Making marriage work — some pointers from the pros

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colligans_centerspread_photoby Connie Berry
Sun Editor

John and Kathy Colligan rekindle their own romance every time they help other couples. They have been doing the work of marriage preparation and couples ministry for more than 35 years, and they are the first to admit they are still learning.

The Colligans, parishioners of St. James Church in Johnson City, have been busy the last few years developing a new marriage prep program, “Invitation to a Passionate Marriage.” The program can be downloaded for free in its entirety at www.FamilyLifeEducationsyracuse.org. There are a few different ways to approach the program — it can be offered as a day-long workshop on a Saturday, as two half days, or as a mentor couple program over the course of five evenings. They both feel it’s essential to keep “fine tuning” the marriage preparation program. They want to be sure their words are precise and that they are in line with church teaching.

This newest endeavor was brought about by a friend of theirs, Father Bob Poandl, a Glenmary missionary now serving in Georgia. He asked his long-time friends, the Colligans, to develop a pre-Cana program for the Spanish-speaking couples he often ministers to in his parishes.

“Father Bob asked us to write a pre-Cana program for his Spanish-speaking couples. He had many seeking marriage but no acceptable program written in Spanish. We were sensitive to their relative poverty and level of education,” John explained. “Unfortunately, we do not speak or write Spanish. Fortunately, we knew a Mexican-American couple in our parish who could/would translate it, John and Tairi Urear-Roque. Tairi’s parents, in southern California, were of considerable help.”

Father Poandl works in Claxton, Ga. and currently serves as pastor of three parishes. “Fortunately, I like to go to church,” he joked in a telephone interview from Georgia. “Two of my churches are English and Spanish speaking and one is almost all Spanish. I get a lot of miles out of one sermon.”

Father Poandl met the Colligans in 1988 through their work in Marriage Encounter and they serve as his spiritual directors. He has been using “Invitation to a Passionate Marriage” for a few years and said it’s been very positively received by the couples he’s worked with.

“When I was in the seminary 45 years ago, our involvement with marriage revolved around the sacrament and annulment cases,” Father Poandl said. “I  became involved with Marriage Encounter as a young priest and with Retrouville in 1984. It’s my hobby. It’s my golf and my bowling.”

The Colligans’ newest program offers a thorough approach to getting to know each other, at understanding the differences between the way men and women think and the way they approach things. It also takes a long look at communication and understanding. The fact that a couple is taking part in pre-Cana is at least an indication that they are in love and that God is important to them, the program states. One of the first points it contains is, “Your mission in a Catholic marriage is to reveal to your spouse the presence of God’s love that is already within him/her. God is calling you to the sacrament of matrimony to do this.”

Kathleen and Andy O’Connor have been involved in pre-Cana education for seven years. It is the second marriage for both Kathleen and Andy and their work with couples helps them cover the essentials over and over again, which helps their own marriage.

“It keeps us honest,” Andy laughed.

“This helps reinforce our marriage and we learn from our mistakes. It makes us more intentional,” Kathleen said.

“I’m not my best without Kathleen,” Andy explained. “We are much better people as a couple.”

Marriage preparation is essential, according to both couples, and Kathleen O’Connor said, “You spend at least an entire year getting ready for one day when you are getting married. Pre-Cana helps you prepare for the rest of your life.”

What two people bring to each other in marriage is much more than the early light-headed moments and dizzying first feelings of love and affection. They also bring their entire past experience into the relationship. One of the most important topics that should be discussed before marriage, according to the Colligans, is “family of origin.”

“Family of origin is the hidden agenda in every marriage,” Kathy explained. “We tend to believe that the way our family did things is the ‘normal’ way. So often couples don’t discuss their families in much depth because they think they already understand. Actually, it’s important to understand every aspect of one another’s family: how they treated one another, how they handled their differences, how much they respected one another, their attitudes about sex/sexuality, their attitudes about prayer and spirituality and about the Catholic Church, their sense of permanent commitment.”

Sometimes, Kathy said, people feel they need to find their “soulmate” or someone just like them. It takes some intentional discussion and thought before people realize they must always listen, communicate and compromise with their partner.

“We encourage couples to spend time for a few minutes every day just talking with each other — with no distractions,” Kathy said. “Even this small amount of time can make a huge differene in keeping in touch with and understanding one another. We also encourage couples to have a date night every week, even if it’s just going out for a walk together. It’s important to make your relationship the first priority.”

The Colligans have incorporated different methods over the years. Today, they find couples are not really into writing down their thoughts and they are sometimes intimidated by written questions and answers and consider it “too much like being back in school.”

“We would have to constantly prod them to write for the full time, and many did not. Then their sharing effort was also weak. Once we eliminated writing, the couples got more serious and shared for even longer than we asked. They also told us they often revisit the questions all week long between our sessions,” John said.

The facilitators in the newest program will provide discussion questions such as “My biggest goal in life is…” “Before I die I want to…” and “The thing I want most for you is…” Couples will spend time together discussing their answers to the questions rather than writing their responses on paper. The leaders will remind them that love is a decision, not just a feeling.

The program states, “We can decide to love even when we don’t feel like it — even when we’re tired, irritable, or distracted by many other demands.” The material also takes a realistic look at marriage. Some days couples will feel wildly in love and romantic, other days they’ll take each other for granted and other days they will even be hurt or angry with each other. All the while, the Colligans wrote, love is a decision which means couples are in charge of how the relationship grows through the years.

The Colligans don’t represent a feel-good, mushy couple with an agenda. They are a practical couple who met at Le Moyne College. John has a doctorate in physics and Kathy has a degree in sociology. They went to Regis University in 1982 to earn their master’s degrees in adult Christian community development with a specialty in family life ministry. They are often asked how they keep their ministry and their marriage going. Both say it is a gift from God.

“We’re on fire to spread the Good News. There’s a better way to live — and we can help you learn how to do that!” Kathy said.

Father Poandl said many couples consider their marriage successful if they don’t get divorced. Meanwhile they aren’t happily married and their children do not want to mirror that kind of relationship, he said.

“Marriage can help you experience the depth of who God created you to be, but you gotta work with Him,” he said.

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