Thanks to Fr. Emmerich Vogt and his 12 step ministries for the inspiration behind this post.
As humans, we are wounded by living in a broken, fallen world, surrounded by a culture that seems to celebrate failure, death, violence and decadence. Similarly, as humans, we seek out other humans as our life partners, and they, too, are wounded by the same fallen world. Despite our best efforts, we often hurt one another. Fr. Vogt speaks about spiritual healing, sharing lessons learned through years of service to a variety of 12 step programs and hundreds of participants. He has developed an entire ministry around the divine inspiration built into these 12 steps. Listening to him this past weekend, it occurred to me that the 12 steps can be easily applied to our marriages. With apologies to the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, I will paraphrase the steps themselves, in order to highlight their relevance to our marriages.
1. I am powerless in the battle against sin; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. This does not refer to the petty squabbles that all of us experience with our spouses, but to the body blows, the haymakers, the capital sins of infidelity, masturbation, porn addiction, gambling and drug and alcohol addictions that have the potential to ruin relationships. Not all of us suffer these afflictions, but those of us that do are largely helpless to fight them by ourselves.
2. Belief that a greater power can restore us. This is the first step addicts must take in order to begin the healing process, and is thus one of the most difficult. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, belief. If we are suffering in our marriages, we are called to find the strength to first believe that we can be saved, that our relationship is not doomed. In one of Jewel’s early songs, she spoke about all of us having “addictions to feed.” As spouses, we are all addicted to something; we must embrace this belief in order to begin the healing process.
3. Deciding to turn one’s life over to the will of God. Probably very few of you reading this have not, in some way, already done this. It is God’s will that we live together in harmony; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Surrendering to the will of God follows accepting the belief that He can restore us.
4. Taking a fearless moral inventory. If we are going to succeed as a couple, each of us must take responsibility for our own shortcomings. Playing the blame game is a guaranteed path to failure. We must focus on what we refer to as “I” problems, not “you” problems. In the immortal words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” As couples, I believe that, having taken this painful inventory, we must consider sharing it with our spouses. Or at least as much of it as we can, without hurting our partner. As Father observes, “Honesty without gentleness is brutality.” See #5.
5. Confessing our sins/faults/shortcomings to ourselves, to God, and to one other person–our spouse. Confession is itself a sacrament, and acknowledging our sins one of the basic elements of the Mass. By speaking these words out loud, we take away one of the hiding places most of us use to avoid dealing with our sins–not talking about them. If we are to seek true health, we cannot ignore our illnesses, any of them. We must bring them out into the light of day, before God and our spouses. This one strikes me as another of the more difficult steps in the process.
6. We resolve that we are ready to have God remove the madness from our wounded selves. We must acknowledge that we cannot fix our addictions alone, and we cannot expect our spouses to fix us, either. We need to pray to God, in his mercy, to send The Holy Spirit to give us the strength to choose the narrow gate, to take the first steps toward becoming whole, and healed, capable of loving ourselves and worthy of the love of our spouses. In short, we must first pray, in order to prepare ourselves to be healed.
7. Humbly ask God to remove my defects. One of the characteristics I’ve noticed in the people I’ve come to know and love at OLMC is a deep-seated humility, the constant refusal to take credit for all of the good they do, and their habit of always giving credit to God. My own personal motto, which I do not practice nearly enough, is “Be humble or get humbled.” We must be willing to knock on the door, God’s door, but we must do it in a spirit of humility, seeking his mercy rather than justice. This is true with our spouses as well, for as spouses we all need to give and seek forgiveness.
8. List everyone we’ve harmed, and be willing to make amends with them all. At the top of the list, right behind God, should be our spouses, for they live in our presence daily, and are most likely to have been hurt by our sinfulness. There is undoubtedly a long list of people behind them. It is an inescapable truth that our sinfulness hurts God, and that our spouses bear the brunt of our addictions and faults in the world. For you, there may be a lengthy list of folks behind the first two, but it is important to start at the top. For me, the next five names on the list are my children and my parents, for all of them have undoubtedly suffered at my hands, in my thoughts and in my words.
9. Apologize to everyone you’ve harmed, except when to do so will injure them. For the living people on your list, including your spouse, this is rather straightforward, but must be approached in an almost spiritual sincerity. As for God and the deceased persons on your list, it is only through prayer that you will be able to communicate your regret and apology. Doing so, whether speaking to the living or praying to those others, is a cleansing act, one which should not be dreaded, but rather embraced. How can we not feel better after having sincerely apologized to those people we’ve hurt? As a young man, I went to my parents house one day and apologized for every single word that had come out of my mouth for the previous four years. The three of us shared a toast–several in fact–in celebration of how good we all felt afterwards. That was over 40 years ago, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.
10. Commit to a daily examination of conscience. If we are committed to living in the moment–give us this day our daily bread–we should regularly ask ourselves, “How did I do today?” Some days will be better than others. The point is that healing is a process, not a silver bullet, and we must commit to examining our conscience every day. As addicts, we are capable of falling off our own particular wagon on any given day, and it is alleged to take 21 days to form new habits. If we are to be healed, there can be no place to run to, no place to hide. Examine your actions, words and thoughts every day. If possible, share this process with your spouse; you can help keep each other on track. After all, in marriage we are not called to achieve Heaven for ourselves, but to help our spouses find their way to Heaven.
11. Pray and meditate to increase contact with God. This, again, is a daily activity, as befits human nature. Most of us don’t suddenly fall off a wagon we’ve been on for months or years; typically, we gradually backslide into our old ways. This, I believe, is true for people such as myself with food issues. I need to weigh myself every day in order to avoid waking up one day six months from now and being at the weight I was when I started taking better care of myself. For others–especially those with alcohol and drug addictions–the world can tilt off its axis almost without warning. In either case, by increasing our contact with God we are in a better position to enlist his help. For those of us who find prayer difficult, saying the words of The Serenity Prayer is a fine place to start.
12. Practice these principals in everything we do. One of my best friends, who used to have issues around alcohol, once told me that the difference between drunks and alcoholics is that alcoholics go to meetings. Practicing these techniques in our marriages does not require us to commit to any kind of formal 12 step program. But it does require us to thoughtfully approach each other in humility, with forgiveness in our hearts, in as honest a manner as possible. We must be convinced that we ourselves are, in most cases, the problem, and we must share this spirit. With God’s grace, we will find happiness and peace in our marriages, create loving homes for our children, and model the behaviors that will, in turn, make them good parents to their own kids someday.
Love this post, Bruce. So appropriate to apply the 12 steps to improving marital relationships. Thank you!