A friend tells this story about his marriage: He and his wife were going through one of those periods that predictably happen to most marriages but that still blindside couples. It seemed that way more of his wife’s time was taken up with their young children than with him, as if they were co-owners of a small child-raising business instead of a couple who loved each other. He was starting to contemplate an early exit. He was probably imagining that somewhere there might be a woman who’d be more interested in him, who’d talk with him about things other than potty training and carpooling and kids’ swimming lessons.
He confided in his friend, a guy he’d known since college, expecting a sympathetic ear. Instead he got an earful. His buddy told him that no, he wasn’t supporting an early exit; he was standing in favor of his friend’s marriage. He told his friend to quit feeling sorry for himself and to get his act together as a husband.
My friends in 12-step programs—Alcoholics Anonymous and the like—recount similar conversations. These folks try to practice spiritual honesty and admit their own shortcomings. So if they complain about their spouse, they are more likely to hear things like, “So what was your part in this?” or, “Sorry, I have to side with your husband when I hear that story.”
These spouses can thank their lucky stars they have such friends. Not everyone does; friends can, sometimes unwittingly, undermine the marriage when hearing about marital complaints. That’s one eye-opener in the new edition of the excellent book Take Back Your Marriage (Guilford) by William Doherty, professor and director of the Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. Doherty has found that more splitting couples are using “soft” reasons for divorce, such as “We’ve grown apart” or “We can’t talk anymore.” “Hard” reasons—infidelity, abuse, addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling—are cited less often.
Doherty chronicles the outside influences that nudge couples toward divorce. In the media the till-death-do-us-part marriage is increasingly presented as a near impossibility. Consumer culture whispers to us, “You deserve the best,” prompting spouses to dwell on how their mate isn’t meeting their needs, writes Doherty.
Couples can be pushed toward divorce by incompetent therapists or “neutral” ones who refuse to take a stand in favor of preserving a marriage when possible. And sometimes well-meaning family members and friends can sabotage the marriage: One of Doherty’s friends told him how every time she complains about her husband, her friends ask, “Why are you still there?”
Most of us eagerly snap up any tool to help us be better parents, but we think we should be able to handle marriage on our own. Big mistake. Doherty beats the drum for marriage education—books, classes—to help couples stay strong and navigate the inevitable rough waters together. Bill Boomer, whose advice for stepparents appears on this page, says couples in second marriages with kids especially need knowledge and skills; they don’t know what they don’t know and can become quickly overwhelmed by the challenges of stepfamilies.
And hey, if you have friends who’ll jolt you out of your marital self-pity parties, take them out for a nice dinner and say thanks.
By Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2014 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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