Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Discerning Red Flags
Original posting: May 5th, 2011
For a number of reasons, looking for a wife or husband is more complicated today than it used to be. Discerning those red flags in a boyfriend or girlfriend which shout out, "Warning! Warning! This person will not make a good spouse for you" doesn't come quite as naturally as it once did. For one, there are more broken families today than fifty years ago. A person carries whatever dysfunction or baggage comes from that broken family into what is hoped to be a lifelong marriage.
Second, although it is better now than it was before, Catholics (at least in America) have not done the best job of defining what a Christian or disciple of Christ really is. Frankly, from the late 1960’s up until this last decade, the definition of a Christian has been pretty watered down. Couples who cohabitate, who use contraception and who regularly miss Mass, refer to themselves as “Catholics.” Unfortunately, many practicing Catholics go along this custom and give nominal Catholics- those who live by their own rules -the courtesy of calling them what they are not, namely, a "Catholic." This makes the discerning process all the more difficult. As a result, when someone says that he or she is "Catholic," we can no longer take it at face value. Unfortunately, the title of being a "Catholic" no longer means what it once did. We have to look beyond the cover of the book, so to speak.
Book Covers Are Not Enough
To use a book as an analogy, when it comes to dating and finding a spouse, it might happen that the title of a book suggest that it is a Christian book. It might even happen that the first few chapters are Christian in every sense of the word. But as you continue to read- especially towards the end of the book –the material begins to show inconsistencies with what the book claims to be. Upon discovering this, instead of ignoring it, you have to ask yourself: “Is this book really a Christian book? And should I buy it?”
The point of this analogy is that it is of the utmost importance to get to know the person, with all of his or her dark corners, as much as possible, before committing yourself to a lifelong relationship. It just may be that their more enduring attitudes and habits- not apparent in the initial phases of dating -are inconsistent with their claim to be a Christian. If you think that “your new found love can do no wrong,” then you do not know him or her enough!! Remember, love is based on knowledge. You cannot love someone you do not know. And if you think do love someone you do not know, then, in reality, you are only attracted to him; love has yet to enter the picture.
True Colors Shine When Contradicted:
There is no better test of finding out a person's character as when he is under the crucible of trials and contradictions. It is true that adversity builds character! However, it is equally true that adversity reveals character; that is, you often get to know the deeper, more hidden attributes of a person when his will is contradicted. Indeed, it is always good to know how your husband-to-be or wife-to-be responds when you are the cause of that contradiction. I cannot say it enough, virtue acts quietly but the disagreeable circumstances of life show forth just how many virtues a person possesses.
One more consideration before we venture into the third point: Christians can often make the mistake of spiritualizing their problems and woundedness. That is, some are led to believe that because they found Christ or participate in a prayer group or even attend daily Mass that their problems automatically go away. Keep in mind that grace builds on human nature, it does not replace human nature. Therefore, even though you or your significant other is praying more, reading Scripture more or attending religious events, this does not absolve them from working through their problems.
There can be a temptation, after having a profound experience with God, to presume that we are instantaneously healed when in fact we have some work ahead of us; the work of dealing with bad habits of thinking, feeling and doing. No doubt, self-conquest is the hardest conquest in the world.
Vices in Groups: One thing leads to another
This leads me to the third about why looking for a husband or wife is difficult these days: we do not readily see that vices and virtues exist in groups or families. I am amazed at how many people overlook the most blatant of red flags during their period of courtship; the time when they are supposed to be vigilant and actively discerning the suitability of their lifelong mate. This general principle might help in the discernment:
Both virtues and vices do not exist alone or in isolation; they exist in families. If you read the Catholic Catechism or a good book on Catholic moral theology, you will find that the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues and the seven deadly sins are grouped together. And the reason why they are grouped together is due to the similarity and affinity they have with one another. As such, they tend to reproduce other virtues and vices very similar to themselves. And when they are reproduced, they to hang around one another. Like individuals, they do not like to be alone.
If a man, for instance, is addicted to pornography, chances are he struggles with bearing false witness. After all, who wants to tell his wife or mom what he was just doing (i.e. viewing immodest pictures of women). Also, any man who depersonalizes women through the pleasure of viewing porn will also depersonalize a woman in his anger; that is, in many but not all cases, pornography and spouse abuse are related to one another.
Attraction is not Love:
Another example is that if a man does not get along with his mother, treats her with disrespect, he will undoubtedly carry this over into his marriage. Quite often, the parent-child relationship serves as a template for future relationships. That's right! If a man loves and respects his mother, he has a solid foundation from which to love and respect his wife.
And as for a man discerning the suitability of a woman, it is always good to know that the quicker she gives of herself both emotionally in saying “I love you” and sexually in terms of giving too much of herself physically, she will be just as quick to leave the relationship when sacrifice and perseverance are required. I would be remiss if I didn’t add this: In a worst case scenario, we instinctively know that porn stars and prostitutes do not make good mothers. Any woman who sexualizes herself or puts a great deal of emphasis on her sexual appeal will be deficient in those virtues that make for a good mother. After all, a virtuous mother is a vocation of sacrifice and self-forgetfulness. In such a vocation, the accent is on the giving! But a woman who focuses too much on her sexual appeal to men, is groomed to covet attention; that is, in receiving.
Men have to realize their attraction to pretty women is often immediate and superficial. He is visual and as such he can be drawn towards a woman’s beauty in an instant. However, such as attraction can go just as quickly as it came, especially when her personality begins to impose demands on him. If feminine beauty were sufficient to guarantee a man’s unconditional love for a woman, then there is something to be said about so many of Hollywood’s beautiful actresses whose boyfriends or husbands bail out on them so often.
Part II: More on Specific Points:
If you wish to continue reading the following are some specific considerations in recognizing red flags in the dating process.
1. Dysfunctional Families:
Coming from a dysfunctional background or suffering from a strained relationship with one or both parents will definitely have its effect in a future marriage. I currently work with the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. Among this population sexual abuse is very high. I also used to work at a Catholic orphanage which took in children that were physically and sexually abused. Having seen the effects, I can tell you that physical abuse is bad enough; but sexual abuse cuts to the soul and turns it inside out. If sex was just another recreational activity, as Secular-liberals seem to suggest, then having it imposed on unwilling souls should not cause the trauma and damage that it does. Many who have yet to marry have had some experience with sexual abuse or were deprived of a healthy relationship with a parent. But few appreciate the impact it will have on their future marriage.
God gives us two chances, so to speak: The family we are born into and the one we make for ourselves once when we come of age. As for the former, we have no choice; the family is just given to us. In the latter case, when it comes to choosing a spouse and making a family, we have the choice to repeat what was given to us in our childhood or to pursue a better path. As Dr. Scott Hahn said, if you come from a dysfunctional background and you want to continue the dysfunction, all you have to do is…well…nothing. Just go with the flow.
And this leads me to my point: If you come from such a background, I would highly recommend you pray and search for a spiritual director, solid in his or her Catholic faith. Ideally, the spiritual director should be a priest or a consecrated in the religious life. The advantage of having a priest as a director is that you can go to him for confession on a regular basis. A lot of the healing that needs to take place is not only psychological or emotional in nature, but spiritual as well. Exposing your wounds and scars through talking things out is a must!! Usually people choose to do this with a counselor; and, to be sure, that is just fine. But if counseling is not grounded in solid moral and spiritual principles it will undoubtedly overlook critical aspects which need attention. As such, the root cause of the problem will persist.
For instance, one important contribution Catholic spirituality makes towards the healing of wounds is the insistence that forgiveness is absolutely necessary. Indeed, forgiving the offender is the first step in the healing process. On the other hand, harboring a grudge or hatred towards a family member will adversely affect your relationship with God and with your future spouse.
Another contribution towards healing and making oneself a better candidate for marriage is the knowledge that other people’s sins or misconduct towards you does not define you. Let me repeat it: Mistreatment, neglect or abuse should not be allowed to define you. To grasp this truth through spiritual direction can make all the difference in the world. It can be refreshingly liberating!
Catholic theology is full of distinctions. And here many fail to make the distinction between the ill treatment they received growing up and their own dignity as a son or daughter of God. It is quite common to assimilate the mistreatment, lack of love or abuse and make it apart of one’s identity. Through good spiritual direction and an active prayer life, Jesus can salvage what was lost through the sins of others. And through the meditation of the mysteries of Christ, principally that of his suffering and death, a person can discover meaning in his or her suffering. For those coming from an abusive or dysfunctional background, it is natural to have felt abandoned by God. But again, through spiritual direction, spiritual reading and a Christian social life, each person can come to learn that God’s will for his or her life (even with all of the trying circumstances) is "love and mercy itself." (cf. Divine Mercy prayer) The most painful of circumstances can be seen as having a purpose for our greater good.
2. Not Knowing What a Christian Is:
Unfortunately the definition of what a Christian or follower of Christ really is has not been sufficiently explained from the pulpit in church or from the catechists in the classroom for several decades; nor has it been enforced with the Church’s pastoral practices or disciplinary actions. With this in mind, it is understandable, but yet regrettable, that it has become difficult to find a good Catholic husband or wife. People do not even know what is truly consistent or inconsistent with an authentic Catholic identity.
Reading the Catholic catechism or sound Catholic theology books is always helpful. But even these sources can present principles of sexuality and marriage in the abstract. What you need is something concrete and practical. And as far as acquiring the necessary knowledge of what a Christian really is, there is no better source than the lives or writings of the Saints.
As mentioned earlier, this kind of spiritual reading will not only help decipher what a Christian thinks and how he talks and behaves, but in their writings you will find virtues and attitudes that make for a good and long marriage. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi once said that being silent when criticized is worth more to God than ten days of fasting. As difficult as it is, this virtue goes a long way in making peace in one’s marriage. There are so many of gems worth reading about. Truly, the Saints are the continuation of Christ’s life on earth. They shed light on specific and practical things in life that may be difficult to garner from the bible.
3. Virtues and Vices Exist in Families:
This third obstacle in recognizing red flags has been addressed in the previous post. In it I explained that virtues and vices do not live alone or in isolation but rather live in groups. This is to say that one red flag will usually lead to another. But as we draw closer to Christ, we compartmentalize life less and less. We begin to see values in a larger context; as part of a vast tapestry, if you will. In writing about the soul’s conversion to Christ, Bishop Sheen wrote the following:
“Things which before seemed precious are now considered trivial, and things which before seemed inconsequential, have now become the essence of real life. Without the Divine sense of values, which conversion brings, the soul is like a department store where the wrong price tags are on everything hairpins sell for a thousand dollars, and diamond rings for a nickel. Conversion hangs the right price tags on the right things and restores a true sense of values. That is why the outlook of a convert is entirely changed on subjects such as marriage, death, education, wealth, pain and suffering...He now sees why religious education is essential– for unless the soul is saved, nothing is saved.”
I hoped that this has help you. God bless you! Draw close to Christ, his Mother and the Saints. To be sure, you will find your way through the thick of the dark forest.
Posted by Joe at 11:31 AM