Orthodox Christians have to withstand some bumps in the road of marital life. The one time during the Rite of the Holy Mystery of Marriage in which a petition takes place asking God to help the couple overcome trials and ordeals is in the Betrothal Service, in which in opening ektenia (verses) is the often-prayed petition: "For our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger and necessity, let us pray to the Lord."
The Marriage Service Prayer to overcome life ordeals
More focused however are the references made in the Prayer of the Matrimony Service when the priest prays:
Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, the Priest of mystical and pure marriage ... .Preserve them as thou didst preserve Noah in the Ark: Preserve them, O Lord our God, as thou didst preserve the Three Holy Children from the fire; ... Remember them, O Lord our God, as thou didst remember thy Holy Forty Martyrs, sending down upon them crowns from heaven...
So while there are many references throughout the Marriage Ceremony to the "joy of the union" and the blessing of "being provided sons and daughters" and "thy children as a newly planted olive orchard around thy table," there is also the prayer that the couple needs God's grace to overcome the trials and tribulations that will accompany marital life. Thus the priest prays the newly married couple may obtain God's help to acquire the resiliency, character and trust in God, shown to us by these saints, thus enabling the couple to overcome the ordeals that will accompany their lives.
Rejection phobia is one example of such trials and tribulations, which, when experienced by one spouse, affects both. An individual with rejection phobia would likely feel that because they were rejected in some way by their spouse they were personally 'defective.' This dysfunctional attitude is frequently accompanied by the perception that if they are rejected by their spouse, they will also be rejected by other significant persons in their lives, or by others that could be significant to them in the future.
This perception is unrealistic, and is actually based on several cognitive distortions. In the cognitive model, cognitive distortions are the equivalent of inaccurate assumptions. Assumptions must be evaluated for their accuracy and disputed when found to be without foundation (Beck 1995, Morelli, 2006a,b).Cognitive distortions: Bringing about Rejection Phobia
Cognitive distortions are varied and include:
- Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. A husband concludes because his wife disapproves of something he did, she disapproves of all that he does.
- Personalization is blaming yourself for an event you are not responsible for. A wife became depressed when her husband criticized a parenting judgment she made and thought he must be critical of her as, wife, mother and person. This is "personalizing" the statement, of course with no evidence that her husband was directing it at her as a 'person.' Thus rejection by a spouse of a specific act by their husband or wife does not mean they are intrinsically or essentially "unlovable."
- Generalization is the tendency to see things in always-or-never categories. A husband became depressed, when his wife criticized a failed attempt to fix a kitchen faucet. He irrationally concluded that his wife will "never" change and will "always" be the same and will think he cannot repair any household problem. His dysphoria and anxiety led to a self-defeating pattern of behavior which further distanced him and his wife and set himself up for the very thing he did not want: a poorer marriage.
- Catastrophizing is the perception that something is more than 100% bad, terrible or awful. Any of the above spousal errors are reacted to erroneously as the "end of the world," often accompanied by anger.
These cognitive errors often lead to further emotional problems such as anger, anxiety and or depression, which can contribute to further martial dysfunction.
The Church Fathers have consistently counseled examination of our thoughts and discernment. They were speaking of a spiritual examination, but the advice is applicable to whether a thought is rational or irrational because we made in God's image and must use our intellect to find truth. And God is Truth. Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). St. Peter of Damaksos wrote: "And should a thought approach shamelessly and ask to be received, saying to him, 'If you doth watch over thoughts and discriminate between things, you are ignorant and lacking in faith" (Philokalia III). Did not Jesus tell us: "If you continue in my word ... the truth will make you free" (John 8:32)?
With cognitive evaluation the spouses would discover that on a scale of problems the martial dispute they have would be evaluated as decidedly low, surely not a catastrophe. The mental ruler technique is especially helpful in evaluating such "spousal difficulties" (Morelli, 2006a,b,c).
Thus it behooves us then to use these scientific cognitive restructuring techniques:
- Where is the evidence (the evidence for or against the idea or thought)?
- Is there any other way of looking at it (alternative explanations)?
- Is it as bad as it seems (what is the worst and best that could happen, could I live with it, what is the realistic outcome)?
- What is the effect of holding onto my distorted thoughts (what would happen if I changed my thinking)?
A clinical example
Some years ago I received a referral of a recently separated male patient . He was the father of two girls, twelve and eight years old. He was a construction worker, making an average middle class salary. He lived in a middle class municipality and residence. He described himself as a loving devoted husband and father. Collateral consultations verified his description. The presenting problem was his emotional adjustment to the marital separation and divorce proceedings. His wife complained of "incompatibility." He indicated she spent large amounts of money on personal items and gambling. He was more than ready to support his wife and family in normative standards, but he could not meet her "extravagant" demands. She is the one who wanted terminate the marriage. She also had started to date others. His report was substantiated by collateral consultations with both spousal families. He was rejected by his wife and his thinking and feeling fit the rejection phobia model quite well. He came to the conclusion, he was worthless, and no one would ever think he would be worthwhile. His Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, 1995) scored in the high range.
Of note was his physical appearance. He was well built but would not be considered obese in any way, but physically large. He was bearded and rough looking. Based on physical appearance, a film casting director might place him in a character actor role as a mountain man' or 'lumberjack. In everyday terms his personality could be described as friendly, pleasant, kind, loving and generous. After several months of clinical intervention he came to accept the marital breakup and divorce. He could not accept his physical appearance. His self image was that he was "totally ugly." He became more depressed and was sure no one would ever want to be with someone who "looked like him." He would never be able to have a meaningful relationship with anyone again. He held all the cognitive distortions listed above for bringing about rejection phobia. He created a failure scenario for the rest of his life.
Clinical intervention involved protracted use of the cognitive restructuring questions listed above. Every time he made a statement I would ask him the questions mentioned above. I had to be extremely tenacious and persistent. I tried to show him he was creating his "own set of absolutistic rules" about who would find him attractive. (Ellis & Harper, 1961). After working with him to enable him to understand he had no verified information about what others were feeling or thinking (the mind reading error, Burns, 1980, Morelli, 2006a,c), he came to accept that his failure scenarios were without foundation. I then came up with an analogy that began to make a clinical breakthrough concerning his appearance. I pointed out that the relation between beauty and attraction could be compared to a child's pegboard game. The way of winning the game is to put the right shape peg in the right shaped hole (round hole-round peg, square hole-square peg, etc.). The first attempt might fail but with many attempts, eventually a fit can be found. This enabled him to continue to work toward the goal of finding a loving partner and remarrying. While spirituality was not central to his life, he took his daughters to church on Sunday and knew I was a priest and was in some way modeling Christ. He knew from the beginning I would pray for him.
Amazingly he underwent a number of rejections (wrong peg and hole). Finally he came to one appointment and said to me "Fr. George, you will not believe this, the most beautiful and nicest girl I ever met, likes me and wants to date again. She could be a twin of Elizabeth Taylor, most important she appears really genuine ... .etc." They also shared a similar previous relationship experience. She also was divorced through no fault of her own and had a daughter about the same age as his daughters. After several months of dating his initial impression remained and their mutual love deepened. I had both of them come to my office for pre-marital counseling. My clinical and personal impression of his assessment of her and their relationship was correct. They subsequently became engaged and had a church wedding. I followed up on the case several months apart for about a year and their marital satisfaction remained quite high.
Pre-marital and early marital intervention
The seriousness of this case points out the need for our Arch-pastors, pastors to be engaged in pre-marital programs with couples contemplating Holy Matrimony. Two such services are Facilitating Open Couple Communication Understanding and Study (FOCCUS- http://www.foccusinc.com/) and the Pre-Prepare Enrich Program (http://www.prepare-enrich.com/). These programs also offer intervention services for troubled marriages. Of course such programs have to be adapted to Orthodox Christian spirituality for couples in eastern Christian jurisdictions One lesson from the case above is for couples to seek help in a troubled marriage as soon as possible, long before breakup is the only option or choice that can be made.
Dependency on Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Whether spouses are attempting to overcome problems themselves, or seek clinical or pastoral help, all involved should keep Our Lord's counsel in mind: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15: 5). As described to us by Ageloglou (1998), Elder Paisius of the Holy Mountain believed " ... the grace of God was the only cause of any good; for every evil he blamed himself ... " We must acquire and work toward humility. I pray that I, first of all and everyone who reads this article will heed the Elder's council. It is only in this spirit any human intervention of healing any infirmities and diseases can be viewed. The healing Christ is the basis of all human healing.
Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.
Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. The Guilford Press: New York.
Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good. New York: William Morrow.
Ellis, A. & Harper, R.A. (1961). A Guide to Rational Living. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart:.
Morelli, G. (1987). Overcoming Anger. The Word, 31,3, 9-10.
Morelli, G. (2006a, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.
Morelli, G (2006c). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.