By Lorrie & Don Gramer, NACFLM Region VII
PROVIDES CARE to couples and families in times of difficulty and loss.
“By the time a married couple in trouble comes to see me, the whole house is on fire…I wish we could get them assistance when it’s only a pan fire on the stove.” This acknowledgement by a compassionate pastor highlights both the need for a better way to help couples in crisis and an opportunity for a better plan for pastoral care for Marriage in the Parish.
We’re reminded here of the words from the Pastoral Letter “Follow the Way of Love” by the US Bishops, as they encouraged married couples to “renew their commitment regularly, seek enrichment often, and ask for pastoral or professional help when needed.”
Yes, we do hope couples renew and enrich their marriages regularly and often and why it is important that a MarriageBuilding Parish provides plenty of opportunities to do just that. Learning skills, gaining new insights, making a couples retreat, all these and others serve couples well in the ongoing work that it takes to make marriages healthy, holy and fulfilling.
But what can a couple do when the tough times get too difficult? When one or even both lose their job? When sickness takes over their life? When they are having difficulty communicating? When infertility or a difficult prenatal diagnosis comes there way? When pornography or infidelity is a problem? When a spouse dies? When…? When….? When…? What kind of pastoral or professional help is available to the couples in your parish who are in need?
What we are proposing is something we began calling Marriage Care a few years ago. Marriage Care is what we have come to identify and describe as the parish ministry for couples in crisis, couples experiencing difficulties, couples in need of prayer and support, couples in need of direction toward resources and referrals, couples in need of community, all within a safe, trusting environment.
To us, it’s having the parish become the first responders, Marriage 911, if you will. And what would this look like? A married couple or spouse in need calls the parish office and request Marriage Care. Within 24 hours, he or she has received a return call from the Marriage Care Minister, either the parish priest or a capable staff person or competent married person/couple, who chats with them briefly on the phone, answers some initial questions and invites them to meet. Making that initial call to the parish is often quite difficult for a couple/individual in need, so our response must be quick and compassionate. Explain that we aren’t marriage counselors, but we are trained and prepared to assist them in this time of difficulty. And, we want to offer the spiritual support of their faith community.
What will that session or sessions look like? First, let’s talk a little, to make them comfortable and to get to know each other a bit. Then ask if you can pray with them. Ask the Lord into this situation through His guidance and grace of their Sacrament, as together you map out a plan of recovery or assistance with this couple. Be bold in your prayer. Pray in a heartfelt, open way calling on God and the intercession of any of His Saints to enter into this situation and bring hope, help and healing. Encourage them to take their situation to pray each day, too. You might even have a prayer formula or suggested prayers that they can personalize and pray together in the coming weeks. We are working on a prayer book of novenas for married couples in difficult situations that can be used based on the situation. It will be called “Take it to Prayer” and we believe will assist couples to pray through the difficult times. It’s important to remember, many couples have never prayed together, especially in their own words. Let’s help them get started, as we know it is through prayer that many of life’s most difficult situations and decisions can be faced and where God’s grace can be received.
Next, help them assess the situation…what’s happening, what are the problems they are facing. Assist them with this. One simple way might be to draw a pile of boulders and ask each of them on their own sheet to name them. The Couple Checkup through Prepare/Enrich is another tool that can be quite helpful. It can be taken and the results received right away. Maybe all you need to do is ask the right questions. It is important here that the Marriage Care Minister has very good listening, empathy and understanding skills, and uses them. Some of these skills could be taught and used in the session like Power Listening Lite from World Class Marriage. You simply ask one of them to talk and the rest of us listen for two minutes without saying anything, just positive nonverbal that encourages them to talk. You can then ask the other spouse to share what they heard, and confirm if they are correct. If not, the speaker shares again. If the conversation continues, Power Listening can be used.
Another skill comes from PAIRS. It’s called Emptying your Emotional Jug. Questions are asked of one of them. Start with “What makes you upset or angry?” No one comments. Then ask “What makes you sad?” Again, no one comments. You might need to ask the question several times before they get everything out. The next question is “What are you worried or afraid about?” Continue to ask until they have no more to say. Thank them each time for sharing. Finally, the last question is “What makes you glad?” This can take a person through a very helpful process that ends in their being glad about everything from being there to solve their situation, to a renewed sense that their marriage is important, etc. It’s important that they each are given this opportunity to empty their emotional jug while the other listens.
World Class Marriage, PAIRS, ARC, Mastering the Mysteries of (Sacramental) Love, PREP, and others are all comprehensive relationship skills programs. While you won’t be able to take them through an entire class, there needs to be a referral source for relationship skills. Consider taking the training to better use the skills with them, and consider offering marriage education classes at regular intervals in the parish or cluster of parishes. As one marriage leader we recently heard said, we have to stop guessing our way through marriage. We must become learners. Being able to express yourself, being a good listener, being empathetic with understanding, are all learned skills. These can all be helpful no matter what the crisis or difficulty is. The next step is to let them know what is available to help them. Make referrals. It’s important that the Marriage Care Minister has knowledge of the resources, programs, counselors, and other sources of help to assist the couple in making a plan of recovery, of hope, of support. Do your homework. Learn about all the efforts that are available through your parish, your diocese, your community, through the web, anything that can be of help. You might need to tell the couple you will have these ready the next time you meet, especially if you need to do more homework.
If you don’t have a list of Catholic Counselors, or at least Counselors who support Catholic teachings of permanence, openness to life and fidelity, get one put together. Recruit through your parish bulletin, you may have some excellent counselors right in your parish and don’t know them. Then take them to lunch and talk. Interview them. This will help you know their strengths and you can refer accordingly. We have included here a copy of the questions one of the counselors in our diocese put together for this process.
Learn about other efforts to help troubled couples like Third Option and Retrouvaille. Our local Marriage Encounter leaders have told us that at least 40% of the couples attending ME should be on a Retrouvaille instead. Where can this discernment happen? With the Marriage Care Minister.
Third Option is. It can be set up in a parish or maybe better, a cluster of parishes.
We would like to be clear here. Marriage Care is NOT Marriage Counseling. It’s marriage support and referral.
Be creative in how you Resource each individual/couple.
If communication is the problem, refer to a skills class in the area or to Marriage Encounter. Know the dates and registration information. Even help them sign up.
If you have a couple who is experiencing infertility, give them knowledge of the Church’s teaching on reproductive technology (available from USCCB Publications) and information on Natural Family Planning as a method to achieve pregnancy. And, refer them to a support group within our faith community…and if there’s not one, help to create one. One in six couples today are experiencing infertility.
When a couple receives a difficult prenatal diagnosis, refer them to someone in your faith community for support and connect them to Mary Kellet and Prenatal Partners for Life. Mary’s son was diagnosed prenatally with a severe Chromosome deformity and advised to terminate the pregnancy. Mary carried Peter to term and he became a precious member of their family. Prenatalpartnersforlife.com offers the support a couple may need to do the right thing.
Elizabeth Ministries is also a wonderful resource for any need a couple may have during the childbearing years. They are also an excellent resource for Pornography recovery. RECLAIM Sexual Health is their newest effort. It’s online recovery of sexual addictions for Catholics. When a spouse has major health issues, the other may need our care and concern. Find a parish family willing to “adopt” them and offer to help out around the house with tasks or chores that may need to be done. This would be true after the death of a spouse as well. We asked a young widow what she needed now from the Church. Her answer? Some help with some of the things her husband would have done. I know there are widowers who could use a homemade meal or a plate of cookies now and again, too.
A MarriageBuilding Parish does all these things, and hopefully more, to address the needs of couples and families in crisis. We as Catholics believe in marriage as faithful, fruitful and forever….through richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. If a couple doesn’t find the resources to assist them through the difficult times in their lives, when the going gets too tough, when sickness can take over their lives, when they lose a job or have other financial difficulties, when communication breaks down, we have to see ourselves as part of the problem. Shouldn’t we rather be part of the solution?