'When Faith Causes Family Friction': Author Q&A with Dr. Ray Guarendi

Dr. Ray Guarendi is an American Catholic clinical psychologist, author, public speaker, father of 10, and nationally syndicated radio and television host. He holds a B.A. and M.A. from Case Western Reserve University as well as a Ph.D from Kent State University.

Dr. Ray’s syndicated radio program (“The Doctor Is In”) airs daily on EWTN Radio affiliates and online at Sirius/XM satellite radio, channel 130.His national television show, “Living Right with Dr. Ray,” airs on EWTN. Dr. Guarendi’s other radio and television appearances include Oprah, Joan Rivers, Scott Ross Prime Time, 700 Club, Gordon Elliot, and CBS This Morning. He has been the on-air psychologist for Cleveland’s The Morning Exchange and Pittsburgh 2-Day. His books include “You’re a Better Parent Than You Think!” as well as “Back to the Family,” “Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime,” “Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It,” “Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards,” and “Fighting Mad.”

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His newest book, “When Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough Questions,” was published on June 19 earlier this year by Servant Books. On Aug. 26, I interviewed Dr. Ray by telephone about his new book and his work. The following transcript has been edited for style and length.

Your new book is called “When Faith Causes Family Friction.” What do you mean by “faith” here?

I mean when someone puts their Catholic, Christian faith at the very center of their world. Faith is a simple relationship. The deeper you go into your faith, the more you attempt to understand and live it morally, the more you will be misunderstood and critiqued. I’m not the first one to say that: Our Lord said it a long time ago.

What sort of “family friction” are you talking about?

One big area is when one spouse goes deeper into the faith than the other, especially when that spouse was not all that religiously minded to begin with. You run into the problem of the non-religious spouse asking: “Who am I married to? This isn’t the person I married. This other person seems to love the Lord a lot more than they love me. What’s going on here?”

In a situation like that, you don’t throw your faith in your spouse’s face. You need to lower the profile for the marriage to work. In other words, if you’re going to pray the rosary, pray it on your own time. Don’t be so blatantly obvious that when your spouse gets into the car, you’ve got all five radio pre-sets tuned to Catholic or Christian stations. If it’s a guy, let him listen to his sports station. Don’t stay on the phone for an hour and a half with your friends from church, talking about all the latest and exciting things going on with your Bible study group there.

So lower the profile. It doesn’t mean you’re denying the faith; it just means you’re allowing your spouse a little chance to not be threatened by it. Then there’s the strongest piece of advice I give in these situations to people who want to bring the other spouse closer to the faith: You’d better be easier to live with! You’d better be kinder, more forgiving, more tolerant, less argumentative—you have to show your spouse that this faith of yours is to their benefit, that it makes you a nicer person!

Why did you write this book?

I’m a psychologist. Initially, when I was in grad school, we were told to keep any kind of religion or morality out of therapy. But that can’t be done. First of all, every client comes into therapy with a religious or moral worldview, whatever it may be, and it’s very much a part of who they are. Secondly, every therapist has a worldview. When therapists attempt to be neutral, even that’s a worldview. You can’t really practice therapy without being aware of your own worldview. As a result, psychology and faith intersect, and I’ve realized as a psychologist that more and more of the problems people bring to me revolve around struggling to live their faith in a progressively secular world.

One big example in the book is the probably unprecedented phenomenon in human history of a high percentage of young adults now leaving the faith they were raised in. We’re talking 40 to 60 percent, an exceptionally high percentage. As a result, the parents feel guilty and flagellate themselves. “Where did we go wrong? Maybe we should have prayed the rosary on the couch, maybe we should have read more lives of the saints, whatever—the parents feel tortured and disappointed in this situation.

I ask a series of questions in my talks that are probably the most impactful part of the book: Is there a God? Yes. Was Jesus God? Yes. Was he sinless? Yes. Could he perform miracles? Yes. Did he have a perfect understanding of human nature? Yes. Then I pause and I say: Could he get most people to follow him? And my audience looks and it hits them: No. Then I ask, do you think you’re better at this than the God-man? Is there some spiritual formula that guarantees your children will grow in their faith? Yes, you do what you can, but there’s no guarantee—especially not in this culture. I say “you can’t perform miracles. You can’t even do a crummy card trick.”    

Who is your audience?

My audience is those people who are finding out, to their chagrin and surprise, that attempting to live the faith is not necessarily greeted in a positive way by family members. You know, their attitude is “gosh, I’m a more moral person, I’m trying to follow truth, and people are finding me less appealing!” I say don’t hide behind the false comfort of thinking they don’t like you because you’re a better person or living a more moral existence. You always have to keep in mind it’s possible you’re acting like a jerk. You’ve always got to scour yourself on that one. 

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope they’ll come away with the sense that, in a very real way, this is all panning out the way our Lord said: I have come to divide families. And I hope they’ll not be devastated, regardless of whether it’s their children or their parents or their spouse. Whatever it might be, there are things they can do to bring the person back or at least soften the person’s view toward religion.

One of the big ones, of course, is children from age 14 to 16 who are being socialized by their peers and schools. “This religion thing is mom’s, it’s not mine.” And the parents are flummoxed. They sent their kids to Catholic school and they gave them the sacraments—what’s going on here?

Well, as I say in the book, this church isn’t my Italian grandmother’s parish. For her, if the priest said it, that’s the way it was. She didn’t question it. Nowadays, parents have to be prepared to explain the faith. It’s got beautiful logic behind it and makes perfect sense. If they explain it, then perhaps in the short run it won’t make any difference, but in the long run—somewhere down the road, when they run into the real world with all its complexities—the children may realize the church truly had something to say after all.       

There are many different kinds of clinical psychologists: Freudian, Jungian, cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, and so on. What kind of psychologist are you?

I am predominantly a cognitive behavioral psychologist, which is what most now practice—a certain blend of looking at how someone’s thinking and behaving is causing trouble for them. It’s probably the dominant counseling approach right now.

How do you define psychology?

Basically, it’s the study of the human person—thinking, behavior, emotions, and religion in the case of this book. I think psychologists made a big mistake years ago when they decided we were going to ignore the religious aspect of people’s functioning, because that is such a core aspect of who they are. Especially if you’re a therapist, you have to recognize that a person is coming to with deeply held beliefs which are not something you have to correct.

When you’re counseling a woman who has been betrayed by her spouse, but has not been abused and wants to hold the marriage together, who are you to say “you’re in denial and you need to get on with life?” At the very core of her being, she thinks “no, I’m still married.” There’s a certain arrogance that makes some therapists tell her she’s wrong.  

How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a psychologist, husband, and father?

A certain number of people come to me because they know I’m a therapist with a Catholic worldview. They don’t want someone who’s in conflict with the things they hold most dear. Others don’t and I’m not going to force a Catholic worldview on them in therapy. However, there’s an overlap between therapeutic practice and traditional morality.

For example, if an agnostic guy wants to leave his wife and two kids for the sake of personal happiness, I can’t approach it from a moral perspective. But I can approach it from a complexity perspective, looking at how each of the children will react to his decision and how he foresees himself dealing with that situation as he marries a new woman whose 15-year old son is totally obnoxious. And as a result, his 12-year old daughter won’t want to visit him on the weekends when that boy is around. So I can approach it from a realistic perspective, but there are also underlying moral issues which don’t have to be labeled from a Catholic perspective.

The founding fathers of psychology, including Freud and Jung, were primarily Jewish and Protestant in background. Even today, practicing Catholics seem relatively rare in a field dominated by non-religious professionals. What can Catholicism learn from psychology?

I think Catholics can come to understand that people are incredibly complex beings, and I think that for me psychology has helped me come to understand purgatory. By that, I mean maybe purgatory is truly seeing yourself as you are. One of the great obstacles in therapy is that most of us don’t see ourselves as we really are: we don’t understand the complexities of our motives, particularly our ulterior motives. Our deepest desires elude us. It’s very hard in therapy to sort this out because oftentimes people don’t want to see it—it clashes with who they think they are. Maybe that’s what purgatory is: Here is what you are, here is what you really intended when you did this or that.

The other thing, for me, is that I see tragic and wretched life experiences in people’s histories. I’ve always said “don’t judge” because God takes into account how all of those factors can influence someone’s behavior. You know, I have 10 adopted children and several of my children were heavily exposed to drugs and alcohol in the womb. Their thinking is a little off, they don’t always make good decisions as young adults, and I believe some of that is biochemical.

So psychology can tell religion it’s not simply always a matter of right and wrong; the Lord has to judge how much a person can be held accountable. I see people who are naturally religious, who work hard, and it’s not anything the parents necessarily did—the kid was just bent a certain way. Now you can call that free will, but there does seem to be certain psychological and biological components involved which only God can sort out.

What can psychology learn from Catholicism?

Psychology really needs to respect people’s deeply held moral convictions. For too long, psychology has viewed certain moral positions as not only self-defeating but actually neurotic, and it’s just sad. The research is coming out all over the place showing that some ways to live are better than others, making the secular people go “oh.”

I’ll give you an example: I grew up in school with the idea that you need to assert your feelings. “If you’re upset, you need to let people know it. If you don’t, you’ll have all kinds of problems.” Well, there is a body of research that says it’s not necessarily healthy to always express your upset feelings. What tends to happen is that you get very good at expressing your upset, but not at anything else. When the Lord said “turn the other cheek,” he wasn’t psychologically naïve. There are indications in the psychological research that that might be the best way to handle it for some people’s mental health—that you can learn to let these things “roll off” instead of staying around to remind you that you’re upset.

The other thing psychology can learn from religion concerns the whole self-image movement. Research has destroyed the self-image movement, saying self-image doesn’t do much of anything if it’s based only on you. Catholicism says “you are infinitely valuable because you’re made in the image of God; God says you’re infinitely valuable.” I always say, who am I to say Ray Guarendi is a wonderful human being? It’s not a whole lot of affirmation to say I’m wonderful: big deal. But if the God of the universe says I’m a wonderful and valuable human person, now that is self-image. The self-image preached by psychology is very fragile and easily battered, but the self-image our Catholic faith preaches is grounded in something infinitely valuable. No matter what I do, I’m valuable because God says so—a much, much better basis for self-image.   

What inspired you to become a psychologist?

Well, initially I was engineering and then moved to pre-law. When I was in pre-law, I found psychology pretty fascinating and decided to keep going. So really it was an accident, as I gradually realized I needed to get the Ph.D to keep going. So I just kept going and I’ve learned many things in my 35 years as a shrink. I started out specializing in families, but I don’t see children very often anymore. I work with their parents because that’s where the change takes place; most therapy with children is ineffective unless the mom and dad or caretaker gets healthy. 

What have been some of the things you’ve learned from your clinical experience?

Behavior change is an agonizing process. When someone has the grace of God helping them, they have much more of a chance to change some of their deepest temperamental characteristics. When they don’t have the grace of God helping them because they don’t seek or want it, it becomes a much harder journey in my experience. Why would you change if there’s no Supreme Being saying there’s a better way to live? You would define “better way to live” as what you wanted to do in the first place.

I always say this: If there’s no God, I set my own moral system. And if I set my own moral system, I am purely good because I follow it 100 percent—it’s my moral system. So if I do something that would be considered traditionally immoral, well it’s not, because I say it’s not. If I want to leave my wife and kids for my own happiness, then that’s my morality, so I’m not doing anything immoral. And then I repeat the same unhealthy behavior patterns with my new spouse.

For many of the people who come to me, it’s not a case of “I’m acting wrongly, please help me to conquer it.” It’s a matter of “I’m running into problems but I don’t see anything wrong with what I’m doing.” That’s much harder to alter.

You’ve done a lot of public speaking, writing, and media work in addition to your clinical practice. What have been some personal highlights of this ministry?

It’s given me the chance to come back to the church. I left the church for eight years. I was kind of a “new atheist.” The old atheists said “there’s no God, therefore I can do whatever I want.” The new atheist says “there’s a God who thinks just like me.” I was a new atheist because I defined religion on my own terms. That didn’t work very well. Then I started to look back at the Catholic Church and say: “If where I’m at in my own faith walk isn’t making sense to me, what does the church have to say to me?” I just thank God every day that he pulled me back.

Another highlight is that I’ve had a chance to be in the media. I used to be very active as a guest on secular talk shows like Oprah, Joan Rivers, all of the other big ones—but there was emptiness there. The emptiness was that I really couldn’t talk about the deeper things of life to a general audience. There wasn’t much Catholic media at that time and I wasn’t connected to it. Now I’m in the Catholic media world and it’s a great thrill. 

What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

Somehow, I want people to see in some way that their faith—Catholic, Christian—is the best way to live. Not that they look at the world and say “there’s a lot of fun I’m missing out on,” but that they realize our Lord knew the best way to live. Psychologically speaking, if we live as Jesus lived, we’ll be more content here and in eternity.

You’ve been described as advocating a “common sense” approach to parenting, families, and children. What is common sense about your approach?

I think it’s that I rely on the wisdom of the ages. There’s arrogance in every generation, as if we somehow know better than everyone who came before us. My first book, “You’re a Better Parent than You Think,” is based on the idea that parents don’t need to wrestle with so much guilt, second-guessing, tentativeness, lack of resolve—where is this coming from? I realized that a lot of it is coming from the onslaught of the experts. We’ve had so many theories and nonsense notions, which go against what we all consider common sense, and they’ve really done a number on parents. They’re not as secure and sure of themselves as parents used to be in past generations.

I want to look back at the wisdom of people who have gone before and found ways to make it work. Some ideas are so dumb that only intellectuals could believe them and I think there’s a lot of that floating around. There are so many ideas floating around in psychology that undercut parents—they don’t work! I get a lot of people in my office who try to be “psychologically correct” with their kids and it’s uglier than all get-out. It’s not working for them at all. We have to go back to certain hopes and truths that have stood the test of time.

What are your hopes for the future?

For any cultural change that’s taken place in history, it’s because a minority made it happen. You can’t get a majority to go one way or the other; it’s always a determined minority. That’s how it was with our independence from Britain—it was only a minority of people who wanted that, but they got it—and getting rid of slavery. Only a minority of people was speaking up about getting rid of slavery, but it happened. I think the Catholic Church and faithful Catholics are the last remaining cohesive moral force in our country. And the fact that the church will not bend to reigning cultural mores is her strength. Right now, she’s being violently attacked for it, but reality always wins. If there is a God, he knows the best way to live, and even the densest people will eventually see that the church has something to say about it—I hope.

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

I don’t know if I have favorites, but there a couple that shake me up. One is in Luke: When I return, will I find any faith on the earth? Another one (Matthew 12:26) really applies to me and keeps me focused: You will be held accountable for every idle word you speak.  

Who are your role models in the Catholic faith, either living or dead?

Peter Kreeft, I think he’s brilliant and a modern C.S. Lewis. Chesterton. I also want to say Father Larry Richards, a personal friend of mine, who is a godly man. He breaks the stereotype of piety: He’s outgoing, he’s definitely strong in his approach, and he shatters the image that Catholics need to have a certain temperamental piety.

How do you pray?

I’m not very good at praying for prolonged periods, so I try to pray in lots of bits and pieces throughout the day. I’m too distractible to hang with any kind of prayer for very long. If you totaled up all the Hail Marys and rosaries I’ve said over the years, I like to joke that you’d probably get a couple of good rosaries. Throughout the day I thank the Lord for different things, for just being to be able to walk, and I ask him to forgive me for acting stupid. That’s kind of my style.

Any final thoughts?

I can’t express my gratitude to God for being back in the church and producing whatever experiences I had in secular media and therapy that allowed it to happen. That’s completely his gift.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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