How to overcome marital crisis
Fr Marek Dziewiecki
Married couples that are in extreme situations seek council more and more. In the context of marriage and family an extreme situation is when one has to love the spouse who experiences a serious crisis and consequently, he or she does not love other people. On the contrary he or she harms the ones he/she loves. Living in Polish reality one can see that it is most frequently the wife who is harmed by her husband, the husband who drinks too much, is unfaithful and uses violence.
Every Catholic councillor should make the suffering wife realise that her husband has no right to hurt her. In a marriage only love is irreversible. All other things can be cancelled. Conjugal residence, upbringing of children, joint property, and conjugal life - occur if the spouse loves and does not harm family members. However, if someone harms others and does not change his behaviour in spite of wise and a firm intervention the ultimate solution is separation, i.e. long-distance love. Separation lasts until the one who has been led astray acknowledges his mistake and stops harming others.
When a married couple faces some crisis they are in danger of adopting two wrong attitudes. The first one is to yield harm passively and fall into helplessness. The second mistake is when the harmed spouse defends himself/herself and children against harm but does it by divorcing and entering into a civil marriage. Thus the harmed spouse breaks the marital oath of fidelity and consequently goes away from God and his/her own conscience. Let us look closely at these two wrong attitudes.
The first mistake is submission to harm in the presence of the spouse who broke the marital oath because he or she does not have love and uses violence. In such a situation the harmed spouse often confuses love and passiveness, or tolerates evil, feels helpless and sometimes even treats the existing situation as God's will. In such situations the task of a Catholic councillor is to warn people not to confuse love and naivety. Naive suffering is when someone harms us and we do not defend ourselves in spite of the fact that our suffering does not mobilize the other person to change his behaviour at all. Persisting in suffering is not a form of following Christ but an expression of naivety or helplessness. In the Garden of Olives Christ does not accept suffering because he wants to suffer, but because he is sure that his suffering will change many people who will believe in his love. Christ behaves differently when a soldier gave him a slap in the face during the questioning. Now he defends himself in a decisive way, 'If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me? (John 18:23). He acts like this because if he agreed to the harm and suffering he would mean naivety. The soldier who stroke Jesus could not change his attitude because of Jesus' suffering.
The Church treats the suffering of the harmed spouse with all seriousness and therefore, it grants him/her the right to effective defence. But the legislative organ grants only the right to defence of necessity. Effective defence in extreme situations, i.e. in face of dramatic, long lasting harm done by the spouse, means marriage separation. Separation means love from a distance like in Jesus' parable the father loved his prodigal son until the son acknowledged his sin and returned transformed. Marriage separation lasts until the spouse who harms others acknowledges his/her mistakes, asks for forgiveness and radically changes his/her behaviour. A responsible and competent Catholic councillor helps the harmed spouse to take these steps that create a chance to save his/her marriage (e.g. join some movement that helps spouses of alcoholics). If these actions did not change the attitude of the spouse and the spouse continues to harm his family the councillor is to help the harmed spouse get separated if it is the only effective defence against further harm. The Polish legal system allows having a civil separation involving all legal actions, e.g. division of marital property, obligation to pay alimony, forbidding contacts, etc.
'Easy' solutions fail
The Church treats seriously the sufferings of the harmed spouse and the marital oath. That's why the Church does not allow divorce. She seriously treats man and his oaths. Although man can ridicule his oath or 'forget' it, the Church that loves man cannot help him do that. Love never helps to do evil. That's why a Catholic councillor cannot suggest divorce in any situation because one cannot suggest anyone to break the oath taken before God and man.
Facing a serious crisis in marriage we can seek 'easy' solutions or we can seek wise and sincere solutions. The optimal attitude when facing dramatic harm is a decision to be separated, being faithful to marital oath. It means life in chastity and does not allow re-marriage. Naturally, it is a difficult solution but the only one that is in accordance with the principles of love, faithfulness and respect. The tasks of Catholic councillors are to show the obvious fact that 'easy' solutions always fail and bring disappointment. We cannot help people seek these 'easy' solutions that are immoral ways of solving the painful situations because with time they will cause people to fall into deeper sufferings and crises. If someone who seeks our advice does not want to seek solutions in accordance with the Gospel we need to pray and hope that one day he will ask us for help again...