Question: A young woman (20) who is a family friend has reached out to me for advice on her marriage. She rushed into a marriage (civil) with a man she hadn’t known long, and I think she realizes now that she has made a mistake. She’s in a pretty bad situation (he is unfaithful and uncommunicative), and she wants my advice, but I do not feel qualified to advise her. She hasn’t been in church much for quite some time, and hasn’t had much luck talking to the priests in her area. They’ve all just told her to work it out. Any suggestions for where she could get help or any resources I could offer her? It does not sound like her husband is willing to seek help.
Answer: Your friend is blessed that she has someone like you to rely on for advice. She is also wise to reach out for help now, as soon as she needs it.
The biggest problem their relationship faces is clearly his infidelity. Approximately 25% of marriages have been impacted by infidelity. Husbands are the ones more likely to cheat — 22% of husbands have had extramarital sex vs. only 13% of wives. There are many causes of infidelity. Sometimes the cause is pure selfishness. Other times it is fueled by an addiction to pornography, a type of “virtual infidelity” that can lead to physical infidelity, according to Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons. A lack of faith (or “lower religiosity”) is also a risk factor, says Dr. Fitzgibbons. The fact that your friend’s husband has been unfaithful this early in the marital relationship is particularly disturbing.
Two factors that compound the problem are the couple’s rush to marriage and the husband’s lack of communicativeness. Most parishes recommend at least a six-month engagement period before getting married, partly because engagement is a time of discernment. Engaged couples should be learning about each other on a deeper level while building a stable foundation for their future marriage. Your friend and her husband skipped that crucial stage. Because of his uncommunicativeness, it will be difficult to make up that lost relationship-building opportunity. Married couples can get past problems with infidelity, but they can’t have any illusions about how much time and effort it will take to heal the emotional wounds.
On a spiritual level, your friend and her husband are missing out on the graces of a sacramental marriage. A civil marriage, where at least one person is Catholic, is not valid in the eyes of the Church (without a prior dispensation). An annulment of a civil marriage can be processed fairly easily and quickly after providing the proper documentation. Your friend ought to give serious thought to either getting married in the Church (“convalidating” the earlier civil ceremony) or exploring the possibility of an annulment.
Your friend is right to ask a priest for help. It’s unfortunate that she hasn’t been able to find one willing and able to give her good counsel. What she probably needs is a trained spiritual director, who can meet with her regularly. Some organizations within the Church, like Opus Dei, specialize in providing spiritual direction. There are lay-run organizations as well. A weekend silent retreat could also help her to determine where God is leading her.
Although the circumstances seem grim, it’s telling that neither person has walked out the door yet. You say it doesn’t sound like the husband is willing to seek help, but perhaps he would change his mind if he’s persuaded that the relationship can’t heal on its own. Retrouvaille has brought many couples back from the brink of divorce. A Retrouvaille weekend teaches journaling techniques designed to solve the problem of uncommunicativeness. Post-weekend follow-ups are an important part of the program. Your friend could also find marriage counselors in her area through CatholicTherapists.com or sign up for tele-counseling through Dr. Greg Popcak’s Pastoral Solutions Institute.
Make no mistake, your friend’s marriage needs intensive care. Kudos to you for trying to help her find it.
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Copyright 2016 Dr. Manny & Karee Santos