Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Is Your Marriage Exceptional, Conventional, Shipwrecked, or Deadly?

While researching the marriage advice book I'm writing with my husband, Manuel P. Santos, M.D., I started reading Greg Popcak's For Better...Forever!: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage. Popcak's book asks where your marriage is on the Relationship Pathway: Exceptional, Conventional, Shipwrecked, or Deadly. My husband and I didn't fit perfectly into any of the categories, but it was interesting to see how we measured up. Why don't you try it?

1.  Exceptional Marriages: At the top of the relationship food chain, these marriages exhibit high longevity and high satisfaction. Exceptional spouses are:

  • Committed to life-long love.  That's an easy one! Manny and I definitely consider life-long love as one of our top goals, and you probably do, too.
  • Equally skilled at communication.  Manny has a slight edge on me here. As a lawyer, I'm a pretty good talker, but as a psychiatrist, he's by far the better listener. Fortunately, a lot of educational and professional training programs stress communication. Transferring these skills to your marriage will provide a big boost in satisfaction.
  • Never doubt the value they bring to the marriage. Here's where my insecurities come roaring to the fore. Intellectually, I know being a stay-at-home mom has great value for our marriage and our kids. But I struggle all the time with feelings of unimportance -- that anyone could do the menial labor which dominates my working hours, and that almost anyone else could do it better. Many Catholic moms are way past me on this one.

2.  Conventional Marriages: These marriages, the most common kind according to Popcak, have moderate longevity and moderate satisfaction. I could definitely see our marriage fitting into this category in some ways, too. Conventional spouses:

  • Have good communication and relationship skills. Their skills are not great, but not that bad either. Their skills are sufficient to give them a "good-enough marriage of a good-enough Christian."
  • Have work that's meaningful to them. The husbands usually can provide for more than their family's basic needs. The wives are mostly happy with the work they do, whether it's at the office, in community volunteering activities, or home with the children.
  • Sometimes value their work more than their family. This is a real temptation today, given how much people identify with "what they do." Materialism can also cause people to place a higher value on time spent earning money than time spent with family. Dissatisfaction may drive these spouses to seek deeper answers. To grow, these couples need to invest more time in the marriage and in helping each other to achieve their highest calling.

3. Shipwrecked Marriages: These marriages are only quasi-healthy, but can recover with help. Spouses have often suffered from deep traumas in their lives prior to getting married. I recognize some of these characteristics in people I know. Maybe you do, too. Shipwrecked spouses:

  • Value economic security and a stable family life more than anything else. Men may be workaholics, and even functional alcoholics. Women are often dutiful and lonely, but may act out their unhappiness in compulsive shopping binges. The couple at best pays lip service to a system of religious beliefs.
  • Don't argue because they don't communicate. These couples will do anything to keep the peace, even sacrifice a chance at growing closer and understanding each other better.
  • May be more attached to their kids than each other. In the past, Popcak says, these couples might stay together because of a societal taboo against divorce and for the sake of the children. Nowadays, many of these marriages will end unless the spouses learn to look past their immediate needs and focus on bettering themselves as individuals and as a couple, often through therapy.

4. Deadly Marriages: According to Popcak, this is the only category of marriages in which divorce may actually be the better course. Sad to say, I've seen this type of marriage also. These spouses:

  • Seriously abuse drugs and alcohol. Domestic abuse and a violent home atmosphere are common.
  • Have little or no work ethic. They can't get a job or hold a job. They don't care about their work and rarely set goals for themselves.
  • Don't expect even the basics of life. With this criteria, Popcak limits these marriages to a lower socioeconomic level. 

Popcak cautions against canonizing yourself and demonizing your spouse -- don't assume you're an exceptional spouse while relegating your spouse to the deadly category. He even asserts that most people in your social circle have marriages in the same category as your own. But, in my experience, the lines are more blurred than Popcak implies. Problems like alcoholism and domestic abuse cut across socioeconomic categories. Mental illness can impact anyone, regardless of how good a communicator they are, how advanced their professional life is, or even how often they pray and visit the sacraments. Severe traumas like sudden job loss, chronic illness, and grief over miscarriages or past abortions can threaten to shipwreck any individual and therefore any relationship. So, in my opinion, Popcak's categories aren't perfect. But they help to identify the bright spots, the danger zones, and the room for improvement in almost any marriage.

Do you recognize any of these characteristics in your own marriage or the marriages of people you know? Do you think Popcak's categories provide a helpful way of evaluating a marriage? Please let us know in the comments!

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