unless we ask for them through the act of confession. God the Father, after all, is the perfect parent. He knows that we need to learn for ourselves; he knows that if he did everything for us, we would learn nothing—especially not how to love.

If we are able to begin to experience God’s forgiveness and his love of us, we will better experience these things as we are able to apply them toward others. Remember, we are made in his image and likeness. We are called to love and forgive even as he does. In no way is this easy. But it seems to be the cross that each of us is called to if we want to follow Christ, the Son of God, who became one of us not only to redeem us but to show us how to love the Father.

Saving existing marriages

Instead of discussing invalid marriages, I propose a conversation on how to better prepare people for marriage and how to enrich existing marriages. In the cases where it is impossible to reconcile a couple, and/or there are circumstances that make it impossible for them to be married, we also need to find ways to help these individuals shoulder the incredibly heavy crosses they’ve been given.

Sadly, it often seems that once we’ve seen the couple down the aisle and collected the stipend for the use of the church, we don’t have much in place for them until it’s time to baptize a baby—or to help them navigate the annulment process. Instead, we could be reaching out to couples to help them grow in their formation as Christians and as spouses, supporting them in the work to build a happy and fruitful marriage, giving them the tools to grow stronger in crises.

I’ve yet to meet a couple, including my husband and myself, who couldn’t have benefited from ongoing formation in the Christian faith. After all, beyond the natural aspects of marriage, the couples in which both spouses are baptized participate in a sacramental marriage, meaning that we are called to live the type of union that exists between Christ and his bride, the Church. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1661 and Ephesians 5:25-25, 31-32.) St. Paul calls it a “great mystery.” When the Catholic Church uses the word mystery to describe one of its teachings, that’s a cue that we will never run out of things to learn and experience about that mystery.

There are those troubled marriages in which circumstances are so dire that it’s not feasible for the couple to continue a life together and, in some cases, those marriages can be deemed to have never existed in the first place. But there are also marriages that could be deemed invalid or null, but nevertheless, if both spouses are willing, the original lack—whether of consent, form, or even capacity—could be corrected, enabling the couple to live fully a sacramental marriage.

Canon law provides for this in one of two ways: either a convalidation of the marriage or a radical sanation, whereby an invalid marriage is validated retroactively back to the time when the contract was first made (CIC 1156-1165).

These practices are largely unutilized in the United States. In fact, most of the U.S. canonists with whom I’ve spoken are unfamiliar with them, as they are with the practice of allowing a couple to seek a decree of nullity before seeking a civil divorce. Nevertheless, these are norms determined by the local bishops in the U.S. and in other countries, not by the universal Church.

When I’ve spoken with canonists in Rome and the Vatican, they acknowledge the potential civil concerns that might deter the practices in the U.S. At the same time, they uphold right of the individual to have the Church evaluate his or her marriage.

As we celebrate this jubilee Year of Mercy, I think it would be worthwhile to consider whether there are ways the Church can protect itself civilly while allowing individuals to avail themselves of the justice of the canonical legal system. Proceeding through the annulment process before a civil divorce could be a wakeup call for those who have been assured (by themselves or others) that they are in an invalid marriage, only to learn that the Church deems the marriage valid.

Not everyone would recognize the Church’s authority; but for those who would and who seek it, it would be available, and they could act accordingly. Similarly, couples who have serious concerns about the validity of their marriage could seek the Church’s evaluation and potentially rectify the sacrament they seek to live.

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