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)

 

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.” 

 

 

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

Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio