Wed 22nd Oct 2014 | Last updated: Wed 22nd Oct 2014 at 08:20am

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Same-sex marriage laws pose an acute dilemma for Catholic counsellors

A new law in Minnesota could prompt a Catholic psychologist to stop offering marital therapy

By on Monday, 1 July 2013

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signs the gay marriage bill into law (AP)

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signs the gay marriage bill into law (AP)

Marsh Fightlin, a psychologist and marriage counsellor who blogs at Catholic Stand, raises an issue of some concern in his recent blog. He writes that the state of Minnesota has now passed a law abolishing the accepted definition of marriage. This law will come into effect on August 1. After this date the state will recognise three kinds of marriage: male and female, male and male and female and female. As a marriage counsellor for nearly 40 years and a licensed psychologist for over 25 years, Fightlin is worried about the legal implications of the new law.

He notes that in the past psychologists would have made a sensible distinction between “natural marriage” and the new legal construct of “same-sex marriage” and would have refused to act in therapy sessions as if the latter were the same as the former. “Such a pretence would be incongruent with their true convictions and hence a distortion of the dynamic of therapy.”

However, the past is not the same as the present. The American Psychological Association now considers same-sex unions as marriages. Fightlin asks, what will the Minnesota Board of Psychology, which grants licenses and the renewal of licenses to practise psychology in Minnesota, now decide to do? He considers the three options:

a) It would distinguish between marriage and same-sex unions so that psychologists trained to do marital therapy would not be required to do therapy with same-sex couples because they would lack training in this new area;

b) The Board might demand that psychologists receive training by a certain date to treat same-sex couples, which would force psychologists “to receive training in an area in which they have no desire to be trained”;

or c) the Board might simply decide to consider same-sex unions to be marriages that are psychologically indistinguishable from marriage as it has been commonly understood until very recently – thus forcing psychologists who do marital therapy to treat same-sex couples “as though they were in a marital union”.

Fightlin asks, what is a Catholic psychologist to do (or, indeed, anyone, whether Catholic or not, who might have a conscientious objection in this area)? He concludes that if the Minnesota Board chooses the second or third alternative (which actually seems most likely, given the US government’s stance on this subject), he would have no alternative but to stop doing all marital therapy. He notes that this would have a significant effect on his professional life and his income.

It seems to me that psychology is a profession where there could and should be genuine debate and acceptance of different views on this subject. We can all, whatever our sexual orientation, be vulnerable to psychological problems at some point in our lives, whether they relate to relationships, family issues, a crisis in personal identity and so on. It must be obvious to psychologists of long experience who work in the field of marital therapy that the sensitive interactive dynamics of same-sex couples, quite apart from any moral or spiritual considerations, will be different from the subtle dynamics of male and female couples.

Because the subject is so new and so obviously experimental, there is as yet little research or data on the psychological problems and tensions that could arise from these same-sex unions. If marriage in its traditional sense, uniting the complementary aspects of the male and female gender, requires much maturity, self-sacrifice, tolerance, understanding and generosity not to founder, what extra therapeutic interventions will same-sex couples need?

You don’t need to quote Tolstoy’s famous dictum at the start of Anna Karenina to realise that marriage is not an easy option, even when it is lived as God intended. There might well be new types of psychological vulnerability among couples within the new legal definition of marriage, even though its proponents do not seem to have considered the question. As Fightlin observes, the best solution for Minnesota would be to distinguish between the two forms of relationships and to treat them, for therapeutic and professional purposes, as quite different.

I read that after the fall of Communism in East Germany, the highly unpopular former secret police found themselves unemployable. Lots of them apparently were forced to become self-employed as taxi drivers. Without taking this analogy too far, I predict that in the future the state of Minnesota will have some highly educated and middle-class taxi drivers.