Adultery, inability to have intimate relations, challenges with in-laws, infertility, pornography addiction, financial struggles and bitterness.
These aren’t just problems that show up on Mad Men, these are challenges FOCUS student and staff alumni face.
Maybe you’re still in college, single, or discerning religious life or priesthood, but marriage is something that impacts all of us. Are you equipped to respond to the challenges you (or your friends, parishioners, siblings, etc.) will face down the road?
About nine months into building relationships with student and staff alumni as FOCUS’s first Alumni Relations Manager, I was surprised by something. Some alumni, and many of their friends, were deeply struggling in their marriages or family life. If they weren’t struggling, their peers were, and they didn’t know what to do.
My job was to discover the challenges and triumphs people experience in their days beyond being missionaries or students involved with FOCUS on campus. I never expected one of the major things would be difficulty in marriage and family life. Devout Catholics, daily Mass goers, monthly confessors, people in weekly Bible study, some of them were suffering deeply in their vocations.
After some major discernment, I applied to study in a masters marriage and family therapy program in order to serve the struggling marriages and families. I’ve been enrolled at Seattle Pacific University for a year and a half, now seeing clients and deepening my understanding of the complexity of relationships.
If you are one of the people struggling in your vocation, (even mildly) you are not alone! There’s hope for you!
Here are just a few things I’ve learned that might be helpful in your marriage or in any profound relationship in your life (seriously, family relationships, close friends, and co-workers can benefit from this stuff too):
The fight you’ve had before
I’m sure you’ve had the fight about something little, like folding towels or what peanut butter to buy, but there’s a lot more going on there. There’s the tone of the conversation, each person’s emotional state, the story playing in your minds about it, and most importantly, the exchange between you and your partner as the argument is taking place.
A famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, conducted a groundbreaking study with thousands of couples that revealed there are four indications that a marriage is in trouble and it has nothing to do with the content of the fight. It has everything to do with the process.
Gottman’s research showed criticism, defensiveness, stone-walling, and most of all, contempt, did the most profound damage during fighting. These behaviors are so damaging that he refers to them as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” In other words, they are so erosive to a marriage, that when combined, they determine that a marriage won’t last.
What can you do?
There’s no quick, easy way to solve the problems that lead to the four horsemen, (criticism, defensiveness, stone-walling and contempt) but a great place to start is being aware that they exist and that they are not healthy for your relationship.
Here are five ways to start the journey to a healthier relationship.
1. Commit to prayer, especially meditating on His deep love for you.
Besides keeping you connected to God, prayer is important for experiencing yourself as deeply loved and seen on a daily basis. Your spouse cannot fulfill everything in you, and it is important that you turn to God, who sees all of you and loves you.
2. Practice gratitude, especially concerning your partner.
Healthy relationships have a high level of appreciation for the other. Gratitude will be especially helpful as an anecdote for criticism. When you spend time being thankful, even for small things, you actually create new neuro-pathways in your brain to replace those that are wired for criticism.
3. Respond instead of reacting.
Gottman’s research shows that when partners shut down, (also called “stone-walling”) their heart rate and blood pressure is elevated. In other words, in the face of stress, their response seemed stone cold. This happens in the face of an attack, or from feeling overwhelmed by the fight.
Being reactive (i.e. attacking your partner, being defensive or critical) is hard on any relationship, even without stonewalling. Next time you are tempted to react, try taking two or three deep breaths before saying anything. This will give your frontal lobe (the “adult” part of your brain) a moment to kick in, and your response will be clearer and less emotional.
You can also help your partner to be less reactive by sharing your needs instead of attacking. Say how you feel and express what you want. For example, instead of saying, “You’re always out with your friends, you don’t care about me,” you could say, “I am feeling lonely, I wish you would make time for me.”
4. Take heart! The blessings of Catholic tradition.
The Gottmans encourage couples to create rituals in their marriage or relationship that express and support the values and aspirations of each person. These rituals — not just the big things like Christmas traditions, but even weekly leisure activities, or daily coffee habits — are extremely impactful.
Thankfully, for two thousand years, the Church has been about fostering deep, life-giving relationships with God, self, others and creation. Attending Mass, spending time in a supportive community, engaging intellectual tradition, pursuing and delighting in beauty deepen your connections and enrich your marriage. Continue to engage in the rich traditions that the church has to offer, and your relationship will benefit!
5. Reach out for help.
If you or someone you know is having trouble in their marriage, there are many places you can turn! You can check out The Alexander House, your parish priest, a local counselor or a marriage group.
There’s nothing wrong with getting an outside perspective or gaining additional skills for your relationship. Marriage is hard, and our modern-day culture certainly doesn’t make it any easier. Many people simply didn’t receive the skills necessary to face the challenges presented to this lifelong relationship. Take heart! The gift of your relationship hasn’t been lost. It just needs a refresh.