Marriage is not a private affair.
We should begin by defining the terms. What is normal? Normal means typical, usual, standard, and common. Normal behavior is acceptable behavior. Accepted behavior is allowable and permissible. What is private? Private means concealed, secret, inaccessible, and off-limits. Therefore, to say that domestic abuse is normal and private is to say that it is, at once, both allowable and inaccessible.
What would life be like if such behavior were both allowed and ignored by society? The majority of people would be in conflict on a regular basis. Wives hitting husbands. Husbands choking wives. Parents beating children. Children retaliating.
The people involved in these incidents would never seek treatment for their behavior. Every day we would see bruises, broken bones, and scars. We would never comment upon our observations because the actions that caused them would be off-limits in polite conversation. We would walk, wounded among the wounded, without a healer in sight.
The world I have just described obviously does not exist. Domestic violence is not considered normal. The football star says that he is seeking treatment. This belies his contention of normality. If his actions are normal, for what is he being treated?
The more problematic issue is whether he is right when he says that the matter is private. The most frequently used argument favoring societal concern is that children raised in disruptive or violent homes have no basis upon which to build lives that are peaceful and useful. In their 1982 pastoral letter, "When I Call For Help," the U.S. Catholic bishops stated: "Domestic violence counselors teach that violence is learned behavior.... Abuse counselors say that a child raised in a home with physical abuse is a thousand times more likely to use violence in his own family." Even when we acknowledge that children are affected by violence, many of us are still seduced by the argument that, at the end of the day, it is not really our business.
THERE ARE FOUR EXPLANATIONS FOR OUR readiness to turn our backs. Two of these were explained by Christine E. Gudorf in "Sexual violence: it's sinful to remain silent" in the May 1993 issue of Salt magazine. One reason is the inclination of most people to avoid conflict and divisive situations. Another inclination is to blame the victims in a way that isolates us from their fate, which bolsters our desire to feel secure. "I can feel safe ... if the woman who got battered back-talked and the child who got abused comes from a trashy family ... If all the victims were complicit in their own victimization, then I, and those I love who are not complicit, are not at risk," Gudorf says.
This need to separate ourselves from the victims of abuse so that we can feel secure in our own lives results in an "us-them" mentality. "They" are not like "us," so we do not need to get involved.
The third reason for our detachment is the increased emphasis that has been placed on privacy. It has been called a constitutional right by the court; it is revered by the public as much as life and liberty. The focus of privacy has been the home. The concept that family is private and personal has been adopted by those on both ends of the political spectrum. The left decries government interference in personal decisions regarding procreation, while the right calls for more parental control in the education and discipline of children.
Any attempt to cover violence against others with the same shroud of privacy as other family issues displays a misunderstanding of the concept of the sanctity of the home. In the March 8, 1996 issue of National Catholic Reporter, Lisa Sowle Cahill rightfully asserts that this third reason is a facade: "Our culture, hypnotized by an ideal of `privacy' that is really a screen for selfish lack of interest in other people's welfare, has adopted an unprecedented policy of noninterference [with family problems]."
THE FINAL AND MOST BASIC REASON FOR noninvolvement is the lack of understanding of the nature of marriage. We do not understand what marriage is and who is involved in the making of a marriage. Marriage is not, and never has been, the private joining of two lives. People who wish to make a private commitment to each other are free to do so at any time and in any manner that they see fit.
Marriage is, by definition, a public commitment. People must meet certain criteria and follow certain rules to be married legally or to dissolve the marriage union. Civil marriage is a contract between three entities--husband, wife, and state. In Wisconsin, this concept is clearly presented in the section of the marriage law that states the legislative intent. It says: "Marriage is the institution that is the foundation of the family and of society. Its stability is basic to morality and civilization, and of vital interest to society and the state. The consequences of the marriage contract are more significant to society than those of other contracts, and the public interest must be taken into account always."
Christian sacramental marriage is equally communal. Like all sacraments, marriage is an outward sign of grace. Outward means nothing if it does not mean public. When a man and a woman participate in the sacrament of marriage, each one makes a promise to the other and to the church community as well. They are a sign of God's love for us, a symbol of the relationship between God and people. This symbol is essential because the way we relate to God is molded in part by the way we see husbands and wives relate to each other.
When all of us realize that, as members of the state or the church, we are a fundamental part of any marriage, we can begin to overcome the other reasons for noninvolvement. As a part of the union, there is no escaping the conflict that it sometimes produces; no "us" and "them"; no way to argue privacy. We have a responsibility to help a troubled married couple fulfill the promises they made to each other and to us.
I believe that families with problems would ultimately welcome the well-intended assistance and input of the community. No matter what else we are, we humans are sociologically and spiritually oriented to need interaction with and support from other people. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the complex realm of marriage and the family.
What would life be like in a society where domestic violence is viewed as abnormal and of public concern? In such a world, confronted with evidence that there was trouble in another's home, we would readily offer support. People who were harmed would feel no shame because they would be assured it was not their fault. Those who caused harm would more readily agree to treatment because their actions would not be tolerated and attempts to correct such behavior would be applauded.
This ideal world, like the dismal one described earlier, does not exist. Either world is possible; we will bring one or the other about by the way that we live. I prefer to live as if the better world existed. In that world, all of us would know that we are not alone, that others care for us and are concerned about our well-being. We would accept help when we needed it and, in return, give it to others. In that world, we would fulfill our commitment outlined in the U.S. Constitution to "build a more perfect union," and our directive from Jesus to "love one another as ourselves."
Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.
A neighbor or family member should become involved in another couple's marriage when:
Abuse of any kind is involved.
There is danger of physical harm for any person.
Father Jack W. Wehman
Children are the victims.
Sister Mary Jo Kearns, R.S.M.
There seem to be visible problems that continue, such as abuse, adultery, serious arguments, and serious lack of communication.
As soon as there are indications of difficulty. Family or neighbors should let couples know that it is normal to experience difficulties.
Father Donald Caron
Why must we wait until a problem occurs to get involved? Sharing a meal, taking kids to a ball game, and playing cards are sociable ways to get involved with other people's marriages. If you are already seen as part of the marriage, it is easier to be involved during the bad times.
I place great value on privacy in my home.
90% agree 6% disagree 4% other
I would offer uninvited help to a troubled married couple any way I could.
44% agree 36% disagree 20% other
I have intervened in the marriage of a neighbor or relative because abuse was occurring.
29% agree 59% disagree 12% other
When they ask for help. If it's someone close, then we can offer to help. We cannot help someone who does not want our help.
Shirley M. Noel
The level of involvement is crucial: relationship difficulties may simply require a willing ear; abuse requires the intervention of the authorities.
Port Washington, Wis.
There's a fine line of distinction between meddling and offering useful assistance. One must be fully and sensitively aware of the problem before getting involved.
Family members intervening is one thing--neighbors is another. I believe most couples would find family interference acceptable but would be ashamed to have neighbors know their problems.
Sometimes it is easier to talk with a spouse if one can explain to a neutral party the nature of one's thinking.
M. D. Holzaepfel
If marriage is a public affair, we should always be involved in others' marriages in whatever way is appropriate--prayer, public-policy advocacy, advice, intervention, and so on--without being inappropriately intrusive.
Much of the breakdown in society can be attributed to the breakdown in families.
92% agree 4% disagree 4% other
Domestic abuse is unacceptable, but such problems should be solved in the privacy of marriage and with the help of counselors, not the public.
42% agree 47% disagree 11% other
If the community took more responsibility for helping victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse, more people would seek help.
84% agree 8% disagree 8% other
While marriage is a public commitment, the couple's personal relationship is nobody else's business.
27% agree 59% disagree 14% other
I would define "normal" marital problems as:
Both partners maintain respect for one another in spite of their differences.
Evelyn F. Duffin
Disagreements about money, career, sex, raising children, buying a house or a car, decisions on in-laws and friends. "Abnormal" begins when the issues that are not addressed become excuses for personal, physical attacks.
J. H. Schuler
It may involve arguing--even yelling. But once the yelling becomes habitual, you have crossed the line into abnormal.
Lee W. Formwalt
Keeping lines of communication always open.
Attempting to solve scheduling and time-constraint problems so as to have more time together.
New York, N.Y.
One thing I would like my parish to offer to educate or support families in need is:
More direct sermons on the church's abhorrence of physical violence. Also, specifically where people in need can get help. It's nice of parishes to tell people in need to get help but better to give them names and telephone numbers and support them in their search for help.
Lanark Village, Fla.
Support groups for couples where they can meet and make friends with other married couples. I believe isolation increases the possibility of marital/family-abuse situations.
The "buddy" system--having a couple who has had problems and is doing better be available to contact a couple having problems and offer to accompany them to a seminar, suggest counselors, or talk with them.
Safe havens for battered spouses and children.
William P. Twine
I condone a person intervening in someone else's marriage if they witness:
98% physical child abuse 92% physical spousal abuse 80% verbal or emotional child abuse 70% verbal or emotional spousal abuse 40% adultery 14% arguing 11% nagging 13% insensitivity
A good ministry to single-parent families.
Palm Coast, Fla.
Sponsor workshops on abuse and also stress the positive aspects of a good marriage.
The cost-free help of a trained marriage counselor.
Classes on raising children. Times for couples to discuss their changing needs after a few years of marriage. Family fun nights.
Central City, Iowa
Better pre-marriage instructions. Infertility is a matter that is not treated in pre-Cana and can put a great strain on a marriage especially when unthinking clergy "preach" that marriage is for childbearing.
People often confuse being helpful with meddling--busybody neighbors butting in at every argument would do a marriage more harm than good.
88% agree 7% disagree 5% other
I don't see myself as a fundamental part of other people's marriages.
59% agree 37% disagree 4% other
Most couples in troubled marriages would welcome the support and help of the community.
40% agree 38% disagree 22% other
More marriage enrichment programs. We have engagement encounter and then nothing (except marriage encounter). How about a "5th Anniversary" program, a "10th Anniversary" program, and so on.
Spencer F. Stopa
To provide a baby-sitting roster so that parents can spend time together to improve and maintain their marriage.
San Jose, Calif.
All marriages celebrated by the parish require the prayerful support and, at times, direct assistance from the faith community to which they belong.
David E. Beauvais
The best way to avoid having victims and bullies in marriages is to teach children both at home and at school that neither God's law nor U.S. law tolerates violent behavior.
R. J. Windgassen
I wish I had interfered 35 years ago when a small girl in our neighborhood was being physically abused by her mother. Little Patty often had bruises on her face ("My mom hit me," she'd say), and on the coldest Wisconsin winter days, her mother locked her out of the house until 6 p.m. She wandered from house to house until someone let her in. I wonder if the abuse continued to a second and third generation. I deeply regret my inaction.
Barbara L. Scholtz
There was a couple in our parish going through a very bitter divorce. They were both friends, so I decided to stay neutral and not get involved. I have always regretted that decision. If I had told them how concerned everyone was and how everyone was praying for them, maybe they still would have divorced, but they would have at least known that we, as a community, cared and hurt for them.
I have tried to help in the marriages of three of my sisters. When physical abuse was involved, I brought them into my home. Unfortunately, I didn't seem to help. I think they needed professional help.
At the very least, priests can preach mutual respect from the pulpit. There are many gospel stories that would lend themselves to a sermon on domestic violence.
St. David, Me.
Along with Mary Ann Perga, I believe that marriage is not a private affair.
69% agree 20% disagree 11% other
There is already too much intrusion into our lives and values by government and busybody neighbors both of whom know "best" what's good for us. Repentance cannot be forced upon us by unwanted intrusion, unless laws are broken or complaints lodged by those involved.
East Marion, N.Y.
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