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Marital Therapy From a Catholic Perspective

2/28/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Family Psychologist William Nordling

ARLINGTON, Virginia, FEB. 28, 2006 (Zenit) - Catholic psychology considers the fullness of the married vocation in treating individual patients, says a specialist on marital psychotherapy.

Dr. William Nordling is a psychologist at Alpha Omega Clinic and Counseling Services. He teaches courses on marital and child psychotherapy at the nearby Institute for the Psychological Sciences.

In this interview with us, he discusses the implications of adopting a Catholic worldview for conducting marital therapy and improving one's own marital relationship.

Q: What does it mean to have a Catholic worldview in approaching psychology?

Nordling: In general the field of clinical psychology has taken the individual as the level of analysis and has focused on the psychopathology of the individual as its subject matter.

A Catholic psychology acknowledges the importance of the interiority of the individual and the reality of psychopathology, but also gives significant attention to the relational nature of the person and how the client can grow in virtue and flourish.

So the Catholic psychologist does not just see an individual, but sees an individual in the context of vocation as a spouse and as a parent.

In addition, the focus of a Catholic psychology is not just to alleviate symptoms or psychopathology but assist the client in flourishing as an individual, as a spouse, and as a parent. To a broader extent, it focuses on the relationship to society, and ultimately the relationship to God.

Q: In working with couples in marital therapy, what is the difference between the perspective of secular psychology and that of Catholic therapy?

Nordling: The field of marital therapy has a big dilemma. There is a myriad of models of marital therapy, but in general the field has never attempted to offer a definition of what marriage is.

For example, there is not even a consensus in secular psychology that marriage is restricted to one man and one woman. It could include people of the same gender or multiple partners.

Without a clear definition of marriage, there is no clearly developed understanding of the unique and special nature of conjugal love, the nature of family life, and importance of parenting in marital relationships.

A Catholic marital therapist might contend that without a clear definition of marriage, one is hampered in identifying the most important and central therapeutic goals one is trying to attain when working with couples.

For example, both a secular marital therapist and a Catholic martial therapist may do some very laudable work to improve the communication between spouses, but the Catholic psychologist sees this new capacity to dialogue intimately, in a different light. It is not simply an end but also a means for the spouses to bring about the quality of marriage envisioned by the Church.

Q: What implications does a Catholic anthropology have on the definition of marriage and the goals of marital therapy?

Nordling: First of all, one implication is that when we work with a married person, whether they come as a couple or as an individual, we already see them as having a vocation as a married person.

We understand that although they may come in with individual issues, we must not only address how these issues affect their interior life and individual flourishing, but also help them examine how these issues are affecting the marital relationship or their vocation as a parent.

Many times if we just focus on them as an individual we lose some of the most important aspects of their life, given that they are both a spouse and a parent. In some ways we do not view individuals as only individuals once we know that they are married.

Q: Given this perspective, what are some of the most beneficial methodologies for working through marital problems or the key factors in working toward a healthy relationship?

Nordling: Knowledge of Catholic anthropology allows us to say, "Does this method address the foundational qualities of this person, their marriage and family life?" It allows us to choose methodologies which address the most central aspects of human functioning, marital functioning or functioning within the family.

There are methodologies that do not do this. It is not that they are bad, in the sense that they may do some good, but they are inadequate if they only address the symptom of the problem or only one aspect of the problem.

Again, a couple may come in saying, "We argue about money all the time," and the therapist may help them address the money issue. But the therapist may not help them to learn as a couple to work out that problem, on their own, in a respectful way with each other.

The problem gets solved; ...

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