Building Up Marriage and Family
October, 2015 by Dr. Ken Buckle of Gratia Plena
The second part of the special Synod of Bishops on the Family is now underway in Vatican City. Last year we had part one. And last month we had the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia which was visited by Pope Francis. I think that the Church is right to spotlight and discuss marriage and family issues, and how to protect and grow these God-given institutions that are the cornerstone of our communities. Inside the Church and outside of the Church, marriages and families are hurting. When marriages and families are in trouble, this means the individuals inside them are suffering…and many times we find that children are feeling the pain. These children then are vulnerable to having their own problems and to having difficulty in relationships later in life. There is a cycle of family struggles then that can be transmitted from generation to generation. We can interrupt this cycle with God’s grace and through the work of the community to bring about a powerful transformation. Perhaps this is what the bishops are discussing at this very moment.
I’m beginning to think that we need an intensive, carefully planned, comprehensive lifespan development approach to building up marriage and the family. I began to have this thought recently while sitting in a FOCCUS training class. FOCCUS is a marriage preparation program. We traditionally have thought of marriage preparation as something that begins after the couple becomes engaged, but I wonder if marriage preparation should instead begin in childhood. Before you dismiss this as the silly fantasies of a Catholic psychologist, allow me to explain my thinking.
Some of my ideas here are based on what we are seeing in our current culture. For example, we know that most kids are receiving secular information about sexuality at an early age or not at all. Parents then need tools to provide a counter-education for their children, one that is in line with the Scriptures and teachings of the Church. I believe that the Church at the parish level can provide these tools.
I envision an intentionally holistic well-planned program, as opposed to something that is piecemeal. I am just thinking out loud here, just imagining a type of outline. I would very much like to hear others’ opinions and feedback on this. I bet that if we put our heads together on this important challenge and invite the wisdom of the Spirit, we can form a great program for the community. As you read each topic, think of how it relates to a person entering into marriage or a religious vocation.
Maybe the program would look something like this overview:
- How to Make and Be Friends (elementary and middle school): Many youth and adults seem to have social anxiety and have difficulty with relationships, or they confuse relationships with sex. I find in counseling that a significant number of clients need to learn the simple but important basic skills of making and being friends. All healthy relationships start here. Whether following a path to marriage or religious vocation, it is essential to learn how to make and be a good friend. Couples who were not good friends first will likely struggle in their relationship over time.
- Healthy Sexuality (middle school and high school): Sexuality is not just about sex. It actually has to do with multiple factors such as gender identity and sexual attraction. It also has to do with cultural roles, expectations, and reactions. This is where Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is so valuable. This is where the basics of Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be taught. This is where the dangers of porn can be explained. There are materials now to introduce youth to these ideas. They need to learn this information before they hear the partial truths that the secular culture will tell them. Armed with this information, they can then hopefully grow naturally in their healthy sexual development through adolescence and into young adulthood. Again, this topic is important for a young person whether their future vocation is to married life, to singlehood, or to a religious vocation.
- How to Deepen Friendships (high school): Adolescence is the first time that we might really share deeply of ourselves with others: our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, our problems, our hopes and dreams…and so on. Being vulnerable in this way is a risk, and it doesn’t always go well. Some are left discouraged and disappointed for example, if they betrayed or abused, but we can help our youth understand that this is part of the process of finding special friends that you gradually get to know better and trust over time. Again, this is a building block for other relationships in the future. Having close friends is a protective factor when we are under stress. Emotional intimacy is important apart from sexual/physical intimacy.
- Who Am I? (high school and college): Adolescence and young adulthood are naturally times when a person’s identity is forming. Our identity cannot be formed very well apart from our concept of who we are to Jesus. Helping young people to think about self without being selfish or self-centered is tricky but critical. Our true self is not tied to our work, to our material possessions, or to what people think of us. Our true self has to do with what is eternal, with what Christ knows of us. If we carry around attachments to things and try to prop up false selves, then we cannot find real relationships with others.
- Discerning My Vocation (high school and college): People sometimes assume that they have a married vocation, but not all of us do. If we are open, then this means that we might engage in a process of discernment about important things in life. In fact, we might have an increase in religious vocations if we help our youth learn how to really discern. We will discern many things over our lifetime, and to this knowledge is quite helpful as a life tool.
- Responsible Dating and Exclusive Relationships (high school and college): Sometimes we see kids in middle school or high school forming long-term exclusive relationships. This is a great danger and tragedy. Adolescence is a perfect time to get to know self and others, and being in an exclusive relationship limits the ability to learn in this area. Dating and exclusive relationships require maturity and a healthy sense of self. It requires self-discipline and self-control. It requires healthy sexuality.
- Discerning Engagement (young adults and adults): Some people enter exclusive relationships that go on for the long-term, but opt out of marriage even though they are living like a married couple. The idea of engagement may never come up, or comes up as an assumed next step after a long-term relationship. There is a growing number of faithful young adult Catholics who are formally discerning whether their exclusive relationship should evolve into a marriage relationship. This is really great, and can be done when discernment skills have been learned earlier in life.
- Pre-Marriage Preparation (adults): Over time we are developing better and better processes in the Church for marriage preparation. Even the secular government supports funding for marriage preparation. Why? Because divorce is extremely costly to the economy. In the Church we have programs such as Engaged Encounter, sponsor-couples, relationship inventories like FOCCUS and Prepare/Enrich, marriage preparation classes, and so on. These are all good, but we need to make them more standardized and thorough leading up to the ceremony. It may be that we need to encourage couples to allow for eighteen months of preparation/engagement time instead of twelve, because of the planning and resources that get dedicated to the ceremony. If issues are uncovered during marriage preparation, it can become awkward and undesirable to postpone the ceremony. A couple needs to have the freedom to do this. The whole purpose of marriage preparation is to ensure healthy relationships from the start, to avoid unstable marriages and unions that would be at risk for not surviving. This is prevention, and therefore is of great value to the community and to the Church.
- Intensive Early Marriage and Family Support (adults): Many marriage problems crop up in the first five to seven years after the ceremony. We need to address this delicate period just as intensely (or more so) as the marriage preparation period. Marriage Encounter and marriage retreats are important. Programs like Teams of Our Lady (TOOL) are also critical. Young couples can individually attend programs that support and encourage family life such as ACTS retreats and That Man is You. These programs can help men become great husbands and fathers, and guide women to being good wives and mothers. Additional classes on “Theology of the Body” and NFP become appropriate here again during this time. Couples in crisis early on can try the Retrouvaille program and/or counseling before problems get worse.
- Marriage and Family Maintenance (adults): Marriage in a way is like growing a tree. It must be fertilized, protected, and nurtured in order to be strong and fruitful over the long haul. There are many lifespan challenges that occur during a typical marriage. After the ceremony, the couple may have some time on their own. However the first major milestone is commonly the entry of children. As with each marriage development milestone, this first significant change brings stress as well as blessings. Another such milestone occurs when children begin leaving the home for college or work. When this phase completes, the couple will experience the “empty nest” period. A couple may enter into a phase of care for one or more of their own parents. Another milestone comes when one or both spouses retire from work. Other issues that may arise have to do with a significant illness or approaching death of a spouse. Couples need information about each of these milestones and challenges. These could be a serious of classes or seminars offered at the parish level. Counseling as needed can be a support during these milestones. It is always better to get counseling when problems are just starting than when they have become a full-blown crisis that is leaving the marriage union in jeopardy.
These are just some of my thoughts after brainstorming about building better marriages and families through targeted Church programs. I think that these programs are best when done at the local parish level. Couples and families need to support each other throughout the marriage life cycle. As mentioned previously, I welcome your ideas on this topic. I am sure that others can think of something better. I expect that our bishops will bring home good recommendations from the Synod on the Family. We can all look forward to hearing about these in the coming months.