The Spirituality of Struggle

By Mike Allen, M. Div., D. Min.

I’m a Family Life director, not a marriage counselor, but because I sometimes write about the spirituality of marriage in our diocesan newspaper, some people view me that way. It sounds like a parody of a commercial: “Are you a trained counselor?” “No, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Mindful of my limits, then, I agreed to meet once or twice with a troubled young couple to hear their story and offer guidance toward a referral. At our initial meeting, the frustrated couple sat in my office, with each spouse lamenting a deep dissatisfaction with their marriage, talking about divorce with an air of inevitability.

As each spouse spoke, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, the explosive revelation that might explain why two Catholics (and the parents of several young children) would willingly walk away from their lifelong covenant. What was the dark secret that doomed their marriage—Infidelity? Physical abuse? Addiction?

Apparently, there was no such secret. What I heard instead was a complaint from him that he didn’t feel respected, and that he never felt supported in decisions he had made for their family. Meanwhile, her primary grievance was that she didn’t feel listened to, and that he often made financial choices without consulting her first. Their bitterness was palpable.

After a brief silence, I said to them, “I appreciate your honesty about your relationship. I can sense the hurt and frustration you are both experiencing. I want to be sensitive to your feelings, but part of me wants to say to you, ‘Welcome to marriage.’”

“What I mean,” I continued, “is that when God brought you together in marriage, you were called to grow in love. That’s what marriage is; your chosen school for learning to love – your vocation. And these difficulties you are facing in your marriage – feeling disrespected or not listened to – are not really unusual, but are, in fact, to be expected.”

I know, I know; I just revealed why I’m not qualified to be a marriage counselor, imposing my own value system on that poor couple. My mea culpa is that I just can’t help myself. It’s amazing to me how many Christian couples are surprised that marriage is, well, hard.

Perhaps their naiveté makes sense. One of the problems in the Church, after all, is that we tend to present our best faces to each other because we think an authentic Christian is always happy and confident, with no worries or doubts. Naturally, then, we present the same picture of Christian marriage. Thus, when couples face problems, as virtually all couples do, they have the mistaken notion that our marriage is the only one struggling.

And yet, the demands of marriage are intrinsic to its nature. Think about it. Two individual persons called into intimate union, both with their own backgrounds, their own wills, their own personalities, their own preferences, and their own passions. How can such a vocation not bring with it immense challenge? And yet it is these very difficulties that best serve to shape our character and teach us to love.

As Catholics, we hear often about redemptive suffering, the belief that the trials we endure are never wasted but allow us to participate intimately in the passion of Christ. Rarely, however, do we translate that idea to marriage. And yet, the context of marriage – with its sometimes petty squabbles, power plays, and unreasonable expectations – provides the most proximate opportunity that spouses have to embody the suffering that true love requires, the self-gift that calls us to lay down our lives, minute by minute, for the good of the beloved, whether that love is reciprocated or not.

In that sense, the term “struggling marriage” is redundant. For while some marital challenges may be more strenuous than others, we do a disservice in marriage ministry when we fail to communicate that learning to love can be a painful process. After all, if the cross is the quintessential expression of love, how can we think that learning to love won’t hurt?

The good news, of course, is the hope of the Paschal Mystery. It is in sharing Christ’s suffering that we pass over with him from death to life. Thus, rather than fear marital struggles, couples should embrace them; not because trials are pleasant, but because apart from the struggle, love will never mature. There can be no Easter without Good Friday.

I don’t know what will happen with the couple who sat in my office, but I do know this; their marriage can die on its own, or it can die with Jesus. If it dies on its own, it’s just dead. But if they move forward together, seeking to lay themselves down in mutual submission, their struggling marriage will bear fruit in new life and deeper love. As the Catechism declares, “It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life” (1615).

Mike Allen is the Director of Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. See www.marriage for a partial list of counselors who support marriage.