A Guide to Saving Marriage

by NR Interview
Building a different kind of culture.

Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Robin Thicke, and Miley Cyrus. Our culture is drenched in infidelity and miserable images, destroying and discouraging marriage. Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and a mother of five whose work focuses on marriage and parenting. She recently co-authored a series for the National Catholic Register on how we can better support and protect marriage as a culture and in communities (see here and here). She talks about these things with National Review Online.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Do you see the Supreme Court’s spring rulings on marriage as an opportunity for traditional marriage?

HILARY TOWERS: You know, it has been heartening to read conservatives’ responses to these decisions for one reason: They are honing in on the underlying issue, which is the state of heterosexual marriage. The struggles married couples are facing today are many and great. The Court’s rulings are merely a reflection of our culture’s opinion of monogamous, lifelong marriage: It’s something we seem to aspire to in polls, but too often either avoid or abandon when real sacrifice is demanded. Anyone paying attention to the social-science data on heterosexual marriage over the past five decades could have predicted the nation would become more and more accepting of nontraditional relationships in general (cohabiting, serial marriages, same-sex marriages).

So the Court’s rulings are a wake-up call — let’s start placing the very highest value not only on our own marriages, but on those in our families and among our friends, in our churches and our schools. Let’s reach out to those in marriages in need of help, instead of turning a blind eye in the name of privacy. When traditional marriage is strong, the forces at work to weaken and destroy it will wither. Obviously this will take time. The pro-life movement provides an encouraging example of the power of this kind of community-based, grassroots effort to change hearts and minds.


LOPEZ: If you’re so worried about marriage itself, why not welcome its expansion to same-sex couples?

TOWERS: The moral and societal implications of “same-sex marriage” have been laid out convincingly. This debate isn’t about whether gay people deserve to be married. It’s about what marriage is. As Ryan Anderson says, one can’t really be in favor of a “square circle.” Historically, marriage has provided both adults and children with a safe, predictable environment in which to learn and love, to make mistakes without fear of rejection. On the whole, children who grow up with a biological mother and father who are committed to each other (and particularly when the family practices a religious faith together) turn out to be incredibly resilient, well-adjusted adults with successful marriages compared with those who don’t — and that is not because their parents were perfect or never fought with each other. It’s because they saw with their own eyes that marriage requires work, just like every other worthwhile endeavor in life. And they saw it was both desirable and possible.  


LOPEZ: “Forty percent to 50 percent of all first marriages are still projected to end in divorce.” Isn’t that a case for living together longer?

TOWERS: This is already happening despite evidence that cohabitation before marriage is associated with higher divorce rates, a greater proneness to infidelity, and other risk factors. Cohabitation is the common thread of instability that runs through each of the alternatives to a lifelong, monogamous married life: It keeps sexually active couples who are uninterested in marriage in a holding pattern of narcissistic, self-defeating behavior. It compromises an engaged couple’s ability to remain married in the future. And it turns children of divorce into casualties of their parents’ emotional and sexual desires: Nearly 50 percent of American children experience entry of a new “sexual partner” of a parent into their household within three years of their parents’ divorce (this is higher than in any other Western nation). This particular form of cohabitation — to have to compete with a sexual partner for the attention of a parent — is like pouring salt in the wound of a child who has experienced the destruction of his or her family.

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.


LOPEZ: How do we recommunicate traditional ideas about men and women and purpose in the modern world?

TOWERS: The theme that always seems to emerge in my discussions about, and observations of, marriage is community. Who we associate with — those with whom we share our intimate thoughts, beliefs, and dreams — these are the folks who influence the most important decisions we make. This means our clergy, our friends. Frequently (and perhaps surprisingly) it also means our family of origin: our parents and our siblings. And I wonder sometimes if parents realize the power they have over their adult children to influence their decisions for good or for bad. They can often be the deciding factor in whether a son or daughter chooses to abandon a marriage, or instead sets about the hard task of putting an end to an adulterous relationship, asking for forgiveness, and going home to start again. Likewise, parents and siblings can influence the decision to cohabitate or instead wait to get that first apartment until after the honeymoon.

Every one of us is susceptible to peer pressure, of either the positive or the negative variety. In generations past there was a natural sort of positive peer pressure within families, churches, and communities to conform to basic standards of integrity, maturity, and sexual restraint in (and prior to) one’s marriage. Of course people didn’t always meet these standards, but they existed and they served a very important function for marriages — a safety net, if you will. So I think we go back to the basics now. We teach our children, our siblings, our friends — sometimes our own parents — about God’s plan for marriage through our actions, our attention, and ultimately our influence.


LOPEZ: How deeply has marriage been poisoned by pornography?

TOWERS: The problem with our current variety of Internet pornography and marriage is pretty straightforward: One is designed to exploit men and women (and sometimes children) in an atmosphere of self-love, baseness, perversity, torture, deception, and fear; the other to bind them together in a lifetime embrace of self-sacrifice, beauty, purity, gentleness, truth, and trust. One brings an endless cycle of anguish followed by temporary relief, followed by more anguish of a greater intensity, now mixed with guilt. The other brings a safe shoulder to cry on, a trusted partner to give advice, and a soft place to fall. One brings expectations for the bedroom so unrealistic that no human being could satisfy them, based on a lifetime of having viewed broken people engaged in lifeless, robotic sex acts; the other an intimacy responsive to the needs of real men and women, worked on over time through good communication, patience, and love. The verdict is out on pornography: Nothing good can come of it. Its sole effect is to destroy happiness and love.


LOPEZ: Has that ship sailed, though? Porn use can’t really be rolled back, can it? It is so ubiquitous, isn’t it?

TOWERS: You know what’s interesting is that even guys who aren’t necessarily morally opposed to pornography are starting to speak out against it because of an increasingly common problem called porn-induced erectile dysfunction. Too much porn frequently means men lose the ability to get an erection at all — even during sex with their wives. The solution to the problem is called “rebooting,” which means abstaining from porn viewing for an extended period of time so that the body is able to function normally again. What many men are concluding is that there is no desire to go back to porn use after rebooting. The real McCoy is better.


LOPEZ: And what do we say to those with same-sex attractions?

TOWERS: That we love you as daughters and sons of God; that we respect your right to be treated with dignity and respect. But in the recent words of Washington, D.C.’s Cardinal Wuerl, marriage is a “human community that predates government. Its meaning is something to be recognized and protected, not reconstructed.”


LOPEZ: What do you make of the continuing Anthony Weiner “sexting” drama?

TOWERS: The interesting thing about Anthony Weiner’s case is that we appear to be treating it as more serious in nature than the affairs of other politicians, because of the seemingly over-the-top lewdness of it all. Even Nancy Pelosi has tagged this as one of those unusual cases requiring therapy, which could “better be accomplished in private.” But fundamentally, the core (and consequence) of Weiner’s repugnant, self-serving behavior is very similar to that of other politicians who have been unfaithful to their wives in fairly recent history: Clinton, Edwards, Gingrich, Spitzer, and Sanford (among others).

Is there some reason to suppose that these other men, more than Weiner, deserved to resume their political careers without consequence (as most of them did)? Abigail Adams once wrote of the philandering politician Hamilton who desired to “move on” with his political career unharmed: “It is a strange way of reasoning. I would not upon any consideration do a public wrong or injury, but I can be guilty of breaking the most solemn private engagement and that to one whom I am bound by affection, and by Honor to protect, to Love and Respect.” 

There is no dignified form of infidelity — there is only exploitation and vulgarity resulting in humiliation and anguish for the victim spouse. Weiner put his own agenda above the woman he vowed to protect, love, and respect. He chose (more than once) a few fleeting moments of sexual pleasure over integrity and honor. This is the very nature of marital infidelity. He was busted, and so apologized publicly and profusely for his indiscretions . . . we are used to this. We’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen, but which would be so refreshing, is a fallen man (or woman — this is not just a male problem) in the public eye with true contrition. Someone who doesn’t just try to erase the embarrassing details with a wide smile for the camera in an effort to “move on” as quickly as possible, but who instead determines to make his or her fall a source of hope and help for others who have similar struggles.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of National Review Online.