The correspondence of Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day almost writes its own joke. Sadly, for some couples, getting ashes for Valentine’s Day is not only no laughing matter, it even seems like an all-too-appropriate sign of the state of their marriage.
It’s no coincidence that March is one of the two most popular months for divorce filings. (The other is August.) Struggling couples pray for the strength to make it through the holidays, and then, start meeting with attorneys through January and February. By the time they get their affairs in order, March is upon them and they are ready to file.
If you find yourself facing this possibility, I have a not-so-simple request that I would like you to take to prayer. Namely, this Lent, don’t give up on your marriage.
Pain and grace
The truth is, marriage can be incredibly, terribly hard sometimes. We are all broken, sinful people. Sometimes the person we sin against the worst is our spouse. We fail to love each other as we deserve to be loved. We take each other for granted. We betray each other’s trust. We hurt each other in ways that only two people who know each other terrifically well can, deeply and personally.Sometimes marriage can seem like a real cross. But that insight can also be a source of real wisdom for how to move forward. The Douay-Rheims Bible’s translation of Jesus’ last words are, “It is consummated” (Jn 19:30). The marriage of heaven and earth, the sacrificial outpouring of love that saved humankind for all time takes place in that moment where, in spite of all the pain we have inflicted on him, Jesus make a total self-gift. The bridegroom gives himself to his unworthy bride freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once shocked people by pointing at the cross and saying, “Do you know what is going on there? Nuptials! I tell you, nuptials!”
But lest we get too focused on Christ’s seemingly depressing, final moment, it’s critical to remember that by responding to the agonizing pain and rejection he felt on the cross with a miraculous outpouring of love, Jesus made the Resurrection — and our salvation — possible. Without Christ’s willingness to embrace the cross, there could be no honeymoon for the bridegroom and his bride.
So what? Jesus was God. We’re not. What difference does any of this make to a married couple suffering in 2018?
Well, that’s up to you. I’m not asking you to deny the real pain you are in. I’m not asking you to pretend that somehow your spouse deserves the heroic effort it would take to work out your issues. In fact, I’m sure they don’t. I’m pretty confident that your marriage is every bit the disaster you think it is. What I am suggesting is that Jesus gave us a model for how to deal with this. He showed us what God can do when, despite all the very good reasons there are to the contrary, we embrace our cross all the way through. He showed us that when we unite the pain to his grace, a resurrection follows.
The science of marriage therapy has advanced tremendously in the last 20 years. If you work with a trained, marriage-friendly therapist (instead of an therapist who “does marriage therapy”), research shows that you have more than a 95 percent chance of working through your issues. It won’t be easy, but as one of those marriage-friendly therapists, I can tell you that not only is it possible, but that every single one of those couples who lets me walk with them from their cross to their resurrection would tell you that it was worth it. Staying with it, embracing the cross and doing the work that their transformation required ultimately led to a marriage that was more satisfying, supportive and grace-filled than they imagined was possible.
Getting the right kind of help makes all the difference. If you have talked to your friends, or read some books, or met with your pastor a couple times, or gone on a retreat, or even done “some counseling” but have not worked with a trained marriage-friendly therapist who has supervised experience in doing marital therapy properly, you have not gotten the right kind of help. There is still reason to hope. A lot of it.
Of course, if you are being physically abused, you have an obligation to see your and your children’s safety. If that requires a divorce, then the Church certainly supports you (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2383). But almost anything short of that can be overcome with proper assistance. You can learn more about marriage-friendly help from sites like The National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists (MarriageFriendlyTherapists.com) or The Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic tele-counseling practice (CatholicCounselors.com).
No one gets married to get divorced. I know you didn’t. And there are professionals who can help you through the long Lent you have been living and give you the skills you need to experience a resurrection of love, passion and joy in your relationship once again. Please, let them help you.
There are many things you could give up this Lent. But I ask you, respectfully, for the sake of the promises you made at the altar, your children’s well-being and your own hopes and dreams, don’t let your marriage be one of them.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the director of CatholicCounselors.com and the author of “How To Heal Your Marriage And Nurture Lasting Love” (Sophia Institute Press. $19.95).