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A Psychological Interpretation of Genesis 2:24
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he begins with Genesis. What better way to tell the story of what it means to be human then to start at the beginning. In the Creation account, it is revealed that man was not meant to be alone, and God created a suitable helper for him. The relationship between the man and the woman was designed to be one of mutuality and complementarity. There were significant differences, yet they existed in harmony and complemented one another.

One of the goals of Christian marriage is to rediscover that original unity between Adam and Eve, through sacrifice, self-gift, and a shared movement toward holiness. Yet often, couples find themselves feeling isolated and alone, experiencing solitude and even despair within their relationships. The idea of marital unity can seem so far off, like a distant dream, when the day-to-day interactions are grating.  In Love & Responsibility, Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) wrote:

True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person, — that in which a man chooses a woman or a woman chooses a man not just as a sexual partner but as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life. It is put to the test most severely when the sensual and emotional reactions themselves grow weaker, and sexual values as such lose their effect. Nothing then remains except the value of the person, and the inner truth about the love of those concerned comes to light. If their love is a true gift of self, so that they belong, each to the other, it will not only survive but grow stronger and sink deeper roots.  Whereas if it was never more than a sort of synchronization of sensual and emotional experiences, it will lose its raison d’etre and the person involved will suddenly find themselves in a vacuum.

Ideally, when a man and women enter a marital relationship, they are doing so freely and are able to make a full gift of themselves. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body, in order to give yourself, you must first have some sense of self-ownership.  

Some psychologists like to focus on “the unconscious” in their work and believe that the goal of individual therapy is to bring the things that are outside the person’s awareness into view. These are the therapists that like to ask, “so, tell me about your mother…” There is a sense that if we can become more aware of our true intentions, motivations, and desires, we can make more informed decisions and increase ownership of our choices. To uncover the truth about ourselves, we go back to the beginning, to our origin stories.

When we carry unresolved pain from our past in our unconscious, we can react to our current relationships and life events from a place of fear and self-protection without even realizing it. There is a defense system in place to keep negative past experiences from recurring. It is a very natural process. As a kid, you touched the stove and found out that it burns, and you will never touch it again… In our interactions with our parents as children, we were constantly using them as a sounding board, taking in and adapting to their feedback, and learning how to be. Our parents were not perfect people and sometimes their reactions were not the most reliable. In such cases, we developed beliefs and reactions that may have helped us navigate childhood, but do not generalize well into adulthood. The journey of self-mastery involves untangling the past from the present, recognizing when we’re reacting based on our history instead of the here-and-now. In order to be fully present to the person in front of me, I need to see the reactions that are coming from my own unmet needs or history and make a conscious choice to reorient myself to the person before me. It is a brave and difficult thing to explore some of the dark corners of your story, but once illuminated the fear no longer reigns.

So what does all this have to do with Genesis 2:24? My working theory is that most marital conflict is rooted in an inability to see past an original wound and truly orient to the other person. Maybe I’m reacting to something my spouse said and interpreting it through a lens colored by my past experience.  That coloration, while true to my experience, may affect my ability to see my spouse’s intentions clearly or interpret them accurately. I’ll give you a personal example. My dad was not around very much when I was young.  That generated an assumption in my mind that men are naturally selfish. For a longtime, I had no idea that I even had that assumption, never mind that I was using it to interpret the behavior of all the men in my life.  You can imagine how that filter might affect my interpretation, in moments when my husband would choose to do something for himself, instead of for our family. Thankfully, I’ve learned to identify when that thought-train is leaving the station and choose to reorient myself to my spouse ­– who by the way is incredibly devoted to family – and see that in the moments he’s choosing something for himself, it’s to replenish and rest, to make himself more available to us in the future. What a different reality! So, I like to think that to leave the father and mother and cleave to the spouse, can speak to that process of untangling the past from the present, ultimately restoring the freedom needed to fully commit to loving the person before me in the present moment.

Bringing John Paul II into Couples’ Communication
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

One of the reasons I am excited to be a part of the RWPS team is our commitment to making the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body more accessible. One area in which we do this is in marital therapy. 

Couples experiencing marital distress are almost always struggling with a breakdown in communication. One or both parties feel misunderstood, and they often find themselves in a power struggle. When couples get locked into these cycles of interaction, they lose sight of their shared humanity, and the love they have for one another. Each person digs their heels into their own individual experiences and demands authority. Many times, the desire for power or authority comes from a deeper desire to be known, heard, and understood at the heart of which is a longing for closeness and a fear of rejection or abandonment. When working with couples who run into these struggles, I often provide this analogy: 

Imagine you and your significant other are standing at the top of a long driveway at dusk. You can’t quite make out what’s happening at the bottom. You see two figures walking past the lamppost and share your observations with each other. One of you sees a couple on a nice evening stroll, the other fears someone is being stalked and in danger.  The two of you argue about who is right, adamant about your observations and opinions. You stay at the top of the driveway and try to convince one another that you really know what’s going on down there. Yet, neither of you have enough information. If we strip away the power struggle, we might have a more balanced interaction. Instead of arguing about who is right, you might be curious about each other’s perceptions. When you seek to understand the other person’s perspective, you might learn that the one who feels fear was once assaulted from behind. The one who saw an evening stroll finds going for walks in the evening romantic. After learning about each other and why you see the world as you do, you might decide to get a little closer to find out what is really going on at the bottom of the driveway.  As you get closer, you could discover that you were both wrong, and it was your neighbor and his son walking their dog. 

In this event, there is an opportunity for the spouses to learn more about one another and their shared reality. One of the beautiful things about the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II is that he made space for subjective experience without denying objective truth. Some philosophies that aim to honor individual experience can go to an extreme and abandon the notion of an objective reality— we see this in the common phrase “follow your truth” and other mottos based in moral relativism. On the other hand, other philosophies are more rigid about following the rules and impose an objective framework that fails to take into account each person’s subjective experience.  Pope St. John Paul II found a way to recognize the both—and. He affirmed the unique experiences that form our individual thoughts, beliefs, and opinions and asserted that we are interacting with an objective, shared reality. We have a moral obligation to pursue truth and to refrain from treating others as an object, yet we also must respect and honor each other’s subjectivity. 

When we orient ourselves to the pursuit of objective truth — about ourselves and others — in a way that respects our subjective viewpoints, we can experience more harmonious relationships and experience more interior freedom and peace. As in the example above, instead of becoming entrenched in protecting one’s ego, defending oneself and one’s view as “correct” and alienating one’s significant other in the process, we can take a curious stance with oneself, one’s spouse, and the shared reality. In doing so, one might come to realize that, while one’s assumptions about reality were inaccurate, they were coming from a lived experience, thus not invalid. Becoming entrenched in one’s own view becomes problematic when one lacks insight into one’s perspective, presumes to have all the answers, cites assumptions as facts, and refuses to dialogue with oneself, others, and the world.   

If I am approaching a conversation with my husband looking for a certain response — perhaps I am looking for support, validation, or encouragement — and he does not respond in the way I expected, this can indeed be quite disappointing. I might spiral into thoughts about what this means about our marriage or become angry because I feel entitled to the response I wanted.  If instead, I have the awareness to recognize my need, see that I was treating my husband as a source of need-fulfillment, and instead seek to treat him as a person, this changes the dynamic. I can recognize my need, acknowledge my disappointment, and be curious about both of our reactions. I wish I was always able to “put my bags down” in conversations and focus on the good of the other, but sometimes it’s really hard. 

If you or your spouse is struggling to communicate, becoming overwhelmed with strong emotions in conversation, and is unable to be curious — it may be a sign of woundedness and a source of difficulty in your life. There is likely a lot of pain and suffering there, which deeply needs compassion. We are here to help.  By learning to understand yourself and your spouse more deeply, as well as healing underlying wounds that trip us up in our relationships, the RWPS team will walk with you as you seek the healing and growth in your capacity for love. It is also important to remain compassionate with yourself and your spouse through these struggles. We all struggle in our vocations and need the healing power of God’s grace and the support of others to live our vocations fully and faithfully.  In our struggles, we find the prayer of St. Francis a helpful reminder of our calling to seek the good of the other: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” 

 

Dr. Emily Dowdell, the Latest Therapist to Join the RWPS Team

We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Emily Dowdell to the RWPS team.  She brings with her an exceptional training background, solid Catholic formation, and unique clinical experience.  Dr. Emily will be seeing patients at our main office on the West Side of Cincinnati.  She recently sat down with us to share a bit about herself. 

Q:  Can you tell us about yourself?

I’m Dr. Emily Dowdell. I’m originally from Rhode Island, born and raised Catholic.  I am currently married with three boys under four years old.  I earned a bachelor’s degree in multimedia communications with minors in film studies and theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. After college, I returned to Rhode Island where I worked as a barista, rock climbing instructor, dog walker, trivia hostess, and freelance graphic designer while building my own wedding photography business. Just as my photography business took off and I had booked twenty-three weddings for the year, the Lord had other plans… He introduced me to the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University in Virginia. 

During my doctoral training in psychology, I worked in a variety of settings. My first experience was providing social skills training to youth and adults with severe autism in a community integration program. I then went on to work with adolescent girls, providing groups and individual treatment in a residential addiction program through Phoenix House. I spent a year focusing on diagnostics and assessments at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, a private psychiatric hospital in D.C.

For my internship and postdoctoral years, I was a fellow at Riverview Psychiatric Center the primary state hospital for the state of Maine. While there I had the opportunity to work with both civil and forensically committed individuals with more extreme psychiatric conditions. I facilitated groups, provided individual therapy, and offered psychological testing.

I went on to work with the CatholicPsych Institute in their Rhode Island office providing individual therapy and mentorship. There I became the Director of Assessments, offering psychological testing for diocesan and religious discerners.

Q:  What inspired you to become a psychologist?

I was fortunate to participate in Franciscan University’s study abroad program in Austria. While staying in an old Carthusian Monastery, I had the opportunity to study philosophy and travel to many spiritual pilgrimage sites. I learned about Pope Saint John Paul II’s philosophy of the human person that inspired Theology of the Body and read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Learning about the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God was huge for my own self-understanding in early adulthood. When I heard about the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at DMU and how their program is designed to integrate the science of psychology with a Catholic view of the human person, I was very intrigued. Finally, I had found an opportunity to learn how to help others learn about and cooperate with their innate dignity.

Q:  What does it mean to you to integrate the practice of psychology and the Catholic faith?

My faith informs everything I do and how I see the world. It’s important to acknowledge that every approach to psychology has philosophical roots and an understanding of what it means to be human at its core. The Catholic vision of the human person offers a more holistic foundation, incorporating the person’s mind, body, and spirit. I want to see and work with the whole person, so it gives me a more balanced perspective when one aspect of the person’s life is out of sync. When working with clients who are or have experienced significant pain and suffering, my faith provides meaning. It anchors the work and gives me the hope I need to continue moving forward. My faith provides me greater clarity, orients me, and gives me a framework to better understand my clients. I ultimately entrust the Lord with the care of my clients and pray that they are receiving what they need at this time to move forward, toward becoming who God made them to be. 

Q:  What types of patients and difficulties do you treat?

Over the course of my training and experience I have provided individual, group, family, and marital therapy. I am most in my element working with individuals (adolescent through older adulthood) as they navigate a variety of challenges including: depression, anxiety, grief and loss, adjustment related issues, post/peripartum disorders, relational issues, vocational and identity concerns, trauma-related disorders, substance use and other addiction, and personality disorders.

Q:  How would you describe your approach to therapy?

I approach therapy primarily from a relational perspective, meaning I focus on building a relationship with my clients. In terms of practice and conceptualization, I integrate different theories and tools from psychodynamic schools of thought (Nancy McWilliams, Lorna Benjamin, Peter Fonagy, Edward Teyber) and evidence-based treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness. Regardless of the specifics, therapy always comes back to the individual. As we build our relationship, we will establish goals, and I will select the most relevant approach that suits the person and his or her individual needs.

Q:  What do you like to do for fun? 

For fun, I like to spend time with my three kids and husband. We enjoy spending time outdoors together and going on little adventures. I also enjoy knitting.

To learn more or to make an appointment with Dr. Emily, please call 513-407-8878.

Meet Our Newest Provider: Rod Dunlap, M.A., IMFT

RWPS is excited to welcome Rod Dunlap, M.A., IMFT to our team. He comes to us with a wealth of experience in ministry and a passion for the Catholic faith, especially Theology of the Body. He will be seeing patients at our headquarters on the West side of Cincinnati. Rod took some time to introduce himself to our community through a little get-to-know-you Q & A.

Q:  Tell us a bit about yourself. 

My name is Rod Dunlap, and I was born and raised here in Cincinnati, OH. I graduated from Moeller High School and went on to Ohio University where I earned my bachelor’s degree in Sports Science. From there, I moved to Cleveland where I worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team for a season. It was during this time that I felt the Lord calling me to do something “more.” The idea of working for sports teams for a living felt like I was wasting the talents and gifts with which I had been blessed. I moved back to Cincinnati and took a job as a counselor at a group home for at-risk kids called Boys Hope, Girls Hope.

I spent almost seven years there, and it was during this time that I really encountered the Lord for the first time through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. His mercy was and continues to be so powerful to me. I told Him during this time that I would spend my life serving Him and “working” for Him. Shortly after this awesome experience, I began a graduate program at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Religious Studies. After two years, I graduated with my M.A. in Religious Studies, and a week after that, I got married to my amazing wife Maria!

A year later, I got my first job in ministry as a youth minister at St. John the Baptist parish in Colerain. I spent four years there creating junior high, high school, and young adult ministry programs. It was during my time as a youth minister that the Lord showed me so many people who were suffering and needed a path to healing. I soon began my journey to get my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. I was excited to begin this journey that would last 6 years. While working my way through clinical training, the Lord had more in store for me in ministry and called me to work for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, first in Sports Ministry then as the Coordinator for the Anti-Pornography initiative.

I finally graduated in 2021 with my M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy and shortly after became licensed in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. I began working for a private practice in Kentucky called Positive Pathways in Dec. 2021 up until I was invited to join the team here at Ruah Woods. I am excited about this opportunity and look forward to allowing the Lord to use me as his hands and feet to provide healing to those in need in our community.

Maria and I have been married 11 years now, and the Lord has blessed us with 8 beautiful children, one up in heaven, and 7 at home. Our faith is the foundation for everything we do. The Lord has been at our side through all the ups and downs, and we continue to go to Him with everything, submitting ourselves daily to His plan for our lives.

Q:  What inspired you to become a therapist?

I was inspired to become a therapist through a variety of factors. First off, people have told me throughout my adult life that I was a good listener, which is a huge requirement for an effective therapist. Secondly, for a long time I had an image of sitting in an office and people coming to me for help or guidance. I believe the Lord was putting this image on my heart. It wasn’t until my wife finally told me that it was time to start doing something about it that I took steps to make it a reality. And lastly, I know our world is full of suffering and that so many people are struggling with mental health issues and the stresses and strains of everyday life. My desire is to help remove some of these “roadblocks” as I like to call them so that they can grow in true health and have the relationship with the Lord He is calling them to.

Q:  What exactly is a “Marriage and Family Therapist”?

Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) are defined by the AAMFT as “mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems.” As an MFT, I am trained to look at people’s struggles through the lens of the relationships and social structures in which the person is situated and not limit my view to merely the isolated individual. Basically, MFTs believe that the problems people bring to therapy do not emanate solely from within them but are often symptoms of the relationships they have with other people.

Q:  What types of patients and difficulties do you treat?

I provide individual, marital, and family therapy. I feel quite comfortable working with children, adolescents, and adults struggling with a wide range of issues including depression and anxiety problems, trauma and abuse, childbearing loss, OCD & scrupulosity, pornography addiction, relationship issues, marital strain, parenting challenges, family of origin wounds, attachment problems, and the like.

Q:  What role does your Catholic faith play in your work?

My faith is the foundation of all that I do including my work as a therapist. Every day before work, I ask the Lord to use me as His hands and feet and to let the Holy Spirit speak through me to the patients that I see. I pray also for my patients that their hearts will be open each session so that they can be a willing participant in the healing process. I believe that healing can happen in many ways, and therapy is one of them. I am very humbled that the Lord has called on me to help others find healing and peace.

Q:  What do you like to do for fun?

I really enjoy spending time with my wife and our seven kids. Our life gets pretty hectic at times, so it is great to just hang out with them. I also enjoy swimming, hiking, camping, fishing, watching sports (live or in person), good movies, and playing golf.

To learn more or to make an appointment with Rod, please call 513-407-8878.  

Happy Birthday Papa
by Dr. Andrew Sodergren

This May 18th is the 100th anniversary of the birth of our beloved Pope St. John Paul II.  Typically, only people who have had a truly historic impact have their birthdays celebrated long after they are deceased.  John Paul II was one such historic person.  I would like to reflect briefly on some of the long-lasting impact he has had and will continue to have on the Church as well as some of the impact he has had on me personally.

For many younger people today, it is difficult to truly appreciate the immensity of John Paul II’s impact on the Church.  To put his pontificate in context, we have to recall the significance of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  Ecumenical councils are rare and only called when the Church needs to face major challenges in its mission.  Vatican II, as it is often named, was in many ways an attempt to bring the First Vatican Council to completion as it was cut short by the Franco-Prussian war.  The scope of Vatican II was immense:  nothing less than reexamining the relationship of the Church with the modern world.  As a newly ordained auxiliary bishop and later Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła participated in all four sessions of the Council.  His stature and reputation as an outspoken, courageous young bishop of immense intellect grew to the point where he was appointed to the committee that drafted what became perhaps the Council’s defining document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).  

Inspired by this experience, Archbishop Wojtyła became the only participating bishop to write an entire book summarizing the teaching of the Council and giving guidelines for its implementation (Sources of Renewal).  Not long after, Pope Paul VI named him a Cardinal of the Church, perhaps as a way of thanking him for his contributions at the Council and for serving as a key theological advisor in preparing the encyclical letter Humanae vitae (1968), which dealt with thorny questions concerning marriage, sexuality, and birth control and reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching that sexuality is meant to unite a man and woman in marriage and must always be open to life. 

It is difficult today to imagine the shock that the Church and even the world experienced when Cardinal Wojtyła was elected to the papacy in October 1978 and took the name John Paul II.  He was the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, and he hailed from – at that time – a communist country (Poland).   This alone would make his an historic pontificate, but it was only the beginning.  Whereas his predecessor, John Paul I, reigned for merely a month, John Paul II reigned for over 26 years, making his the third longest pontificate in the history of the Church.  He accepted his mission from Christ to serve as the Church’s principal interpreter and implementer of the Second Vatican Council as well as to lead the Church into the Third Millennium.  He did so with courage and faithfulness.

There is hardly an aspect of the Church’s life that was not impacted in significant ways by the teaching and leadership of this saintly Pope.  Under his guidance, the Church produced a new Code of Canon Law governing all major aspects of ecclesial life.  Later came the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal catechism since the Council of Trent.  It will remain for generations “a sure norm for teaching the faith.”[1]  Among his many gifts to the Church include is 14 encyclical letters, 14 apostolic exhortations, and thousands of speeches, audiences, and other documents.  His writings covered everything from the Persons of the Trinity; evangelization; the dignity of the human person; social issues such as the dignity of work, distribution of resources, and human rights; priests, bishops, consecrated religious, and the laity; marriage and family; the Eucharist; Mary; the rosary; sin, mercy, and reconciliation; fundamental principles for morality; and much more.  Incredibly, he canonized 482 new saints and beatified 1338 new blesseds.  He gave us the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary and instituted Divine Mercy Sunday.   Liturgically, he oversaw the reform of the reform, so to speak, which culminated in the publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal, which we use today.  Then, there is his pivotal role in the fall of Communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe.  The list goes on.

Of course, we at Ruah Woods are especially indebted to him for his Theology of the Body, which he gave to the Church at his Wednesday general audiences in the early years of the pontificate as well as the founding of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the Pontifical Council for the Family.[2]  These gifts were meant to help the Church proclaim the nature and dignity of the human person, love, marriage, and sexuality in these confusing, uncertain times. 

For me, personally, I regard myself as a “JP2 Catholic.”  I was actually born during the interregnum, i.e., the time between the death of John Paul I and the election of John Paul II.  I had little awareness or appreciation of John Paul II until, as a college student, I began to learn more about him and his teachings.  My wife and I were blessed to be taught by a priest who earned his doctorate at the John Paul II Institute as we were preparing for marriage.  We read John Paul II’s documents on marriage and family at that time and were taught aspects of Theology of the Body in class with other young people.  We fell in love with the Church’s vision for marriage and family as expressed through the Pope’s writings.  For me, it became my principal inspiration for becoming a Catholic psychologist.

In graduate school, I immersed myself in studying John Paul II’s teaching.  As an aspiring Catholic psychologist, I wanted to understand the human person as he did.  I studied all of his encyclicals and many of his other papal documents, books, and pre-papal writings.  I took graduate seminars on his thought, including Theology of the Body.  The more I read of his teaching, the more I wanted to know, and the more I fell in love with this man.  He became for me a spiritual and theological mentor.  Even more, as I read his thought, I felt a closeness to him.  He became a father-figure for me who was teaching me how to see the world, how to live, and how to be a Catholic man in the Third Millennium. 

Even today, I regularly read and re-read his writings for my own personal and professional enrichment.[3]  I pray to him daily, seeking his intercession to be the man, son, husband, father, and psychologist I am called to be.  He is my teacher, my guide, my father, and my friend.  For the last 10 years or so, I have been blessed to serve as an adjunct professor at the Washington, DC branch of the John Paul II Institute.  When I go to Washington to teach, I always make a visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine to visit the museum of his life and venerate his relic.  Those visits move me to tears of gratitude.  Truly, I would not be who I am today – perhaps not even Catholic – without the life, witness, and teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.  With deep affection, happy birthday, Papa!


[1] John Paul II, apostolic constitution Fidei depositum.

[2] The Pope officially founded these two new entities on May 13, 1981, the same day he was shot by his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.  May 13, of course, is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima who had given the three children of Fatima a vision of a pope being gunned down decades earlier.  John Paul II believed that he was saved by Mary’s hand.

[3] Currently, I am working my way through his general audiences from the years after Theology of the Body during which he gave a systematic catechesis on all the articles of the Creed.