Try a little wedding de-planning

Someone I know once worked at Michael’s craft supply store. It wasn’t a very challenging job, so she took it upon herself to add a new duty: Wedding De-Planner.

When feverish brides-to-be (or their mothers) would approach the counter with armloads of what could only be described as frilly garbage, she would try her best to talk them out of buying it. Put some of it back, let some of it go. Snap out of it! Nobody needs this stuff. (No, she did not work on commission.)

It’s not just that they were buying tasteless decor that would look ridiculous in six months, when the current hot trend had cooled. It was that they were openly making themselves miserable trying to pursue some ephemeral aesthetic ideal, and spending gobs and gobs of money, trying to create something that . . . wasn’t really anything. They were letting themselves be bullied (by Instagram, by magazines, by the wedding industry and the culture in general) into loading themselves down with a bunch of stuff that won’t and can’t make anyone happy.

I can’t claim any credit for not having fallen prey to this impulse myself, when I was planning my own wedding. The only reason I didn’t is because I didn’t have the time or the money. We had something like two months and maybe $1500, and we ended up with what looked on paper like a bare bones wedding and reception, but which I remember as being loud, colorful, and joyful. There was singing and dancing and laughing, and everyone had plenty to eat and drink, and if anyone was dissatisfied, I either missed it at the time, or I’ve forgotten it by now.

We got away with such simplicity because we were young, only the second couple in our group of friends to get married; so the standard wasn’t very high yet. Also, the overall emotion of the day was rejoicing (and more than a little bit of relief on the part of my parents), which goes a long way to making a good day. I’ve been to weddings that are extremely elegant and tasteful, but are bogged down with an invisible fog of hostility and tension, so that’s mainly what the guests feel.

Looking back, there are very few details I would have changed, and none of them have to do with spending more money.

I don’t remember what the organist played, but it was something appropriate for Mass, so no harm done. I don’t remember which readings we chose. I don’t remember our wedding vows! But we’ve spent the last 25 years figuring out how to live together, which I imagine we also would have to do even if we had painstakingly crafted some personal and meaningful vows and memorized them.

There was a Mass. We got married at it. The ceremony was done the way it was always done at that parish, which included an ultra-tacky Unity Candle that has a little story attached to it and the priest repeatedly saying my name wrong; but we definitely got married.

My husband’s brother took a bunch of pictures, and some of them turned out good. I had asked my bridesmaids to choose their own dress, as long as it was dark green. Everyone had a few flowers to hold (I do wish I had spent more on their flowers and on flowers for the church, and less on my own bouquet). We had bought wedding rings at a kiosk at the mall, and we still have them, and they are still ring-shaped, so that worked out.

The reception was in the church basement. My plan was to decorate with freshly-picked wildflowers, but it turns out there aren’t any in late October; so we had baskets of polished apples and bottles of wine on the tables, instead, which turned out to be both festive and practical. I borrowed a stack of CDs from the library, and a friend volunteered to play them for dancing. We bought lots of cheap wine and good bread and ordered some plates of meat and cheese from the deli, my sister made a giant bowl of pasta salad, and my father made a giant pot of French onion soup.

My mother was going to bake my wedding cake, but she got sick, so I baked it myself, but completely forgot to plan any decorations, so a friend strewed some bridesmaid flowers and ferns around it. Voila, a decorated cake. There were balloons and bubbles and lots of little kids at the reception, and . . . we were happy. It was a happy day, and off we went.

I remember being annoyed that one of the groomsmen wore a tan sweater instead of a dress jacket; I remember being annoyed that the best man gave a speech that was basically a lament over losing his best friend to some random chick (me). I remember getting over it, dancing with my new husband, and leaving early, because we couldn’t wait to be alone together.

I wish I had thought harder about thanking everyone for pitching in so much. I dropped the ball with that. Something else that would have made the day better: An opportunity for confession and adoration before the wedding. I’ve heard of couples doing this and vastly altering the atmosphere of the entire day, for the couple and for everyone in attendance. But still and all, even a wedding day is just one day. We’ve had plenty of confession and adoration since then, and we plan to keep that up.

Like every other married couple, we’ve accumulated some regrets. We’ve been married for nearly 25 years, and it’s not hard to look back and find some things we wish we could have changed. But I will tell you, not a single one has to do with something I wish I had bought at Michael’s, or anywhere else. There’s nothing I wish I had gone into debt over, to make the day more special.

So if you’re planning your wedding and feeling the tug to add more things to your cart, and make it more elaborate, more loaded down, more fancy, more expensive, may I encourage you to resist? Or if you need some encouragement, I know a wedding de-planner who can help.

I’m really not joking! I know there are a lot of cultural and circumstantial pressures that go into weddings. But when you’re planning the day, do think most of all about how you’re going to spend your life together. Think about how to make that joyful. Believe me, believe me. The details may seem important now, but eventually, very little else will matter besides everything else.

 

A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on July 25, 2022.
Image: Tom Harpel from Seattle, Washington, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

What Catholics actually want and need from marriage preparation

Keep the lines of communication open, and buy gold.

Those are the two things and the only things my husband and I learned in our marriage preparation classes 25 years ago.

It’s hard to say which bit of advice was less helpful. We already knew communication was important, but what we really needed was practice. And the financial advice was sound, but we had exactly enough cash for one month’s rent and a new mattress, so that’s what we spent it on.

In other words, what we learned during marriage preparation was one thing that was true but uselessly abstract, and one thing that was true but comically irrelevant.

And this, unfortunately, seems to be par for the course for most Catholics. When I asked Catholics about their experience with marriage preparation, some said they enjoyed and appreciated it and learned valuable things. But many more told me that the experience was just an extra burden during an already stressful time, or even that it soured a skeptical partner against the faith. The recent announcement by the Vatican of a year-long (albeit voluntary, at least for now) “catechumenal itinerary for married life” has been met with mild to scathing cynicism from Catholics—including priests and lay people—on social media.

“Catholics think if you just get the right program, everything will be fine,” said Robert Krishna, a Dominican priest in the archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. “And if they don’t understand what they need to do, repeat yourself louder and slower. That’s not the answer.”

Still, the answer cannot be simply to require no preparation. More than one canon lawyer who has worked on marriage tribunals has told me that many couples present themselves at the altar with little to no understanding of what marriage is. Their relationships fall apart because they were unprepared for marriage. So someone has to do something.

What type of marriage preparation is actually useful, helpful and stays with a couple as they grow into the sacrament they have conferred on each other? I talked with Father Krishna, several married people, and a married couple who have been running Engaged Encounter weekend retreats since 2005, and here is what I learned…

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image source 

Mandatory Lent Film Party 2022: THE JEWELLER’S SHOP

Last Friday we watched The Jeweller’s Shop, a movie about married love based on a play written by John Paul II while he was extremely high. This is the fourth movie we’ve watched this year for our Mandatory Lent Film Party series. Still haven’t gotten around to reviewing The Secret of Kells yet, but my watch list and mini-reviews of Fiddler on the Roof and The Scarlet and the Black are here

We watched The Jeweler’s Shop on the Formed app, which we paid a fee to access for a month. 

Rather than attempt to write a review, I will simply recreate the experience for you as best I can, hitting the highlights.

The movie opens with some music that can best be described as “ready to autoplay in midi form when someone opens your Blogspot blog called ‘Marian Musings’ with the purple rosary wallpaper.” The man who wrote it also wrote “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “Brian’s Song” which my sister’s ballet class danced to in sixth grade in Mrs. Jenkins’ ballet class, and that is exactly what it sound like. 

As the story begins, a group of extremely sweatered young people are hiking in the mountains with a priest. The scenery is beautiful, the banter is top notch, the careless gestures between male and female are meaningful but not too meaningful, and the guitar part doesn’t last too long. But, then, THERE IS AN EXTREMELY ALARMING HOWLING ANGUISHED YETI(?) SOUND.  The group scatters, some in fear, some to help. It is clearly very significant, and you will think to yourself, “Whoa, what was that about? I can’t wait to find out!” 

Just you wait.

Later, one of the couples goes for a walk at night and has an awkward conversation about love, and the dude asks the girl to marry him. She darts away and buys a pair of white, high-heeled shoes, and then comes back to him wearing them, explaining that she can’t have the conversation unless she’s as tall as he is.

Now, by this point in the movie, we have already stopped it and had the “Okay, look, clearly this is not a normal movie, but we’re going to try to meet it on its own terms and see what we can make of it, so everybody be cool, okay?” conversation. So we were trying.

So we start the movie again, and watch them having this conversation about love in the middle of the night in the middle of the street, and he doesn’t think it’s strange that she ran off and bought shoes to talk to him. And I can live with this, because it’s a different kind of movie, as we discussed.

But the fact remains that, even with the shoes, he’s still a good eight inches taller than she is. So even if you suspend your disbelief that it means something for her to be as tall as him, she isn’t as tall as him! It just don’t add up! I found myself not only listening to the dialogue very carefully, but watching everybody’s mouths, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie was dubbed from Turkish or something. It is not. It just feels very much like a movie that can’t possibly be what was originally intended by its maker.

You guys, I wanted so badly to like this movie, and to be moved by it, and to hear something that would strike me to the core and make me see my life in a new light. But I had no idea what the hell was going on.

The story itself was easy enough to follow. Synopsis: There are two couples in Poland. One couple is good, but the guy dies in the war, and then the wife has a baby, who grows up to be a hockey player. The other couple is bad, and they go to Canada and have a baby who grows up to be Jan from The Office. The hockey player falls in love with Jan, and she loves him, too, but she’s afraid of marriage because her parents are terrible. The hockey players asks his widowed mother for advice, and she responds, “Even your father would be doing better than you right now, and he’s DEAD! Well, bye!” and flies off to Poland.

Then I forget what happens, but the bad couple realizes they need to get it together, so they do, and the young couple decides that they’re going to run away to Poland to get married, as one does. And guess who’s there? The jeweler!

Simcha, you forgot to tell us about the jeweller! No, I didn’t. I just don’t know what to say. There is this jeweller, Burt Lancaster, who spends most of the movie aging unconvincingly and coming out with uncalled-for metaphysical pronouncements. He’s some kind of omniscient pre-Cana guy, and is also sometimes in Canada, in a slightly different format. Toward the end, the young couple turn up in his shop, and they’re like, “Hello! Our parents both bought rings from you, and apparently you have a scale that can read human hearts, so we would like to buy our wedding rings from you, and also we have heard that you have a lot to say about love. So, could you say something about love?”

That last part is almost a direct quote. But apparently they front loaded all the good jeweller love quotes in the first part of the movie, because the one time someone actually requests a fraught aphorism about love, and he just stands there, grinning at them.

Possibly he is thinking about washing his hair. Possibly he is thinking about that screaming sound they heard in the mountain, and thinking about how insane it is that it’s almost the end of the movie, and apparently this is all we’re going to get on that topic. (Earlier, one of the characters mentions that hearing a yeti(?) scream in the mountain was some kind of existential crossroads for her. Who was howling? We don’t know. Why was it important? Also extremely unclear. This is sort of like Chekhov’s rule, except instead of someone firing the gun that’s been hanging the wall, someone takes the gun down, sucks apple juice out of it, and then declares this is why they never liked bowling.)

Olivia Hussey is the prettiest lady I have ever seen, and it was okay to just watch her for an hour and a half. Very pretty lady. But the rest of this movie was not okay. Very little happens, but it also skips abruptly from scene to scene, making it hard to understand what is happening. Some of the dialogue is extremely mannered, and some of the characters deliver their lines in a formal, stage-like manner, but some of them try to toss them off like they’re in an after-school TV special, so the viewer can never settle in to a mode of viewing. Sometimes it tries to be very accessible and naturalistic, and then sometimes you have a scene where the priest comes to tell a young woman that her husband is dead, and when she tells him she’s pregnant and asks, weeping, why she feels so alone, he says we’re all empty, waiting to be filled up by God. And I do realize times have changed, but there has never been a time when that was a normal or helpful thing to say to a weeping pregnant new widow. 

So you think, “Okay, we’ll just settle into viewing this movie as some kind of highly poeticized formal drama, rather than a standard human narrative.” And that should work, because much of the dialogue is extremely meaningful, and it’s delivered with full gravity. The problem is, it’s not . . . very good. I’m someone who thinks about love and marriage and the meaning of human relationships constantly, and I don’t know what this is supposed to mean:

The Jeweller : The weight of these gold rings is not the weight of metal, but the proper weight of man. Man’s own weight. Yes, the proper weight of man. It’s the weight of constant gravity, riveted to a short flight. Freedom and frenzy trapped in a tangle. And in that tangle, in that weight which at the same time is heavy and intangible, there is love – love which springs from freedom, like water from a rift in the earth. So tell me, my young friend, what is the proper weight of man?

André : I don’t know.

The Jeweller : Man is not transparent. He’s not monumental. He’s certainly not simple. As a matter of fact, he’s rather poor. Now, that’s all right for one man, maybe two. But what about four or six, or a hundred or a million? If we took everyone on Earth and multiplied their weakness by their greatness, we’d have the product of humanity, of human life.

I will admit, I found myself profoundly moved by a passage which came somewhat later in the film, as follows: 

The jungle is every place for bitterness. It sows and reaps it like so much cane sugar. The jungle gets into your blood and builds tiny little houses of pain and you don’t wanna be there when the rent’s due because the anaconda, funny thing, they don’t know how to read a lease.

[chuckles]

Seems they’ve never learned! But the only thing longer than a croc’s mouth is the time it takes to swallow you whole. So next time you talk to me about jungles and bitterness, next time you’re trying to find your eyes with both hands, just keep that in mind… that is, if you still have a mind.

Jungle Brad: The jungle is a dangerous place, that’s true, but anyone who has ever seen two monkeys give each other things knows, that it’s a happy place, too. So let’s remember that and keep in mind you can eat pretty much anything you see, so have fun.

Oh sorry, that’s actually from The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, a sequel to The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. But go ahead, make the argument that it’s significantly worse writing than the Jeweller stuff. 

I’m sorry, I love John Paul II. We named one of our kids after him.  Maybe in some other lifetime I would watch the play he wrote, but this movie was completely opaque to me. I sat down to watch it with an open mind and an open heart, and I like all kinds of movies, and I feel like I’m ready to work with just about anything, as long as it works in some way. I tried really hard to figure out how to watch this movie, and it didn’t work. It wasn’t profound or personalist or metaphysical. It was just silly and confusing and amateurish, and I’ll stand by that. I’ll go up in the mountains and scream it if I have to. Apparently sometimes that means a lot to some people!

Next up, we want to watch that Philip Neri movie, I Prefer Heaven. That was the reason we got the Formed app in the first place, but we couldn’t get the Neri movie to play, for some reason. Wish us luck, because we’ve had a lot of misses this Lent, and we really need a win.

The painful, grace-filled and (potentially) healing process of seeking an annulment

Four weddings, but only one sacramental marriage. That was the tally by the time Rob and Shannon made their vows to each other 18 years ago.

Rob and Shannon are not their real names. The couple is not ashamed of their story, but they do not like to dwell on it, either; and it is complex enough that they have not told their own children all the details. It is a story about mistakes, pride, fear and hope, growth and grace, and love and canon law. It is a story, in short, about what makes a valid marriage in the eyes of the church, and how church leaders and structures respond when a marriage is not valid.

For such a theologically dense topic, annulments are a perennially popular topic of discussion and debate among Catholics. They are also perennially misunderstood. Many Americans speak of “getting an annulment” as if it were just the Catholic version of divorce, and many Catholics leave the church when they discover that there is more to it than that. There are persistent stories of rich or famous Catholics who supposedly bought their way out of undesirable marriages; and armchair theologians are quick to offer their pronouncement on whether or not a stranger’s marriage is valid based on a few online comments.

But the problems surrounding petitioning for decrees of nullity go deeper than rumors and misunderstandings. In 2015, Pope Francis made some reforms, aimed at lowering the costs and expediting the process. He opined in January 2021 that these efforts were being stymied by the desire for money.

But some canon lawyers believe a different kind of reform is necessary, anyway—the kind that takes place on a more personal level, where couples begin their lives together with a better understanding of what the church means by marriage, and are supported during inevitable times of struggle.

What does the church really teach about this widely misunderstood process, and how does it play out in the lives of ordinary Catholics? What does it do to their emotional and spiritual lives to encounter a doctrine that works in the space where law meets love?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

 

Ask a couple who’ve been married 24 years today

Who has four thumbs, has been married for almost a quarter of a century, and absolutely adores haunted houses?

I have no idea. Definitely not me and my husband. We have the thumb part covered, and it will be our 24th anniversary in a few weeks, but we’re ambivalent at best about haunted houses.

You may wonder then, why we’re currently packing our bags to spend a long anniversary weekend at something called “Screeemfest,” which takes place inside an amusement park, which we also don’t especially care for, and which features no fewer than five on-premises haunted houses. Yes, that’s Screeemfest with three “e’s,” just like in Eastern equine encephalitis. Eee!

The thinking, see, is that our expectations will be so incredibly low, there’s nowhere to go but up. We do like each other, and we definitely like getting away from our kids, I mean the workaday responsibilities of everyday life, I mean our kids; so, I don’t know, this is what we’re doing. Chances are good we’ll have a good time one way or another, and after 24 years, we’re just leaning into the fact that we got married in late October, that’s all.

This strikes me as a much safer strategy than what we’ve done for our anniversary in the past, which was to try and sneak away for a super ultra romantic absolutely perfect dream getaway — a perilous endeavor which included getting lost on the highway, and then the fireplace not lighting properly, being embarrassed because I didn’t know how to pronounce the name of the fancy cheese I wanted to order, being too tired for champagne, etc. etc. The heck with all of that. A romantic weekend is where you find it. Happy anniversary, BOO! Eee!

As a little present to myself, I asked my social media friends for help writing this post. I solicited questions for a couple who’ve been married more or less happily for almost a quarter of a century. Here’s what we came up with:

What’s the preferred term: “The marital act” or “The Obligations”?

Like so many things in a strong marriage, it’s mainly about making other people feel uncomfortable. But what long-married couples don’t want you to know is that their secret word for “sex” is actually inaudible. They’re probably saying it right now, and you don’t even know it. Boo!

Did you ever switch sides of the bed?

Several people asked some form of this apparently burning question, and one person volunteered the information that she once did switch sides, and her husband got up in the middle of the night in his sleep and peed in the closet. Just if you were wondering whether there are less romantic things than going to a haunted house for your anniversary. In our case, it doesn’t matter which side of the bed I’m on, because I never sleep. I used to be up with the baby all the time. Now I don’t have a baby, and all I do is put on my pajamas and spend all night getting up and getting some ibuprofen, all night long. It’s called aging gracefully, look it up.

What’s the stupidest, funniest thing you’ve seriously argued about in those 24 years?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Pxfuel 

 

Weeding codependency out of Christian love

It’s a strange and beautiful thing, becoming one flesh. When two people marry, they begin the lifelong process of intertwining their hearts, growing into each other’s lives, sharing joys, sharing sorrows, finding self-worth through assuming responsibility for each other’s emotions and behaviors…

Hold up. That last part doesn’t belong. That last part describes something we call “codependence,” and it has no place in a loving relationship. It’s very common to find it there, though, because it’s great at mimicking sacrificial love. 

What is codependence? In its basic form, it’s a habit of taking on responsibility for someone else’s actions, emotions, responses, thoughts, and obligations.  

It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism many people develop in response to trauma. If we’re told as children that it’s our fault dad drinks or mom is always yelling, or if our spouses blame us for their irresponsibility at work or their bad temper at home, we may internalize that blame – and then spend the rest of our lives scurrying around, doing and saying anything that seems like it will stave off more conflict. 

Codependence isn’t simply a habit of trying to be helpful; it’s a heartfelt belief that another person’s entire experience of life depends on our behavior – that the sins and failings other people freely choose are somehow our fault, because we haven’t worked hard enough to keep them from happening. 

In truth, an adult with free will is the only one who can control how much he drinks, how much she yells, how they behave at work or at home. But abusive people are all too willing to let someone else take on that blame, and then blame them again when they can’t do the impossible and make everything better. 

Codependent behavior often feels like love, especially like the radically self-sacrificial, noble love that Christians are enjoined to cultivate. Codependency can look and feel like the great love of giving one’s life over for a friend. It can look like a form of holy martyrdom, mild or violent: “Look how selfless I am! I take onto my own person the suffering I do not deserve, just like Jesus!”

But there are crucial differences.

In authentic love, we are willing to help and be generous, but we do not pretend to have control over other people’s thoughts, actions, or emotions. Sometimes this real love might even look selfish, but in fact it shows respect for the other person’s autonomy, because it gives them credit for having free will and a unique, personal relationship with God. 

Codependency, on the other hand, may look generous, but is actually limiting, because it presupposes that the other person isn’t truly in control of his own behavior. It believes that other people can be manipulated into acting, saying, or feeling the right things.

Another difference: authentic love is rooted in healthy love of self, which recognizes that we are made in the image of God. Only trees with deep roots can bear generous fruit, and only firmly-rooted self-love can bear the fruit of unselfish love for others. In authentic love, we firmly believe we have something good to offer, and we’re even willing to suffer through offering it; but we don’t believe our own worthiness comes from our success at changing someone else.

Codependent behavior, though, is rooted in insecurity, fear, guilt, and shame, and a desperate desire to prove that we’re worthy of love. The drive to solve other people’s problems often comes from a deep terror that we may not be useful or necessary.

Sacrificial love brings joy and peace; codependent behavior brings bitterness and resentment.

And codependent behavior is reactive. We respond in the way we feel we must. We believe we’re forced into our actions by the behavior of others.

But loving actions are radically free. They come from a place of acknowledging and deliberately using our free will to imitate Christ, even though we have the choice not to do so. 

Christ knew who he was, and that’s how he had the strength to make the unthinkable sacrifice he made of his own life, for our sakes. But first, in the desert, he resisted the devil’s temptation to make him believe he needed to prove his worth; and throughout his life, passion, and death, he acknowledged that not everyone would follow him. He did not set about to change people who did not want to change. He would willingly take on their suffering and the sorrow, but he would not try to supplant their free will.

That is our model of authentic love.

It takes practice to break the habits of codependency. In some marriages, it can be done with attention and a firm, calm resolution to stop participating in an unhealthy habit. In others, where the origins of codependency are old and deep, it may take help from a therapist or a marriage counsellor, and it may take a long time. 

In either case, the upheaval that comes with untangling codependence from love can be unsettling, even terrifying. But it is worth rooting out. Like an invasive weed, codependency is not content to live side by side with love, but tends to crowd it out, strangle it, rob the healthy vine of nourishment, and eventually take its place entirely. Freeing a loving relationship from codependence means freeing love to flourish and bear good fruit. 

 

 ***

A version of this essay was originally published in Parable Magazine in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Thanks to Anna O’Neill and Kate Cousino for their help with this essay. Further reading: “Boundaries, Blaming, and Enabling in Codependent Relationships”  by Sharon Martin, LCSW; “Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response” by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT; and “Learning to distinguish codependency from love” by Anna O’Neill 

 
Image by simonwhitebeard from Pixabay

Frog and Toad at Cana

Not long before he died, I was complaining to my father I couldn’t persuade any of my kids to go to a Catholic college. I said I knew they were getting decent educations at the places they chose, but still, I was sure my plan was better than theirs. Half jokingly, half dead serious, I groaned,  “How will they ever find a nice Catholic to marry?”

My father said, “Well, I found one at Brooklyn Public College!” He was half joking, half serious, too: the joke being that, when he met my mother, they were both about as far from Catholic as anyone could be.

They had both been raised as non-practicing Jews, met at college when they were both cutting class, got married in secret in a hurry, had a second public ceremony to appease the parents, dabbled in Buddhism, moved to a kibbutz in Israel, came home, briefly joined a cult, found the Lord, and then eventually became Catholic — my mother and older sister first, and my father and the rest of us a year later, when they had already been married for about 20 years. They ended up as a happy old married Catholic couple, but they certainly didn’t start that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage and God’s will and who belongs together and how and why marriages work… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay

What do divorced Catholics need from their friends?

The Catholic Church takes the sacrament of marriage seriously.
Because this is so, it also takes abuse seriously, and never requires
spouses and children to silently endure abuse in the name of the sanctity
of marriage.

But those who do leave marriages, or those who are left, are often treated like second-class citizens by their fellow Catholics. Many separated Catholics say it feels like their faith community cares more about the idea of marriage than they do about actual people. A spouse who leaves is often shamed, even blamed, accused of “breaking up the marriage.”

But in cases of abuse or severe disfunction, the one who left did didn’t break up the marriage. The abuser broke it. The one who leaves is simply dealing with the pieces of something already broken. Separated and divorced Catholics don’t need judgment or condemnation. Here’s what they do need:

SERVICE. Managing a household solo can be a crushing burden.
They’re suddenly drowning in obligations, and will need help doing the work of two.

We can offer help with car maintenance or laundry, home repairs,
cleaning, child care, or carpooling. Some people simply need help learning how to do things their spouses used to handle. If we’re good at budgeting,
managing debt, writing résumés or navigating legal matters, we can
offer our expertise. 

MONEY. Many women, especially, have given up schooling and
careers to raise children, and simply don’t have the means to survive on
their own. Divorce also often brings huge legal expenses, especially if there’s a custody battle.

If we can’t contribute large amounts of money, even small cash
gifts or gift cards can make bright spots amid trauma, especially around
holidays.

THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. By the time a long-suffering
spouse finally resorts to something so drastic and disruptive as
separation, they have probably been sacrificing and struggling for years
to fix what was wrong, probably in secret, probably blaming themselves.
They may not be ready or willing to share the details of what went
wrong, but that doesn’t mean they have made a frivolous or selfish
decision.

We should never make reflexive glib suggestions like “Have you tried a novena?” or “Every marriage has rough patches.” And no consolation or healing will come from pronouncements like like “God hates divorce” or “Your children will suffer so much.” We’re likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It is best to imitate Christ and lead with sympathy and compassion, rather than judgment.

COMPANY. Separation is lonely, and single parents, especially, crave
adult companionship. Many separated people say they feel like they lost
their friends as well as their marriage. We shouldn’t stop inviting people
into our lives or activities just because they are no longer part of a
couple. Because we or others might feel a little awkward at first, is no
reason to withdraw hospitality that is more desired and needed than ever.
Separation is lonely, and single parents, especially, crave adult
companionship.  We should keep inviting and including people, even if
it feels a little awkward.

Similarly, we should never exclude their kids out of some ill-
formed idea that the family is somehow tainted by divorce, or
because we don’t want to have to explain it to our own kids. We can
remember to invite their kids along for Christmas cookie baking, trick-
or- treating or other activities that make childhood fun, and that may be
more but can be more than a struggling single parent can manage. Give
them a chance to feel normal and happy again. 

Separated or divorced people may also want support at court
proceedings, and they may need a companion during custody pick-ups to
prevent an abusive ex-spouse from harassing them. Drop in, check in,
hang out. Don’t let them feel forgotten. 

A LISTENING EAR AND AFFIRMATION. Even if we’re not
comfortable taking sides. when a couple splits up, someone who has suffered a devastating rupture needs to be built up, and needs to know that their friends and family believe they can build a good new life.

Affirming statements like “I know how strong you are” or “You know
better than anyone what really happened” or “You are holding things
together so well” can be very powerful, especially to someone whose
marriage was full of insults, denigration and manipulation. 

TRUST. Separated people may be needy, but they are not threats.
Rotten as it sounds, it’s fairly common for married women to act as if separated women are now gunning for their husbands. In
reality, especially if there has been abuse, the last thing a newly
separated person wants want right now is another man.
They’re trying to survive, not poach. Of course, amid the emotional
vulnerabilities that accompany these circumstances, clear and strong
boundaries must be maintained, but these occasions can also lead to deeper and more meaningful friendships.

GENTLENESS. Even if the marriage was miserable, ending it is
often painful. Someone who’s lost a spouse to divorce may truly be in mourning – if not for the spouse as a person, then for their former life and hopes. Divorce often feels like a personal and spiritual failure, even
when it’s nothing of the kind. We should act with tenderness, as we
would if there had been a death. 

CONFIDENTIALITY. No gossip, no pressure. The ex-spouse is the one who should decide how much information is public. If we’ve been entrusted with inside information about what went on while the marriage fell apart, we must keep that trust and not share the information. If we don’t have inside information, then we have nothing to say to others besides encouraging them to offer their support.  

A divorced person doesn’t owe us an explanation or require our
approval of what they chose for their own lives. We can let them know
we’re ready to listen if they want to unload, but that we don’t require them to divulge anything at all.

RESPECT. Not all newly-divorced people are in crisis. Some are ready and eager to begin their new lives on their own, and they find it annoying to be met with pity and condescension at every turn. If a separated person says they’re happy, you can believe them (while still being ready to offer help if it’s needed). 

***

This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in Parable magazine in 2019. 

Image by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It’s not too late to cancel your wedding

Jennifer’s wedding dress hangs in the closet of her guest bedroom. It’s never been worn. Jennifer (not her real name) called off her wedding two months before the date, and she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Her friends were shocked; her parents were distraught. Her maid of honor stopped speaking to her. Jennifer had made non-refundable deposits, was was surrounded by gifts from her bridal shower when she announced the wedding was off. 

It was very late in the game to change her mind. But it wasn’t too late.  

“I think the hardest part was being honest with myself,” Jennifer said. 

She and her fiancé had been together for six years, engaged for nine months; but it wasn’t until the last minute that she finally acknowledged their relationship just wasn’t healthy. 

She’s not alone. By some estimate, 15 percent or more of engagements don’t end in marriage. But a couples who’s been together for a long time — or a couple who’s blundered quickly toward marriage, without taking time to discern the wisdom of their plans — can feel like they’re locked in one they’ve announced their plans to wed. 

“It’s a difficult situation when there’s the romantic delusion that somehow this marriage is going to beat the odds,” said Father Joe Tonos, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Miss. 

“It’s like the Percy Sledge principle: ‘When a man loves a woman, she can do no wrong,’ or vice versa,”  he said. And so they forge ahead, despite all the warning signs. 

Or sometimes, as in the case of Melissa (not her real name), they know very well that something is wrong, but they don’t know how to extricate themselves from what feels like a trap. 

Melissa broke of her engagement to her abusive fiancé well after their wedding plans were underway. 

“If you’ve announced the engagement, the pressure is on to live up to the expectations by following through with the marriage. But the people who might be surprised by the news of the broken engagement do not have to live with a broken relationship, or suffer through a future divorce,” Melissa said. 

With the help of a counselor, she found the courage to call the wedding off, and she was amazed to discover how supportive and gracious her friends and family were. 

Nevertheless, Melissa said her experience was humiliating. “I felt like a failure,” she said. 

“It was also empowering, though, in an odd way. I knew the decision was the right one, and despite the pain of it all, I felt a great deal more peace once I’d called the engagement off than I did while we were still planning to marry,” she said. 

For a Catholic marriage to be valid, the spouses must be free to marry; they must freely consent to the marriage; they must intend to marry for life, to be faithful, and to be open to children; and they must (with some exceptions) marry in front of two witnesses and a priest. 

But this is the bare minimum. A couple looking forward to their wedding day should also be joyfully looking forward to spending a life together. They should experience some peace together. They shouldn’t be working hard to ignore red flag about each other or about their relationship. 

Most of all, they should never feel obligated or trapped by the wedding plans themselves, no matter how much money and time have been poured into crafting the perfect celebration. A wedding is just one day, and it’s possible to recover from cancelling it. It’s much harder to recover from a wedding that goes off perfectly, but which is the first day of years of misery and disaster. 

Father Tonos recalls counseling a friend to break up with his girlfriend who constantly made him unhappy. The friend protested: “What? And throw away the past two years?”

“Don’t count the past investment,” Father Tonos said. Instead, think of the future, and of how it will be to spend the rest of your life with this person. 

Melissa wishes she could tell her former self, “I know that right now, it feels like you’re trapped, like you can’t live without your partner in your life, but you also can’t imagine living with them. Marriage will not make those feelings of doubt and pain go away. By continuing a relationship that is mutually exclusive with your happiness, you might also miss other connections and opportunities that are where you’re meant to be, and who you’re meant to be with.” 

Melissa has since become engaged to another man, and she has “zero doubts.”

“Taking control of my life after this broken engagement was very hard, but it empowered me to really get to know what I needed to be happy in a relationship that would last,” she said.

Jennifer, too, is grateful for her experience, agonizing though it was. 

“I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that wedding bells do not define my worth. My vocation is no less because I didn’t go through with this,” she said. 

Jennifer and her ex-fiancé are still friends. He even thanked her, shortly after the cancelled wedding, for being strong enough to do what needed to be done. 

“Running to escape my problems would never have worked,” she said. “Facing them head on has done wonders for my life. I believed in ‘us,’ but now I get to believe in myself. I also know now that the Lord will never abandon me.” 

 

 

***

This article was originally published in Parable magazine in spring of 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio

 

On Valentine’s day, communication, and not getting kicked in the nuts

Several years ago, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.  For so many years, the poor man had been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him.

I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing, which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted. Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster.

Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.  So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap and price tag off before giving them to me, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!

Having taken this huge leap forward in our communication skills, I decided to hunt around to see what normal human beings do on Valentine’s Day.

If you want to feel like you’ve got your act together, just ask the internet a question.  Okay, maybe not in all circumstances.  If you’re rewiring your living room, for instance, or trying to remove the Spaghetti-o decoupage from an angry cat, you may very well have lots to learn.

But if you need help with your relationships?  A quick trip down Google lane will have you feeling like an expert, a champion, a genius, a hero of common sense and decency.  For instance, if you Google “What do guys want for Valentine’s Day?” you will come across this depressing paen to modern love, written by a man:

One of my favorite presents was a trip to the grocery store.

I remember the clear, cloudless day, sun shining down on me proudly pushing my cart into Central Market. Rachel was with me, and some friends who came along.

I picked up a steak and set it in the cart. Rachel said, “That’s great, Doug!”

I grabbed some chips. Rachel said, “That’s really great, Doug!”

I picked up some really expensive jam. Rachel said, “Yum, that will be really great, Doug!”

In fact everything I picked up got the same response from her (or very close to it), and that was my present: I could choose anything I wanted, and she could only say how great everything was. What an awesome gift that was, a trip to the grocery store.

So what did I get, besides some red AND yellow peppers?

I got what most men want. I was accepted.

I weep for America.  I weep for mankind.  I weep for myself, because this is the saddest, stupidest thing I’ve ever read, and I read it three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  What is Doug going to get for Christmas from the gracious lady Rachel?  A coupon for Not Getting Kicked In the Nuts?

You know, I probably treat my husband this way sometimes.  But the difference is, neither one of us is okay with it.  We don’t assume that relentless criticism and belittling is part of a normal relationship. If it starts to become a pattern, we go to confession, make amends, and start fresh, because we like each other, and want each other to be happy. 

This reminds me of the story of the man who had invented a brilliant method for saving money on the farm.  “On the first week,” he says, “I fed my  horse a bale of hay.  On the second week, I fed him half a bale of hay.  On the third week, I fed him a quarter of a bale.  I was damn near to teaching the horse to live on nothing at all, but on the fourth week, the ungrateful sonofabitch died on me!”

This whole communication thing isn’t as lame as it sounds. I hope that, sometime after that article was printed, Doug found a way to tell his wife, “What I really want is for you to stop treating me like I’m some kind of moron. Save the correction for really important stuff, and talk to me like you see me as a full human. Let me know what makes you feel important, and I’ll do the same for you.” I hope they figure out that this kind of thing shouldn’t be for special days, but should be the baseline of their relationship, and once the basic respect is a given, then special holidays won’t feel so fraught. 

Happy stupid Valentine’s Day, folks.  I hope you get something nice.  Or if you get nothing, I hope at least it doesn’t feel like a gift!

****

(This post first ran in 2011.)

Horse skeleton photo by James St. John [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]