All of us have some baggage that we bring into a relationship. Maybe it’s the hurt of a past break-up and the reasons for it. When a couple becomes engaged, new sets of issues can arise, be they differences in upbringing, differences in cultural outlooks to differences in religious practice—including when both parties are Catholic.
I asked Father Tim Sullivan, pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Memphis, Tenn., to offer CatholicMatch some insights into the most common forms of baggage he sees in marriage prep and how couples can best deal with them.
Readers of the member stories here at CatholicMatch may remember Father Tim from a recent story about Dan and Sandra, a couple he is working with in marriage prep. (Before we go further it’s important to emphasize that the issues Father addressed here for CatholicMatch are not pertinent to Dan and Sandra’s story.)
Father Tim didn’t delve into the trouble of religious differences, even though it’s one of the most common—presumably those who are on CatholicMatch already desire a Catholic spouse—but he did note that tensions can arise when there are dramatic degrees in the level of religious commitment.
“You go to the church and I’ll play golf” is how the priest described the phenomena where one person—usually the wife—is serious about her faith—while the other is an in-name-only Catholic.
Finances and different ways of handling money were also an issue and Father Tim noted that when one person—usually the man—wants to keep separate bank accounts and it can create some trust issues.
Certainly every couple has their own way of dispensing money for shared needs and each person’s private money, but the overarching trust issue Father Tim brings up underscores the need for accountability to each other.
Family of origin
The issues above—practice of the faith and handling of the finances—can be negotiated through if each party is willing. While that’s true of anything, it’s also true there other issues where the ultimate answer is going to be more complex. And a common one is communication, particularly when a person’s means of communicating stem from their family background.
“There was one person who grew up in a very chatty Catholic family,” Father Tim said, recalling a previous couple who had come through his marriage prep program. “They shared everything. The other grew up in a military home where you didn’t talk about things. The family of origin issue really affected their communication and it’s important to understand how your family of origin affects you.”
Relationships with the family of origin reared their head in another memorable instance when Father Tim was working in New York. The wife had brought her mother to live with them, and dealing with the situation was tough on the husband. Father Tim asked the man how he would describe his wife. The answer came back was the woman was a pearl—beautiful and special, and untouched by outside influence.
Father Tim reminded him of how a pearl acquires that status. It lies at the bottom of the ocean, amidst the sea and the sand, and through that friction, gets its beauty. “The friction that acts upon it makes it beautiful,” he concluded, and the man got the analogy. Sometimes that friction in life comes from our immediate families.
Perhaps no topic can be as touchy, or potentially create more problems in a budding marriage, then the tension surrounding changing societal roles for men and women, with increasing numbers of couples being in situations where the female is the primary breadwinner.
“Maybe she’s a lawyer or doctor and he’s blue collar or a truck driver,” Father Tim said, citing a couple of examples from his own parish community. He cited one unfortunate example where marriage prep brought out both the self-esteem issues the man felt at not being the primary breadwinner, and some subtle digs made by the woman.
“If you grow up in a macho culture—male or female, you’re going to react a certain way,” the priest said. “It’s probably going to take a couple generations for this to really disappear.” He went on to recount how a close friend of his moved away when his wife got a better job and that sort of situation is becoming more and more common.
“The social circle you’re in can also affect your attitude,” he continued, suggesting that if one’s friends were couples were the wife was the primary breadwinner it would be a good antidote to insecurity or condescension.
Father Tim added that the Catholic understanding of the Scriptural passage where the apostle Paul tells wives to be obedient to their husbands—and how that obedience is mutual—can set the table for a healthier approach to handling the contemporary societal framework than the more literal interpretation of the passage held to in various Protestant communities.
Putting a wedding on hold
Finally, we came to the crucial question and its how often it’s painfully apparent in marriage prep that a couple is either not ready or not meant for each other. “It should happen more than it does,” Father Tim said, regarding delayed or canceled marriages. He told of one priest in the diocese who goes out of his way to put couples through “boot camp” in marriage prep, running them as many difficult hypothetical situations as he can, to see if their approaches are still compatible.
Father Tim recalled one instance of suggesting to a couple that perhaps they had some things they needed to work on. “We’ll work on it the first year of the marriage,” was the answer that came back.
The priest is sympathetic to the practical fears couples may have—“You’ve got a marriage coordinator, you’ve got mom involved, you’ve got thousands of dollars spent, you’ve got hundreds of people invited and now you’re going to delay it?” he said, listing the things that would run through a couple’s mind. Of course all of these mean little when a marriage crumbles.
But the priest agreed with the sentiments often expressed here at Faith, Hope & Love by Lisa Duffy, that there’s more that can be done to root out potentially bad marriages at the beginning. Father Tim praised the wisdom of the Church for what it does offer engaged couples, while also suggesting that a psychologist, along with a priest would be helpful. “Priests tend to take the optimistic view,” he admitted.
We can talk about the things the Church could or should do to help, or what a priest can or can’t do in marriage prep, but the ultimate responsibility lies in our own hands. What can Catholics considering engagement—or still just in the search mode—do to help ourselves.
“Know the grounds for annulment,” Father Tim advised. While it might seem strange to study up on annulment grounds when considering engagement, it’s clear that a couple that understands the grounds will know if they’re kidding themselves that any problems they see can be worked out in the first year of marriage.
And ultimately pray for the grace of understanding one’s self, to know what you can and can’t be for someone else. The Church is there to help, but the sacrament of matrimony—along among all the seven—is the one that is administered by the couple. Help yourself as much as possible, and we hope Father Tim’s insights have assisted in that regard.