"He's Turned His Back on God"
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"He's Turned His Back on God"

Meghan has always considered her faith central to her life, and important to introduce to her two young girls -- but her husband, haunted by the loss of a sibling, wants nothing to do with any church. Can a counselor help this couple resolve their differences?

Her Turn

"My faith has always been central to my life," says Meghan, 36, the director of a teen recreation center and the mother of two daughters, Gillian, 8, and Molly, 4.

"It hurts me deeply that James refuses to go to Sunday Mass and does little to help me get the girls there. Christmas last year was an ordeal that I'm worried will be repeated this year. After a lot of coaxing, James agreed to go to Midnight Mass as a family. But when we got there, the church was jammed and there was no room for us to sit together. Instead of making the best of it, my husband got angry and left, leaving me with two exhausted little girls. He has zero tolerance for anything church related.

"It's not that I'm oblivious to problems in the Catholic Church. I'm as appalled as James is by the horrific stories that have come to light in recent years. The priest of our own parish was actually forced to resign for allegedly abusing children! And our church rubbed salt in the wound by lying and telling parishioners he was on medical leave. I have attended many meetings about the future direction of our parish, but my husband categorically refuses to get involved. His position is that he's finished with the church. My wanting to stay involved has triggered some terrible arguments.

"For me it's about more than just attending a church service. This is about my personal relationship with God. Why can't he see that? Before we had kids, his not going to Mass didn't bother me that much. But when you become a parent, you realize how important it is to raise children in a spiritual home -- at least that's what I realized. I'm not going to shove my beliefs down their throats, but if kids have no religious upbringing, how will they be able to choose a spiritual path for themselves? That's one of the most important jobs a parent has, and the fact that James and I can't agree about it has infected our whole relationship."

"I Feel So Overwhelmed"

"Of course, we bicker about lots of other stuff, too. I know I'm on edge and get snappish. I hate to complain -- every woman I know has too much on her plate and no time to do it all. But sometimes I feel so overwhelmed. Forget about time for myself. I can't remember the last time I had a chance to exercise or even sit with a book for an hour. By the time the kids are in bed, I'm too exhausted to even hold a book. James always tells me I'm 'too nice' and have to learn to say no -- when my sister-in-law drops her kids off at our house when she can't find a babysitter, for example.

"James works hard, too -- he's a hospital administrator -- but does that mean he shouldn't run errands or help with the kids? After we got married, 10 years ago, I swear James turned into his father -- the traditional guy who expects his wife to do everything. I don't want to make a big deal of this, but managing the kids, the house, and my job is getting to be too much. On my way to or from work I do errands: run to the bank, drop off clothes at the dry cleaner, return overdue library books. After cooking dinner I clean up the kitchen, help with homework, and put the girls to bed.

"And where is my husband during all this, you ask? He comes home, goes straight to the den to unwind and check e-mail. Yes, he occasionally pitches in -- but only if I ask, which makes me feel like a nag. I wish he'd just do what he says. He promised to clean out the garage, so why doesn't he do it?

"I know I get upset about minor things, and I'm not sure why. For example, I think the girls are old enough to make their beds in the morning. James doesn't see the point of bed making, since you're just going to get back in it at night. I know, I know -- it sounds like a joke on a late-night show. But his attitude really annoys me. Same with dirty dishes: Is it really that hard to put them in the dishwasher instead of the sink? Apparently it is, for him. What bugs me most is when James tells me it's fine if I go to the gym at night and promises to get the girls to bed -- only to have them still playing when I get home, way past their bedtime. Has he forgotten how to tell time?"

"We're So Far Apart in Our Spiritual Beliefs"

"My own childhood was wonderful. I'm the middle child of seven; Mom was a homemaker and Dad a fireman. Our large extended family lived nearby and the church played a huge role in our lives. All of us cousins and siblings attended Catholic schools, took Communion at every Mass, sang in the Christmas pageant. Sundays were special -- brunch after church with family and friends usually led into a leisurely afternoon of socializing.

"James and I met when we were both 21. He was working on his MBA, and I was studying for a master's in social work. The attraction was immediate. We felt as if we'd known each other for years, maybe because we'd grown up only a few miles from each other and had mutual friends. We waited six years to get married, though, because we wanted to get established in our careers first.

"For a long time James's refusal to go to Mass wasn't an issue. He had a personal reason for questioning his faith: When he was 10, his mother and older sister were in a terrible car accident, and his sister was killed. He couldn't understand how a just and loving God could allow that to happen. From then on, despite the fact that the church had been a big part of his upbringing, he stopped believing.

"I was fine with going to Sunday Mass by myself until we had kids. Then it became much more difficult. Even if I managed to get us there, I spent most of the time running after them and making sure they weren't disturbing other people -- not exactly conducive to a spiritual connection. I needed my partner, but James wouldn't get out of bed! I love and respect him, but the fact that we're so far apart in our spiritual beliefs has upset me more than I ever dreamed possible."

His Turn

"I can't be a hypocrite," said James, 37, a tall, athletic man. "It's not true that I have completely stopped believing in God, but I cannot embrace a church that's a breeding ground for pedophiles. It's appalling that this scandal could have occurred in the first place; that the church then covered it up is even worse.

"I used to be an altar boy, and the priests I knew were great guys. I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been for those poor boys who had such terrible things done to them by the people they trusted most in the world. It's particularly horrifying when you're a parent. As Meghan said, our parish priest was among the accused. Church officials blatantly lied to us. Some of us are furious, but others prefer to just stick their heads in the sand.

"I really struggle with the whole issue of religion. My world changed when my older sister and only sibling died in a car accident on her way to a youth group meeting at church. My mom made a left turn in front of an oncoming car that was doing about 80 miles per hour. My sister died instantly. From that day on, we stopped going to church. We celebrated the holidays, but were just going through the motions. When I questioned how God could allow something like that to happen, my parents told me to think of God working on a needlepoint. When you look at the needlepoint from above, it's a beautiful picture and the pattern is continued clear. But when you flip it over, it's a bunch of tangled threads. The idea that we don't see clearly the plan life has in store stayed with me. It helped me to reconcile my sister's death but it doesn't help me get past this abuse scandal.

"My parents' marriage basically ended the day my sister died. The guilt and the grief must have been devastating. Now that I have kids of my own I don't know how you go on after something like that happens. They stayed married, but there were loud explosions followed by days of silence. I learned to tune out. That's one reason I was so drawn to Meghan and her family. Whereas my parents were emotionally shut down, hers were warm and loving."

"She Has to Let Me Know What She's Feeling"

"Besides being beautiful, Meghan is the most genuinely kind person I have ever met. People who don't know her well sometimes think her kindness is an act, but it's not. She is always thinking of others. If anyone -- friends, her brothers and sisters, someone from school -- asks her to run an errand or watch their kids, she always says yes. And that's a problem: She's too nice. I've told her that just because someone asks, she doesn't have to agree. But she's afraid of letting people down.

"Another problem is that when something does bother her, she'll bottle it up until, out of the blue, she loses it. I'm like, whoa, where are all those tears coming from? I want to make her happy, but she has to let me know what she's feeling.

"This going-to-Mass issue is the only problem she's mentioned in a long time. As for the chores? Mea culpa, I have no excuses. I'm not purposely being a blockhead, but I guess I unintentionally took advantage of Meghan's goodness, too. In my defense, though, the few times I made the bed, she redid it later because she didn't like the way I arranged the pillows.

"I'm committed to doing more around the house. But I'm less sure about how to resolve our religious differences. I am no atheist: Anyone who has watched his child being born can attest to the miracle of a higher being. But that being's earthly representatives have done a royal job of screwing things up."

The Counselor's Turn

"These two had a deep love for each other and a fundamentally solid relationship," said the counselor. "But even good marriages benefit from professional help. Too many people put off getting it until their relationship has deteriorated beyond repair. Happily, this was not true here: Our sessions provided a safe place to resolve conflicts.

"James and Meghan had similar backgrounds, but their family dynamics were very different. Her family was the proverbial port in a storm, whereas his sister's death undermined what wasn't strong in the first place. The church was central in Meghan's childhood home, and she hoped to raise her own children in a similar way. While she didn't want to insist that James do something he staunchly opposed, she had hoped that Sunday churchgoing and family time would become a respite from their hectic weekdays. She was flummoxed by James's refusal to help her make that happen.

"Many women come to therapy reciting a laundry list of gripes about their husbands. Meghan tended to feel guilty not only about complaining about James but about seeking his help in the first place. I asked her, 'How much of what James doesn't do are you allowing to happen?' She thought for a few minutes, then replied, 'You're right. I cry, I get angry, I expect him to know.' 'And when did he become a mind reader?' I asked. It became clear that James honestly hadn't realized that he'd been taking advantage of his wife's good nature because Meghan silently took up the slack. When I asked, 'Why can't you put dishes in the dishwasher, or get the kids to bed on time, when you know it's important to her?' he readily acknowledged that he needed to pay more attention."

"It Was Up to Meghan to Take Control of Her Life"

"Still, it was up to Meghan to take control of her life, which meant giving herself permission to consider her own needs. I suggested she make a list of the things she need James to do each week. 'Out of 10, expect that he'll do five,' I said. 'When you start small, you have a better chance of success.' James did what he promised and reported that he felt better about himself and his marriage when he did. Moreover, once Meghan relinquished some household duties and stopped criticizing the way James handled them, he took on more. 'He not only folded the laundry, he also brought it upstairs,' she told me, laughing, at one session. 'And on nights I work out, he now sets the timer to make sure the girls are tucked in before I get back.'

"Once she felt more confident and less stressed in her marriage, we turned our attention to her relationships with friends and family. We practiced different ways of saying no: She could set a limit ('I can't be at the book sale all day long, but noon to 2 p.m. works for me'); stall for time ('I'll check my schedule and get back to you'); or state outright that she was unavailable ('I'd love to help but I'm too swamped myself to water your plants while you're away').

"'None of this makes you a bad person,' I assured her. 'It makes you a happier, less-frantic one who can truly be there for others when necessity arises.'"

"You Can Decide Where to Go from Here"

"As the tension between them eased, James and Meghan were able to talk more freely about volatile religious issues. To spark a spiritual dialogue, I gave them a collection of writings about faith by famous authors. Reading aloud after the kids were asleep, they began to talk about what religion meant to them. This became a bonding experience, and James slowly adopted Meghan's view that it is a parent's role to plant the seeds of spiritual belief so that children can, at some point, follow their own hearts. 'If we truly want to heal from our wounds, we can't repeat the sins of a past generation,' he said. 'Nor can we let our own egos get in the way of what's best for our kids.'

"'On a more practical level,' I reminded them, 'You can't change what happened, but you can decide where to go from here.' Although the priest accused of abuse was no longer at their church, the congregation remained bitterly divided. More to the point, James felt uncomfortable there. Each took a step closer to a resolution when they agreed to attend services at a different church nearby. Although Meghan was sad to leave her old parish, she loved the new one. For his part, James enjoyed making friends at church-sponsored family events. 'We've met a lot of wonderful people who give generously of themselves,' he reported. With the holidays approaching, I'm excited to be part of that world.'

"'I may not make it to Mass every Sunday,' he added with disarming honesty, 'but now I see why it's so important -- for our whole family -- that I try.'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, December 2005.

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