By Sarah Lowrey
Statistically speaking, marriage and family life are in a grim place at the moment. Divorce rates are high. Many children grow up with only one parent. Numbers of daily abortions are soaring. It seems that the “dysfunctional family” is the “normal family”. Studies have shown that children whose parents were divorced are more likely to get divorced themselves than those who grew up in intact families. Kids raised by single parents are more likely to become teen parents who also raise their children single-handedly. Looking at the numbers and news headlines, it’s easy to conclude that there is little or no hope for families. So does this mean that there is no chance for people who have grown up in broken families to have good, wholesome families of their own? Just as with all things, there is always hope!
There are certain basic elements and principles that can have a major impact on family dynamic and functioning. Everyone has heard the saying, “Families that pray together stay together.” Though this is a corny catchphrase, like most common sayings, it does bear some truth. The key message is the theme of togetherness. When you look at any successful social group or community, there is always a common mission or interest which brings them together and gives them a direction. In a family, the commonality is literally built into their genes. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is an automatically perfect relational bond among the members.
Obviously, every family structure is different and has its own set of blessings and trials. It is impossible to create a cookie cutter list of 10 Ways to Get a Perfect Family. With this in mind, the short and sweet answer to healthy family life is simply virtue. The word virtue can be vague and unclear, so let’s dig into this idea a little bit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as, “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself” (p. 1803). When a person is virtuous, he is able to look outside of himself and see the needs and desires of those around him. With this vision and because he is inclined toward the good, the virtuous person can then act in a way that promotes the good of himself and the other that he is in contact with.
The most efficacious virtues for family life, in particular, are those that draw each member away from pure self-interest and helps him or her to focus on the other members. Initially, this requires humility. Pride, humility’s counterpart, can be one of the greatest destructors of any relationship. As soon as one person thinks that his or her needs or interests are the greatest, all thought for others drops out of the picture. For a virtuous family structure, humility is essential.
Right alongside humility, mercy is a key part of good family life. The ability to look at others as imperfect yet still lovable, sinful yet beloved, is not easy. Lack of mercy can cause a greater rift between people that makes relationship impossible. How often, though, do you hear about parents who never talk to their adult children or couples who split up because of “irreconcilable differences”? Part of the ability to forgive comes from a willingness to see things from the others’ perspective. It does not mean that both sides must agree, but they most certainly must accept who the other is as a person and have mercy on them.
From these two virtues, mercy and humility, flow many other necessary qualities of familial relations. Good communication, compassion, empathy, trust, and understanding are just a few. The only way to ensure, beyond all doubt, that the family will be exactly what it can and should be is to entrust it to the perfect example of good family life, the Holy Family, and to rely on God’s providence. All blessings and burdens come from Him and even the worst situations and problems can be used by Him to create some blessing. There must be a willingness to submit the family to God’s care and protection as well as an active effort by each of the members to love one another with humility and mercy and to do God’s will. By the parents’ example of virtue and reliance on Divine Providence, the children will learn to do the same. In this way the culture of broken families will be reversed and replaced by good, holy family structures.
Sarah Lowrey is an M.S. student at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences—a Catholic graduate school that offers psychology programs online as well as in the greater Washington D.C. area.