When is the right time to seek out Catholic marriage counseling?

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“Do we need marriage counseling?” If you are asking the question, there’s a good chance that you would benefit from at least a few conversations with a Catholic counselor, says Dr. Greg Popcak, a Catholic and certified psychotherapist.

“The sooner you get the help, the easier it is to recover,” Popcak told CNA at the 10th World Meeting of Families in Rome.

Greg and his wife, Lisa, host a call-in radio program together in which they respond to questions from couples navigating difficulties in family life. 

With Greg’s background as a psychotherapist and Lisa’s experience as a family coach, the couple is able to integrate wisdom from Catholic tradition with the insights of psychological counseling.

Lisa said that seeing a counselor early on can make a big difference. 

“As you would go to any physician, if something feels off. You go and you check it out to make sure it's not something more serious,” she said.

“I'll give you a physical example. I remember years ago, I hurt one of my small toes on my left foot. I didn't do anything about it. Within six months I had thrown out my knee and I was in pain all the time and I had to go through a year of physical therapy. It is the same idea, but we don't apply it to our mental health.”

She explained that if you feel like you had a tough pandemic experience, have a particular issue that is causing stress in your marriage, or are dealing with a child that seems more anxious than usual, it is better to go to counseling for a short amount of time and get to the root cause than to let the issue get so serious that you are facing a longer term situation.

“If you're feeling off, you're feeling like there's something going on, take it as a prompting from the Holy Spirit and get it checked out,” Lisa added.

The multi-year COVID-19 pandemic caused an uptick in mental health problems. The rates of anxiety and depression among U.S. adults were four times higher between April 2020 and August 2021 than they were in 2019, according to the American Psychological Association. 

If you can see that your spouse has been struggling with their mental health since the pandemic, the Popcaks advise seeking out counseling together as a couple. 

“Do it together,” Greg said. “I come from a family therapy background, and one of the principles in family therapy is that the problem doesn't exist in the person, it exists between people.”

“Which is not to say that if your spouse is depressed, it's your fault. It is saying that you have to know how to be part of the solution, as opposed to accidentally reinforcing unhealthy habits,” he added. “How can you be a productive part of a relationship that leads to better health?”

He recommended that rather than approaching someone you care about and saying: “You need to get fixed,” it is better to be able to say: “I want to do this with you and I feel like we need the help. I need to know how to be here for you and we need to deal with this thing that’s attacking our relationship.”

Greg and his wife, Lisa, were keynote speakers at the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families

The panels at this year’s World Meeting of Families did not shy away from addressing difficult topics in family life. Married couples from South America, Europe, Africa, and the United States shared their stories about finding help for family members with addictions, spiritual healing after domestic violence, and forgiveness after a betrayal. 

“People are really struggling to know what a healthy family life looks like,” Greg said.

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“Because we really lost any cultural models for what that should be, so ... even faithful intact families don't have good models for what marriage and life really ought to be.”

The couple has recently started a digital platform designed to help Catholic families live out the “liturgy of domestic church life.” The Popcak’s app helps families establish rituals to ensure that they are connecting with each other on a deeper level.

For couples interested in trying out counseling, the Popcaks advise that Catholics seek out a therapist who shares their values. 

“Every therapist is working toward a particular vision of what a healthy human being looks like. And as Catholics, we have a very different vision of what a healthy human being looks like, than the world does,” Greg said.

“More specifically, somebody who knows how to integrate their faith and Catholic values in an ethical and effective way in therapy — that's actually a really specialized skill to be able to do,” Greg said. “To work with somebody who really knows how to do that integration is really important.”

Greg is the founder and executive director of CatholicCounselors.com, which provides telecounseling with licensed counselors who also have additional training in Catholic pastoral theology. 

“We've been doing telehealth since 1999, but it really became mainstream with the pandemic,” Greg said. 

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“And so, with the advent of telehealth being so mainstream, I think most of the stigma attached to counseling has gone away.”

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