Exceptional marriages for normal people

Dr Greg Popcak's enthusiasm for marriage leaps off the pages of his website. The American family counsellor and popular Heart, Mind and Strength radio host insists that even today, when there seems to be so much against it, a couple can live happily ever after together. But it takes work. If it's comfort you want, he says, "don't get a marriage license, buy a Barcalounger." In this interview with MercatorNet, he talks about how to attract young people to marriage, the blessings of parenthood and what it takes to have an exceptional marriage.
MercatorNet: Why are young people delaying marriage? What could warm them up towards marriage and children?
Greg Popcak: Most of the research I've seen on this suggests that young people are afraid that life-long marriage isn't possible. They don't have models for it. They don't know how to do it. In fact, their experience says it's a pipe dream.
As for warming them up to the idea of marriage and children, I would say that it's up to the happily-marrieds. People who are married have a two-fold obligation. First, they need to commit to constantly working to make their marriage and family even stronger. Second, they need to be willing to share their positive, hopeful experience of marriage with others. They need to overcome their fear of setting themselves up as an example. We need examples. I think that married people standing around the water cooler unnecessarily complaining about their spouse and kids just to "fit in" does almost as much to undermine the culture of marriage as anything else. Seeking support is one thing. Needless complaining is another. If a couple or family needs help, then by all means get it, but if you're happy in your marriage and love your kids, the world needs to hear from you.
MercatorNet: Do courtship and engagement play an important role in determining what life after marriage will be like?
Popcak: It depends on what a couple does with it. If their entire focus is having fun and planning the wedding party--which is more common than you think, then no. Courtship and engagement will not prepare a couple for marriage. But if a couple treats their courtship and engagement as a serious time of discernment, and thoroughly examines their beliefs about children, money, faith, careers, household management and the like, they will have a leg-up on their less thoughtful counterparts.
MercatorNet: A report from the National Marriage Project says people bringing up kids are less happy than the child-free; anxiety seems to be the dominant note in parenting today. How does it seem to you? And what could be the cause?
Popcak: I don't give a lot of credence to the research referred to there. Before your readers decide that the secret to happiness is selling their children for medical experiments, let's put this in context.
We know, for instance, that serious college students have pretty high levels of stress. We know that employed people are less carefree than those who sponge off of others. We also know that people who are planning a wedding tend to be more stressed than people who aren't. Taken together, it would appear that research clearly states that the secret to happiness is dropping out of school early, living in your parent's basement, and never dating any one person for too long.
You see the problem here?
Sure, great responsibility is accompanied by a little more stress and anxiety, but we do it anyway because the blessings are so much bigger than the cost. Kids are like that. True happiness isn't achieved by avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood. It's achieved by embracing them. Parenting doesn't cause problems. It solves them.
MercatorNet: What are the most common problems married people bring to you?
Popcak: A failure of generosity. Everyone is afraid of "losing themselves" if they are asked to leave behind their comfort zone for the sake of love. Their mate asks them to do something and the immediate response is, "You want me to do WHAT!?"
Of course, I'm not talking about things that are morally offensive or personally demeaning, just things that challenge my comfort level. The problem is that we identify too much with our comforts to the point that we choke off our ability to love. True, life-long, committed love demands a willingness to learn new skills, develop new habits, and expand our personalities in directions we never anticipated. If you want comfort, don't get a marriage license. Buy a Barcalounger.
MercatorNet: "Good relationships should never feel like work." Do you agree?
Popcak: Superficially, this makes some sense. When you're doing something you love, it can often feel effortless. But that isn't usually the case.
The fact is, you can't be passionate about something unless you've suffered for it. The athlete is passionate about sport because she has pushed through the aches and pains and obstacles to achieve success. The musician is passionate about music because of the hours he has committed to tedious practice.  And the lover is passionate about his beloved because he is willing to overcome any trial or withstand any tribulation for the sake of the relationship. Passion, literally means, "to suffer for the thing you love."
Being passionate enough about someone to marry them, means being willing to work hard, to challenge your comfort zone, to grow, stretch and even suffer for the sake of love.  And if you're that passionate about someone, it is your privilege to do so.
So, no. I wouldn't agree. Real love takes work. Always.
MercatorNet: What does it take to have an "exceptional marriage"?
Popcak: In my book The Exceptional Seven Percent I examine this issue in detail. I would have to say the biggest factor is the mutual commitment to a common vision and value system. Couples in exceptional marriages know that their marriage is about something bigger than themselves. It is about helping each other grow into living, breathing examples of the values and beliefs they claim to hold.
That's the real meaning of fidelity, incidentally. Fidelity isn't just the forsaking of other sexual partners. It is the ability to remain faithful to the beliefs and values I have and to evaluate friendships and activities in the context of those beliefs and values, and in the context of the marital relationship which serves as the primary guardian and engine of those beliefs and values. That's the classic, psychological definition of fidelity. People forget that--even my colleagues.
MercatorNet: Does being religious help? What does the research show?
Popcak: Considering my answer above, you'd think I'd say "yes." But the real answer is, "It depends." Church attendance alone, for instance, is a poor predictor of marital success. People who warm pews get divorced at the same rate as everyone else. But research has shown that people who do have a serious commitment to religious faith and strive to live out their beliefs in their daily lives are more likely to stay together, be happier together, and have better sex-lives, than couples who don't.
MercatorNet: What will it take to promote a positive vision of marriage in the media, especially in films and TV?
Popcak: Certainly media shapes culture, but it also reflects it. When more couples start doing the kind of work I'm describing here to actually work on their marriages instead of just having marriages, they'll start demanding entertainment that accurately represents their lives and values. Until then, the culture will continue to look for alternative arrangements that appear to work better than what married couples have shown them. It's easy to complain about "the media" but the truth is, the media sells what sells. We'll stop buying it when it stops reflecting who we are.
Dr. Gregory Popcak (POP-chak) is a nationally recognized expert in Catholic pastoral counselling, and is the Executive Directive of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He is the author of seven popular books integrating the faith with counselling psychology. With his wife, Lisa, Dr Popcak hosts the daily, nationally-syndicated Catholic radio broadcast, Heart Mind & Strength. He also serves as the Senior Clinician for the Catholic telephone counselling practice which reaches couples, families, and individuals around the world.


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