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Archives Keynote speaker for April 14 family life conference shares insights on marriage
Embracing the Catholic vision of marriage

March 14, 2018

By Suzanne Pietropaoli
Staff Writer

Our national marriage problems are no secret: fewer people get married, and fewer people stay married. The PopcakChurch, though, calls us to see marriage as God intends it - as a lifelong path to wholeness, happiness, and holiness. 

Dr. Gregory Popcak and his wife Lisa will connect therapeutic insights to this Catholic vision at the April 14th conference, “Marriage: God Calls We Respond.”

Part two of an NCC interview with Dr. Popcak follows:

NCC: Your Pastoral Solutions Institute, founded in 1999, very successfully integrates insights from theology and psychology - which are often seen as incompatible. What motivated this approach?

DR. POPCAK: There is certainly a strong connection. Both theology and psychology seek to describe the person’s quest for meaning, transcendence, and fulfillment. They come at it from different angles, but the questions and goals are similar. My goal from the beginning was really to understand what God is calling each of us to become - and what are the tools, techniques, and exercises we can use to cooperate with his grace and become that person. Our approach is to really integrate Catholic spirituality into our clinical work.

NCC: The Pastoral Solutions Institute exclusively uses tele-counseling. How does this work, and why did you choose to go in this direction?

DR. POPCAK: From 1991 until 1999, my practice was entirely face-to-face counseling. When my book, For Better, For Ever, was published, we were flooded with requests for referrals from all around the country. People were looking for faithful Catholic counseling, and I had nowhere to send them.

I decided to try to help a few of them over the phone; within six months we were exclusively tele-counseling. Today our eight full-time therapists offer help in both Spanish and English, with clients world-wide.
Our clients, as well as dozens of studies, show that “behavioral tele-health” is as effective as face-to-face therapy.

NCC: The Pastoral Solutions Institute has had great success in strengthening marriages. What should couples in search of counseling look for?

DR. POPCAK:  It’s important for couples to know that you must go to the right kind of therapist: a marriage-friendly therapist, trained in marriage therapy, who has gotten supervision in marriage therapy and actually believes in marriage. This is very different from a therapist who also “does marriage therapy.” Research shows a 95% success rate for couples working with a therapist who believes in marriage, versus a 30% success rate for other sorts of therapists.

NCC: After three decades working with people on their marital/family problems, what is your takeaway? Is there a common denominator in troubled marriages?

DR. POPCAK: There are certainly common issues that almost every marital difficulty falls into. First, we all tend to love our comfort zones more than we love our spouses. We all want to love our mates the way we want to love them and have them be happy with that. We don’t like to grow and stretch. Even when our spouse says, “I need x-y-z- from you,” we stare and say, “I just don’t know what you want from me.”

The second thing is poor self-regulation: we are so fixated on how our partner is treating us that we forget to take our own emotional temperatures. That lack of ability to deliberately step back from an offense and say, “How do I mindfully respond to this?” is a big factor in tension in marriage. Everything just escalates.

Another big marital issue in research right now is the discovery that lack of “caretaking” is much more significant than communication rules. That is, if you follow all the rules of good communication, but don’t affirm, encourage, and show affection to your partner, you will still have problems.

Caretaking provides better rapport in a relationship because these actions let the other person know that they really matter, and that their agenda is important: “Look, what I want is really important, but I want you to get what you want too.”

These habits of caretaking go a long way toward ‘greasing the wheels’ in a relationship.

NCC: Have the issues that couples struggle with changed much in the last 30 years?

DR. POPCAK: Underneath it all, the issues are very similar to what they were then, the same process issues I just named.

Obviously, social media and pornography do play a role today—but the relationship issues are still the most important.

Interestingly, this generation expects more personal satisfaction from marriage than previous generations - but are more cynical about their ability to succeed in marriage, believing that they are not capable of it.

This is a challenge for the Church, but also a great opportunity. It is a chance to affirm couples’ desire to have a great, passionate, intimate and beautiful marriage. After all that is what God wants for married couples too.

NCC: You and Lisa have been married for 29 years. How has your own marriage influenced your work, and vice-versa?

DR. POPCAK: Our marriage is a kind of lab for our work; we don’t teach anything that hasn’t worked for us. We challenge each other to practice what we preach, which has borne a lot of fruit in our relationship.
We have been blessed with a great marriage and family life. But there’s nothing special about us; we have our struggles.

The good news: you don’t have to be perfect. Anyone willing to do the necessary work and cooperate with God’s grace can have a wonderful marriage!

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