LOPEZ: What’s so important about the phrase “spousal abandonment” you use?
TOWERS: We tend to view divorced couples in one of two ways: either as two impetuous adolescents in adult bodies who argued too much and made the best choice to move on, or as two unfortunate souls who simply “fell out of love.” My observation of many divorced couples suggests a third scenario that is far more common: A couple is married with children. One spouse is frequently (but not always) from a home where one parent abandoned the other. Their level of conflict is within the range of normal. There are no red flags that the marriage is floundering until around the time when an adulterous relationship begins, and at some point is revealed. Once this happens, the spouse who is having the affair is usually supported by his or her parents and adult siblings, and if not explicitly encouraged to leave the marriage, is enabled by them to do so. A divorce lawyer is hired, and the process of dismantling the marriage and the family (which is virtually inevitable at this point) begins.
Here is the part that may surprise people: It is the abandoned spouse who is frequently ready and willing to forgive the infidelity and go to marriage counseling to save the marriage. It is the abandoned spouse who often puts his or her personal anguish and betrayal aside for the sake of the commitment they have made. In the old days, we called this emotional maturity; it was a desirable trait. Today resisting a divorce because it runs contrary to your religious beliefs (or for any reason, for that matter) brings mockery and ridicule. It can cost you your children and your livelihood. It can land you in jail.
LOPEZ: Self-sacrifice and marriage? Doesn’t sound like fun!
TOWERS: Young people, in particular, deserve to hear the truth about what to expect from a vocation to married life at this time in history. It can be the most fulfilling, joyful part of your entire life, and yet it is so very hard! At some point (and for many couples, extended periods of time), it will hurt if you’re doing it right. It will hurt because a part of yourself will be continually dying in order to give life to your spouse, to keep the marriage alive and thriving. For Christians, this is familiar imagery, because it is the image of Christ on the Cross. It is also the fundamental message of the greatest saints: You die to yourself here on earth, you live and you love for eternity — and paradoxically you find your greatest happiness on earth in the process. In some ways, we in the church have absorbed from our culture the myth that speaking the truth plainly, when it offends some demographic among us, is “uncharitable.” Prior to very recent history, this notion would have been soundly rejected by most Christians.
LOPEZ: In your pieces for the Register, why did you write with a Catholic priest about marriage?
TOWERS: My own field of psychology (the subfields of marriage and sex therapy, in particular) has done more damage to marriage than good. Going to a traditional marriage counselor has actually been shown to increase a couple’s risk of divorce. Priests, and ministers of every religion, have much to offer professionals who work in the area of marriage education and counseling. They have a bird’s-eye view of marriages in their churches — they know intimately the struggles couples are facing. Yet their advice is not contingent on psychological trends, but on timeless truths.
There is a tremendous need for more religious leaders to speak directly to singles and married couples in the pews about sexuality — how to live a fulfilling, chaste life as a single person, how to prepare for marriage, how to remain married, what to do and where to go when marriage gets hard. Seventy-two percent of women say that homilies given by their priest during Sunday Mass are their main source of knowledge about the faith. What a window of opportunity!
Father Juan Puigbo of All Saints Catholic Church, with whom I wrote the Register article, is a beautiful example of what a priest who cares about marriage looks like: He is committed to praying consistently both for strong marriages and for an end to divorce. He leads a prayer group for married couples and is helping to organize a marriage mentoring program (created by two revolutionaries in the field of marriage education, Greg and Julie Alexander) for the some 20,000 parishioners of All Saints. He speaks about both the beauty and the challenges of marriage from the pulpit. And he does it all with a broad and infectious smile, because he knows the struggle is worthwhile.