A lady called into Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s EWTN radio program and related her quandary as to where she should spend more of her time: with her ailing mother and brother or with her husband who neglects her.
Apparently the woman’s mother, who she said was 87, was bedridden and staying at her sister’s house. And her brother had suffered a stroke and was confined to a convalescent home.
She mentioned that her husband was resentful of her spending time with her mother and her brother but that she preferred to spend time with them rather than her husband because of the neglect she felt at home. The woman described her husband in terms that brought to mind a picture of a sloppy couch potato who offered her neither attention or affection.
Because of this she said she felt “more comfortable” with her immediate family than at home where “there is nothing” and was calling to get Fr. Mitch’s advice.
One other thing that she said is of some importance. She mentioned that she had wanted to give some of their personal possessions away (presumably to help the poor) but that her husband was angrily opposed. Why that statement is important I shall get to in a minute.
I was a bit surprised and not a little disappointed in Fr. Mitch’s reply to the woman who I thought had given him all kinds of unintentional clues as to the real problem.
Fr. Mitch first chastised the husband’s behavior and advised the woman to, in effect, tell her husband to straighten up or go to hell. He next advised her to make a list of pros and cons about her quandary and to pray about it (in the fashion of the Ignatian process of discernment) and to choose (as Ignatius instructed) whatever she felt would give greater glory to God.
As per the woman’s relation of the details, this appeared to be not just a decision about “how much time” to spend with her ailing relatives versus time with her husband, but actually leaving her husband to tend to her relatives.
Granted, it’s not easy for a radio talk show host to properly direct someone in the context of a call where in fact the issue calls for a more in depth discussion and discernment of a deeply personal dilemma. And actually that’s what Fr. Mitch should have done anyway: refer her to her parish priest, confessor, or counselor.
However, given his on air answer, I must protest as follows:
“A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home”. The first responsibility is to her marital vow. This is the time when she is actually being called to live through the “for better or for worse” that she vowed when she knelt before Christ (in the person of the Priest) and said so.
Yes, the scripture also says “Honor thy Father and Mother”. BUT! By her own words she had related that neither her mother nor brother was uncared for. The mother was staying at her sister’s house and the brother was in a convalescent home.
She kept recalling how comfortable she was being with her mother and how much the mother appreciated her being there, and how she and her sister were getting along so great, and how peaceful things were at her sister’s house versus her own home where “there was nothing”.
The husband wasn’t forbidding the wife to spend time with her relatives. He was complaining because she spent so much time doing so.
Without knowing all the details I feel rather confident in assuming that the woman, quite naturally, is finding personal fulfillment in being “needed”, being important, being “somebody”.
She probably has lived through many years of unhappiness in her marriage (she said they had been married for 37 years) and is feeling unappreciated and unfulfilled.
What she doesn’t know is that her husband on the other hand is exhibiting all the signs of being just as unappreciated and unfulfilled and neglected as she is. If the man didn’t care about his wife he wouldn’t care where she spent her time. But he wants her home. Yes, to a selfish and even seemingly controlling degree, but its quite natural for a man in despair to act that way.
He is neglecting himself and ignoring her as a way of fighting back, of revenging the neglect that he himself has probably felt for just as many years as his wife. He sees his wife’s “do-good-ism” (the visits to the sick, the giving away of possessions) for what it probably really is which is her way of filling in her need to be wanted, a substitute for him.
Male pride being what it is keeps him from sharing this with her, though it’s probably more a result of a lack of understanding on his part as to what he’s really going through than just meanness.
My advice to the woman would have been to put first things first. I would have said:Now’s the chance to live your vows. To love the unlovable. To Kiss the “leper”, so to speak. To say “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
That’s what marriage is for! This is where the perfection of the spouses happens – when we must face the “worse” part of the “for better or worse”. Up to that point you have only had eros and never agape. Christ is waiting there in the “agape”. It is He who loves the unlovable through you. He is waiting to act but needs your body and your will.
There is no discernment at this point. There is sheer act and response to the command to love “until death do you part”. This is not the time to make a list of pros and cons. You give yourself to your husband in this way as your sacramental vows require and God will take care of your mother and your brother. He will make the time for you to visit and care for them if that be His will. But first, He is waiting for you to do the thing that you don’t want to do but that you indeed had VOWED to do.
Oh, but what about that nasty slob of a husband? I can hear some of the women who may read this getting angry. Here’s what the Church says: As long as you are not being physically abused you are required to stay in the game. The fact that he is a couch potato and doesn’t brush his teeth does not justify your neglect of him no matter how repulsive. “Kiss the leper”. God will provide. Either you and I believe that or we believe nothing and our good works will pile up like bricks on our backs till they crush us. This is where Faith becomes real, this is the opportunity of the Cross, this is where the word becomes flesh: His word, your flesh. Now go home and love him.
(By the way, of course the Church commands the same for husbands.)