Most Catholic marriage ceremonies are beautiful experiences.

The bride and groom gaze into one another’s eyes and the priest or deacon asks, “Will you take one another in sickness and in health, for richer or poor, for better or worse … for as long as you both shall live?”

It is touching, in part because of the ambiance of the setting — the altar, the presence of the Eucharist, flowers, attire and the family and friends who have come to witness this union.

But, it’s also meaningful in a more magnificent way because of the sacrifice it asks.

Two individuals, still so different despite all of their mutual interests, combine to offer themselves with two simple, but powerful words, “I do.”

Marriage is a symbol of Christ’s relationship with us, the church, as his bride. Marriages, like our relationship with Christ, often weather storms, but Christ never gives up on his bride.

Unfortunately, the statistics show that spouses often give up on each other.

For Roman Catholics, ending a marriage civilly has no bearing on the individual’s recognition in the church. The church only recognizes annulments, a process through which the church effectively declares that a marriage never took place.

The church’s practices involving marriage and annulment are aimed at protecting the sacrament of marriage in order to help Catholics live a fully sacramental life.

The Catholic Church presumes that marriages are valid, binding spouses for life. When couples divorce, and one party or the other petitions to have the marriage annulled, the church examines in detail their marriage to determine if some essential element was missing in their relationship. If that fact has been established, it means the spouses did not have the kind of marital link that binds them together for life.

In 2002, during an address to the Roman Rota, the Vatican court that handles annulments, Pope John Paul II urged lawyers and judges not to take part in divorce cases, decrying divorce as a “festering wound” that has devastated society.

The pontiff said his remarks applied to all divorce cases, not just those involving Catholics. The permanence of marriage is part of the divine, natural order and applies to everyone, he said.

Despite the late pope’s wishes, divorce continues to be on the increase and for those preparing for matrimony, it might be helpful to carefully examine the relationship commitment before saying, “I do.”

According to Jesus Cabrera, ecclesiastical judge for the metropolitan tribunal for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, no one enters marriage expecting it to end in divorce.

“Everyone approaches marriage with a romantic ideal and enters into a marriage firmly convinced the relationships will last forever,” he said.
Cabrera, a member of the tribunal for seven years who has witnessed the destruction of countless marriages, advises couples to consider several things aside from natural attraction and romantic feelings before making their wedding vows.

“Get to know each other and one another’s families before deciding to marry,” he said. “It is important to identify any ‘red flags’ during the premarital period. Pay particular attention to the dynamics of their parents’ marriage.”

Cabrera suggests an examination of the following:

  • Do you share similar family values?
  • Is divorce a common occurrence in his or her family of origin or circle of friends?
  • If she or he has any friends, do you know who they are and how this person relates to them?
  • Is this person career driven?
  • Does this person drink to excess and or use drugs?
  • Is there any history of mental illness in his or her family background?
  • Do you both come from similar social status, religions, cultures?
  • Is this person getting married for good and honorable reasons?

While differences might be distinct, recognizing and accepting that they exist will go a long way to making the marriage last, rather than ignoring the differences and hoping that they will go away.

“Are these differences going to create more division between the two of you rather than complement each other?” Cabrera asked. “Do you share the same philosophy in terms of the goods of marriage, such as fidelity, permanence and children?”

While some might think that marrying at a young age is a reason for marital failure, immaturity can be present at any age and may preclude one spouse from assuming the responsibility of marriage.

Other warning signs are selfish, domineering or controlling partners. If these traits are exhibited early, it may be the outline for an ongoing abusive partnership.

As one of the key reasons for the escalating divorce rate, it is important to examine the couple’s financial health and understanding. Cabrera invites the couples to find out what the other person’s views are on money.

“Is this person financially responsible and disciplined? Does this person like gambling or spending beyond his or her means?” he asked. “It would be wise for couples to discuss their individual and collective financial concerns in order to have a better understanding of each person’s view and management of money.”

After the emotional fireworks ebb a bit, and couples become familiar with each other, and challenges arise — the superficial attraction should naturally give way to unconditional and spiritual love and acceptance.

Much individual discernment should take place before the wedding, according to Cabrera.

“What level is the person on physically, mentally or spiritually – and can this person withstand the challenges of life?” he questioned. “It is also essential to assess one and the other’s capacity to open oneself fully in an emotionally available and intimate way. After careful reflection, ask yourself if you could imagine spending the rest of your life with this person and – directly or indirectly – with the other’s family members and circle of friends as well.”

Associate director for the department of ecclesiastical processes, Zabrina Decker has learned during her ministry with the metropolitan tribunal that the greatest gift two people can give each other in marriage is honesty from the very beginning of their relationship.

“Sometimes, in the excitement of a new relationship, a person will try to be someone they are not,” she said. “This is not healthy for them, their partner or the relationship.”

Learning to communicate effectively also plays a role in a successful relationship.

“It is imperative that couples talk,” Decker said. “Not only about the big issues such as finances and families, but everyday issues as well. Talking about who will wash dishes or load dishes in the dishwasher or who will fold clothes might seem mundane but the frustration produced if there is no clear understanding can be maddening.”

Marriage is gift that must be nurtured

Marriage is a gift from God to be nurtured, and it takes both parties giving 100 percent to make it work, Cabrera said.

“We have to recognize we human beings are not perfect, so we cannot expect a perfect partner,” he said. “Perfection in our lives is just an ideal.”

Ask yourself:

  • Am I carrying any baggage stemming from my family of origin?
  • Am I carrying any burden from previous dating relationship experiences?

We have to resolve our own issues first before bringing those from my partner into my life.

Unresolved issues will add extra weight into a relationship that must be blended and bonded.

Getting married is not the answer to my personal problems, deficits or needs.

The marriage is doomed from the outset when the person walks down the aisle for the wrong or selfish reasons.

We must work hard and seek God’s graces to make marriage work.