February 8, 2008

Spring 2008 Marriage Supplement

Sacramental themes highlight new marriage research

By Daniel Sarell (Special to The Criterion)

For years, the paradigm for preparing couples for marriage has centered on the ongoing effort and learned skills, especially communication and conflict resolution, required for a healthy marriage.

Learning those important skills comprises a very human response to the grace of the sacrament of matrimony and remains crucial even as new research begins to highlight new themes.

For example, in Catholic marriage ministry, a new emphasis is emerging on the sacramentality of marriage, especially in light of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Soon, that message will become better integrated with the skills-based themes of listening, family-of-origin patterns, time management and others.

With the phenomenal rise in the divorce rate, research has focused intensely on the consequences of conflict in marriage. While this emphasis is quite constructive, researchers and educators bemoan the negative tone of marriage education discourse such that we feel we are engaging more in “divorce prevention” than “marriage celebration.” Thanks to new research, that’s beginning to change.

In a recent “mini-symposium” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in May 2007, researchers Frank D. Fincham, Scott M. Stanley and Steven R.H. Beach review “emerging trends” which seek to redirect marriage research toward more complex processes and positive themes.

The traditional emphasis on marital distress and conflict, from an observational standpoint, is much easier to measure, and the correlations between conflict and divorce, abuse, poor parenting, chemical dependence as well as physical and mental health have been instructive, especially for therapists who are trying to help “at risk” couples.

However, this research has not always accounted for many variables that are not as simple to measure, such as when “reversal effects” defy predictable results and a marriage seems to “fix” itself with or without professional intervention.

In other words, why do some couples seek counseling and still divorce, others are helped professionally and reconcile, and still others experience far more traumatic events, but never seek counseling and eventually repair any damage that has been done?

Researchers have to be careful about which factors they can objectively theorize to have ameliorating influences on relationship dynamics, and they admit that the ability to measure more abstract themes like “hope, virtue [and] character” require new, more “refined” methods of research.

Culture can shape many of these factors, rendering them different from one place to another or one religion to another.

Still, there are exciting new findings beginning to emerge, and certain familiar themes to our Catholic, sacramental understanding of marriage are being affirmed through empirical studies.

Fincham, Stanley and Beach highlight four themes in particular: “forgiveness, commitment, sacrifice and sanctification” as important “nonlinear” processes or “dynamics” that can lead to marital “transformation.”

Forgiveness, the basis of Christ’s redemption of humanity back to God’s original creative plan, is being recognized as a critically transformative influence in marriage, one of the few processes by which significant damage can be helped to heal when spouses hurt one another.

Without forgiveness, the consequences of sins for which every spouse is guilty from time to time continue to snowball, leading to “negative downward cycles.”

Rooted in Christ’s act of redemption was his total self-sacrifice—death on the Cross.

When we think of a married person sacrificing for the other, we might associate that selflessness with a loss of happiness, ambition and satisfaction.

However, research is now suggesting that the transformative effect that sacrifice can have mitigates any sense of “loss” or “cost.” The attitude and act of focusing on the collective “us” in marriage shifts the focus toward the common good rather than on “the price I pay.”

In fact, sacrifice is closely related to deep commitment, a combination of dedication (“internal”) and moral and cultural values (“external”).

It is this type of research that has led many to conclude that the leading cause of divorce is, in fact, the decision to get divorced, not the transgression or conflict that might have sparked such discernment.

The additional variables of “ambivalence” and “indifference” to the more linear or binary measurements of “happy” or “unhappy” have allowed marriage researchers to see trends that lead us to a deeper understanding of why some couples forgive each other or are resilient to even the most traumatic events while others may quickly bail out over relatively minor conflicts.

As Catholics, we believe that grace underlies all of these issues, which leads to the fourth major trend in this new research into “transformative processes”—sanctification, “the process whereby [marriage] is perceived by people as having divine character and significance,” according to a 2005 study by K.I. Pergament and A. Mahoney published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion.

The extent to which people derive religious meaning from marriage has been shown to impact marital stability, in particular by deepening and motivating commitment, sacrifice and forgiveness.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) teachers have consistently taught both scientifically and anecdotally for years that those who practice NFP—most of whom are religiously and morally motivated to do so—report greater sexual satisfaction in their marriages and almost never divorce.

Though perhaps most of us are suspicious of “hocus pocus” types of “miracle stories,” Catholics do tend to leave room for grace-filled miracles in our everyday lives, the types of miracles that don’t make the newspapers.

In 2002, a study presented by L.J. Waite and Y. Luo at the American Sociological Association found that 62 percent of “unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later (and 77 percent ... remained married).”

Researchers call this a “nonlinear” example of “spontaneous remission.” I submit that Catholics would call this a miracle of faith, God’s action and presence in our lives and marriages.

Many, perhaps most, of those couples surely went through great suffering and put in a tremendous amount of effort to repair their damaged relationships, which on a personal level eliminates the “hocus pocus” from the equation.

Still, researchers have not yet been able to answer definitively why these marriages “self-repaired.” However, they are recognizing the role of factors “deeply embedded in cultural traditions, such as ... [commitment, forgiveness,] sacrifice and sanctification.”

In a time when pastors are finding that “integration” of Church teachings and new pastoral emphases must enhance the ministries that we are already doing rather than implementing new and expensive “programs,” not only are we—as ministers—challenged to rethink how we educate couples in marriage, but we—as married couples—are also challenged to discern the role of faith in our marriages.

Are we faithful to the values of our tradition? Do we see the truly beneficial blessings of those teachings? And are we intentional about cooperating with grace as we live sacramental matrimony?

The answers might be closer at hand than we ever thought as faith and science catch up to each other and enhance family life through openness and dialogue.

(Daniel Sarell is the director of the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries.) †

Local site Links: