Skip to content
For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Marriage in the News February 2009

  • World meeting of families held in Mexico City
  • Marriage initiative in the Tucson Diocese: Listening sessions
  • The Marriage Checkup: Catching problems early
  • Marital happiness after a spouse develops a physical disability
  • Pope Benedict XVI on the new communications media at home


World Meeting of Families Held in Mexico City

“The family is the place where, ordinarily and for the vast bulk of the human race, one learns to love – or not,” Helen Alvare told the Sixth World Meeting of Families, held Jan. 14-18 in Mexico City. Alvare is associate professor of family law at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She speaks and writes frequently on marriage, the family and human life issues.

“The lesson that begins the family is about the love of a spouse,” Alvare said in her Jan. 14 address. She told meeting participants that the 19th-century philosopher and theologian Vladimir Solovyov thought “loving one’s spouse leads us to understand how someone else might occupy the center of the universe, might be a gift from God to the world. We appreciate the total importance of the spouse – body and soul – and the totality of gifts” the spouse has to share.

Pope John Paul II said that the family was designed as the “school of love,” Alvare recalled. She commented: “Like other ‘schools,’ the family provides ample – some might ironically say ‘relentless’ – homework on the subject of the give and take of love. The day-to-day life of a typical family means that graduates will not be launched into the world in the situation of a popular American cartoon character who opined, ‘I love humanity; it’s people I hate.’”

Instead, “the school that is the family – assuming of course that there is not significant conflict or even violence there – determines that you will have learned to love actual people before you ‘graduate.’”

More than 8,000 participants from six continents attended the World Meeting of Families on the theme, “The Family, Teacher of Human and Christian Values.” The meeting was organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Shortly before departing from Rome to attend the Mexico City meeting, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, urged Christian family groups to step up efforts to influence legislation and government programs. “All laws and programs have an impact on the family, and legislators must have a better understanding of the needs and desires of families,” the cardinal said Jan. 9.

Cardinal Antonelli said that “the values essential for a healthy religious and civil life are formed within the family.” Since faith and values are “not inherited passively,” he said, they “must be taught within the family.”

Pope Benedict XVI addressed the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families by satellite Jan. 18. The family “is an indispensable foundation for society and for peoples, just as it is an irreplaceable good for children,” the pope said. He called the family “a true school of humanity and perennial values,” and said the family “is the setting in which men and women can be born with dignity, and can grow and develop in an integral manner.”

Pope Benedict urged all baptized people “to reaffirm the dignity and the unique, irreplaceable value of the family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman open to life” and open to “human life in all its stages.” He expressed closeness to all families who “bear witness to fidelity in especially difficult circumstances.”

At the end of his speech, Pope Benedict announced the next World Meeting of Families will be held in Milan, Italy, in 2012. It theme: “The Family: Work and Play.”

Alvare’s speech examined three characteristics of the family that make it a promising, ingenious way of doing “what has been asked of us” when it comes to “fostering respect for life within our own circles of influence.”

First, the family is the place where one learns to love.

Second, “this school of love provides essential human and social skills” that are “necessary to realize the meaning of our own lives in loving relationships with one another and with God.”

It is in the family that “we first see the building of a bridge between males and females, between younger and older, and between diverse personalities,” Alvare said. Furthermore, “in the close-range give and take between family members, we learn to model male or female traits and gifts. We learn the meaning of compromise, sacrifices and sharing.” Also, for example, one learns “what religion ‘looks like’ when it is lived out.”

“In the family, we learn — because we experience it totally with our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our spirits – the relationship between adult love and the blessing of children,” said Alvare. But, she stated, there is resistance in society today to “linking the language of our bodies to the meaning of our lives.”

Alvare told meeting participants that “Catholic teaching brings it all together,” rescuing “the body and the meaning of spousal unions and of procreation.”

Third, “family is the place possessing the real potential to transcend any political ‘dividing up’ of issues or causes” that support “human life and dignity.”

Alvare explained that she has “been searching for years for the ‘Holy Grail’ of messages to communicate effectively the inseparability of the cause of the defense of life and the cause of guaranteeing to every human person a dignified way of life.” But “perhaps the family … can and will mediate respect for human life at all times and in all conditions better than any verbal formula,” she proposed.

For in the family, Alvare said, “we practice loving the human person in his or her entirety …, and we love persons from the first moment of their existence to their last. We do not say we want our spouse, or our children, or our mother to have life but not dignity, or dignity but not life.”

In her remarks on the family as a school of love, Alvare commented that people most likely do not learn to love from their school, or from their place of employment, or from their interactions with the government. She said:

“At crucial developmental periods prior to adulthood, if we do not come to understand the contents of attentive, secure, sacrificial love from our family, we will likely be impaired in ways difficult if not impossible to transcend in the matter of giving and receiving love.”

If “the lesson that begins the family is about the love of a spouse,” marriage also “leads us toward grasping the value and meaning of procreation,” Alvare said. She explained, “We find ourselves taken aback at the remarkable feat of our love giving forth new life and at the mystery of God’s deciding to bring new life into the world via an act of love, when he could have done it any way he wished.”

“The circumstances that correlate with and constitute marriage make it the place where new life can be given its most full-throated welcome,” Alvare said.

She told the Mexico City meeting that “marriage and the gift of children remain among the greatest blessings God has given us. Human beings in history will always glimpse God’s face in such love.”


Marriage Initiative in the Tucson Diocese: Listening Sessions

An effort to identify six parishes whose pastors are willing to support a pilot project for strengthening marriages has been undertaken in the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz.

“Each parish would appoint a married couple as ‘marriage ministers’ who would receive training from the diocese,” according to Bern Zovistoski, editor of The New Vision, Tucson’s diocesan newspaper. The six parish marriage-ministry couples then would choose which of a number of options “to implement in their parishes to support and strengthen marriage,” Zovistoski said. A report by Zovistoski on the marriage initiative appeared in The New Vision’s February 2009 edition.

In special listening groups commissioned by Tucson’s Bishop Gerald Kicanas, couples in the diocese said that marriage is a sacrament the church should support more vigorously, Zovistoski reported.

Bishop Kicanas discussed the diocesan marriage initiative in his online “Monday Memo” to the diocese Dec. 15, 2008. “Strengthening marriage is one of the five priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bringing Catholic belief into dialogue with contemporary needs, the bishops are urging the Catholic Church in the U.S. to become a community of hope and help for marriages, with the goal of building a culture of marriage,” Bishop Kicanas wrote.

He reported that Tucson’s diocesan pastoral council had “made strengthening marriage a major focus of its work.” The council, he said, conducted “small-group listening sessions to hear from Catholic married couples their responses” to three questions:

  • “What has been most important in deepening your love for one another?
  • “What has been the greatest challenge in your marriage?
  • “What can the church do to better assist married couples?”

Bishop Kicanas shared some of what was heard in the listening sessions. “The most repeated comment on what has helped couples in their marriage relationship was sharing a common faith. Good communication also was cited often,” he said. “The factor that most challenged their marriage relationships was finances – living above their means, working long hours to earn enough money,” the bishop added.

“Many couples commented that the church was not doing enough to help married couples. Much attention is given to preparing for marriage, but little is available after that,” Bishop Kicanas reported. He continued:

“Couples wanted mentoring couples to help guide them. Couples wanted more opportunities and availability of counselors recommended by the church. Couples did not always feel comfortable approaching a priest because he is not married and may not fully understand their struggles.

“Other suggestions included forming intergenerational groups of married couples who would meet monthly to share different perspectives on marriage; listing names of local marriage counselors in parish bulletins; and expanding Retrouvaille, Marriage Encounter, Christian Family Movement and Retorno so more couples would participate.”

Joanne Myers, who chairs the diocesan pastoral council, said that in the listening sessions “the first comment we heard everywhere is [the couples] didn’t know that the bishop cared. He got individual people to tell him what they thought. They were impressed.”

Zovistoski reported that many in the listening groups “agreed that contemporary culture posed challenges to happy married life — addictions, stressful occupations, the diminution of family values.”

Some who participated in the listening sessions urged that in addition to existing programs for troubled marriages, opportunities also be provided for couples to get together for enrichment activities. Others encouraged the church to sponsor social activities that would involve entire families in work together, Zovistoski said.

Among other recommendations, some couples commented that because people vary from parish to parish, “solutions cannot be tailored for a ‘one-size-fits-all.’ Counseling and other programs must be tailored for the parish, and they are especially vital in rural areas where limited options are available,” said Zovistoski.

Marriage anniversaries ought to be celebrated routinely at the parish level, some listening-session participants said. A diocesan-wide celebration currently is conducted annually by the bishop.

Zovistoski concluded his report with this comment by one group: “If marriage is a big deal, then the church should make it a big deal.”


The Marriage Checkup: Catching Problems Early

The assumption underlying the Marriage Checkup program at Clark University in Worcester, Mass, is that keeping tabs on the health of a marriage now will help keep couples healthier in the long run, much as a physical checkup with one’s primary-care physician aims to catch health issues early and prevent major problems later on.

The Clark program is directed by James Cordova, associate professor of psychology. He presented preliminary findings of the Marriage Checkup program to the November convention in Orlando, Fla., of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Cordova believes a distressed couple is likely to pass through an early, at-risk stage in marriage before ever reaching the stage of divorcing. It is during this at-risk stage, he has written, that “couples might benefit most from early intervention.”

However, at-risk couples “are unlikely to perceive themselves as distressed enough to seek marital therapy,” Cordova wrote. Furthermore, he said, these couples may be suspicious of therapy or not consider it an option for other reasons such as cost.

“Do we have to throw up our hands and say that a divorce rate of 50 percent is the natural state of things? Or can we help people maintain marital health?” Those were questions Cordova raised in an interview appearing on the university’s Web site.

Is it possible to take marital health as seriously as one takes physical health? If so, Cordova said, “then going in for a checkup occasionally, even if it’s just to reassure yourself that nothing bad is happening, seems like the sort of thing that could become the norm.” He hopes the Marriage Checkup can “become as routine as the dental checkup so that the marital equivalent of healthy teeth, rather than toothlessness, becomes the norm.”

The Marriage Checkup program at Clark is part of a clinical study funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. The program “provides brief, focused and personalized feedback on the health of your relationship by a trained marital health professional.”

However, the Marriage Checkup is not therapy or counseling. Instead, it is described as “an informational marital health service.” Couples who participate are told it is up to them to decide what, if anything, to do with the feedback they receive.

The Marriage Checkup is a two-session intervention program designed to identify couples at risk of developing serious marital problems, to identify the primary causes of their marital dissatisfaction and to suggest techniques to boost marital health through healthy marital behaviors, increased intimacy and increased acceptance of common differences between spouses.

In a mid-November 2008 USA Today report on the program by Sharon Jayson, Cordova said the program helps couples “identify exactly what it is they’re doing that is keeping them healthy and make sure that whatever their areas of concern are aren’t potentially problematic in the long run.” Jayson wrote, “Marriages deteriorate in stages, and [Cordova] says a marital checkup can catch small issues before they grow big.”

Most of the feedback couples receive from the Marriage Checkup will say “that their marriage is fine and healthy,” Cordova said in the Clark interview. The program will provide these couples “with information on the strengths in their marriage and on a couple of issues they should probably pay more attention to,” he explained. Couples will hear that – based on available research — “if they choose to focus on those issues, their marital health would probably improve and/or they might prevent a decline in marital health.”

But a smaller percentage of couples will hear “that they’re starting to enter into some of those processes and levels of distress that, given what we know from the research, tend not to get better by themselves,” Cordova said. “These couples might want to consider marital therapy.” Therapy for couples “isn’t a cure for everyone, but the percentages for improvement are better with it than without it,” he said.


When a Spouse Develops a Physical Disability: Marital Happiness

Does a couple’s marital happiness plunge if a husband or wife develops a physical disability? While this may commonly be thought to be the case, a new study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, indicates it is just the opposite that often occurs.

The reason marital happiness may increase when one spouse develops health limitations is not fully understood by the researchers, said Brigham Young’s Jeremy Yorgason, an assistant professor of family life who was the study’s lead researcher. But he said his findings contain a hint about why this occurs: In some cases the disability leads to increased interaction between the spouses.

Yorgason told that the results of his study suggest that “something about couple interdependence … can actually draw spouses closer together” when one spouse develops a disability. The researchers “were very surprised by the findings,” he told us; they “expected that marital quality would only see declines in relation to health problems.”

A number of people told him after seeing the study findings “that they indeed experienced greater closeness in their marriage due to a health limitation — despite all of the accompanying challenges, which they also acknowledge,” Yorgason told us. He thinks this tells us something about the institution of marriage – “that when couples face a stressor together they can draw closer as they fight a common cause and as they work through the challenges of life.”

The university, reporting on the study Dec. 15, said it showed that “the onset of physical disability boosts marital happiness more often than not.”

The study findings were published in the November 2008 edition of the Research on Aging journal. Co-authors of the study were Alan Booth and David Johnson, both of Pennsylvania State University.

The study findings are based on information provided by 1,217 randomly selected married people in the U.S. The researchers tracked the lives of the study participants for 12 years. The university said that by the time the study concluded, about one-fourth of the participants — ranging from 36 to 75 years old — reported that either they or their spouse had permanent physical conditions that restricted activities such as dressing, bathing, eating or working around the house.

What happened in the marriage when one spouse lost the ability to perform certain routine daily activities? The university said that both men and women — regardless of age — reported that happiness with the relationship grew after they themselves developed a physical disability. The findings differed between men and women, however, when it was the other spouse who developed the disability. Happiness with the relationship rose among men, while women whose spouses became physically disabled reported no overall change in the relationship.

If the study did not find that happiness with the relationship increased by leaps and bounds in these situations, it nonetheless — and significantly — did not show that the couples’ marital happiness declined.

Yorgason said, “The numbers show that couples seem to come together when one of them experiences physical limitations.” This “suggests disability is a two-way street, with some surprising pluses in addition to the minuses people ordinarily expect,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that since the onset of physical disability is often stressful, couples in this situation need to allow themselves time to adjust and to search within their relationship for the “silver lining.”


At Home With the New Communications Media: Pope Benedict XVI’s Message

Families are able today “to maintain contact across great distances,” and that is just one benefit of the “new culture of communication” created by cell phones, computers and the Internet, Pope Benedict XVI says in his message for the 2009 World Day of Communications. “The new digital technologies are, indeed, bringing about fundamental shifts in patterns of communication and human relationships,” he writes.

But Pope Benedict believes “it would be sad” if the desire to connect with others in online friendships “were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.” He says:

“If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”

The pope’s message was released by the Vatican Jan. 23. The 2009 World Communications Day will be celebrated May 24 in most dioceses. Its theme is, “New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship.”

The new communications technologies “respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other,” the pope writes. In fact, he says, “when we find ourselves drawn toward other people, when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call.”

The pope says that “loving is, in fact, what we are designed for by our Creator.” But in saying this, the pope makes clear he is “not talking about fleeting, shallow relationships,” but “about the real love that is at the very heart of Jesus’ moral teaching.”

The fact that the new culture of communication either can bring people together or push them apart at home and in other environments is explored by Pope Benedict’s message. It is important to focus not just on the undoubted capacity of the new communications technologies “to foster contact between people, but on the quality of the content that is put into circulation using these means,” he says.

The pope encourages further exploration of ways to tap into “the extraordinary potential of the new technologies” so that they will be “used to promote human understanding and solidarity.”