Most of us can agree that marriage is good, but just because it is good does not mean it is easy. Some of the hardest conflicts we will ever encounter come through our marriages.
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons has spent 40 years counseling and writing about psychological conflicts, especially in marriage. Dr. Fitzgibbons sits down with NC Family Communications Director Traci DeVette Griggs to discuss his newest book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage, on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.
Two of the most dangerous conflicts in marriage are selfishness and anger, according to Dr. Fitzgibbons. Marriage can be very fulfilling if we think in terms of “we,” but our current culture has experienced what Dr. Fitzgibbons calls “an explosion of selfishness […] [T]he cultural view of marriage, unfortunately, is to think more about ‘my’ happiness.”
In fact, Dr. Fitzgibbons goes on to say that “One of the major causes of infidelity in the culture today is profound selfishness, where the goal in married life is not loving your husband or wife,” but in seeking what will bring us the most immediate pleasure.
“But marriage is about giving of yourself to your spouse, to your children, and that is very fulfilling and rewarding if you can give in that area.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons share his advice for developing healthy habits in our marriages and combatting the rise of selfishness in our culture.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Most of us know that marriage is good—good for individuals, good for children, good for society. But just because it’s good doesn’t mean it’s easy. Identifying and resolving major conflicts in marriage is key to restoring and maintaining relationships. Today’s guest has spent 40 years counseling and writing about excessive anger and other psychological conflicts, especially in marriage. He joins us today to discuss some of the most harmful conflicts marriages can face, and tell us how we can create positive habits and virtues to strengthen our marriages.
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons is a psychiatrist and the director of the Institute for Marital Healing. He’s the co-author of Forgiveness Therapy, and his newest book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage, which attempts to bring understanding and healing to marriages, and addresses areas that weaken them.
Dr. Fitzgibbons, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: Traci, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s great to be here with you today.
TRACI GRIGGS: Are there some common conflicts that marriages face?
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS:There are common conflicts, and, some of them begin in our childhood and some begin in married life. One of the reasons I liked writing this book is because many of the conflicts begin in childhood. In fact, Traci, half of my day I feel like I’m a child psychiatrist. My training was in adult and child psychiatry. In a sense, we’re dealing with what Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia—the head of the National Marriage Project—called the four major marital toxins that I write about in this book: anger, selfishness, control, and being emotionally distant. Those things don’t begin in adult life; they begin oftentimes when you’re young. Oftentimes you’re acting like a parent who acts that way, but most people don’t realize that. So, one of the things I really liked about writing this book and my work is let’s uncover, let’s go deep, let’s see where these conflicts really began. Because too often, Traci, people feel like giving up on their marriages because they think they began in their adult life, when in fact many began because they never had a close relationship with a father or mother or brother or sister, et cetera.
TRACI GRIGGS: That’s very interesting. So talk about some of the most dangerous conflicts in marriage.
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: Okay, so number one and number two are selfishness and anger. Selfishness is the major enemy of marital love. And we have a huge problem here with that because we have an explosion of selfishness in the culture. For marriage to be happy and fulfilling, it is very fulfilling if you think “we,” if you regularly think “we.” But the cultural view of marriage, unfortunately, is to think more about “my” happiness—marriage is about “my” happiness. That’s a distorted view of marriage. The traditional view of marriage is that marriage is about “we,” marriage is about giving of yourself to your spouse, to your children, and that is very fulfilling and rewarding if you can give in that area.
So mastering anger—and that’s done primarily through forgiveness, a process of forgiveness that can be very, very deep—and a process of fighting selfishness. So mastering anger we see as one of those important aspects of protecting your marital love and protecting the trust between husband and wife, and helping the children feel safe and protected.
TRACI GRIGGS: I see the point of making sure that if we’re angry, that we’re not angry with our spouse, but what if we are angry at our spouse? You know, what if there is something that they’ve done?
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: Well yes, so married life, we want good communication; one of the chapters is on that. We want to tell our spouse the truth about things and be open with them, but without being angry. Try to be understanding. “Is my husband, my wife, upset about this? Are they anxious?” When people become anxious, then they become irritable; when they’re sad, they become irritable; when they feel insecure, they become irritable. So there are many things that cause irritability. So to talk with your spouse, say, “Honey, are you feeling a little bit anxious today? Are you stressed out at home? Are you feeling challenged at work?” And oftentimes talking about that, just bringing that out in the open is extremely important. What happens in many marriages is that couples are afraid to do that.
And I see enormous benefit to faith in married life, that if you are a person of faith, you know that your marriage is a gift from God, and there is a bond He puts there between husband and wife. And if you really trust Him with your marriage, you’re not afraid to talk about anything. “Oh honey, you know what, I think you’re overreacting in anger like your father.” This is a very common problem, by the way, in men. Our fathers are good guys; we model our fathers, and in so many marriages, we guys can tend to repeat a father’s tendency to maybe be a little too angry or worse, even being emotionally distant, not giving ourselves emotionally fully.
So this just growing in self-knowledge can be very helpful so that we can process things, but we don’t do it in anger. So when we feel angry, our recommendation is this: forgive and trust. Forgive and trust, because our spouses rarely deliberately hurt us. They do hurt us at times, of course, but that’s usually because they’re under some type of stress. When you think forgive and trust, what happens is the feeling of anger slowly subsides and you could then feel forgiving love.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, let’s take that a step further because you said very rarely do our spouses hurt us on purpose, but in the case of infidelity, what do we do with that?
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: Traci, you ask a tough question. That’s a challenging one. So sometimes there’s infidelity in marriage—well not sometimes; there’s an explosion of infidelity in marriage through pornography. It’s not just sometimes; there’s a terrible problem with infidelity, and that comes from a lot of selfishness. So there, we’re certainly not meant to tolerate it; we’re meant to hopefully look at the causes of it and identify the causes of it and work on overcoming them. One of the major causes of infidelity in the culture today is profound selfishness, where the goal in married life is not loving your husband and wife, protecting your children, raising them in a good environment, but the goal in the marriage often times is, how much pleasure can I get today? And if I’m not getting enough pleasure, then I have the right to find other happiness.
The spiritual life can be very, very helpful because human love is wonderful, but there’s numerous, numerous studies that show in depressive illness and anxiety disorders that the role of the faith is very, very helpful. You could have another type of love that you could rely on that helps you feel strong and confident and protects you from infidelity. But in infidelity, one of the major challenges with infidelity, of course, is forgiving the spouse, and humanly speaking is that possible? Oftentimes not; it’s like forgiving for divorce. The children of divorce, forgiving for divorce, can they forgive for that? Oftentimes not, but they can do this: they can turn it over to God. If the person is a person of faith, they can say, “Lord, I don’t want to be overly angry,” and when the anger subsides and when the understanding grows, oftentimes marital conflicts that cause infidelity can be healed.
TRACI GRIGGS: So you mentioned earlier that anxiety and depression can be addressed through faith, and I think that’s another thing that kind of flies in the face of what we hear often in our culture in a sense that that has to be addressed by counseling or by drugs. Talk a little bit more about that.
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: There is a substantial body of research that shows—particularly out of Harvard Medical School with six thousand to seven thousand women—those women who go to church on a regular basis, they had no reported suicides. Okay? Five thousand youth who went to prayer services, went to church, prayed in their life, they had one third less of everything than adolescents who didn’t do that. So there’s a strength that comes from faith. There’s a sense of being protected by God. There is strength of hope that comes from faith. And then we have this terrible epidemic of anxiety. So in the field that I’m in (psychiatry), I mean today I think the medications we prescribe, they’re either the third or the fourth most commonly prescribed medication in this country. Okay why is that? Well, there are a lot of reasons for it. One is the terrible selfishness; with selfishness the heart grows cold. It’s hard to trust people, but if you have faith, if you really trust God helping you in your relationships…
I feel so badly for some of these young women in particular who would love to marry and have children and try to find a young man who has a sense of mission for marriage and children; it can be extremely difficult. But they go to churches where there are solid young men and then they can find somebody who has the same view as them for life. So faith can be very, very beneficial as an adjunct in helping with depression. Like I mentioned earlier, for many people the core of their sadness, the core of their anxiety comes from having a parent who had a problem showing them love, from a parent who drank too much or was too angry, and they didn’t feel safe. Well, the sense of God as a source of love can help with that loneliness, and a sense of God as a protector can really deepen the sense of safety in life. It can help a person reach out and give of themselves. This is an enormous problem, Traci, in the children of divorce; the adult children of divorce have enormous difficulty—even if they had the most wonderful marriage—maintaining in that marriage a sense of safety and protection because of what happened to them as children with their parents’ divorce.
TRACI GRIGGS: I hope I didn’t make it sound like help through counseling and drugs is not legitimate, because I think we all know of course that there is a time and place for that. So, how do we know? When is it time to know that we’ve got to have some help here?
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: I think that one of the key issues is this: if you’re under a lot of stress and you’re not sleeping at night, it’s very important. When I trained in psychiatry, they drilled it into us: you want to help people, stabilize their sleep. If you can’t stabilize their sleep, you can see them five times a week and you’re not going to help them. So trying to have good sleep hygiene. But if there’s a persistent sleep pattern, then sometime a person might need some medication to help stabilize their sleep. If you can stabilize the sleep, anxiety diminishes significantly, as does depressive illness.
So there’s a time when a person might have medication, but I think by-and-large when it comes to addressing habits that are needed for a healthy marriage, personally I don’t think the role of a mental health professional is essential in that. I think looking at your weaknesses, and for every weakness there are virtues that help us overcome those weaknesses. And if we just try to grow in virtues and possess faith, that can really help them grow to have a healthy personality. Because for me, the goal in married life is to have a healthy personality. If you have a healthy personality—you look at your character weaknesses, you try to overcome them with your growth in virtues, maybe through a faith experience in church—then you will be a more loving and healthy husband or wife, and a more healthy parent to your children..
TRACI GRIGGS: So, let’s finish on a positive note and I think you sound very positive about the opportunities for people to make a difference in their marriages. So what does forgiveness look like? Have you seen some pretty dramatic changes in marriages over your years?
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: Remarkably dramatic! The last chapter of the book goes into inventory where you rate your parents. You look at their character strengths and you look at their weaknesses. So far in this new book, many people have told me, “Thank you Doc, that last chapter has helped me more than I ever realized! Without realizing it, I’m repeating a weakness of a father or mother. An anger, a selfishness, a mistrust being emotionally distant, and I’m committed not to repeat that now.” Now the thing about this is that when people look at their childhood, they realize, “Wait a minute, this is very deeply rooted!” Just thinking about it is not enough. So then they bring in a faith component and they think, I’m powerless over this; I want to turn it over to God. This can be extremely helpful because there was a big study in Florida of couples in counseling—600 couples. Those who went to therapy were two to three times more likely to divorce than those who didn’t go to therapy. And why would that be? One of the reasons for that is most mental health professionals support the selfish view of marriage; they don’t support the view of marriage that okay, you go through some bumps in the road, but if you work hard and you persevere at that, you work on virtues, you work on asking God to help you with it, most marriages are going to be sustained and even strengthened through bumps in the road..
TRACI GRIGGS: Well we are about out of time, so before we go can you tell our listeners where they can go if they want more information including your books please?
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS: They can go to my website, maritalhealing.com, or they can go find Habits for a Healthy Marriage at Amazon or Ignatius Press.
TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, thank you for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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