Sunday, October 04, 2009

Seven Secrets of a Successful Marriage

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 4, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2009]

“You’re not going back far enough.”

This, in effect, is what Jesus says to the Pharisees in today’s gospel, after they ask him the question, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”

First Jesus asks them what Moses thought of divorce, knowing that these men considered themselves to be faithful followers of the Mosaic Law. Whatever Moses said, they believed.

When the Pharisees respond, “Moses allowed it,” Jesus concedes the point, but then he immediately clarifies the matter and refocuses the question.

He says, essentially, “You’re right—Moses did allow it. But he allowed it because of your stubbornness, because of the hardness of your hearts! He allowed it because he knew you weren’t ready to accept the truth in its fullness. So the real question here shouldn’t be, ‘What did Moses say on the subject?’ the real question should be, ‘What did God the Father say on the subject?’ You men are going back to Moses to get your perspective on marriage and divorce, but YOU’RE NOT GOING BACK FAR ENOUGH! You need to go back to creation, to the time when God made man and woman in his own image. And when you back to that point in time, you find God’s thought on the matter, which is preserved for us in the Book of Genesis, chapter 2 in these words: ‘God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”

Jesus then interprets that verse with these powerful words, “So they’re no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

The Catholic Church has remained faithful to these words of Jesus for over 2,000 years (which really shouldn’t surprise us, since ours is the Church Jesus Christ founded on the rock of Peter). Every other Christian group and community I know of has compromised this teaching in some way.

Of course, the Church also understands that just because two people follow all the rules and go through a wedding ceremony in a Catholic setting does NOT necessarily mean that “God” has joined that couple together. Sometimes there’s a defect present at the very beginning which prevents the couple from making the full, free consent necessary to have a valid marriage. (One example of this would be if one or both of the parties was forced into the marriage; another would be if one or both of the parties positively intended never to have children in the marriage.)

This, of course, is the essential difference between a divorce and an annulment. A divorce says, “There once was a marriage, now there isn’t”; while an annulment says, “There was never a true marriage bond formed in the first place because of a defect present when the vows were exchanged—even though the couple entered the relationship in good faith.”

I know there are many people in this church right now who have gone through the painful experience of divorce. It is not something you planned on; it is not something you desired, but it happened. Remember, those who are civilly divorced and who are living a chaste, single life can still participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. In the eyes of God they’re still married to their ex-spouses, they’re just not living with them (which is not the ideal, for sure, but neither is such a situation sinful in and of itself). The problem comes when a person remarries outside the Church; then they must refrain from the sacraments unless they’re in danger of death. But all is not lost. I always encourage those in that type of situation to apply for an annulment. If there was some defect present and the first marriage was not valid, that will hopefully be recognized by the tribunal, which means the person will be able to get married again in the Church.

But enough of the talk about divorce. I’d rather be more positive in this homily by talking about marriage itself. After all, the cure to the divorce problem in our culture is better marital relationships. That should be obvious: stronger, healthier marriages mean fewer marital breakups.

On that note, let me share with you this morning 7 secrets of a successful marriage that I recently came across on the web site of the Diocese of Austin, Texas. They were formulated by a psychologist, Dr. Joseph D. White and William R. Cashion. Properly speaking, they were written for people who are contemplating marriage, but many of them also apply to those already married.

They begin by saying, “Research in psychology and sociology continues to affirm the Church’s timeless teaching. Thus, we offer the following suggestions based on scientific data and clinical wisdom:”

Secret #1 for a successful marriage according to Dr. White and Mr. Cashion: Avoid cohabitation prior to marriage. They write, “Although about 50-80% of couples do it, research says they are 40-85% more likely to get divorced than those who don’t.”

And they cite 5 studies to back up their assertion.

So much for the idea that “trying it first with no commitment” makes for a better marriage!

Secret #2 for a successful marriage: Practice pre-marital and marital chastity. According to White and Cashion, “Couples who wait until after marriage to have [relations] are 29-47% more likely to enjoy [relations] during marriage.” Then they go on to give this word of advice: “After the wedding, be faithful to your spouse. Major hurt and disruption to relationships is often caused by extramarital affairs, the viewing of pornography, and ‘emotional affairs’ (in which one spouse invests him/herself emotionally in someone else, rationalizing the relationship because it is not a sexual one). While marriages in which these things happen usually are troubled prior to the affair, unfaithfulness can push the relationship to the breaking point, causing lasting wounds that may not heal.”

Secret #3 for a successful marriage: Keep the faith! Here they cite a University of Wisconsin researcher who found that couples who attend church weekly are 35% less likely to divorce.

Aren’t you glad you came to church today?

Secret #4: Spend time together in prayer. As Pope John Paul II said, “Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the family to partake of God’s own ‘strength.’” The authors then refer to another study, done in 1991, which found that only 1% of married couples who pray together and report a high quality sexual relationship think that divorce is even possible for them.

Secret #5 for a successful marriage: Practice Natural Family Planning. White and Cashion write, “A Michigan State University study (Tortorici, 1979) showed higher levels of marital satisfaction among couples who use NFP versus other methods of family planning, and some studies (e.g., Aquilar, 1980) have indicated that the rate of divorce for couples who practice NFP may be as low as 0.6%.”

And how blessed we are in this parish, since we have 2 couples who are certified NFP instructors. Their phone numbers, incidentally, are in the bulletin!

Secret #6 for a successful marriage: When you have a conflict, talk about it. Here the authors make a very important point which might surprise some of you. They write, “A healthy marriage is not one that is free of conflict. In fact, researchers have found no relationship between the number or frequency of disagreements and marital dissatisfaction. Some happy couples have lots of conflicts, and some unhappy ones have very few. What makes the difference between happy and unhappy couples is how conflicts are resolved once they occur. By using sensitive, healthy communication skills, a couple can work through conflicts and make their marriage stronger.”

And finally, secret #7 for a successful marriage: Practice empathy and forgiveness. I always tell couples on their wedding day that the two most important sentences they need to learn to say to one another from their hearts are the sentences, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” Obviously White and Cashion agree. As they say here, “When you are angry or dismayed by what your spouse is doing or saying, try to imagine yourself in his or her shoes. Work toward forgiveness and trust when hurts occur. Grudges can devastate a marriage, but choosing to let go of angry feelings gives us the freedom to go on.”

If you’re having trouble living these last 2 suggestions in your marriage, I highly recommend that you attend a Retrouvaille weekend, which is a Catholic workshop for troubled marriages. We advertise local Retrouvaille weekends periodically in our bulletin, and you can find lots of information about them online. I know for a fact that they’ve helped to save several marriages right here in our community. One of the things that makes them so effective is the great follow-up program they have for husbands and wives after they go back home.

Let me conclude today by saying how inspiring it is to have so many couples in our parish celebrating major wedding anniversaries each year: their 25th, their 40th, their 50th, their 60th. Believe it or not, we even had one couple, Barbara and Frank Liguori, celebrate their 70th anniversary in 2008.

They give us hope for the future: hope for the future of the traditional, nuclear family, hope for the future of our society, and hope for the future of marriage. They show us that those whom God has joined together can actually stay together—for life.