Contrary to the often looming reports on marriage today, Ellen McCarthy of the Washington Post has recently published a rather uplifting article on marriage education as “divorce prevention,” underscoring how marriage remains an important institution in today’s American culture and how couples in crisis have reason to hope.
McCarthy begins by introducing couples who have undergone a marriage education retreat for Army couples – a free, two-day event that’s part of an Army-wide initiative called Strong Bonds. The retreat consists of taking couples away from their daily routines, giving them time to think critically about their relationship under the guidance of a chaplain. McCarthy notes how courses such as Strong Bonds have been sprouting at a rapid rate that is indicative of the way marriage experts are beginning to view “an institution that remains the fundamental unit of our society but is so shaky that it crumbles about half the time.”
“Americans,” she explains, “place enormous value on marriage: Nearly 90 percent of us will take the plunge at some point in our lifetime, according to the 2009 book The Marriage-Go-Round by Andrew Cherlin.”
As such, the growing popularity of marriage education has persuaded leaders of the federal government and the U.S. military to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year “attempting to disseminate its teachings to the masses.”
McCarthy boldly states that at the core of this movement is the dismantling of the basic principle which drives romantic relationships in America: “That if you find your soul mate, everything will be fine.” Instead, the new approach now asks every participant: What if the truth is that you didn’t marry the wrong person? What if you just don’t know how to be married?
In other words, without undermining the importance of finding the right life partner, this task force for saving marriages stresses the skills needed – especially in the realm of communication – to make a marriage last.
Notably, McCarthy brings up a study by psychology professor John Gottman that reveals that couples who make it to their 50th anniversary and those who divorce before they hit their fifth disagree more or less the same amount. Thus, what seems to distinguish happy couples from those on the brink of divorce is how creatively and constructively they manage their differences. As such, organizations like Strong Bonds, PREP and the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement (to name a few) have begun to focus on behaviors in marriage, specifically when it comes to how couples communicate and handle conflict.
Yet while it is incredibly encouraging to note the peak in interest in preventing divorce and circulating practical tools to build up marriages, McCarthy neglects to mention anything regarding the faith aspect of a marriage, which, as the Church has long taught, holds great significance when it comes to the quality and preservation of a union.
After all, the fundamentals of marriage based on faith principles give couples a life-changing perspective on the meaning of their union, understanding it as a vocation rooted in the love of God and sustained though the sacramental life of the Church.
These principles form the basis of many successful marriage ministries that have sprouted up in recent years – most notably, Marriage Encounter (for couples looking to improve their marriage) and Retrouvaille (for couples that have reached a crisis point). Both faith-based marriage renewal experiences boast tremendous success rates. With programs in 24 countries, Retrouvaille has saved the marriages of 80 percent of nearly 50,000 couples who have attended programs in Canada and the U.S. over the last decade (many of whom had already filed divorce papers or were living apart when they began the program).
Fittingly, the U.S. bishops’ conference has just released the first in a series of videos highlighting the beauty and possibility of marriage as God intended it.
Andrew Lichtenwalner, who coordinated the project, explained to ZENIT that the series titled Made for Each Other “offers an introduction to the topic of sexual differences and how men and women complement each other as husband and wife.” Intended as a catechetical and educational aid for priests, deacons, catechists and teachers, the videos include a viewer’s guide and resource booklet. Read here for more info.
Finally, the Pontifical Council for the Family will soon be releasing a marriage manual promoting marriage as a journey of faith and Christian life which leads to a deeper knowledge of the mystery of Christ, the Church and the meaning of grace and responsibility in marriage. In his recent address to the council, Pope Benedict stressed that it is only by making Christ the center of one’s personal life and one’s marriage that authentic love and self-giving is possible – two vital ingredients for a healthy marriage.
Learning to forgive, respect, empathize and communicate are practical and essential tools without which no marriage can last. While emphasizing those tools, the Church in her wisdom offers couples even more, providing them a framework by which their marriage and faith can both be strengthened.