Marriage in the News April 2009
by David Gibson
- Visiting Africa, pope urges support for marriage, the family and women
- How married couples keep learning to be married
- The joys and challenges of interreligious marriage
- “You’re Driving Me Crazy!” Couples learn to reinterpret irritants
- Papal preacher: Love and marriage still go together
- Rising birthrate among unmarried U.S. adults
Visiting Africa, Pope Urges Support for Marriage, the Family and Women
Freedom is not sacrificed by a life-long commitment to marriage, Pope Benedict XVI told young Africans March 21 in Luanda, Angola. Speaking in a soccer stadium to some 30,000 young Angolans, the pope cautioned that the fear of making “definitive decisions” is accompanied by the “risk of never attaining to full maturity.”
“You do not lack generosity; that I know! But the idea of risking a life-long commitment, whether in marriage or in a life of special consecration, can be daunting,” Pope Benedict acknowledged. With their world in constant flux and filled with possibilities, he said young people might wonder whether making a definitive decision means tying their own hands. He added that contemporary culture aggravates this type of doubt.
During a March 17-23 visit to Cameroon and Angola, Pope Benedict urged greater social support for marriage and the family, while calling attention to the powerful role women play in defending the family. “The equal dignity of man and woman” must be recognized, affirmed and defended, said the pope.
John Thavis, head of the Catholic News Service office in Rome, traveled with the pope in Africa. Thavis said church agencies have become increasingly active in promoting women’s rights in Africa. He wrote:
“In addition to continuing discrimination in legal areas like property and marital rights, many African women suffer from human trafficking often linked to prostitution rings. Reports in recent years by the United Nations and the World Health Organization have found that in many African countries wife-beating is common, and the idea that husbands have a ‘right’ to physically punish or intimidate their wives is deeply ingrained.”
When Pope Benedict addressed representatives of Catholic groups that promote women’s rights March 22, he said everyone needs “an effective awareness of the adverse conditions to which many women have been — and continue to be — subjected.” Particular attention should be paid to ways in which men’s attitudes and behavior may be to blame, said the pope. Moreover, he advised, “society must hold husbands and fathers accountable for their responsibilities toward their families.”
Visitors from other continents “can learn afresh from Africa that the family is the foundation on which the social edifice is built,” Pope Benedict told government leaders during a meeting March 20 at the presidential palace in Luanda. At the same time, he said, families must deal with the “anxiety and ignominy caused by poverty, unemployment, disease and displacement, to mention but a few” of the strains upon them.
“The crushing yoke of discrimination that women and girls so often endure, not to mention the unspeakable practice of sexual violence and exploitation which causes such humiliation and trauma,” is particularly disturbing, Pope Benedict said. He told government leaders that “the church will continue to do all she can to support families — including those suffering the harrowing effects of HIV/AIDS — and to uphold the equal dignity of women and men, realized in harmonious complementarity.”
Later the same day, addressing bishops of the region at the apostolic nunciature in Luanda, Pope Benedict said African families “are particularly in need of evangelization and practical support, since in addition to the fragility and lack of inner stability of so many conjugal unions, there is the widespread tendency in society and culture to call into question the unique nature and specific mission of the family based on marriage.”
The pope asked the bishops to defend “the sacredness of human life and the value of the institution of marriage.” The family’s proper role in the church and society should be promoted, the pope said. He urged the bishops to demand “economic and legislative measures to support the family in bearing and raising children.”
How Married People Keep Learning to Be Married
Marriage is wonderful, and it is difficult, said Jason King, chairman of the theology department at Benedictine-run St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pa. But students in his marriage class sometimes are surprised to hear that marriage has a difficult side, he said. This runs counter to their notion of getting married and living happily ever after.
King suggested there is a risk in believing marriage is only about the “happily ever after” – the risk that when a husband and wife encounter a problem that needs to be negotiated, they’ll conclude that their marriage is “a disaster.” He hopes students will be prepared when they meet “a difficult patch” in marriage “to work at it.”
In his class, King is careful not to convey the message that marriage is “horrible and bad,” since he does not believe that. A message he tries to convey is that marriage has to do with learning “habits to try to perfect how you can love.” He encourages the students to think about marriage “as having to learn love.”
In a March 12 interview, King described an assignment that sends students out to interview a married couple about marriage. Most students interview their own parents, who tend to be forthright in their comments; some parents consider the assignment “pretty neat.” Students whose parents made marriage look easy have been surprised to hear them say marriage can be hard, he said.
Communication is a big challenge in marriage, according to King. Even with the best of intentions, communicating “is going to be hard,” he said. For, it is difficult to understand and “to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” Furthermore, when something happens, a husband has his interpretation of it, and the wife has hers.
King also thinks our culture does not foster genuine communication skills. Instead, he explained, people are inclined to shout or to say, “That’s your opinion, this is mine – and we’re done talking!”
After they marry, a husband and wife must continue to learn how to be married, King believes. Now in his seventh year of marriage and with three children, he said he remains “stunned” by the challenge of communication in marriage.
In a marriage, he said, it is so easy to misunderstand what one’s spouse “intended by doing this or doing that.” So “it’s always going to be a constant process.”
And people must continue to learn how to be married because “as we grow older we learn more about who we are, we change who we are, the other person changes.” The couple’s relationship “matures and shifts over the course of time,” and the wife and husband find themselves facing new issues.
Even if the wife and husband are perfect communicators, they have “all these things naturally changing” in their life, so they still have to work at it, King observed. Continuing to learn how to be married means each spouse has to work at being “attentive to the other person” and to how the other person is changing. This can mean attending to how the other’s interests are changing, even to how his or her personality is changing.
Over time, couples must attend to the changes occurring in their life together and “negotiate them,” said King. The full audio interview with him is found at www.jknirp.com
The Joys and Challenges of Interreligious Marriage
While an interreligious marriage is not always easy, it offers a wife and husband opportunities to grow in their own faith, while also developing an understanding of the other’s faith, according to a recent report titled “A Leap of Faith: Interreligious Marriage in America.”
The report was released at the end of 2008 after a year of research conducted, under the auspices of Jesuit-run Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, by 10 undergraduate student fellows.
As part of their research, the students interviewed 45 interreligious couples “from a wide range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds” — couples in which the spouse of a Christian was either Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.
The students concluded that interreligious marriage “is a setting in which two people are forced to confront the different cultures, religious traditions and social norms that shaped them.” These marriages, their report said, “are a product and a mirror image of the diversity that is increasingly reflected in communities throughout the United States.”
“A Leap of Faith” says interreligious marriage provides “a lens into the future of our society and the increasingly mixed nature of contemporary relationships.” The report suggests that a society in which members of the different world religions increasingly live alongside each other has much to learn from the interreligious couples in its midst.
John Borelli, Georgetown University’s special assistant to the president for interreligious initiatives, commented on the report. He said: “Religious pluralism is a fact when it comes to family life today. How do you deal with it? That was what these students decided to study.” In families, Borelli observed, “many young people today experience the range of emotions, conflicts and blessings arising from interfaith experiences.”
“A Leap of Faith” reports that couples who were interviewed “stressed tolerance and communication as the roots of success in their marriage.” Deliberately cultivating communication skills served these couples well, the report said. Moreover, “cultivating one’s empathy, tolerance, appreciation for difference, flexibility and willingness to grow allowed the couples to overcome differences in religion and culture.”
Each person who was interviewed had “married more than just someone from a different religion; in addition to their spouse, many interviewees married into a new culture,” the report says. And while gaining an “understanding and tolerance of one another’s religion is one of the major benefits of interreligious marriage,” the report says interreligious marriage also “shows that the union of two cultures sometimes brings conflict.”
One person interviewed by the student researchers said, “You need to know that it isn’t easy.” But the same person insisted that “the benefits of uniting two religions outweighed the challenges.”
“A Leap of Faith” observes that “for many couples an interreligious marriage is an embrace of the unknown.” In the couple’s life together, “different traditions, holiday celebrations, holy texts and methods of prayer intersect with the everyday struggles and joys of marriage.”
While those who were interviewed “expressed a general acceptance of the faith of their spouse,” the report notes that “their families, friends and communities occasionally found these differences to be more problematic.” For one thing, the spouses’ parents “tended to be very vocal about the religion of their grandchildren.”
Because the topic of children “causes tension for many interreligious couples,” the report recommends that they “engage in dialogue about how to raise children early on.”
Some interreligious couples “expressed disappointment in not being able to share their religious experiences with their spouses,” the report notes. However, most couples “maintained that the difference in religion actually strengthened their faith and their own understanding and acceptance of other religions.”
“You’re Driving Me Crazy!” Couples Learn to Reinterpret Irritants
What should a couple do when one person has a habit that irritates the other? That is Jay Dixit’s question in “You’re Driving Me Crazy!” in the March-April 2009 edition of Psychology Today magazine. Dixit is a senior editor at the magazine.
“Petty problems” may be what “subvert love most surreptitiously,” Dixit writes. He concludes that “irritations are inevitable in relationships” because it is “not possible to find another human being whose every quirk, habit and preference aligns perfectly with yours.”
What quirks and habits does Dixit have in mind? Some he mentions include throwing dirty socks on the floor, snoring loudly, leaving bread crumbs on the butter dish, laughing in a “shrill, grating” way and leaving the toilet seat up – or down. Dixit quotes Dr. John Jacobs, a New York psychiatrist, who said that when marriages don’t work, “often the partners are fighting not over big issues but over petty differences in style.”
When it comes to behaviors judged to be irritants, one problem is that the irritant is taken personally. On this point Dixit quotes Rabbi Edwin Friedman, a marriage educator, who explained the human tendency to think, “If you really cared about me, you’d stop driving me crazy with all your irritating habits.”
But, said Rabbi Friedman, “it’s the reaction of the host, not the strength of the pathogen” that is at work in these cases. In other words, loud laughter is not the problem; the problem lies in the meaning one gives to the other’s habit.
Family therapist John Van Epp puts it this way in the article: “You don’t really live with the partner in your home. You live with the partner in your head.”
Thus, what pains one person is the meaning he accords the other’s behavior. So the irritation he feels may lessen if he assigns a different meaning to the habit that bothers him.
Dixit says, “Small problems coalesce into a vast, submerged force when they take on a different meaning in your mind – when you add them up as evidence of a character flaw or moral defect.” He advises: “If you want to stay in a relationship, something needs to change. In all likelihood it’s you.”
Which is not to say there is nothing couples can do to negotiate greater fairness at home or to lessen criticism of each other, for example. Yet, personality differences play a perplexing role in a couple’s relationship. Dixit notes that John Gottman, the influential marriage researcher, has calculated that “69 percent of all marital problems are immutable, arising from basic personality differences between partners.”
For example, as a result of basic personality differences, a husband might feel that his wife is too social, while she feels he is a hermit. Personality differences may become a source of annoyance for a couple.
Therapist Lori Gordon’s thinking on personality differences is cited in “You’re Driving Me Crazy!” One mistake people make is to assume that their partner’s needs are the same as their own, Gordon believes. It also can happen that one partner considers the other’s needs less valid than his or her own.
Dixit writes: “To help couples understand how irritations arise from personality differences, Gordon gives them personality tests. For many, seeing hard evidence that a partner has a fundamentally different personality helps them stop resisting the differences and become more willing to accommodate them.”
Papal Preacher: Love and Marriage Still Go Together
People frequently ask what relationship there possibly could be “between the love between two young people and the law of marriage,” Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said in the Lenten meditation presented March 20 to top Vatican officials. Father Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, said people commonly want to know “what need there is for love to ‘bind itself,’ since it is by its nature free and spontaneous.”
Thus, a growing number of people “refute, in theory or in practice, the institution of marriage and choose so-called free love or simply living together,” said Father Cantalamessa. He continued his series of Friday Lenten meditations even while Pope Benedict XVI was in Africa. In his March 20 meditation, Father Cantalamessa examined the Christian perspective on the relationship of love and law.
He insisted that neither “the unbreakable bonds of marriage” nor “the permanence of religious vows” constrain the freedom to love. Instead, he said, “they free a person to love forever, in good times and bad.”
Father Cantalamessa pointed out that “there are two ways through which people can be led to do something or not do something: by constriction or by attraction.” The first way, constriction, leads to action “through the threat of punishment.” However, the second way, involving attraction, leads to action that stems from love.
The Christian law of the Spirit “is a new capacity for love,” said Father Cantalamessa. This law is not at odds with true human freedom.
Father Cantalamessa said that when “two people are really in love, they do not see a promise to love each other forever as a burden, but as a joy.” He paraphrased something the 19th-century Christian theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said about this:
“Give me a person who is truly in love, and you will see whether the thought of having to love forever is a weight for him or rather the highest bliss.”
Rising Birthrate Among Unmarried U.S. Adults
The number of babies born to unmarried adults in the U.S. is increasing rapidly, according to newly released, preliminary U.S. government statistics for 2007.
The National Center for Health Statistics said in a March 18 report that “the largest increases in numbers of nonmarital births were reported for women aged 25-39 years; these increases amounted to 6 percent or more for 2006-2007.”
In a noteworthy point, the report compared the percentage of births among unmarried teenagers with those among adult women. Though the actual number of births to unmarried, 15- to 19-year-old teenagers rose in 2007, births to teenagers accounted for a smaller percentage of the births to unmarried women overall. The report explained:
“Teenagers accounted for 23 percent of all nonmarital births in 2007. … In 1975, teenage mothers comprised 52 percent of nonmarital births.”
A number of commentators believe the rising birthrate among unmarried adults can be attributed in part to increased cohabitation by couples who for various reasons have not married. Some commentators also say there is a growing public acceptance of births to unmarried women and couples, fueled partly by the example of unmarried celebrities having babies. Furthermore, it is said, there is widespread fear of marriage among the young, given the high divorce rates of their parents’ generation.
The new government report said that “all measures of childbearing by unmarried women increased in the United States to historic levels in 2007.” It added, “The 2007 total is up 26 percent from 2002 when the recent steep increases began.” The birthrate among unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 44 “has increased 21 percent since 2002,” after “several years of relative stability,” the report stated.
Religious leaders frequently express concern that respect for marriage as an institution has declined. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has established marriage as one of its top five priorities, working to increase understanding of marriage, to encourage public policy on behalf of marriage and to communicate all that is positive about marriage.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.