Some good advice mixed with questionable theology.
In A Nutshell
For Better?Forever contains some valuable advice for couples who desire a healthier, happier marriage. Gregory Popcak's emphasis on service as the primary expression of love in marriage is particularly good. His aids to understanding one's spouse, understanding vulnerability, enhancing communication skills, and using argument for the betterment of one's marriage are all highly beneficial. There are, however, some strange and highly questionable tenets proposed in this book. Several of these seem influenced more by modern psychology and popular opinion than Catholic Tradition, and yet Popcak boldly claims to be representing the Church in these matters. To make such claims, Popcak would need to offer more evidence that his personal thoughts and opinions are also those of the Church. Popcak does not offer much support, even for his more radical notions, and for this reason I cannot recommend this book.
As noted above, there are many valuable things to be gained from this book. Furthermore, Popcak is obviously devout - he appears to love the Church, the sacrament of marriage, and the family institution fervently. So why not recommend this book wholeheartedly?
There are a few points in this book where Popcak seems to depart from the traditional understanding of Catholic marriage. These objections may appear petty considering Popcak's sincere devotion to the Church, but Popcak presents his opinions as though they were essential aspects of a woefully misunderstood traditional Catholic view, which they are not. Moreover, mistaken opinions, however sincere, are not free from harmful ramifications. Let us examine a few.
Perhaps the most pervasive error found in For Better...Forever is that Popcak appears to reverse the primary and secondary purposes of marriage. In the introductory chapter he writes, "There is only one reason for marrying that guarantees the lifelong happiness and relevance of marriage, only one reason that even comes close to addressing the true meaning of a Christian marriage ? the real function of a Christian marriage is for a husband and wife to help each other become the people God created them to be" (pg. 19). In truth, the primary function of a Christian marriage is the procreation and education of the young. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory" (CCC 1652). Guadium et Spes continues, "Hence, true married love ...without diminishment of the other ends of marriage [is] directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the Creator and Savior, who through them will increase and enrich his family from day to day" (GS 50). A distinction between the primary and secondary ends of marriage is also found in The Catholic Encyclopedia. "Marriage is that individual union through which man and woman by their reciprocal rights form one principle of generation ? It is sacred, being intended primarily by the Author of life to perpetuate His creative act and to beget children of God; its secondary ends are mutual society and help, and a lawful remedy for concupiscence" (http://www.NewAdvent.org/cathen/09699a.htm). Certainly Popcak acknowledges and praises the procreative function of marriage but he appears to claim that mutual help, and not procreation, is the primary function of marriage. Mutual help, even for the sake of salvation, is necessarily a secondary function of marriage as this help can be found also among friends or even between brothers and sisters. The twin siblings, Saints Scholastica and Benedict, are a fine example of this. The procreative function, however, is the unique property and privilege of marriage and is, therefore, the primary purpose of marriage. Surely this purpose, performed in Christian charity, has more to do with the happiness, relevance, and meaning of Christian marriage than Popcak allows.
Secondly, Popcak writes under the subheading Learn to meet your own needs, "In order for love to blossom in your marriage you have to rout out your dependency. What do you rely on your mate to do for you that, at this point, you are unable to do for yourself? Earn a living? Clean house? ? Learn to do these things as best you can. If you need more schooling, get it ? Need chokes off love. If you want love, you must stop being so needy" (pg. 56). This concept is surely a popular notion, but is it a Catholic one? One would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in Catholic tradition that a wife must strive to be able to earn a living apart from her husband if she wishes to be loved by him. Need, in and of itself, does not choke off love. When God looked at Adam in the garden of paradise and said, "It is not good that man should be alone," He expressed that Adam had a need-a need that was filled by a woman, Eve. This need did not choke off Eve's love for Adam nor did Eve's need for Adam choke off his love for her. Rather, their need for one another was a source of their love and unity, and the same is true for all marriages. Certainly, laziness and ingratitude choke off love but need does not.
Lastly, throughout For Better?Forever, Popcak presents chaste married love as the most pleasurable sex there is to be had. There is something true to this, but Popcak goes a bit overboard and seems to be trying to "sell" chastity to a pleasure-seeking world under this guise. One problem with this is that married love is only chaste when pleasure is not the primary aim. To "package" married chastity in this way is something like trying to convince a greedy man to practice charity by telling him that it is the best way to get rich quick. Yet another problem with this presentation is that chastity is not always as exciting as Popcak would have us believe. Most couples would say that, as the years goes by, married love becomes something more of a mutual comfort than the intoxicating experience that Popcak describes. Indeed, if married chastity were as thrilling as Popcak claims, the world would have discovered this for itself long ago and there would be no need for Popcak to popularize it.
Readers might find Popcak's attempts at humor annoying and rather juvenile - he actually titles one chapter Holy Sex, Batman! (or Why Catholics Do It - Infallibly). This presentation is highly inappropriate for the topic he treats. If Popcak wishes to communicate the sacramental aspects of sex, he should not profane it in this silly manner. Furthermore, Popcak publishes, in this book, highly personal information about his own sex life - going so far as to include a prayer that he composed for use when making love to his wife. This kind of information is not necessary to accomplish his aims and may even work against them. The mysterious quality of married love and its highly personal value rightly incline married partners to guard it from the public eye.
As mentioned above, there is much of value in this book. The chapters on effective communication and healthy arguments are particularly good. On account of the error and poor taste contained in this work, however, I cannot recommend it.