"He's Turned His Back on God"

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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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