Husband & Wife Articles


The Fragile Strength of Marriage

A healthy marriage culture needs all our support

By Mike Phelan

While studying in the D.C. area several years ago, my wife and I were the live-in directors of a maternity home for unwed mothers. To be truly honest, Sharon directed the home while I went directly to campus most days. Yet it was a formational, wake-up call of an experience for both of us. Four children were born and saved from the abortion industry during that year. We witnessed the heroic nature of a mother’s heart as these women each faced difficult choices and said “yes” to the little person growing within them. Over five months, we ate meals with these women, prayed with them, and had many conversations with them, and trust was built. Relationships had begun to form.

Phelan Family

Then one day, the progress stopped, to our great shock, the day Sharon announced to the ladies what she believed was joyful news. She was pregnant with our fourth child. Overnight, the bedroom doors closed, meals were taken separately, and morning prayer was a solo affair for my wife.

After weeks of puzzlement, Sharon went to the parish counselor who met monthly with each of our house guests.

“Do you really want to know what is going on?”


“Honestly, they hate you. It all changed when you got pregnant. They see the support you have in marriage and they truly believe it is impossible for them.”

Our house guests had temporarily escaped material poverty, but they still felt the pain of familial and relational poverty. Only one of the women had experienced growing up with married parents. In the D.C. area, where the out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate leads the nation at 52%, single motherhood is supported by a host of cultural, legal and economic influences. Our guests were well aware of those factors. A host of well-intended but corrosive social support laws for the poor had them and any potential spouse boxed in, from free housing for unwed moms, to food stamps, to WIC incentives — all built around helping a single mother. One unintended result of these programs is the creation of a channel directing the energies of the poor away from marriage and toward reliance on government.

This is a double tragedy because the best research shows that marriage is the primary solution to our societal poverty. It should not surprise us that every measurable social indicator in children, from physical and mental health, to educational success, to positive outlook on life is clearly and dramatically higher in children who grow up with married biological parents. Husband and wife are the first and foundational society. And the next generation of citizens depends on our strong marriages and on a strong-enough marriage culture for societal cohesion.

Pope Francis put it this way in an October address to the Pontifical Council for the Family: “The family is founded on marriage. Through an act of free and faithful love, newlywed Christians testify that marriage as sacrament is the foundation on which rests the family and makes stronger the union of spouses and their mutual self-giving. (…) The family is the engine of the world and of history. Everyone builds their own personality in the family, growing up with a mom and dad, brothers and sisters, breathing in the warmth of home.”

It seems odd that we are required now to fight for children’s right to breathe in this way. Yet fight we must. It could be argued that marriage itself is the strongest small institution in existence — the Church herself being the strongest large institution. Clearly, God designed marriage to handle tremendous stresses in societal and personal life — like architecture in Northern California is designed to handle both repeated small and periodic large earthquakes. But in the Brave New World we find ourselves in, we see clearly that marriage — strong as it is—does not exist in a vacuum. The complementary nature of man and woman, covenantally joined by vows that give a safe place for openness of body and soul, can handle much. Yet we must admit that there is a level of cultural instability, media attacks, legal, political and educational ignorance that combine to make a happy and holy marriage seem unreachable. Yet “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” and certainly our Lord is providing special graces to us as married laity in this fight.

In the next few articles, I will indicate a few areas of special importance and – in my own family experience – special grace for strengthening our own marriages and the witness they provide to the world.

Mike Phelan, Director of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix, holds a master’s degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America. He and his wife of 18 years, Sharon, live with their six children in Mesa, Arizona.