Stress marriage as a covenant, add skills that last

What are the keys to a successful marriage? Dr. Paul “Buddy” Ceasar and Darryl Ducote gave a presentation on the topic Aug. 26 at the International Catholic Engaged Encounter Convention in New Orleans.
   
Based on the convention theme of “Eat, Drink and Be Married,” Ceasar, executive director of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center in Metairie, and Ducote, director of Family Life for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, took each of the theme’s components to show how the “Catholic theology of marriage is very strong in offering people the basics for making their marriage work.”
 
Since their talk was at the beginning of the conference, Ceasar said they were trying “to set the table for other speakers by talking about the Catholic theology in marriage and giving some skills important for healthy relationships.
 
Their goal was to have couples reflect on their own relationship and to help strengthen marriage “so that their relationship is a witness of God’s love, knowing that they are important ministers of marriage to others.”
 
They culled from the marriage enrichment book, “Partners on the Journey” (also available on DVD) that they co-authored in 2012 and was published by the Gottman Institute and Marriage Ministry Resources (now available at marriageministryresources.com). They also referred to John Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and his 40 years of scientific couples research.
 
“What we came up with was how compatible Gottman’s skills were with the theology of marriage in terms of vocation, covenant and sacrament,” Ceasar said.
 
Some basic observations about good marriages: people have a vision (theology) of what marriage is all about; have good skills (research) that they use to strengthen their relationship; and have a good support system (family, parish, friends).
 
“These three elements really play themselves out when you think about a strong marriage,” Ceasar said.
 
Gottman discovered that “strengthening friendship and trust is the heart of marriage. … The foundation of marital friendship is based on knowing each other intimately, expressing fondness and admiration and fostering a couple connection.”

Three essentials
Ceasar broke down the theme in a PowerPoint presentation: eat – “We are created with a hunger for relationships”; drink – pleasure and enjoyment are needed for a sense of renewal and motivation; and be married – the skills to stay married.
 
Infusing quotes from the creation story – “It is not good for man to be alone,” so God made man a woman, calling her a “suitable partner” – they explained how this need for companionship represents a desire for wholeness or completeness that can only be achieved by going out of oneself through love.
 
They stressed the importance of couples seeing marriage as a vocation, and that there be a “conscious commitment” signified by the marriage vows that holds spouses accountable for making marriage a priority. Both say the commitment in marriage is based on the biblical covenant between God and his people. This covenant implies a total gift of self in a relationship, in good times and bad.
 
“The theology of marriage is not just something in the head or a theory,” Ceasar said. “It fits well into our everyday life. That’s where the skills come in. It really makes sense when we build our relationships with a solid Catholic theology component. ‘Covenant’ helps us with the struggles, even when it feels hard for us stay together. The covenant, the bond, is that God is there for the difficulties in our life. God made a covenant with his people that he would not abandon them. So it is with the covenant of marriage.”

Friendship a foundation
Establishing a strong marital friendship is the foundation of a marital vocation. Learning the right skills to stay married is equally important. Little things like physical affection and verbal appreciation help generate feelings of closeness between couples, they said. Equally important for spouses to remember is to respond to bids for attention and building an “emotional bank account.”
 
Since marriage is modeled on biblical covenants, they discussed the difference between civil marriage – that is based on “contracts” which specify rights and privileges – and Catholic marriage that is a sacrament which is an invisible encounter with God. The unity of the couple is a “sacrament of God’s love: to each other, to their children, to the world.”
 
They’ve found the greatest threat to the marital covenant is poorly managed conflict and identified two kinds of conflict: solvable problems that account for 30 percent of problems; and the remaining, perpetual problems that are based on personality differences and differences in need that “reappear over and over again.”
 
Dealing with perpetual problems requires looking for the underlying need or important value beneath the surface that is driving the conflict, they said.
 
Being married fulfills a human need for companionship and a need for completeness and wholeness. Since God created man in his image and for each other, they said, couples should remember to create space for God in their relationship and view their relationship as an “invisible encounter with God.” When this happens, their unity truly is sign of love for each member of the couple and for others.
 
Christine Bordelon can be reached atcbordelon@clarionherald.org.  

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