When I was first out of college, I worked as a social worker in an adoption agency. My work was called “supervision,” but what it meant was that I visited the homes where babies or children had already been placed and checked in on how they were doing. I was there to give them advice on child development, and listen to their account of how things were going with the child and with the integration of the child into the family. It was a really interesting job, one in which I learned a lot. One mother that stands out in my memory from that period had a very fussy baby. “An unhappy child is an unhealthy child,” she said to me. Even at the time (pre-parenting) I suspected that was not necessarily true, but I also saw the wisdom in that approach to her child’s fussiness.
When I did become a mom, this notion led me to always look beyond the immediate situation. When one of the children was balky, I would check to see if they needed food, or perhaps a nap. A tired child or a hungry child is often an unhappy child. That adoptive mother’s mantra allowed her to blame neither herself nor her child. It was something out there, something else, something that was nobody’s fault that was causing the fussiness. Now that’s a lesson we can all afford to learn!
Many of us have the opposite reaction. “Whose fault is it?” we might ask. And there is ample evidence that parents look for a guilty party when something goes awry with their child. Children with ADD often get scolded for behaviors that come out of the way their brain is wired. Maybe you were one of those children. If so, you may be very happy with the mother who looked first for a cause outside of her or her child.
So how does this apply to marriage? Well, maybe an unhappy spouse is an unhealthy spouse! If your partner is withdrawn or grouchy, it could be that there is a physical reason. A toothache, an upset stomach, a bad night’s sleep all could cause some crankiness. Psychic pain could also be the root cause. Is the job stressful right now? Is your mother-in-law getting remarried? Issues outside your marriage could be causing distress. It’s not your fault and it’s not your partner’s fault. And it’s something your can explore together.
The same principle applies if the marriage itself is in a difficult place. Looking outside the two of you for a reason is so much better than trying to determine whose fault it is! Sometimes it is as simple as one of you needing food, or a good night’s sleep. But it may be a more weighty situation than that. What would happen if we were to say, “An unhappy marriage is an unhealthy marriage,” and then look for a way to make it healthy? And just as you might need to consult a specialist to cure a physical ailment, you might need a professional to heal a hurting marriage.
The core idea, that it’s better to see a problem as something to be solved rather than something one of you needs to feel guilty about, is at the heart of living a happier married life. And our faith supports our turning to solutions beyond ourselves. Pope Francis keeps calling us back to looking at God’s mercy and forgiveness, rather than at the faults and failings of ourselves and others. What does the Gospel say? What does Jesus ask of us?
We often say to couples during marriage preparation, “When was the last time the caterer called to see how your relationship was doing? Or the florist? Or the videographer? The people who care that your marriage is a happy, healthy one are the people in your faith community.” Our belief system and those that share it is a wonderful source of support for your marriage.
If, in looking outside your relationship for the cause of the unhappiness, you find a reason and you can do something about it, that’s great. If the cause is something you can’t change, (your mother-in-law’s remarriage for an example) then you can decide how the two of you can be all right with that thing you can’t change. Focusing on each other is often a kind of relief in itself. Your goal becomes offering comfort to your spouse. Doesn’t it feel much better to be a supporter rather than a blamer?
Steve and Kathy Beirne have extensive experience in marriage and family education, catechetics and marriage ministry. They are the editors and publishers of Foundations Newsletter, FACET premarital resource, and Catholic and Newly Married, an award winning book published by ACTA publications. They live in Portland, Maine, and are the parents of 7 children, grandparents of 5
by Steve and Kathy Beirne