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St. Valentine’s Day and the Marital Mission

In order to achieve the Catholic mission of marriage, spouses must daily work to grow in their ability to love as God loves.

(Image: Frank Mckenna | Unsplash.com)

One of the most special Valentine’s gifts spouses can give to each other is to recommit to working daily on fulfilling the Catholic mission of their marriage. This work requires an understanding of marriage, oneself, and one’s spouse and the need to engage in the beautiful and sacrificial self-giving love that is required.  The weakening or even loss of this special marital mission to God, one’s spouse, children, and kin is seriously depriving spouses and children of the benefits of marriage.

One couple came to my office for help and their story was all too common.  They were dissatisfied with their marriage and complained bluntly.  The couple’s dedication had slowly dissolved under pressures they faced as well as from the powerful cultural influence of selfishness without their realizing it.  These stresses led the husband to pursue pleasure and turned him in upon himself and away from giving to his wife. He disguised his selfishness under the guise of “hard work” and the need for relaxation. The fact was that giving into selfishness changed him. He started to think more about himself and less about his wife and children. He began to place his own desires and need for comfort ahead of the family, choosing to pursue his own leisure activities more often than attending to the needs of his wife and children. His wife recognized that she failed to identify clearly his growing aloofness, thought it was normal in family life and subsequently put up with it.

Although the husband was unaware of his own selfishness, the marital session revealed that he harbored anger toward his wife for what he saw as her selfish attitudes. He thought that she had become too preoccupied with material possessions, with her appearance, and frequent workouts. At times, he felt appreciated by her but at other times he felt used. Above all, he was deeply hurt that she was not open to his desire to have a third child. Feeling “unfulfilled” as the father of two children, he believed that her opposition to another child was motivated by a lack of love. They needed help. They had lost the sense of mission in their Catholic marriage.

There are two markedly different views about marriage: the traditional Catholic belief and the non-religious model. The Catholic belief is that marriage is a sacred and lifelong union of husband and wife with the common mission of deepening their own mutual love, growing in self-knowledge and in virtues to become more Christlike, raising children, and helping each other to attain eternal life.

The non-religious model focuses primarily on seeking one’s own happiness through a satisfying emotional relationship, which is a fragile foundation for marriage due to an excessive reliance on one’s feelings.  It also minimizes the importance of children. The success of this relationship is dependent upon partners relying on each other with little or no recourse to God.  The most serious psychological weakness with this model is that it contributes to the growth of selfishness, which is the major enemy of marital love.  My work as a psychiatrist is consistent with the research findings that those who embrace this marital model have less marital happiness and more divorce.

This model is commonly and erroneously described as the “soul mate model” but is more appropriately identified as the temporary mate model.

In order to achieve the Catholic mission of marriage, spouses must daily work to grow in their ability to love as God loves, which requires grace and ongoing personal development. Such personality growth involves acknowledging one’s faults, receiving and giving forgiveness, and cultivating virtue, that is, the habits of consistently doing good, not only for oneself, but also for one’s spouse. Although this view of marriage may seem challenging, it is the path to love as Christ loves.

For Catholic husbands and wives the strength to love as Christ loves is available to them through reliance upon the graces in their Sacramental Bond, the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, and prayer.  Also, uncovering and working to resolve psychological and spiritual weaknesses makes spouses more Christlike.

Marriage for Catholics is not a purely human institution, but one established by God, who created men and women in his own image and likeness and calls married couples to reflect his unfailing love through their lifelong fidelity to each other and to their children. This is a tall order, but the good news is that the Lord who calls also provides the grace to fulfill the calling.

Back to our troubled couple: each spouse realized that they had lost their sense of mission in Catholic marriage. A journey of mutual forgiveness, of growth in virtues of generosity and self-denial, and of greater reliance upon grace in their Sacrament of Matrimony was a powerful help in overcoming their shortcomings and distractions and in strengthening their love.

Gratitude for and recommitment to your demanding and rewarding Catholic marital mission would be a special gift this St. Valentine’s Day for your spouse. A precious Valentine gift to children would be giving more long-term preparation for the vocation of marriage which is a wonderful parental responsibility.

(Much of the material in this article, with some editing, has been taken from my book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Spouses.)


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About Richard Fitzgibbons, M.D. 3 Articles
Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D. is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia, has worked with hundreds of couples over the past 40 years and authored Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples (Ignatius Press, 2019).

14 Comments

  1. As much as marriage and family is under attack in our times , from confusing carnal lusts and its ways as ‘love’ , resisting God’s will and strength and power in our lives, gratifying to see such good in our midst too such as the talk series below and good persons with Godly wisdom giving the rightful place given to God – thank you to the author for same .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0h01Vvg2Vk – by the sisters from the congregation that St.Faustina belonged to .

    Hope the author of the article is also well familiar with the role of Magnesium underlying many health issues , an area often neglected in conventional care , thus possibly even a judgement called forth by the medical establishment as whole , from its ‘unsalty ‘ ways in many areas .

  2. If only our Bishops and their pastors had the courage, wisdom, and desire to find systematic ways to prepare and strengthen the OTHER vocation at the service of communion (https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c3a7.htm). This is something called for by St. John Paul II (Synod on the Family 1980) in Familiaris consortio, nos. 65. 70-71, largely unheeded by our chief pastors 30 years ago. Pope Francis felt the need to call a second Synod 30 years later, which to my knowledge, has yielded little or no significant short or long term strategy to strengthen the Domestic Church.
    Our priests confect the Eucharist; Matrimony confects the Church. Though not fully spiritually mature when they are ordained, I doubt we would knowingly ordain too many seminarians with the faith levels that characterize so many engaged Catholics today whose vows we witness. And when marriages are poorly formed, are lukewarm at best, or worse, break apart – the organic effect on the Body of Christ the Church is deep and troublesome. Instead of wringing our hands at the annulment loads of most Tribunals, and the numbers of divorced-remarried who long for the Eucharist, it would seem time to look at formation for Matrimony in some coherent, development, multi-disciplinary manner away from the soulmate mentality many couples have toward the positive, life-giving vision of enduring and sacrificial covenant Love. Merely teaching doctrine or exhorting about family planning is clearly insufficient.
    I know it is a huge pastoral challenge. After 30 years laboring in the vineyard in this regard, I wish I knew the answer, or an answer. All I know is that my marriage of near 44 years has deeply blessed me beyond my imagination. And I trust our marriage has, in some way, blessed those we’ve loved and touched in our life and work. If this can happen for a child of the turbulent ’60s, it can happen for others. So I pray.

    • Charlie,

      Thank you for your service to marriage and the Church.

      My book, dedicated to St. John Paul II, attempts to bring his luminous writings from a psychological perspective more fully into marital preparation and into the strengthening of Catholic marriage.

      We have reason for hope because of the intercession of St. John Paul II and Our Lady.

      • When I think back to my grade school years in the 1960’s it amazes me as to how many large sized (10-15 children) families existed in my parish. Years later and till this day that wasn’t and isn’t any longer so much the case as we all know so just wondering how much of a coincidence it was that about at the same time that Catholic familes were woefully shrinking the Catholic Church also had just started promoting the contraceptive mentality of NFP and stopped teaching that the primary purpose of marriage was no longer procreation (which it had always been understood to be)) but now on equal footing with the conjugal and unitive purposes.

      • Thank you Dr. Fitzgibbons. God’s Plan for a Joy-filled Marriage (Ascension Press) is XLNT catechesis. And while it structures in couple conversations, I am not sure if/how facilitators processes couple learning and/or attitudes toward a sacramental marriage. Combined with some relationship skill building and spirituality of Marriage (and the Cross therein), a good formation needs to be multi-layered and facilitated, not presumed. This could include teaching them the Rite of Marriage from an incarnational standpoint, in which consummation adds a striking exclamation point to what a couple is fully covenanting when they go through the Rite. Regardless, I think St. John Paul’s gift to the Church is organic and far-reaching. But to help couples learn and appropriate it, address their questions and objections, and invite them to continue to grow in their vocation is an integral process which takes time. It cannot be achieved by a purely didactic methodology. Can/will/do most parishes understand this and make the appropriate effort?

    • Wells said and true Charlie Balsum, in your response to “God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage. I have been married for over 40 years, but, unfortunately, my marriage has been filled with more heartache and despair than love and devotion. Seven weeks ago, my husband confessed to having four separate, adulteress affairs over a span of 20 years. This has devastated me beyond my worst nightmare. Immediately after his confession, he had a conversion that I can only say was God given. The man I see today is filled with God’s love and the Holy Spirit in his heart and soul. His conversion came about because of my deep prayer and offering up of my pain and suffering to God. So where does that leave me? Thinking about every word Dr. Fitzgibbon exclaimed to need for a high level of marriage preparation and the need of strengthening our Catholic marriages.

  3. I very much enjoyed the article. I don’t think many married couples would even recognize the term ‘Mission of Marriage’. You know better than most people that personal happiness has taken the forefront of the reason most people marry. Many years ago I read an article where a researcher had single people answer a complex survey on what they were most looking forward to after they were married. The research divided the people into two groups- one where they were most looking forward to GET something from their future spouse. The other were looking forward to GIVE something to their future spouse. The problem was the first group was 90% of those surveyed. They concluded that basic math showed that the majority of people would marry a person with that same mindset- to GET something from their spouse. If someone from the 90% married someone from the 10%- it would be lop sided, but could work (not the ideal). But if someone from the 10% married someone from the same group…those are the dream marriages!

  4. “Marriage for Catholics is not a purely human institution, but one established by God, who created men and women in his own image and likeness and calls married couples to reflect his unfailing love through their lifelong fidelity to each other and to their children.”

    Try telling this to a family court judge. How about freedom of religion and its consequents?

    The author doesn’t go as deep as he could here. EVERY aspect of marriage is regulated by the natural law and by the Church. This means that until and unless a separation (or annulment) has been granted by the Church the state has ABSOLUTELY NO AUTHORITY to “divorce” any marriage (or force married spouses to involuntarily live apart) of baptized Catholics. This makes family court judges (probably the vast majority women) TYRANTS.

  5. Thank you Dr. Fitzgibbons. God’s Plan for a Joy-filled Marriage (Ascension Press) is XLNT catechesis. And while it structures in couple conversations, I am not sure if/how facilitators processes couple learning and/or attitudes toward a sacramental marriage. Combined with some relationship skill building and spirituality of Marriage (and the Cross therein), a good formation needs to be multi-layered and facilitated, not presumed. This could include teaching them the Rite of Marriage from an incarnational standpoint, in which consummation adds a striking exclamation point to what a couple is fully covenanting when they go through the Rite. (I love Bishop Barron’s approach to couples: your marriage is not about you! Which is equivalent to saying its not about being soul mates.)
    Regardless, I think St. John Paul’s gift to the Church is organic and far-reaching. But to help couples learn and appropriate it, address their questions and objections, and invite them to continue to grow in their vocation is an integral process which takes time. It cannot be achieved by a purely didactic methodology. Can/will/do most parishes understand this and make the appropriate effort?

  6. Charlie,

    Thank you for your important reference to God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage.

    Habits for a Healthy Marriage is unique in that it integrates the thinking of St. John Paul II with the field of positive psychology, that is the role of virtues/good habits in addressing emotional and personality conflicts.

    Anger, selfishness, controlling behavior, and emotional distance are some of the most toxic behaviors in marriage. A penetrating guide is provided to uncover their origins from childhood and adult hurts and to address them. This book lends itself both to uncovering such conflicts before marriage and priesthood, as well as in marital enrichment and priestly educational programs.

    • Late response…I believe that sacramental marriage offers a space for healing of these kinds of reactivity that most engaged couples (- most of US!) bring into their relationship. The capacity to understand, make, and sustain commitment makes the healing possible, though these very emotional or interpersonal deficits can undermine such commitment. Of course, a faith perspective leads couples to see this and most struggles as signs of the Cross and the path to holiness – but we witness the weddings of many engaged couples who possess a level of faith for which we would NEVER knowingly ordain priests! In St. John Paul’s accompaniment motif re: a couple’s life cycle, this makes infant baptism preparation the next opportunity to strengthen marriage (see What Do You Ask of God’s Church? Liguori Publ. 2001-2013). Sadly, by focusing only on the Rite of Baptism, parishes often underwhelm couples, lecture at them, and miss the opportunity to evangelize and support the domestic church at its most fragile phase – the first 10 years. This takes time and method. Regardless, I shall seek a copy of your book for our marriage team. Thanks for your contribution to, what I believe, is the most critical pastoral issue facing the Church.

      • Charlie,
        Good hearing from you again on these vital issues for the Church and the culture.
        One final suggestion is your looking at the Parental Survey that I have taken from the last chapter of Habits and made available on the home page at http://www.maritalhealing.com. My experience over the past forty years is that the failure to uncover and resolve family of origin conflicts, particularly in the father relationship, has been a source of significant psychological conflict and harm in the Sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders, as well as Religious life.

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