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ENCOURAGING MARRIAGES TO THRIVE

Interview to Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre by Elisabeth Deffner, editor of Orange County Catholic newspaper

Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre is a licensed marriage and family therapist who holds master's degrees from Fuller School of Psychology and from Fuller School of Theology.  She is also a convert to the Catholic faith and loves the richness that integrating her deeply appreciated Protestant background with the Catholic faith brings to her life, marriage, family and work. With her husband of 23 years, John Yzaguirre, Ph.D., they are co-authors of Thriving Marriages: An Inspirational and Practical Guide to Lasting Happiness and have their clinical practice in Irvine where they see clients for issues as various as premarital preparation, marriage enrichment, marital crisis, parenting consultation, anxiety, stress reduction, and living a spirituality of unity in the family. Recently she took time to speak with Orange County Catholic about their book and the Thriving Families program.  

Q. How did the two of you get so involved in working with marriage and family issues in the Catholic community?  

A. When John and I first met, I was an American Baptist campus minister at USC, and he was getting his Ph.D. there in Psychology – when we married, we knew God had a plan for our marriage and future ministry with couples and families – and especially with helping the Christian community with these marriage and family life needs.  We created a curriculum that teaches people how to live unity in their lives, marriages, and families. Many people who were involved in their church ministries in both Protestant and Catholic traditions: Pastors, Directors of Religious Education, Youth ministry and Adult Faith ministry, as well as many marriage ministries like Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille, Christian Family Movement, invited us to offer our programs, in both English and Spanish, to their churches and groups.  We developed the ‘Thriving Families’ program in response to this tremendous interest and need. Our mission is to promote unity in marriages and families by offering educational programs and psychological services that integrate contemporary psychological research and Christian spirituality. 

Q. That can be tough to do, when a couple is busy raising children, caring for a household, and holding down jobs.  

A. Life is stressful for everyone today.  Couples and families are under a lot of stress, especially in these tough economic times. Our experience with most couples has been that they want to learn how to simplify their lives, focus on what promotes happiness, and regain balance in their lives, so all of our talks teach essential skills in very practical and easy-to-apply ways that help them tackle these challenges, both from a faith perspective and from a psychological skill-building perspective.   

Q. Most people think of marriage as a sacrament that is supposed to be unifying. What challenges to that unity do you see in your practice?  

A. Couples often get married because they feel they’ve found ‘the right person’. However it is only a matter of time before that person disappoints them deeply and they start to lose hope in their marriage.  Jeff and Jen come to mind.  They came to see me pretty angry, both feeling unheard and unloved.  They had kids, a mortgage, jobs, fatigue, and all the challenges facing couples today. They were discouraged that they were growing apart, really apart, and that scared them.  Their faith was important to them and they really wanted to know how to bring their love back again – and keep it alive. By learning a model of unity and the skills to sustain unity throughout their marital journey, Jeff and Jen, like hundreds of couples, gained hope and the skills to repair their relationship.  They learned how to integrate their differences wisely. Sometimes couples think that unity means uniformity – it doesn’t – you don’t have to be clones of each other. But it is essential to know how to integrate our very real differences wisely with respect, humor, creativity, and love. One challenge today is “to be committed to each other and to unity in the relationship”.  Without a model of unity that help couples strengthen and build their marriage, they become disappointed and some will start thinking about an escape plan, as the divorce rate sadly shows us.  Another challenge is that many couples do not know how to rebuild their unity when it breaks down.   

Q. In a situation where infidelity or some other betrayal has damaged the relationship, is it still possible to have unity?  

A. With psychological help and God’s grace couples can take the pieces of their shattered relationship and restore it.  It is not about fixing the old relationship; it is about building a new relationship based on love and justice.  I often use the illustration of a stained-glass window.  When the windowpane of your life or marriage has shattered, it is possible to heal by learning key forgiveness and reconciliation skills. These ugly shattered shards of glass become a magnificent stained-glass window, full of rich color, welded strongly together. Stained glass is much stronger than mere glass, because of the welding. You see the welding, but it’s not your focus – what you see is a beautiful stained-glass window that tells the story of love and forgiveness, as God’s light and grace shine through.  Marriages, shattered by a crisis or infidelity, can be restored, and our churches must be on the forefront in offering programs that help couples, not only deal with this particular crisis, but offer ongoing marriage education and community support to couples from their engagement throughout their marital journey to have stronger marriages and families. Navigating crisis successfully is the key to greater unity.  We must teach people, especially couples, how to transform suffering into love as a key to a life of stable unity.   

Q. What is the basic philosophy of Thriving Marriages?  

A. We are all made in the image of God who is Trinity, and our ultimate purpose is to live a trinitarian lifestyle.  Through our research and over 25 years of clinical practice with couples and families, we have developed a vision of the family as a school of relationships of mutuality that sustains family unity. We have created an education program that teaches family members three skills sets involved in the dynamics of unity: empathy, autonomy, and mutuality. Empathy skills involve learning to accept others as they are, to understand their needs, and to love them concretely as they want to be loved. Autonomy skills are understood as developing a healthy self that does not ignore, dominate or submit to others but relates with others in a cooperative and egalitarian way. Empathy and autonomy are necessary to achieve mutuality but they are not sufficient. Mutuality requires interactive skills that aim at building and strengthening relationships and at restoring them when needed. The essential skills of mutuality include: Conflict-free communication; integrating personal differences and restoring unity. We can divorce-bust our churches if we take this seriously. The U.S. Bishops, we are happy to see, have released a marriage initiative, that urges all parishes to become ‘marriage building’ parishes.    

Q. What do you think the role of the church is in building thriving marriages?  

A. Now is the time for every church to offer marriage and family life enrichment programs that help their people grow stronger marriages, raise caring children, renew and balance their lives, build resilience in their marriage – these, by the way, are the key seminars we have given to over 150 churches, at the RE Congress in Anaheim, the SCRC conference, and with many marriage groups.  Sometimes people say to us, “There’s no parish-based marriage group at our church.” I say to them, “Start it – share with your Pastor and we’ll help kick if off or grow it with our programs!” Every church can do this. In our presentations, we say, “Do this in your marriage, but then join with other couples at your church and start a Thriving Marriages support group.”  Just recently, we offered our program at St. John Neumann, St. Juliana, and Our Lady Queen of Angels, in Orange County, and it has been exciting to hear that couples are forming marriage groups where couples use Thriving Marriages as their guidebook applying one chapter per month and sharing their experiences when they get together for mutual support.  Couples need other couples’ support and they need ongoing formation.  We hope that many churches develop marriage formation programs as part of their core ministry. Strong couples create strong families and thriving faith communities! 

 

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