Marital Therapy From a Catholic Perspective

Interview With Family Psychologist William Nordling

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ARLINGTON, Virginia, FEB. 27, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Catholic psychology considers the fullness of the married vocation in treating individual patients, says a specialist on marital psychotherapy.



Dr. William Nordling is a psychologist at Alpha Omega Clinic and Counseling Services. He teaches courses on marital and child psychotherapy at the nearby Institute for the Psychological Sciences.

In this interview with ZENIT, he discusses the implications of adopting a Catholic worldview for conducting marital therapy and improving one's own marital relationship.

Q: What does it mean to have a Catholic worldview in approaching psychology?

Nordling: In general the field of clinical psychology has taken the individual as the level of analysis and has focused on the psychopathology of the individual as its subject matter.

A Catholic psychology acknowledges the importance of the interiority of the individual and the reality of psychopathology, but also gives significant attention to the relational nature of the person and how the client can grow in virtue and flourish.

So the Catholic psychologist does not just see an individual, but sees an individual in the context of vocation as a spouse and as a parent.

In addition, the focus of a Catholic psychology is not just to alleviate symptoms or psychopathology but assist the client in flourishing as an individual, as a spouse, and as a parent. To a broader extent, it focuses on the relationship to society, and ultimately the relationship to God.

Q: In working with couples in marital therapy, what is the difference between the perspective of secular psychology and that of Catholic therapy?

Nordling: The field of marital therapy has a big dilemma. There is a myriad of models of marital therapy, but in general the field has never attempted to offer a definition of what marriage is.

For example, there is not even a consensus in secular psychology that marriage is restricted to one man and one woman. It could include people of the same gender or multiple partners.

Without a clear definition of marriage, there is no clearly developed understanding of the unique and special nature of conjugal love, the nature of family life, and importance of parenting in marital relationships.

A Catholic marital therapist might contend that without a clear definition of marriage, one is hampered in identifying the most important and central therapeutic goals one is trying to attain when working with couples.

For example, both a secular marital therapist and a Catholic martial therapist may do some very laudable work to improve the communication between spouses, but the Catholic psychologist sees this new capacity to dialogue intimately, in a different light. It is not simply an end but also a means for the spouses to bring about the quality of marriage envisioned by the Church.

Q: What implications does a Catholic anthropology have on the definition of marriage and the goals of marital therapy?

Nordling: First of all, one implication is that when we work with a married person, whether they come as a couple or as an individual, we already see them as having a vocation as a married person.

We understand that although they may come in with individual issues, we must not only address how these issues affect their interior life and individual flourishing, but also help them examine how these issues are affecting the marital relationship or their vocation as a parent.

Many times if we just focus on them as an individual we lose some of the most important aspects of their life, given that they are both a spouse and a parent. In some ways we do not view individuals as only individuals once we know that they are married.

Q: Given this perspective, what are some of the most beneficial methodologies for working through marital problems or the key factors in working toward a healthy relationship?

Nordling: Knowledge of Catholic anthropology allows us to say, "Does this method address the foundational qualities of this person, their marriage and family life?" It allows us to choose methodologies which address the most central aspects of human functioning, marital functioning or functioning within the family.

There are methodologies that do not do this. It is not that they are bad, in the sense that they may do some good, but they are inadequate if they only address the symptom of the problem or only one aspect of the problem.

Again, a couple may come in saying, "We argue about money all the time," and the therapist may help them address the money issue. But the therapist may not help them to learn as a couple to work out that problem, on their own, in a respectful way with each other.

The problem gets solved; the therapist through mediation is able to help them talk a little better about finances and come up with a solution. However, the couple does not leave with the ability to say, "We'll never run into that problem again; as a matter of fact, many other problems we have we won't run into because we know how to approach each other in a respectful and a caring way, and to maintain cooperativeness."

The foundational therapies teach people how to interact and address the fundamental qualities of the relationship. Knowledge of the Church's teaching on the nature of the human person, marriage, and family life helps us to identify and develop such foundational methods.

Q: How does parenting influence the health of the marital relationship?

Nordling: Because parenting is a primary end of marriage, the success of parents in this area and the degree to which they are working together in that role will have a considerable amount of influence on the quality of their marital relationship.

Even when a couple comes in and they have lots of complaints about each other, one of the best questions a marital therapist can ask is "How are you doing in terms of working together as parents?"

Sometimes parenting is the only thing that they are doing well together. They actually respect each other in that way. In such cases their success in parenting together becomes a great resource, because just as spouses want each other to be happy, and want the best things for each other, they want that for their children as well.

When spouses are working together as parents, with one mind and one vision, they will be more successful in both parenting and nurturing their marital relationship; whereas if they have different visions of parenting or they are at odds with each other, it is likely to negatively affect their parenting and the quality of their spousal relationship.

Q: What are some ways that couples can grow in hopefulness regarding their marriage in spite of the natural difficulties that may be present?

Nordling: Spouses can always count on the fact that to the degree that they as individuals are healthier physically, psychologically and spiritually, they will be more able to bring about growth and goodness in their marriage.

Even in cases where relational difficulties are numerous or one's spouse is perceived as unmotivated to work on improving the relationship, self-health and self-growth will often be a great resource for one's marriage.

There are certainly cases where we leave the realm of our fallen nature and enter into the field of addictions or in rare cases real evil, such as the cases of sociopathy.

For the average couple, however, practical acts of kindness and charity can accomplish great healing in relationships. These acts include being more loving, saying things in ways that are more charitable toward each other or being open to listen to the other.

Building this kind of self-control and positive spirit toward cooperativeness with one's partner -- even in situations where one's partner is not meeting one halfway -- can be a great good for one's marriage.

Persuading one's spouse to change is generally more difficult. Spouses will be more open to change themselves to the extent that they are met with a loving attitude and a cooperative spirit rather than a belittling, judgmental, or even threatening kind of spirit.

This does not mean that you avoid making your partner aware of your concerns and desires for change. That would be denying your partner one of the things the Church says is part of marriage: that we are called to help each other reach holiness. But such requests should be characterized as loving and patient rather than conveying animosity and contempt.

Q: What advice would you give to couples in terms of growing in their marriage?

Nordling: I do want to emphasize that growth in marital relationships comes through a loving attitude toward each other.

It comes with wanting the good of the other person. One of the things that I sometimes see with couples is that they forget that they are called to be loving at all times.

Occasionally, I will see one partner who understands what the Church means by a good Catholic marriage, a sacramental marriage, but the way they go about trying to make it happen is through very opposite means.

Their attitude conveys a different message: "I won't be kind to you until you begin to epitomize what a wife should be, what a husband should be," or "I'm not going to love you until you become more loving."

That generally does not work, because it is a matter of us being loving, us modeling that love that is going to build the bridge to the other person, not forcing love out of them.

I speak on a level of not heroic, but very attainable virtue. In other words, people can grow in patience and kindness; they can learn to say things in a way that discloses their interior life and concerns without putting the other person down.

It is not something that happens overnight, but it is something that with attention, couples can accomplish.