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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 2010

  • Why the location of a Catholic wedding matters
  • Marriages that thrive: Accenting the positive
  • Don’t trivialize the meaning of love or sexuality, pope urges
  • Report says wives are shaping new economics of marriage
  • New Jersey Senate rejects same-sex marriage bill
  • Getting acquainted with “the Michelangelo phenomenon.”

Why the Location of a Catholic Wedding Matters

“When we talk about a ‘church wedding,’ we really mean it,” Bishop Paul Swain of Sioux Falls, S.D., said in his column for the January 2010 edition of The Bishop’s Bulletin, published by the Sioux Falls Diocese.

People “get married in the strangest places, like the Super Bowl,” Bishop Swain wrote. He recalled once reading about “a couple getting married while parachuting from a plane with a clergyman in tow.” However, Catholic weddings are not like that, he said.

Bishop Swain discussed the reasons “the location of a wedding is very important” for the church. “The proper and ordinary place for the celebration of a Catholic marriage is in a parish church,” he said.

Priests sometimes are asked “whether a wedding can take place in a park, or overlooking a lake, or in the back yard of a home.” But, said the bishop, “the answer is no. While church law allows a bishop to grant permission for a wedding in a ‘suitable’ place other than a church, such permission is rarely given.”

The reason for this is based both on what a marriage is and what it is not, Bishop Swain’s column suggested. “In the Catholic Church a wedding is not simply an act of the bride and groom alone.” Neither is it “a private event for the couple to which friends are invited.”

Rather, marriage is “an act of the church itself,” and “for baptized couples it is a sacrament,” Bishop Swain said. “Marriage in the Catholic Church is not simply a contract between two parties,” but instead “is a covenant establishing a lifetime partnership for the good of the couple and for the procreation and education of children.”

Marriage “is a response to the call of God to the vocation of married life,” Bishop Swain continued. He said, “To marry is a significant, sacred and serious act.”

It is to protect the sacred nature of marriage that the church “has established a certain form to which marriages must conform,” said the bishop. One requirement is “that the promises and vows be exchanged before a bishop, priest or deacon, who receives the consent of the parties” in the church’s name and gives the couple the church’s blessing.

The wedding of two Catholics “may take place in the parish of either the bride or the groom,” Bishop Swain said, adding that “with appropriate permissions and for good reasons, weddings may be held in other parishes,” for example, the parish in which the bride or groom was raised.

Furthermore, the marriage of a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic today is “celebrated in the church,” not in the rectory as once was the case, he noted. He pointed out that “for good reason and with a dispensation from the bishop,” the marriage of a Catholic and non-Catholic “may be held at a non-Catholic church.”

When the marriage takes place in a non-Catholic church, the reason may be that this location “has importance to the non-Catholic,” or it may have to do with achieving family harmony or recognizing “a close relationship with a non-Catholic minister,” Bishop Swain explained. He said that in these cases, “Catholic marriage preparation remains a requirement.”

While culture today often focuses on “the parties and the pictures” associated with a wedding day, this day “more importantly” is one “of solemn commitment when a man and a woman establish with God’s blessing a partnership for life,” Bishop Swain said. The celebration afterward “can be enjoyed in many locations,” he added, but “the exchange of vows should be conducted in a way and at a place” that reflects the “significant and sacred meaning” of marriage.

Marriages That Thrive: Accenting the Positive

How husbands and wives react to the good news in a spouse’s life is at least as important as the support they give in times of trouble, according to Suzann Pileggi, a psychologist and writer whose article “The Happy Couple” appears in the January/February edition of Scientific American Mind magazine.

What, then, is the secret of a marriage that thrives? “The Happy Couple” reports the views of experts in the field of positive psychology who believe that “finding ways to promote the positive” is vital to keeping the magic in a marriage alive. Researchers are finding that “thriving couples accentuate the positive in life more than” others do, Pileggi writes.

To make her point, she recounts the story of an elementary schoolteacher named Lisa, who landed a summer teaching post she really wanted. When she informed her husband of this, he responded: “I know how hard you worked to get that job. I am so happy for you! You must be really excited.”

Her husband’s positive reaction to Lisa’s good news was good news for their marriage as well, Pileggi comments.

Past studies commonly centered on the belief that the key to a thriving romantic relationship was the conviction “that your partner will be there for you when things go wrong,” Pileggi observes. However, in 2004 the psychologist Shelly Gable and her colleagues suggested that another factor matters too – how a partner behaves when things go well. Gable is now at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Gable surmised on the basis of her studies that couples need the experience of joy, but that fixing problems or handling disappointments, though important, “may not make a couple feel joy,” Pileggi explains.

For most people, positive events occur “at least three times as often as negative ones,” Pileggi writes, again citing Gable’s work. This suggests that opportunities arise rather routinely for couples to celebrate the good things happening in their lives.

It has been said that when couples revel “in the good times,” they give a boost to each other’s positive emotions that in turn benefits the relationship itself. According to some experts, this boost in positive emotions enables the individual partners to focus on the “big picture” without getting bogged down in “small annoyances”; it shores up their ability to handle adversity and strengthens their resilience “in life and love,” Pileggi writes.

Some experts recommend that people ask themselves daily what good news has been shared within their relationship and how it might be celebrated, Pileggi notes. Her article also encourages couples to recognize the important role expressions of gratitude play in relationships that thrive.

Gratitude’s valuable role was pointed out by the social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, Pileggi says. It seems that regular expressions of gratitude help each person to appreciate the other and stem any tendency to take each other’s favors and acts of kindness for granted.

Don’t Trivialize the Meaning of Love or Sexuality, Pope Tells Officials

Public officials and educators serve the common good when they strive to assure that a “lofty vision of love and of human sexuality” is presented to young people, Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech Jan. 14. Young people need to hear what true love can mean for a couple, he added.

“It is essential not to present adolescents and young people with approaches that encourage the trivialization” of love and sexuality, the pope told officials from Italy’s Lazio region, which encompasses Rome and its surrounding areas. He said that the common good benefits when young people are helped to “plan their lives in accordance with authentic values that refer to a ‘lofty’ vision of the human being.”

Indeed, today’s young people “are asking to know who the human being is and what the human destiny is,” the pope said. And “they seek responses that can point out to them the way to take in order to found their lives on perennial values.”

The word “no” at times is heard when the church speaks about certain understandings of love and sexuality. However, Pope Benedict asked educators and other officials to recognize “that in pronouncing her ‘nos,’ in reality the church is saying ‘yes’ to life, to love lived in the truth of the gift of self to the other, to love that is open to life and is not locked into a narcissistic vision” of what a couple is. The church “is convinced” that this “yes” leads to the kind of life in which happiness is shared, he said.

In their work with poor and marginalized people, the pope urged public officials to do their “utmost to ensure that the centrality of the human being and of the family” remains the underlying principle of decision making. By bearing in mind the needs of the family, public officials help to assure that society benefits from “the irreplaceable function of this fundamental institution,” which is society’s “first and indispensable cell,” Pope Benedict said.

Report Says Wives Are Shaping a “New Economics of Marriage”

The institution of marriage in the U.S. experienced “significant changes in recent decades” as women outpaced men both in “education and earnings growth,” according to a Jan. 19 report from the Pew Research Center. “Forty years ago, the typical man did not gain another breadwinner in his household when he married. Today he does,” it says.

In economic terms, married couples have tended to gain from these developments. “Overall, married adults have made greater economic gains over the past four decades than unmarried adults,” the Pew report states.

The report analyzes demographic and economic trends in America related to the marriages of men and women 30 to 44 years old. This is “a stage of life when typical adults have completed their education, gone to work and gotten married,” the report observes.

Titled “The New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives,” the report was written by Richard Fry, a Pew senior research associate, and D’Vera Cohn, a Pew senior writer. As its title suggests, the report focuses in a special way on wives, accenting their increased levels of education and earnings power. It also accents a change in what marriage implies for many women, economically speaking.

“In the past, when relatively few wives worked, marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. In recent decades, however, the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women,” the report explains.

Speaking of married couples overall, the report finds that a growing share of household income is contributed today by wives. Furthermore, for “a rising share of those couples,” the wife earns more than her husband. Twenty-two percent of husbands had wives who earned more than they did in 2007, it says, while only 4 percent of husbands had wives with higher incomes in 1970.

Those statistics prompted some observers to comment that marriage is becoming increasingly beneficial for husbands as their marriages gain financially from their wives’ earnings. The report notes, for example, that “a larger share of men in 2007, compared with their 1970 counterparts, are married to women whose education and income exceed their own.”

Yet, the educational and career advancements of wives do not mean that husbands no longer fulfill an important economic role in marriage. According to the Pew report, 78 percent of husbands still earned as much or more than their wives in 2007.

Central to the report is its discussion of women’s increased educational achievements and their narrowing of the earnings gap with men.

“Among U.S.-born 30- to 44-year olds, women now are the majority both of college graduates and those who have some college education but not a degree,” according to the report. It says, “Women’s earnings grew 44 percent from 1970 to 2007,” enabling women “to narrow, but not close, the earnings gap with men.”

Some troubling factors related to the economic gains of married couples are highlighted by the report. First, it notes that fewer people are getting married these days. It also notes that marriage rates are lower among those with the least education and often less earnings power – what others have called a divide between the marriage “haves” and the “marriage have-nots.” The report says:

“Part of the reason for the superior gains of married adults is compositional in nature. Marriage rates have declined for all adults since 1970 and gone down most sharply for the least educated men and women. As a result, those with more education are far more likely than those with less education to be married, a gap that has widened since 1970. Because higher education tends to lead to higher earnings, these compositional changes have bolstered the economic gains from being married.”

In other words, people who have more education and often more earnings power are more likely to get married nowadays. Furthermore, a college-educated man was much more likely to marry a college-educated woman in 2007 than in 1970.

Another troubling social situation cited by the Pew report involves “an important exception to the rule that married adults have fared better than unmarried adults from 1970 to 2007.” It says that married women who did not have a high school diploma “did not make the same [economic] gains as more educated women. Their household incomes slipped 2 percent from 1970 to 2007.”

The report adds that “these less educated married women now are far less likely than in the past to have a spouse who works – 77 percent did in 2007, compared with 92 percent in 1970.”

New Jersey Senate Rejects Same-Sex Marriage Bill

By a vote of 20-14, the New Jersey Senate rejected a same-sex “marriage” bill Jan. 7 that would have added their state to the list of five others in the U.S. where such marriages now are legal: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Observers noted that the New Jersey vote came rather quickly on the heels of a Dec. 2 vote by the New York State Senate rejecting a similar measure, as well as the November ballot in Maine that overturned a state law passed six months earlier to legalize same-sex marriage; that law had not taken effect due to the successful effort to place the issue on the ballot.

“We are in a pivotal moment in this country on the issue of marriage,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., said after the New Jersey vote. The archbishop, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, said more and more people recognize that protecting the basic rights of persons “need not and should not come at the expense of the unique truth and value of marriage.”

New Jersey’s outgoing governor, John Corzine, said he planned to sign the same-sex marriage bill if the Senate passed it before he left office. However, the state’s new governor, Christopher Christie, has opposed the measure. Supporters of the bill said they now would take the issue to the state supreme court.

In 2006, New Jersey’s high court held that same-sex couples are due the same rights and benefits as married couples under the state constitution’s equal protection clause. However, the court left it to the state legislature to decide whether to grant this equality through marriage or another form of civil partnership. The result was passage of the state’s Civil Union Act.

In a statement last August opposing the legalization of same-sex-marriage, New Jersey’s Catholic bishops called attention to the Civil Union Act. In New Jersey, the bishops said, same-sex couples already have “every benefit and right without exception” that the state grants heterosexual couples.

“Our homosexual brothers and sisters are beloved children of God,” the New Jersey bishops said. They added that “the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression or violence against homosexual persons.”

However, the bishops said that while “persons of same-sex orientation have the right to live as they choose,” they “do not have the right to redefine marriage for everyone by altering the civil law.”

Archbishop Kurtz said after the Jan. 7 vote in the New Jersey Senate that “preserving marriage between one man and one woman is a matter of justice; indeed it is one of the premiere social justice issues of our time. It does not deny but rather supports basic human rights–especially the rights of children.”

The archbishop called the recent decisions in New Jersey, New York and Maine “signs of hope and sources of encouragement.” He said, “The good of the love between husband and wife, the vital responsibilities of mothers and fathers, and the rights of children all deserve unique protection under law–all of these are indispensable to a just society that serves the dignity of all people and the common good.”

What Is This Thing Called “the Michelangelo Phenomenon”?

A husband and wife can affirm each other in ways that contribute to each one’s well-being and to their life as a couple. In such a close relationship, each partner has many opportunities to support ideals that the other hopes to achieve as a person and to affirm traits the other wants to develop.

However, bringing out the best in each other does not mean imposing one partner’s ideals on the other, according to a paper on “the Michelangelo Phenomenon” published in the December 2009 edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science. “It is unwise to foist one’s own ideal self-representations onto others” the paper comments.

The Michelangelo Phenomenon derives its name from Michelangelo Buonarroti, the great Renaissance sculptor and artist. He regarded sculpting as a process of releasing an ideal figure from a stone block. Researchers studying the Michelangelo Phenomenon over the past decade accent the social, interpersonal dimension of human development.

The Current Directions report points to the ways people in “highly interdependent relationships” tend to “sculpt” each other by supporting each other’s ideals and aspirations.

The personal ideals the report has in mind may include anything from wanting to “acquire desirable traits such as warmth, confidence or decisiveness,” to achieving professional success, and from completing medical school to advancing “important pursuits involving religion, travel or athletics.”

There are ways in adapting to each other over time that “people come to reflect what their partners” see in them and elicit from them, according to the Current Directions report. And it is possible for them to promote, rather than to inhibit, each other’s pursuit of important ideals. This can mean communicating confidence in the other’s abilities and not being perceived as indifferent toward them.

Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., co-authored the Current Directions review with Caryl Rusbult of Vrije University in Amsterdam and Madoka Kumashiro of the University of London. Their report describes how, over time, “close partners sculpt one another’s selves.”

Finkel suggested to this Web site that awareness of the Michelangelo Phenomenon ought to play a role in an engaged couple’s preparation for marriage. He said: “In particular, I think it’s important that both partners separately think through their goals over the coming decade. Then they should get together to discuss these goals to ensure that the person each of them wants to become is appealing to the other partner.”

It is “a wonderful thing” when one’s partner “can chisel and polish us in a way that helps us to achieve our ideal self,” Finkel has said. However, this potentially wonderful thing can go wrong when the other person wants to “sculpt” us in ways we do not want to be sculpted.

“When deciding on a life partner, we consider many factors,” Finkel pointed out. However, he said, “we frequently neglect to think about whether the person I hope to be in 10 years is consistent with the person you want me to be in 10 years.”

In their report, Finkel, Rusbult and Kumashiro discussed a study showing that married partners indeed play a role in helping each other achieve ideals. The study sought to learn whether “Mary” increasingly will come “to resemble her ideal self” if “John affirms Mary’s ideals.” The study found that spouses who treated each other in affirming ways when discussing each partner’s goals were more likely to achieve those goals.

But affirming the other person’s ideals calls for more than a supportive posture, it calls for sensitivity to the other’s self-image, the report suggests. It explains, for example, that if “Mary” is both a recognized scholar and very beautiful, she may prize her scholarly accomplishments over her physical virtues; she might not feel affirmed if “John” refers to her as his “Colorado cutie.”

On the other hand, what studies of the Michelangelo Phenomenon bring into focus for a husband or wife is the opportunity each one has to become neither a foe nor a neutral party, but the other’s ally in the process of human development that continues throughout life. The good news seems to be that serving as each other’s ally is good for them as a couple.

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.