So universal has the recommendation to attend marriage counseling become that some people even assert that every married couple should be seeing a therapist. It is worth reminding ourselves that attending couple’s counseling and individual therapy is not a necessary condition for the reception of divine grace in the sacrament of marriage.
For some, therapy can be an expensive and arduous undertaking that ultimately does little good—and sometimes probable harm—to the relationship. Contrary to the near universally accepted dictate, you do not have to attend therapy to be a joyfully married Catholic in a state of grace.
If there are specific, identifiable patterns of behavior that are destructive, professional help and accountability can be helpful. In the presence of pornography, alcoholism, or serious mental illness, you likely will not fare well in isolation. There are, of course, well-trained doctors and counselors who can steer couples away from the perilous, rocky waters of addiction and willful self-destruction.
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But if you have a nonspecific feeling of angst and unhappiness? If you are irritated by your spouse and would prefer that someone else did the laundry? If, in other words, you are like almost all mortal couples who fall short of unending bliss this side of paradise? Counseling is likely not necessary, and, in many instances, may not even be helpful.
First, we should acknowledge that efficacy studies show positive results for many couples. It is worth noting that further studies suggest that real-world application of marriage counseling yields improvements “considerably lower” than the efficacy studies. This is, in part, because of the selection criteria required for participation in most studies. Real-world couples are likely to be more cash-strapped, stressed out, and in greater turmoil in ways that would disqualify them from a study.
Alarmingly, one study found that 50 percent of couples attending marriage counseling saw no improvement in the relationship. “Marriage counseling” is a broad category that includes everything from highly effective cognitive behavioral therapy to whatever trend du jour an individual therapist may subscribe to. Nonetheless, it is a disturbing proposition: we are demanding that Catholic couples, many of whom have young children for whom they must secure babysitting, rearrange their lives and shell out around $200 per session (not including babysitting) for therapy that has a 50 percent chance of doing nothing to improve their relationship. Alarmingly, one study found that 50 percent of couples attending marriage counseling saw no improvement in the relationship.Tweet This
What if we consider why therapy is effective? Undoubtedly, the improvements in the relationship come about in part simply because the husband and wife have set aside time and energy specifically for the development of communication and intimacy. Some people may find that a sterile office setting with a stranger is not their preferred space for bearing their souls and growing closer to their spouse.
What if, instead of sinking thousands of dollars into another weekly commitment that further drains finances, couples took a portion of the money they would spend on therapy and set it aside for an enjoyable activity that serves the same end? A couple who might deny themselves a nice dinner or a night away in a hotel because they cannot afford it will somehow find the funds for mediocre marriage counseling because it is supposed to prevent them from getting divorced. In individual instances, a weekend away (without the kids—save the grandparents and babysitter for that!) might do a lot more to improve the marriage.
Investment in the marriage relationship also need not be so extravagant. In her Essays on Woman, St. Edith Stein talks about the value of “objective work” for women. She writes,
A good natural remedy against all typical feminine defects is solid objective work. This demands in itself the repression of an excessively personal attitude. It calls for an end to superficiality not only in her own work but in general. Because it requires submission to objective laws, it is a schooling in obedience.
What does Stein mean by objective work? She includes “housework, a trade, science, or anything else” that requires submission to definitive laws.
The benefits can also apply to men. If a couple takes on a project that improves the yard or family home, they can experience external improvement that induces internal calm. Instead of stewing about grievances in the confines of someone else’s office, the couple may succeed in moving beyond conflict through the joy of shared accomplishment, however small.
Do not listen to the strident demands of the “therapy for everyone” crowd. If you cannot find a counselor who is familiar with and accepting of the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, cannot afford therapy, or, like innumerable other married people, have a spouse who is unwilling to attend therapy, there is still every reason for hope.
If you are antsy, get a library book outlining the skills different therapeutic approaches tend to focus on. Even better than reading books, make friends and spend time with happily married Catholic couples—not the couples who just look nice at church on Sunday, but the ones who enjoy each other’s company, have rich and interesting discussions and experiences, and who genuinely want to remain married because they actively love each other. Those positive and healthy patterns of behavior are contagious. There is no counseling certification required to live well.