Psychological Science and the Evaluation of Nullity

Many Catholic families had hoped that the Synod on the Family would address the serious problem of the divorce epidemic and its long-term damage to youth, innocent spouses, the sacrament of marriage, the culture, and the Church. The divorce plague has inflicted severe pain upon Catholic families worldwide. Married couples need to be encouraged by the Church not to give up on their marriages during stressful, unhappy times, and to persevere in loyalty to their marital vows.

The conflicts leading to a decision to divorce are often not of a severe nature. For example, A Generation at Risk: Growing up in an Era of Family Upheaval, a major 15-year research study of marriages and children, revealed that fewer than one-third of divorces involve highly conflicted marriages.

Over the past forty years, I have never worked with a Catholic marriage in which both spouses wanted a divorce. In the majority of marriages under stress, one spouse remains happy with the marriage, believes the conflicts can be resolved and is loyal to the sacramental bond.

The spouses who are not happy and who want to pursue divorce and a decision of nullity most often refuse to address their own weaknesses. Instead, they portray themselves as victims of insensitive treatment or emotional abuse.

The psychological reality is that every spouse brings special gifts into marriage, but they also bring psychological weaknesses, which are most often deeply buried out of conscious awareness.

The weaknesses commonly brought into marriage are the result of a lack of a secure loving relationship with one parent, most often the father; selfishness, described by many popes as the major “enemy” of marital love; severe weaknesses in trusting; emotionally distant behaviors resulting in spousal loneliness; controlling, disrespectful behaviors from unresolved hurts with a parent; failure to master anger daily by growth in forgiveness; misdirected anger that is meant for a parent or others; weaknesses in confidence; excessive anxiety associated with irritability; family of origin sadness/loneliness that spousal love cannot resolve; modeling after a major parental weakness; adult child of alcoholism or divorce anger and mistrust and the failure to understand Catholic marriage and its support from the Lord’s love and grace.

Pope Francis marries 20 couples in St. Peter’s (CNS)
Pope Francis marries 20 couples in St. Peter’s (CNS)

The majority of spouses who pursue divorce – in our experience with several thousand couples – have never worked on these issues. This explains, in part, why the national survey of divorced men and women, conducted by the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas at Austin, found the honest response that only one in three divorced spouses claimed that both they and their ex-spouses worked hard enough to try to save their marriage.

There is reason to be hopeful about the resolution of marital difficulties. In a major study from the University of Chicago among spouses who rated their marriages as very unhappy, 86 percent of those who persevered reported themselves as happily married five years later.

One grave danger to Catholic marriages and families from the changes made in canon law made by the Holy Father (without a careful study by a commission of experts) is that spouses will not be motivated to engage in the hard work of addressing personal psychological and spiritual weaknesses. Instead, they will pursue divorce and with a belief that they are entitled to a decision of nullity if they can meet the criteria cited, including the new one, “etcetera.”

With all due respect, the determination of nullity by only one priest or by a bishop after 30 to 45 days, is seriously flawed because they lack the proper mental health training to uncover and evaluate the numerous complex psychological conflicts that lead to a decision for divorce. This new process is a grave injustice and, therefore, a manifestation of a severe lack of mercy towards the sacrament of marriage, innocent spouses, children, and Catholic families.

In his closing talk at the Synod, the Holy Father criticized bishops and priests, whom he claimed hide behind rigid doctrines and ignore wounded families. In fact, his radical change in canon law in regard to annulments, made prior to the Synod, will weaken and harm Catholic marriages and families.

Let’s hope that the wisdom of St. John Paul II will be rediscovered as a way to strengthen Catholic marriages and families and lead to a revision in the present canon law. He wrote, “Whenever a couple is going through difficulties, the sympathy of Pastors, and of the other faithful must be combined with clarity and fortitude in remembering that conjugal love is the way to work out a positive solution to their crisis. Given that God has united them by means of an indissoluble bond, the husband and wife by utilizing all their human resources, together with good will, and by, above all, confiding in the assistance of divine grace, can and should emerge from their moments of crisis.”

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D. is a psychiatrist in Conshohocken, PA who has treated youth and adults with gender dysphoria, and written on the topic. He is the co-author of Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope .

  • Tom Williams

    Thank you for presenting a truth from your professional experience. This is in line with what catholic tradition believed and practiced for centuries. The failures in marriage today can find more blame on the failure of priest to correctly form those seeking marriage in the Church.
    Tyring to pin the blame on individual fault by making annulments more accesable is a cop out on the part of The Church.

    • Marguerite

      Good point. By the way, since there was abuse back in the 1980s and 90s with granting annulments so easily, how will granting annulments more easily now correct any abuses?

    • Veritas

      I will agree that preparation for marriage is weak, but to blame it on the priests is to deny the culpability of the rest of the church, its members, in teaching our children the true meaning of marriage….not the “popular” definition floating around on TV, movies and in our neighborhoods. It is a tragedy that we use the same word to describe both…and that is OUR fault.
      If we enter into an agreement (a sacrament in this case) without any understanding of the unwritten terms of the contract, are we to be held liable?

      This is what is really happening today and for the past 50 – 60 years.

    • slainte

      Premarital cohabitation and sex between a man and woman before marriage may form a false bond of intimacy which skews the choice of a suitable spouse.

      Draconian as it may sound in our modern culture….I think it would be reasonable for the Church to require couples seeking to receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony to live apart from each other and refrain from intimate relations for at least a year before marriage.

      Tough love at the start, as an integral part of Pre Cana, might help some couples to separate rather than to marry.

  • Rick

    Well stated and spot on. Thank you for not being a sheep.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The learned author overlooks one blindingly obvious fact: either a couple are married or they are not – there is no half-way house.

    In the words of a great Scottish lawyer, F W Walton, the author of the leading textbook on Husband and Wife: “It is a curious fact, though true, that there must always be… a considerable number of persons who could not say off-hand whether they were married or not. It is only when the question has been decided in a court of law that their doubts can be removed. But although they do not know if they are married, and no one could tell them with certainty till the action was tried, it is nevertheless true that they must be either one or the other.”

    We may argue over what is the best way of determining the question of marriage or no marriage, but the question itself is a perfectly straightforward one.

    • slainte

      May God have mercy on the soul of any married couple or tribunal judge who elects to treat the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony with anything less than the full reverence it deserves.

      Holy Matrimony is a covenant between a man and a woman with God at its center. It is not a rebuttable presumption.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    Notwithstanding the psychological issues involved (after all, I spent 45 years working in mental health), my guess is that 100% of married Catholics who seek a divorce have NOT at all ever availed themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

    Instead of some of our illustrious Synodal Fathers obsessing about divorced Catholics accessing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, they ought to be putting the horse back in front of the cart where it belongs and obsess about married and divorced Catholics availing themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (But that would take wisdom, prudence and courage).

    Could we imagine what would happen to the Catholic “divorce” rate if all married Catholics went to confession every two weeks? We all know the answer to my question but you won’t be hearing it aloud from many prelates.

    • Veritas

      Full agreement with you here…it is difficult in the humility of the confessional to blame a spouse for the terrible marriage that is “all their fault”

      How about making confession a big part of marriage prep

      If God is in the center of a marriage, any problem between the spouses must run through God, and be a problem between one spouse and God, or between both spouses and God.

      Unless God is the problem….and that would mean you’re an atheist

      • Rick

        Maybe not quite an atheist, but like in the garden, he/she will try to cover their shame with a fig leaf and hide from God (As if that is possible), by moving to another city or joining a different church. God does seems to get in the way of our “good time” or our “right to be happy.”

      • DeaconEdPeitler

        You get it

    • Robert Thaler

      The Catholic Church has been hijacked by Judeo Masons in 1958 when Cardinal Siri has been validly elected as Gregory XVIII. You can erase all the new stuff since then from your mind. If you are old enough you could see with a clearer lens the facts that you accepted only because you trusted the Vatican. An inside job, the greatest Apostasy since the history of the Catholic Church. Go, do some investigating on your own and the pieces of the puzzle will all come together. This is no conspiracy theory. Sincerely, Robert

      • DeaconEdPeitler


      • Bro_Ed

        I never heard this one before. Aliens?

    • ThirstforTruth

      Be realistic. Most couples having serious conflict in their marriages,
      need the help of counseling that is not available in the confessional, which, at
      best, in most parishes, is limited to a very few hours per week. Also, most priests,
      are not psychologists. Confession is healing, of course, and should not be overlooked by those in ailing marriages, but it is hardly the place where in depth
      counseling can take place. However, as you said, if the couple are both receiving the sacraments on a regular basis, they are probably already avoiding the pits of
      the sinful behaviors that in many cases are at the root of marriage conflict. And
      confession does help to avoid those occasions of sinful behavior that is detrimental to a good marriage.
      As for the point of emphasizing the sacrament of Reconciliation as a prelude to
      receiving Eucharist, it is the proper order of things. BUT…unless one is catechized properly about the Real Presence, the suggestion will fall upon deaf ears. Also we cannot emphasize the healing effects of the Eucharist as being less than the healing graces received in Confession which you seem to indicate.
      The big question avoided and unaddressed by the author seems to be ” Why are there so many illicit marriages being performed in the first place that there
      is such a need for so many annulments”?

      • DeaconEdPeitler

        I was not so foolish as to be suggesting that the Sacrament of Confession was a substitute for professional counseling. But, having been a professional counselor for married Catholic couples for many years, much of their behavior toward one another was sinful matter and the graces of the sacrament would be available to them. Secondly, I never sat with a couple for counseling where one or both ever started the session with the admission: “this is how I am to be blamed for our marital troubles.” Whereas in the Sacrament of Confession, the penitent usually begins with an examination of conscience and then the words, “Forgive me Father FOR I HAVE SINNED.”

        • slainte

          Humility and forgiveness are underestimated virtues.

          Practiced together by a couple in a troubled marriage, they may soften hardened hearts and renew marital covenants.

          With God all things are possible for those who believe.

      • DeaconEdPeitler

        If you are not already in a state of grace, the efficacy of the Eucharistic graces that would ordinarily be available are not. St. Paul warned against receiving the Sacrament unworthily. The Eucharist is NOT sacred balm for mortal sin (which adultery is).

        I am NOT suggesting that one must always go to confession before receiving communion.

    • Howard Kainz

      “Could we imagine what would happen to the Catholic “divorce” rate if all married Catholics went to confession every two weeks?”
      This would be rather difficult in my parish, in which there are no confessions except by appointment.

      • DeaconEdPeitler

        That in itself is sinful and a serious dereliction of duty. How often does the pastor: play golf, go out to eat, watch TV, surf the net, etc etc?

    • Shell

      100% is inaccurate. I believe it falls under over using ‘never’ and ‘always.’ I for one have always been a regular penitent, including hosting a mother’s group so moms of young children could go to confession at least once per month. I tried everything to save my marriage, but one cannot do it alone especially when there’s another person seducing one’s spouse. Please temperate your amounts. Even 99% maybe, but always leave room for the exceptions. God bless.

  • Patti Blahut Cancelli

    some annullments should be automatic…. like in the case of major crime…. it should not be so damn difficult to go through the process.

    • gsk

      What has a crime got to do with the validity of a prior vow?

      • bitsnbytes

        Failing to disclose the crime before the wedding can constitute deception.

  • o_mlly

    ” … the determination of nullity by only one priest or by a bishop after 30 to 45 days, is seriously flawed because they lack the proper mental health training to uncover and evaluate the numerous complex psychological conflicts.”

    The evidences for psychological conflicts are never especially clear
    and, therefore, the shorter process is not suitable for cases
    claiming psychological conflicts as a cause for a declaration of
    nullity. I believe the shorter annulment process in Pope Francis’ motu proprio does not replace the prior two processes but introduces a middle process requiring less formality where evidences for nullity are especially clear.

  • Elijah fan

    Excellent…thank you. The author should have had a speaking hour at the Synod. Christ wanted the Samaritan woman at the well to return to her original vowed husband despite her flawed catechesis ( Pentateuch only…no prophets please ) and despite her serial man shopping.

  • grump

    Sometimes a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.

    • Jo Flemings

      I guess that depends on who you ask. The One Whose opinion matters most is the one I would personally want to know.

    • Marie

      There is no “good divorce.” There is making a bad marriage a faithful one because you vowed for worse until death.

    • SJ Man

      And for the children??…..

  • mpc

    As a canonist, while I agree with the first part of your article, I think you are missing the point of why the Holy Father initiated these changes and why in fact the current system needed changing.

    First, it is important to note that while these changes affect us in the US, they are neither about us or for us. There was only one English speaking person on the committee who proposed these changes, and he was brought in only at the end. So while the US, Canada, etc. are clearly affected by these changes, they were not made to give North Americans access to quickie annulments.

    Currently less than 20 countries in the world have a functioning tribunal. So while every Catholic has the right in canon law to have their marriages examined by a tribunal, the reality is that the only Catholics that had access to a process were those in developed countries in dioceses who can afford to staff and run a tribunal. The new process was put in place so that a person in a remote village with limited accessibility to electricity, education, and transportation could get to a bishop to have their marriage evaluated, which internationally is the more common situation. This also makes it so that such a person can have a process completed at one time without having to get to their Diocesan See more than once (which can be very difficult if 1) your only access to transportation is something non-motorized and 2) if you have a job you can’t miss or you risk losing the job that is keeping your family fed). This new process allows people who have never had access to a tribunal process the ability to get their situations regularized by the Church, instead of simply having to live in circumstances of grave sin because neither their diocese or themselves had enough resources to staff or access a tribunal.

    So, FWIW I think that this new process opens up the Church’s justice to the rest of the world who has not had it until now, and this is a very positive step. Does it mean that we need to be very careful how this process is implemented in the US? Yes. But it is important to remember that there are other very valid competing interests here internationally that are simply not on our radar in the US, and our experience with tribunals here in North America is not the experience of most Catholics around the world. And while we in North America may have the luxury of access to professionals such as yourself to help assess marriages, again, that is not the experience of most of the rest of the world.

    • MSDOTT

      mpc, it seems to me the point of the ‘annulment’ process is to determine ‘objective truth’ I,e, whether one is married or not. It is a yes/no answer. I simply cannot fathom how the process the Holy Father has put in place will allow this objective truth to be determined.
      As Cardinal Burke put it, in his essay in the book ‘Remaining in the Truth of Christ’ :
      “Apart from the situation of a person who is simply not free to marry, or who patently was incapable of consenting to marriage, most petitions of declaration of nullity of marriage involves complex acts of the intellect and will, which must be studied with requisite objectivity lest a true marriage be falsely declared null. While it is true that the judicial process for the declaration of nullity of marriage is not in itself of divine law, it is also true that it has developed in response to divine law, which demands an effective and appropriate means of arriving at a just judgment regarding a claim of nullity” ( p.213, Remaining in the truth of Christ.)
      I am quite frankly, rather surprised that you would seem to think the ‘quickie process’ that Pope Francis has promulgated will do justice in arriving at the truth of the matter. In fact, my take on this new process is that it actually trivializes marriage, by offering a quickie way out (especially, with the ‘etc’ for reasons why a marriage may be annulled). This is contrary to what Our Lord has said himself, on the importance of marriage and its permanence. In my view, what Pope Francis has done in issuing this new annulment process is to show a ‘false mercy’. Truth and true mercy cannot be separated. It takes
      time to get at the truth.
      Finally, Fr. Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer, wrote a very good essay, entitled ‘Scrap the Annulment Process’. It can be found in the archives of The Catholic Thing, I believe it was in September of this year, that he wrote it. I have recommended it as important reading to many people.

    • Chris in Maryland

      Get more tribunals then.

  • Helen Fritz Hornbake

    I’m sorry but I don’t get this idea of annulment, at least in the majority of cases. Who among us fully realized what we were committing to when we said “I do”? And if that means we were psychologically immature, then I suspect that very few people are really sacramentally married. I’m a practicing Catholic, happily “married”, and in love with the Church. But I don’t get this whole issue. Why don’t we just call it divorce and get it over with?

    • Jo Flemings

      When you confect the covenant of marriage before God- you are entering into a change of state until death. That is the reality of the vow. Now, the Church can only declare what the reality is/was for the couple making the covenant when they make/made it- and the husband and wife are accountable for the choice their choice and declaration in that moment with the knowledge formation and understanding they have at the time (all things being subject to the sovereign will and provision of God according to His action, intention, and good purpose)- it is therefore a lifelong commitment. Anyone who does this and has even a rudimentary understanding of the general good into which he or she is embarking and to which he or she is declaring commitment, is changed and thereby accountable for acting according to his or her word in hope and joy, within the context of the promise from God of grace to sustain him and her in fidelity and love.

      What God has joined together no man- neither spouse and not even the pope has the ability or right to sever. It is not done- it is not accomplishable- because the bond is indissoluble- not able to be dissolved from God’s perspective. There is an element of maturity required to make this commitment and a particular understanding involved but the Church requires spouses to undergo formative teaching and to respond to thorough examination before entering into this covenant commitment. The disposition of the spouses means something but not as much as God’s willingness to give to them what they need to fulfill the promises they make to one another.

      The annulment process is the means through which according to canon law, the Church examines whether or not some error was made when the covenant was confected, and if so, what that error might have been. Immaturity is not really on the menu- and neither is the real issue which is “I had no idea I would have to suffer this much to be faithful to this, and now, I freely choose not to be faithful to my word and commitment no matter what the cost here as I begin to undergo ‘the test.’ So let me off the hook, because this sucks and I can’t do it anymore- in fact, it is killing me in more ways than I can count- and surely God who loves us is not really intending that we suffer like this.” When actually, God does expect us to stay firmly fixed on whatever cross He offers us and to drain every chalice in which we are privileged to partake because WE SAID WE WOULD.

  • givelifeachance2

    There is mercy and there is justice and those clerics who leave their lambs “invincibly ignorant” of Church teaching on marriage indissolubility will face the ironical need to pay, in Hell, for those sins their flock committed while ignorant. An awesome responsibility.

    • Jo Flemings

      In this day and age, any Catholic who fails to know the teaching of the faith is primarily responsible for his or her own shipwreck of soul- not the priest, not the bishop and not the pope. There is no excuse. Poor catechesis is not the issue, failure to take personal responsibility for the welfare of one’s own soul is the problem. Failure to make even a marginally decent effort to know God and to pray; failure to read and absorb Sacred Scripture; and the coup de grace abject failure to obey Truth and to submit to the realities circumscribed on the heart and mind of every human person by means of natural law. The failure of faith in this Church is not the fault of the institution as much as it is the fault of the individual members- it is the consequence of personal, prolific, perversion and rebellion in the hearts, minds and wills of the baptized- a choice made NOT TO SERVE, NOT TO OBEY, NOT TO LOVE. That is the problem, and it will not be solved until people repent and are converted. Marriages will not be fixed when its the priests who are finally decent, loving, wise, educated and well formed. It’s the other way around- the priests will be who they are made to be, when the married finally obey God. When souls say to God, “I want what You want, the way that You want it for as long as You want it.” That is what is required to redeem this mess- or any mess for that matter.

      • Chris in Maryland


        Your comment – summed up in the line: “priests will be who they are made to be, when the married finally obey God” – is the one of the most profound and beautiful observations I have ever read about Catholic marriage and families. Marriage is serious business.

  • Sirdirkfan

    To keep marriage together each spouse MUST be responsible in making sure it is energetically working for a good marriage.
    That is a daily summons to obligatioin, not just once in a while.
    Husbands, make sure your wife is no longer disinterested.
    Wives, make sure your husband is no longer disinterested.
    And watch your mouths – you can never take back words.

  • givelifeachance2

    If only all psychologists were like Dr Fitzgibbons. But that they are not, is amply demonstrated by the way they mishandled the priest-sex-abusers, telling the bishops to “trust us, we’ll fix them”.

    So we’re back to the priest as the go-to person for marriage. As it should be, because they’re the ones who should pay if they bungle the pastoring of the marriage. Perhaps Dr F could give a workshop for priests.

  • Manfred

    It will be remembered that a few decades ago, the American church granted more annulments than the rest of the world’s countries combined.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    As a Catholic (chosen faith, not cradle) who has been through a divorce and subsequent annulment, I can appreciate this essay more than most, perhaps. Well, worth a read. There was true value in the annulment process as it stood. It’s still there, but, the use of it, I fear, will become less and less. Which is really a pity. Without going though the annulment process, without fully and honestly facing the flaws, indeed the entire sham of my first marriage, I could never have ended up with the marriage I have today. The insight I gained going through the process was probably the most valuable learning experience of my life. Thank God I did that annulment process. I cannot help but believe that the weakening of the process done by the pope prior to the Synod and the confusion wrought by the Synod, will not be for the good. And, that is worse than a pity.

  • Tony

    To hear some people talk, you’d have to be a saint to contract a valid marriage. That is nonsense. If you are not coerced, if you are in possession of your faculties, if you are of age, if you set about having children, and if you know what “I do” means, then you are validly married.

    • Chris in Maryland


    • Vince Whirlwind

      Many many people who got married in the USA in the 60s, 70s and 80s…..

      1. There was coercion. “Oh you’re pregnant? Well, I guess we’re sposed to get married”

      2. Possession of faculties. Then, like now, there is/was an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse. Millions of people living in a haze of reality. Millions. Is your head in the sand?

      3. Of age? Physically, maybe, but emotionally, hardly. In the old days, people were actual adults when they turned 17 or 18, nowadays some people never reach adulthood. Mental and emotional midgets. Liberal progressive hogwash from womb(maybe) to tomb.

      4. “Set to have children”. Very very difficult when you’re bathed in a continual shower of contraception, in many different forms. Again, pull your head out of the sand and look around at reality.

      5. “If they know what “I do” means. They didn’t.

      Thank you for helping me shed some light on the wonderful “victories” won in the Sexual Revolution of the postwar “United” States.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Thanks for your assessment Dr Fitzgibbons. I initially thought there might be some value providing more benefit of the doubt to those applying for annulment. You confirm Cardinal Burke’s strong misgivings. What I take away from your article is that priests should work all the more at reconciliation. Because of my ministry as hospital chaplain and teaching in a missionary setting I’ve had few applicants most cases being couples who were long separated. It is revealing that in all the cases you handled only one spouse wanted annulment.

  • Wonderful article, Dr. Fitzgibbons. Real mercy would try to prevent marital breakups, not facilitate them.

  • James Stagg

    Does anyone actually (attempt to) track those granted “quicky” annulments….lack of form, or even long-form ones to see what happens to the next marriage? The good doctor is exactly right, in my experience (RCIA, Marriage Tribunal sponsor), in identifying a basic personality failure, or even quirk, that shows basic immaturity. In quite a few cases, there are multiple “marriages” to sift through, with repetitive behavior.

    More “quicky” annulments are not the answer, no matter Pope Francis’ personal experience. Much better marriage prep is the real answer. What pope will lead that charge?

  • Lynette

    And compounding the marriage crisis is the mis-direction of priests who are also living with this trauma and do not follow the wise teachings of the Church, thinking they know better; after all, their own parents’ failed marriages were Catholic marriages. Jesus, mercy.

  • Michael in NJ

    The central thesis of this article was confirmed in my life experience. My wife and I have been
    married for 22 years. We married at the age of 24 and both brought significant unresolved psychological issues into the marriage that were initially a part of our mutual attraction but became a source of continued emotional wounding and distancing in the relationship. We practiced the faith and were open to life, having 4 wonderful children. However,
    the cumulative effect of our emotional wounded-ness, two high stress professional careers and the normal stresses of a large family created a situation that had become untenable. Our
    marital situation became characterized by drama and increasingly inflammatory conduct toward one another. As one friend commented at the time, “it’s like two intelligent people treating each
    other like children.” We had tried marital counseling and individual therapy. It often seemed like one step forward and two steps back. We had hit a wall. In 2011, that same friend suggested I attend an AA meeting. This person had never seen me drink. Frankly, I had nothing to
    lose. At my first meeting I heard people talk about drinking that was way beyond my weekend drinking. However, when they shared how they felt, it was exactly the same. They spoke of “chronic discontent” and “having a hole in their heart.” I continued to attend and became increasingly aware of how I was using a number of addictive behaviors including pornography, sex, alcohol and excessive exercising as a means to self-medicate. I became increasingly focused on the underlying causes of why I resorted to those behaviors. The answers were
    found in the emotional wounds of being raised in an alcoholic home. I had paternal abandonment wounds. I suffered from perfectionism toward myself and others. I was an approval seeker. I was self-centered. This was toxic to the marital bond. I took up the hard self-work necessary to heal. By focusing on what I needed to address in myself, I stepped back from the perception that it was my wife’s fault. This gave her the emotional space she needed to begin her own work to address her paternal abandonment wounds and profound emotional abuse as a child. Fast forward several years and our marriage is much healthier and
    happier. When our emotional wounds are triggered we know how to deal with them and no longer blame the other. We do not do this perfectly, but we continue to get better at it.

    Why were we able to do this? Simply put because we were motivated to do so. We both believed in the indissolubility of marriage. There was no other choice. Work on ourselves or continue to suffer. I have no doubt that if there were no religious implications to a divorce and remarriage, one or both of us would have gone that route and taken our emotional wounds with us to inflict on someone else.

    Finally, a note on the recent changes in canon law and the “internal forum” proposal at the synod which appear to place the issue of whether a marriage is void in the hands of bishops and priests. Over the years, I had sought the advice and guidance of many holy priests and Catholic friends. They all earnestly sought to help me. But they were not trained to help me in the
    way I needed help. I have no doubt that if I presented my past situation to them in the current climate, at least one of them would give me the “out” I was looking for. I would have run with it because the work I had to do was painful and grueling. It would have been a tragedy if I was deprived of it.

    • Greg

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I think it speaks to a lot of people and their situations.

      Your decision to work on yourselves, or continue to suffer, reflects a self-awareness and commitment to marriage once, for a lifetime, that is admirable. Not everyone has this though, and not everyone has a marriage partner who has this. Some people make mistakes. Some people enter into the marriage covenant not understanding well the person they are bonding themselves to.

      Your religious belief and commitment to each other was enough to salvage a salvageable marriage. I am happy for you. Your marriage was exactly the set of circumstances where Church teaching and law could have its intended effect. However, we simply cannot say all marriages are like yours, suited perfectly for Church law to be efficacious.

      • Michael in NJ

        I shared my experience in the hope that I would help
        someone. So I’ll simply share another insight in response to the above
        comment. In taking the journey I described above, I had to accept that my
        perception of my wife could be wrong. I was filled with resentment and
        anger toward her. Essentially, I believed my emotional turmoil was
        largely her fault. My internal conversation was filled with judgment
        about her. Given that I was depressed, anxious and angry it seemed likely
        I was not thinking as clearly as I could otherwise. Even though I was
        filled with certainty that she was more the culprit than I was, I resolved to
        not take any drastic action (like file for divorce) for one year. Since I
        had to get to a more stable emotional place whether I was married or not, it
        seemed wise to get there and then take any action from a place of relative
        emotional strength. During that year (and beyond) I had to continually
        force myself to keep my judgment focused on myself and not her. This was
        extremely difficult for me. I had to learn a number of tricks to prevent
        the torrent of judgment against her from flowing again. The most
        effective was to view her through the eyes of my children. They loved
        her. They thought she was great. They had no trouble exhibiting
        affection toward her. At first, I could
        not understand why. But the act of
        imaging a different perspective allowed me to step out of myself. This calmed the inner storm. It also reinforced the notion that my perspective
        could not be trusted. So I kept the
        focus on myself. Believe me, there was
        plenty there for me to work on. In
        closing, I can assure you that there is nothing about my experience which seems
        “suited perfectly” for Church law. It
        has been a struggle, to put it mildly.
        The dramatic details that provided the backdrop to this journey were
        ugly. Shameful, might be a better
        word. In fact, I was very angry with God
        for a long time. I had sought to pursue a
        serious spiritual life and it did not make sense that my pain seemed to become
        worse. In time, through active
        self-work, God brought me to peace. It
        took about 4 years before that last sense of lingering discontent was lifted
        from me. But it’s gone. Imagine, what that feels like.

        • Greg

          Wonderful. Really.

          Thank you for sharing.

        • Marie

          Marriage is about the children. If spouses would focus on what going their separate ways does to their children, they would not divorce. As they did not in better times.

          In order to cope, children of divorce are sent to counsellors, therapists, psychologists, and or psychiatrists, put on anti-depressants which provoke suicidal thoughts, and they often have to do their schoolwork in special classrooms for the emotionally disturbed. They are so sad, especially seeing children around them who go home after school to Mom and Dad, that just getting up every morning and facing another day without hope is unbearable.

          Parents who want to divorce need to be forced to visit the Dachau they are sending their children to.

  • Vince Whirlwind

    Ah, I see yet another obviously educated author who is seriously clueless on what a marriage tribunal examines to determine if a valid sacramental marriage occurred or not.

    I would expect such a learned author to at least interview a tribunal member, or at least study widely available material on what an annulment is…and is not.

    “Psychological conflicts that lead to a decision for divorce”

    No, no, nope. This is not the task of a marriage tribunal, plain and simple. A tribunal investigates “psychological conflicts” that exist prior to, and up to and including the day of the wedding.

    What may or may not happen AFTER the wedding day is actually irrelevant.

    Many, many faithful married (and divorced) Catholics are blatantly ignorant of the annulment procedure. Before stoning the sinner, maybe it would be a good idea to see if the person is a sinner first.

    80% (my guestimate keeps rising)…of ALL marriages in the USA, from the late 60, 70s and 80s…were/are invalid. Thank you to the post-WWII, “sexual revolutionists”. You’ve left many victims in your wake. There are countless victims of the sexual revolution. And many, if not most of them, walked down the aisle into invalid sacramental marriages.

    Is YOUR marriage valid? Are you sure? How do you know?

    • SD

      This is utter and complete nonsense. The idea that most marriages are invalid is a fiction and a devious one at that. The last two Popes criticized tribunals in the USA because they are lax and corrupt.

      Too many decrees of nullity are given out like candy. So-called psychological factors are a type ticket used to usher in Catholic divorce.

      People grasp, quite well, what marriage means. They just do not like it.

      • LAM

        It is difficult to draw any conclusion from the radical change in canon law other than that Pope Francis is attempting to undermine the attempts of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to protect Catholic marriages, families and youth from “Catholic divorce.”

        Cardinal Raymond Burke described the consequences of dropping the double confirming sentence of annulment in Remaining in the Truth in Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. He wrote, “I have never come across any indication that the conference of bishops ever denied a single request for dispensation out of hundreds of thousands received.” He also stated that “not without reason, the process began to be called ‘Catholic divorce.’”

    • Chris in Maryland

      Bad form vw…just like the rest of the St Galen’s Mafiosi talk…calling people Pharisees when they side with Jesus…and clueless when they point out error.

      • Vince Whirlwind

        Mathew 19:9

        “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

        It is I defending Jesus words. I didn’t put those words in parentheses. NAB Revised Edition.

        Unlawful marriage is an invalid marriage. Not valid? Not adultery. It’s that simple…is this poor form to speak plain truth?

        • Chris in Maryland

          In the first case – it is clear that a Catholic person who marries, divorces civilly without annullment, and remarries, is in unlawful “2nd marriage.”
          In the second case – for the Church from Peter to Benedict XVI – when adults say before God “till death do us part” the Church defends the first marriage unless clear evidence is manifested in an annulment investigation that the marriage never existed. But not for Pope Francis and the St Galens mafia who elected him.
          For Francis and Danneels with his St Galens Mafia, they are going to do what fellow Mafiosi Cdl McCarrack said they were going to do at Villanova – “change the Church in five years.”
          Now we know what they mean: dismantle the Catholic theology of marriage and the Eucharist.
          As Douthat said to the deceitful, dissident and heretic “Catholic theologians” who tried to silence him – welcome to the battlefield.

  • Bai_Macfarlane

    I love this list of reasons that marriages fail that can all be addressed if one is willing. Mary’s Advocates works with those defending their marriage against separation/divorce/annulment. FYI, Pope Francis’ changes did not introduce “lack of faith” as a new ground for nullity. One reason for streamlined process (Title V, Art. 14 of Motu Proprio) is “the defect of faith which can generate simulation of consent or error that determines the will.” Simulation is canon 1101. Error is canon 1099.

  • Bai_Macfarlane

    I question if readers will conclude that Pope Francis’s changes mean that parties are now entitled to a decree of nullity based on the criteria of “etcetera.” The changes (Motu Proprio, Title V (5), Art. 14 §1) shows “etc.” as one reason a case could be handled by the briefer process. Article 14 §1 is a mix of grounds for nullity along with other criterion that are not grounds for nullity. Any one of the criterion on Art. 14 §1 could be a basis to have the streamlined process. Mary’s Advocates supports those who are faithful to marriage – even when one or both have issues that need work. I thank God for psychologists like Dr. Fitzgibbons.

  • Greg

    The author is obviously a learned professional, and there is a lot of truth in what he has to say in this article. However, I have trouble taking any of it seriously because, according to him:

    “Over the past forty years, I have never worked with a Catholic marriage in which both spouses wanted a divorce. In the majority of marriages under stress, one spouse remains happy with the marriage, believes the conflicts can be resolved and is loyal to the sacramental bond.”

    This strikes me as highly unbelievable. Forty years? Thousands of couples counselled? Never? I simply don’t believe it. Keep the bias and other agenda items out of your treatment of a highly sensitive issue and you will find more people listening, and taking up what you have to say.

    • Vince Whirlwind

      It’s only logical that a person who tries to heal marriages would never talk to two people who both want a divorce. Those two people would never make an appointment, why would they?

      This author may be qualified to heal a sick marriage, but it hardly qualifies him to discuss the annulment process, where the patient has already died.

      This Pope and his pastoral approach, is to try and minister to those failed cases. And theres millions and millions of them. Wow, what a heretic he is!!

      • Greg

        Because there is a difference between how a person feels, now, and what they want for their life? Because they’re both Catholic and don’t want to be excluded from the sacraments, maybe? There’s probably a dozen other possibilities, too.

        In any event, straining the comment through formal logic is the wrong approach. It is a matter of feeling and desire, or wanting as the author states it.

  • I question if readers will conclude that Pope Francis’ changes mean that parties are now entitled to a decree of nullity based on the criteria of “etcetera.” The changes (Motu Proprio, Title V (5), Art. 14 §1) show “etc.” as one reason a case could be handled by the briefer process. Article 14 §1 is a mix of grounds for nullity along with other criterion that are not grounds for nullity. Any one of the criterion on Art. 14 §1 could be a basis to have the streamlined process. Mary’s Advocates supports those who are faithful to marriage – even when one or both have issues that need work. I thank God for psychologists like Dr. Fitzgibbons.

  • sg4402

    “Lax and corrupt”, to be sure. Somewhere, in their conscious, or unconscious, the modern Catholic sees a precedent in how contraception was handled by the local priest, in the confessional, lo these many years. (Even the present POPE has advised to “find another priest”—unwittingly making a joke of the sacrament.) “Ad hominem” should be trumped by reality. ‘Internal forum’ be damned! Let’s be reasonable—(and faithful).

  • Alex Newman

    I would agree with everything said here about the situation within marriages, where one partner wants out and the other doesn’t. I also understand from my own experience that the urge to leave the marriage is strong and not much the other person can do will alter it. What I don’t understand is how can this prescription — refusing to annul marriages — help the person who has been left behind and who did not want the marriage to end, but ends up divorced — and not able to take communion? And what happens if that person is female, and providing for children, and poor? A second marriage is not good for children, except in cases of poverty — the improved economics stabilizes the children. These are situations that aren’t going to go away no matter how much you wish people would think carefully and work through their problems.

    • barnabus

      Being divorced does not prohibit you from receiving Communion. It’s only if you remarry without first receiving an declaration of nullity.

  • edwin

    “The spouses who are not happy and who want to
    pursue divorce and a decision of nullity most often refuse to address
    their own weaknesses. Instead, they portray themselves as victims of
    insensitive treatment or emotional abuse.”
    This is exactly what my estranged wife did after taking our three children and moving in with her mother. My mother-in-law managed to convince my wife that divorcing me was the “Divine Will”. How could I argue against that?
    I would recommend that other abandoned spouses read “Love Must be Tough” by Dr James Dobson and “The Divorce Remedy” by Michelle Weiner Davis. You may not be able to prevent the divorce but you should gain some insight and peace of mind from reading these books.