Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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August 2nd, 2010

How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy (or Girl)

How to listen to the voice inside that’s telling you not to go down the aisle


CW: Jennifer, you and your husband have worked with engaged couples at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. In your experience — as a clinical social worker and someone who has been married for more than 15 years — why are marriage preparation programs so important? How do you counsel couples as they try to figure out whether they are ready to take the sacrament of marriage?

Jennifer Gauvain: The tools that you can gain at a marriage prep course are priceless. As marriage prep instructors, some of the main topics we explored were family issues, finances and sex. (I tell couples all of the time, if you are uncomfortable talking about sex with the person you will be having sex with for the rest of your life it is going to be a bumpy road!) Most engaged couples assume that the fairy tale is about to begin and ignore the fact that life can throw you curve balls like an illness, or a financial crisis. It is critical to talk about these possibilities before they happen.

Not all of my clients are Catholic so when I meet a couple seeking marriage preparation on their own, it’s a pretty good sign that they are in a strong relationship. I have also worked with about ten couples who have shown up on the couch in my office asking whether or not they should go through with their wedding plans. When they have doubts, I encourage them to slow things down and carefully consider their decision to wed. Nine out of ten of them were unwilling to “jump off the wedding train” and examine their doubts, and they got married anyway. And nine out of the ten have gotten divorced. The couple who decided to call it off are very happily married… to other people.

CW: When I was in my early twenties, a few friends and I staged an “intervention” to ask a mutual friend to reconsider her engagement to a man we believed to be verbally abusive to her. It was awful — and it didn’t work. All these years later, they are still married, and perhaps we were wrong to do it. Still, I know I would have regretted it more if I had kept quiet. I was thinking of that situation as I read How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy. If you see one of your friends in a bad relationship — or engaged to someone whom you believe is the “wrong” match — what should you do? What’s the responsibility of friends and family?

“When in doubt, don’t! Those doubts about the relationship are gut feelings that are triggered by red flags. You must acknowledge what those red flags are for you. Learn to tune in to that wise inner voice inside yourself.” — Jennifer Gauvain

JG: Unfortunately most people feel that they shouldn’t speak up. They are afraid it will have a negative impact on their relationship with their best friend, with their sister, daughter, etc. The truth is, whether you say something or not, your relationship will still be affected. If your sister ends up marrying a pot smoking video game junkie, are you really going to be spending a lot of time with her? Probably not. There’s no doubt it will be a difficult conversation but we feel that you owe it to your friend, daughter, sister, son, etc. to share your concerns in a way that they can be heard and not viewed as criticism or judgment. The woman (or man!) you are concerned about may still decide to marry anyway, but she may also appreciate your concern (which in fact could be her hidden concerns). Your conversation with her may be all she needs to give herself permission to get out. In How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy, we outline five steps you can take to have that difficult conversation with someone you care about.

  1. Speak up. Be honest about your concerns.
  2. Validate, then activate. Point out some of her best qualities. For example, “I have always admired your compassion for others; you deserve to be treated the same way.”
  3. Be non-judgmental. Don’t point fingers, don’t criticize her choice. Simply sit down with her and share your concerns with her. Let he know how much you care about her happiness.
  4. Shift the focus to you by using “I” statements. For example, “I really worry about how isolated you have become since you got engaged.”
  5. Offer concrete help. Help your friend or loved one by eliminating any excuses she has for not ending the relationship. Tell her you will handle canceling the wedding; she can focus on canceling the relationship.

These concerns will hopefully match up with her gut feelings and she will take time to reflect on those feelings.

CW: If you could offer just one bit of advice to men and women who are having doubts about their relationships, what would it be?

JG: When in doubt, don’t! Those doubts about the relationship are gut feelings that are triggered by red flags. You must acknowledge what those red flags are for you. Learn to tune in to that wise inner voice inside yourself. What does it say when the wedding planning volume is turned down? Figure out what you really want and need in a relationship and then find the courage to end it and move on.

Has your gut every bailed you out of a bad relationship? Do you know someone who could use a gut-check before getting engaged or married? What’s the best way to pray for discernment? Share your thoughts and experiences below, or send me an email at puresex@bustedhalo.com.

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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Anthony

    Thanks for this interesting interview. I am a single man and would like to read this book. I also appreciate the post by Erica, it gives another perspective to the issue and nicely complements the article.

  • Erica

    Hmmm…I hate to be the contrarian here, but this “when in doubt, get out” formula seems a little too simplistic and self-serving to me. It also seems to be based on at least two presuppositions that strike me as wrongheaded. (I haven‚Äôt read the book but am basing my observations on how it is presented in this interview.) The first presupposition I would challenge is that our inner voice or ‚Äúgut‚Äù is always trustworthy. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn‚Äôt. Your inner voice may be the voice of God, or it may be the voice of fear. The task of discernment is to discover which it is, and this is by no means a simple process.

    The second presupposition that seems to be lurking here is the romantic myth of our time. In it‚Äôs more na√Øve formulations it goes something like this: there is one perfect person out there for us, who will fit us like a glove (and we‚Äôll instantly intuit it), and with whom we will find supreme happiness. To counter this, I turn to theologian Richard Gaillerdetz‚Äôs wonderfully sober and hope-filled book, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (IMHO, should be required reading for any Pre-Cana program). Gaillerdetz‚Äôs thesis, which appears to go against the grain of Gauvain and Milford‚Äôs book, is that in a certain sense we always marry the wrong person. What he means by this is that we will (almost always unconsciously) attract a partner who will bring up our childhood trauma and with whom we will ‘play out’ that trauma so that as adults we can respond differently and hopefully heal. (It‚Äôs worth noting that Gaillardetz is not giving his blessing to abusive relationships, but rather the marriage is to be a safe place in which this trauma can be reenacted). If this sounds like a bit of pop psychology (which to me, Gauvain and Milford‚Äôs book seems more so), Gaillardetz puts his argument on a spiritual basis. He would argue that while happiness, romance, and fun are the by-products of a good marriage, the goal of a Christian marriage is no less than our salvation. The marriage is the crucible in which we work out our individual salvation together.

    In closing, I am glad that my husband and I did/did not do five things before our wedding:
    1. Did not heed “the committee in our heads,” that is, did not give in to our doubts and fears
    2. Did externalize our inner doubts and fears by openly communicating them to each other, our priest, and trusted counselors
    3. Did not listen to certain of my friends who felt they knew better
    4. Did read Gaillerdetz’s book (and several other good marriage books)
    5. Did pray for the wisdom to discern God’s will and the courage to carry it out

  • David Ashby

    I’m now very happily married, and there was no doubt in either of our minds when we got married. With previous girlfriends, there had been doubt and my mother who has been a marriage counsellor for a long time told me that if there is any doubt, it’s not right and don’t marry.

  • Mary

    I wish I read this 12 years ago. We are still married, but somedays I struggle with the idea of staying in the marriage. He is not abusive, but our beliefs and morals do not mesh well and this is a persistent problem in our relationship.

  • Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft

    This is such an important discussion. I think so many women have stayed with guys way too long just because they’ve put so much time into the relationship and feel like their are no options. Thanks for writing this. I hope it opens some eyes.

  • cathyf

    I got engaged when I was 19, on the second date, with a guy 7 years older than I. I found out later that I was at least the 3rd woman that he proposed to within a week of starting dating. The other women took this as a sign of trouble and extracted themselves posthaste, but I was young, and very foolish, had never dated anyone seriously before, very much in love with the idea of being in love.

    The first time I tried to break off the engagement, I did it on his “turf”. (He had moved away for a job; I was still in school; I tried to go visit him and break it off at his place.) I was terribly upset by his surprise and unhappiness, so I relented. One of the things that happens when you lie to yourself about what you feel is that you go emotionally numb. And like when you are sitting somewhere and your feet fall asleep, it HURTS to come back to life. I mistook that pain as a sign that I was doing the wrong thing, and so really messed things up!

    But our God is a God of 2nd chances. (And 3rd. And 7 times 70th.) For try 2, I waited until he was visiting me. And I told 3 friends that I was doing it before I did it, and spent many hours discussing it with them and they were totally convinced that I was making the right decision.

    During the 4 months that I was trying to figure out how to extract myself from this slow-motion deer-in-the-headlights mess that I had made I prayed a lot. In retrospect, I saw that I was continuously surrounded by at least 2 dozen people who would ask me what was wrong, and when I finally did it I took 3 of those lifelines. It was a long time ago (26 years), and I am still enormously grateful that God found a way to give me the resources to do what had to be done — and the kick in the butt to do it!

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