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Receptive Ecumenism and Couple Therapy:  Receiving the Witness of Interchurch Families

by Dr. Mary Marrocco, RMFT

Paper presented June 2014 at the Third Receptive Ecumenism Conference, Fairfield University, Connecticut.

            One of the most profound experiences I have had in my years of ecumenical work occurred—of all unlikely places—at a meeting of the Governing Board of the Canadian Council of Churches. Unlikely, because the Governing Board is the legal-bureaucratic oversight body of the Council, generally engaged in fiduciary business and policy.  It is also a friendly and prayerful gathering, but organizational leaders, when meeting together, tend not to lead with their dreams and vulnerabilities.  Moving moments are not written into the agenda.  When they happen, they are gold.  A golden moment   taught me about listening and vulnerability as key ingredients to true change—between persons, spouses, even churches.

            The Governing Board comprises some forty church leaders from more than twenty Christian tribes – including all main-line Protestant churches, the Catholic church, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, evangelicals, free churches and peace churches.  A radical mix, representing 85% of Canadian Christians.  At this meeting, in 2003, after a day or so discussing business, the Governing Board held a special two-hour session: "special", in that it featured no business at all, no intended outcomes, and even no record (minutes were not taken).  The session was planned and set up by the Faith and Witness Commission, the Council body devoted to theological discussion.

            Faith and Witness creates a meeting-place, a forum, among our churches so they can really hear and talk to each other about what matters most.  Sometimes, in our joint reflections, Commission members truly “meet” one another; the veil drops.  For example, one year we were reflecting on our different churches' work with HIV/AIDS.  We quickly saw a common passion as to why we went to Africa, and what it meant to us that Christ was on the cross rejected and outcast; out of this discussion and the work that followed came our pastoral resource on suffering and hope, entitled The Bruised Reed.  Sometimes Commission members stay hidden and reserved, but sometimes they are relaxed and personal, as they were at one dinner meeting while discussing what to do about bats residing in the church ceiling.  Occasionally they are conflictual; I recall a passionate discussion of whether Adam and Eve were historical figures, another about theosis and total depravity.  In respectful but heated discussion, we can discover the real heart of the other—the other person, the other church.  Polite reserve is useful in its place, but impassioned interchange can open new meeting-places.

            In Canada in 2003, the constitutionality of restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples was under question.  Canada's Ministry of Justice established a committee which spent a year hearing presentations on this topic from any interested Canadian.  Faith and Witness learned that, on the same day, three different Christian churches had made three different presentations to the Justice Committee. What did the government committee experience of Christianity on that day?  The Council's member churches took extremely different, even opposing, views on the question, so the Council was struggling to know how to respond publicly.  Faith and Witness had recently published a book on our different churches' understandings of marriage, but the subject of same-sex union was new, undiscussed, and threatening.  What to do?  Faith and Witness invited those three churches to give a précis of their Justice Committee presentations to the Governing Board in a special two-hour session, off the record, with discussion only and no decision-making.  It was an invitation to listen, and the effect was dramatic.  Our churches were able to listen to each other, and (not a small thing) without wounding each other more, at a time when they easily could have damaged their relationship. A decade later, the CCC has never issued a common statement on same-sex marriage, but has written a pastoral letter to its church leaders describing what we learned and how we engaged the question.

            Not long after, I began my studies to become a marriage and family therapist.  I quickly found that not only my theological and pastoral formation, but also my ecumenical experience, helped prepare me to be a marriage counsellor.  Ecumenism has much to say about the nitty-gritty of encountering the other, not in the imagination but in the flesh, at the level where we pay the bills and butter the bread.  So too, of course, do married couples.  Imagine, then, the witness of the ecumenical couple—spouses who belong to two different Christian communities--who are living at once the inter-personal encounter and inter-church encounter, in the kitchen, the bedroom, the workplace, the place of worship, the nursery and the school, in the divinely-infused experience of communion and the humanly-wounded experience of breakage and healing.  

            Receptive ecumenism asks us to start by learning from the other – to help “deepen our authentic respective identities” and “draw us into more intimate relationship”.  A principle so profound is yet so difficult.  From providing couple therapy, I have learned much about what it means to listen and learn from the other.  I will draw on my best teachers, the couples I have worked with, and what they teach about intimacy and communion.  From this brief reflection, we might draw inferences about the unique place of inter-church couples in the quest for full communion, as they live inter-personal communion of the deepest sort within the “real but imperfect communion” among Christian traditions.

First.  The Person is Not the Problem.

            If we think of ourselves as telling a story with our lives, what kind of story is it?  For couples who come to us for counselling, their story seems overwhelmingly painful, tragic, desperate, often meaningless. We Christians know that our story is the love-story of God pitching his tent among us and drawing us to new life—even though the narrative includes sin and suffering.  Therapists also work with story; indeed, as the couple tells their narrative, the therapist steps into it with them, recklessly inserting herself in the plot-line however messy it may be.  The idea is to fill out the couple's narrative, to make it richer, “thicker,” more collaborative, beyond the problem-saturated plot-line to which the couple is accustomed.[1]

            For example:  Jean and George come in for marriage counselling saying they are estranged, bicker all the time, fight about the kids, and do not love each other any more.  Indeed, they sit stiffly, leaning away from each other, avoiding each other's eyes.  As therapist, I feel their sadness, anger and weariness, but also note their narrative is “problem-saturated”:  they talk almost exclusively of their marriage and each other as “the problem”. Jean thinks George is the problem; George thinks Jean is the problem; the one thing they agree on is that their marriage is a problem.  Listening, I do not see Jean as a problem, nor George as a problem: they are not problems, but people.  I mirror that view back to them.  As Michael White, pioneer of narrative therapy, likes to say: the problem is the problem.  White calls this approach “externalizing the problem”:  an astute step, because it frees the person to be again a person—the problem is outside them, not indelibly part of them. As I question, talk and collaborate with the couple, we re-write their narrative and fill out the problem-driven plot with “exceptions” to problems, and eventually with insight, understanding, hope, success, change, love, agency, healing, above all with personal relationship.

            The therapist helps the couple to listen to each other in a new way:  not just to hear better what they are already hearing (“you are such a problem!” “I'm so tired of this!” “I'm stuck with you!”) but also to start to hear what has been silent between them (“I'm sorry it's been hard for you”; “I'm afraid you'll leave me”; “I think you are a good parent”).  Now they are consciously writing their narrative, together, with more dimensions and colours.

            On the day of the Governing Board's special session, the church leaders refused to allow totally separate, divisive church narratives to be told, even though the shared narrative was brief, tentative, uncomfortable, unpolished, and unfinished.  By having an authentic discussion, focused on mutual listening, they were deliberately writing at least part of their narrative together, and that in itself was transformative.  Receptivity also means becoming receptive to ourselves, perhaps the hardest change of all.

            The inter-church couple tells the story not only of two people brought together into one life, but also of two churches brought together in that inter-personal union  Might their shared narrative help fill out the story of Christian estrangement with a story of deeper communion?

Second.  Uncover the Core Wound.

It might seem more productive, in marriage therapy, to contain emotions and work things out logically. Indeed it is ever-tempting for the therapist to try to mediate arguments, come up with plans and solutions, and find a logical and sensible path.  Yielding to this temptation, however, generally either backfires or stalls the process.  The trouble is generally not cognitive, and the underlying solution is not cognitive: the trouble is human and inter-personal, and the solution must be human and inter-personal.

            In couple therapy, the turning-point often comes when one or both spouses decide to take a risk, even in the hurt place.  There has been rejection, hostility, perhaps infidelity. The couple decide to stay together and work it through; at a certain point, the unfaithful spouse truly asks forgiveness, and the betrayed spouse truly offers it.  How does this change happen? The therapist can help the couple actually experience their emotions, rather than deny or ignore them, rationalize them, or hit each other with them.  Going around or suppressing emotions actually disables progress and healing; talking rationally, working out mediated solutions, or implementing communication strategies, can provide an illusion of change that allows the couple to stay comfortably stuck right where they are.  This is a danger ecumenists will likely recognize.  It is entirely human; what is more alarming for us than change?  Even the change of getting out of hell can be too much to contemplate, let alone the change of becoming united when one is accustomed to division and conflict.

            Instead of staying outside our emotions, needs and wounds, the therapist boldly wades into them – bringing her own, too.  Take Susan and Mark.  Much of their thirty years of marriage has been conflictual. Susan and Mark can hardly talk to each other without blaming and accusations; they quickly get into well-established unpleasant pathways and old painful stories from years ago, the details of which they still argue about (“I called you two bad names on that day in 1997, not four”).  Asked how they feel about a situation, they respond along these lines:  “Well, I feel that he is selfish,” or “I feel she is unfair to my mother”--not realizing they are actually hiding their feelings rather than disclosing them.  Feelings can be painful; feelings can lead to destructive actions; feelings often do not seem safe, honoured, or cherished, and it can be hard to know what to do with them.  Moreover, most of our socialization teaches us to hide or ignore our feelings.  It is understandable that two intelligent Christians can think their marriage will be better off without feelings and without access to the true inner self to which feelings can be a doorway. That doorway that may be open, closed, or ajar. Current neuroscience and brain studies have begun to demonstrate how shutting down one's feelings affects brain development, and that the process of experiencing old feelings in a new way can actually restore damaged brain tissue.

            Listening to Susan and Mark, as therapist, I start to hear some of the patterns in their well-honed dance steps. He quickly accuses and blames her; she quickly contradicts him or shuts him down.  I work with empathy to help them focus on their emotions. Finally, during one memorable session, he is able to name anger directly and let it be in the room with us—without judgement, without consequence.  He experiences his anger in a new way, without lashing out or defending himself, and so we discover that his anger is shielding despair.  Despair, for him, is a result of feeling inadequate. Discovering his core wound, and learning to let his wife in at that point rather than shutting her out, requires courage and vulnerability, and makes it possible for the dividing-wall of hostility to dissolve (cf Ephesians 2:14).

            Listening to their emotions actually helped change the interaction between Mike and Susan.  Something of this process happened at our Governing Board meeting.  During that discussion, the participants saw that their theological understanding and moral principles were not solely “in their heads” but alive in the ways they lived. They felt emotions, anger, sorrow, compassion, hope, dared to share some of them, and so took at least a brick or two out of the dividing wall.  Our church leaders were not skilled at talking to each other about homosexuality, but then they had little experience talking together about sexuality at all.  There was sadness, that day, in finding themselves divided and in therefore being unable to act together; perhaps this sadness contained within it a call to action of another kind.

            On a question as intimate and fundamental as relationship and sexuality, that day showed the power and pain of listening to the other. Couples know this territory well  They must navigate the vivid, often-stormy waters of sexuality in faith. For inter-church couples, these waters can be especially dramatic when their different traditions offer different guidance on sexuality.  Can we listen to these couples as they listen to each other?

            It is tempting to do our theology and praxis as though we were not flesh-and-blood beings, humans engaged with the divine.  It is difficult to know how to integrate our selves, alive with feelings and desires, wounds and sorrows and hopes, into our engagement with each other, especially the 'other' from whom we have been estranged.  Being present to emotions in a context of love and non-judgement can help restore damaged brain and damaged soul.  Perhaps the inter-church couple, engaged in the risky and holy work of becoming present to one another in Christ, can help restore damaged communion between their churches.

Third.  Forgiveness Is Key.

            This idiscovery is not new for Christian theology, but is somewhat revolutionary in couple therapy, which has tended to be reluctant to talk about forgiveness.  Perhaps it seems too religious, or perhaps there is a wariness of false or forced forgiveness wreaking harm.

            Often, the therapist meets couples so far gone down the road of division one might be tempted to say: “They are better to go their own ways.”  Yet most couples are better to find forgiveness and a new way together.  An exception would be the presence of violence within the couple, since violence must end before couple therapy can begin.

            My couples have taught me that forgiveness is real and possible, even through experiences as wrenching as infidelity or addiction to pornography.  Sometimes we have to stop focusing even on the urgent practical issues for a little—real and important as they are--to give attention to the relationship and re-claim its fundamental importance. When we listen to what the relationship needs, we might hear it calling for mutual forgiveness and renewal of trust.  When we are open to forgiveness, we may find ourselves better able to work out the practical issues. 

            As Pope Francis said at a Sunday reflection to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, when he welcomed them to his home: “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to the encounter and no to conflict.”[2]


            Couples tend to be pragmatic.  They want therapy to work, to bring about some resolution.  I hope their passion for resolution can be echoed within our churches.  I hope we can be as dissatisfied with Christian division as are those who by their intimate marital union bring together two separated churches, and dare to experience within the heart of their Christian couple the pain of church division.  Their witness, their strength, is that they hold that division within a union and bond of love, dwelling in the life of the Trinity.  They work this out here in the world, with its thorns and thistles, mortgages and in-laws, sexuality and child-rearing—at the infinite, intimate meeting-point between matter and spirit, between human and divine. My years of couple therapy have given me great respect for the difficult work of marriage, but also for the power and importance of marriage to heal and transform.  With these principles, in faith, inter-church couples can tackle anything, and listening to them we can hear better the word of Christ:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

[1]          For this section, I am indebted to the work of narrative therapists Michael White and David Epston, as explained in their insightful work Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (W.W. Norton, 1990). Terms such as "thicker narrative", "problem-saturated", "externalizing the problem", originate with them.



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