Marriage essay 1: what’s marriage in today’s culture, and what do you think a good marriage is?

September 16, 2014 – 8:15 pm

My friend Abbee was excited to discover that I’m taking a 6-week course on Christian Marriage, help and asked if I could post my weekly essays — so Abbee, infertility this one’s for you. First essay topic: Marriage in the modern world. Yes, sales I know my citations are sloppy; it’s an informal essay for the class discussion, not a fancy thing for publication.

Ye Olde Standard Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about

I’ll open this essay with a disclaimer: I’m the youngest person (by far) and the only unmarried person in this class, so take these perspectives with a grain of salt. I am unqualified to answer questions like “What is marriage in today’s culture?” and “What do you think a good marriage is?” as anything other than a naive twentysomething who’s spent most of her life avoiding the topic (long story), but… here you go.

The purpose of marriage: a vocation that witnesses divine love to the world

Marriage is a vocation. If you’re called to marriage, that means that married-you is the best possible version of you – that your Maximum Love Throughput will come through having and loving a spouse and family and having your home be a “reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church to the world,” as Gaudium Et Spes says. If you are married, your marriage becomes the base station from which you get your superpowers.

This is hard. Gaillardetz describes marriage as entering “into the dying… of Christ,” which doesn’t sound like fun to me. All love comes intertwined with loss and sorrow; as Shakespeare’s sonnet 64 puts it, “we weep to have what we most fear to lose.” Whyte’s commentary on Shakespeare expands upon the topic: “All the most precious things in a human life are the very things to which we find it most difficult to make ourselves vulnerable and open. To feel a joy in life is also to know it is fleeting and will pass beyond our grasp.”

When I was a teenager, I was told that marriage was good because (1) it makes babies, (2) it stops the spread of STDs, and (3) it comes with legal benefits. Oh, and there was the whole “and because you love each other” thing, and the “God Said So” argument. I didn’t buy it. You can love someone without marrying them; we love our siblings and our friends all the time, but we don’t propose to them. “God Said So” seemed like an excuse not to think about it. Besides, in a world where medicine can produce children without sexual intercourse, where sex can happen without pregnancy and disease, and where we are steadily expanding legal rights to encompass all sorts of household relationships, why would anyone ever bother with this marriage thing in the first place?


Romantic misconceptions: why I thought marriage was stupid

One of my stumbling blocks was confusing “marriage” with “dramatic romance.” This “perfect mate myth” is a prevalent view among today’s young people; according to the 2001 report of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, 94% of never-married singles in their twenties agreed with “when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” Swooning maidens in Victorian novels and dramatic musical montages in romance films!  These all seemed silly. What a waste of time and energy! As a smart, independent teenage girl, I recognized that waiting for Some Dude to come around and fix my problems was far less efficient than just fixing them myself.

Because of what I was exposed to growing up, I thought that all relationships were either (1) weak excuses to have wistful, useless daydreams, or (2) duty-bound, woman-subordinating, drudging things with the occasional good moment. Neither seemed particularly worthwhile to me, so I came to the conclusion that romantic partnership and marriage and so forth were Not For Me, Thank You. As a consequence, my high school friends (and I) thought I was asexual. (We were very, very wrong — but that’s a different topic for another day.)

The friendship of marriage: the wonder of ordinary companionship

What did I want, then? Searching and prodding and friendship. Companionship on the difficult and worthwhile path to living fully and doing good and learning how to love. I wanted — and still want — that. I just didn’t know what that was called, or if it was even a thing. And then last week, I read Gaillardetz’s depiction of an alternate montage:

Scene one shows a couple herding children into the back of a minivan; scene two shows a woman paying bills at the kitchen table while the man washes dishes; scene three reveals a woman hauling in groceries from the car, while scene four shows a man trying to give cough syrup to a screaming three-year-old. In the final scene we see the couple, finally relaxing in bed, reading together. Soon they turn to kiss each other, turn out the light, and go to sleep.” — A Daring Promise

I didn’t know that was something marriage could be. Turns out there’s a word for it — “companionate marriage,” the sociological term for friendship in marriage. That’s what my heart aches for, way more than a dramatic scene under a balcony (yes, Romeo and Juliet has beautiful poetry, but really — those kids were just bad at communicating). Companionate marriage is the blessing and the wonder of the ordinary — the privilege of loving in the ordinary way, day after ordinary day. There’s a deep satisfaction in that sort of friendship, the notion of a work and companionship that suffuses your entire life. It’s an image of marriage that makes me think: “Yes, that would be worth it; how can I do that? Tell me more.”

Rejecting the “therapy” model of perfect expectations

The question of “how can I do that?” implies an attempt to do as well as possible, but it does not imply an expectation of perfection that can’t be upheld. One common sentiment on marriage is that you should find a partner who “meets your needs” and “gives you space.” Gaillardetz calls this the “therapy mentality,” and critiques it as unrealistic; a therapist is paid to do this work with you asymmetrically (you don’t counsel your therapist back) and occasionally (for short, occasional, and temporary time periods). “All good marriages meet some of our needs some of the time, but no marriage can meet all of our needs all of the time,” Gaillardetz points out. “…to the extent that our culture offers us models that lead us to expect as much, we will never be able to cultivate a fruitful lifelong marriage with another.”

Seeing and rejecting the “therapy model” of marriage is liberating. I no longer have the expectation that I have to be the perfect therapist, the constant need-meeter, the one who always has to drive and carry and make sure things are going to be all right. (In hindsight, Teenage Mel saw a lot of this broken expectation placed on married women, which is one reason she disavowed becoming one herself.)

Stepping away from the “therapy model” also frees us from a consumerist perspective which treats marriages (and spouses) as products with a certain feature set. Spouses aren’t cell phones. When next year’s model comes out and it’s shiner and sexier, we can’t just say “whoops, I’ll divorce you so I can go get that upgrade.” That’s no way to treat someone, and no way to be treated.

Meeting each other’s needs: becoming training partners who always keep trying

Now, this does not mean that spouses shouldn’t try. Husbands and wives should absolutely strive to serve each other, meet each other’s needs, and give each other room and encouragement to grow; they absolutely should. Love is shown in service and in action. But to say we fail and have a “bad marriage” unless we do that constantly, unrelentingly, 24/7 for decades on end without a single slip-up, regardless of how tired, sick, burdened by outside factors, etc. we become… is to pretend that we’re perfect, inhuman beings. That’s always a setup for failure. We can and should always try, but we also need to recognize we’ll fall short and be shortchanged in our turn, despite how hard we try to love each other, and so we also need to constantly forgive, and there will be that recognition of our mutual humanity and an encouragement to deepen within it.

A Daring Promise describes husbands and wives as “more than the source for the fulfillment of our needs and desires — our spouse is also the mysterious “other” who cajoles and sometimes demands our growth.” To me, this is like two training partners working towards a marathon together. Yes, they should always run their fastest and encourage each other to perform their best — but this includes stopping to rest when someone’s out of breath, and getting a sprained ankle splinted and through physical therapy, and readjusting when someone catches a cold, or when it’s pouring freezing rain, or whatever things life throws at you. You adjust together and do the best you can, and recognize that your success lies in the discipline of doing the best you can — not running a 6-minute-mile pace for 20+ miles every day for years with a perfect unbroken record, because humans can’t physiologically do that. Life will happen, and to be successful, we have got to be okay with that and able to adapt.

And this is painful. Once again, this change — and supporting this change in our partners — is painful. Whyte describes the agony of this sort of work in a passage that struck me so hard that I’ll just reproduce it here in its entirety:

“ To find our partners’ desires, we must sustain a conversation with them that helps to bring those wants and desires to light. Sometimes we have to do this even when they are afraid of discovering them themselves. The deep, abiding fear is that we will stumble across the desire in them that wants a life different from the one we are capable of giving them. Essentially, we are afraid that they may find that their desire is to love something or even someone else – one of the most painful discoveries a partner can make. The crux then, the most difficult ground in the relationship, the portion of a relationship that elevates it to the level of a religious discipline or practice, is that I must “love,” must see the very part of my partner that could take this person away from me. I must keep contact with the part of the person that is pulling him or her into the future, though I risk not participating in that horizon.” — The Three Marriages

I understand why people would want to be able to receive and give this sort of support, and if one finds it within a marriage, I understand why marriage would be “worth it.” However, I couldn’t figure out how this was humanly possible.

How is marriage possible? Answer: it is both human and divine.

Well, I was right. It isn’t humanly possible. But that’s what blows my mind about the Sacrament of Marriage. After this week’s readings, I understand it — dimly, vaguely, but in awe — as a Love Transplant. In marriage, God takes human love and replaces it with divine love — which gets a little logically loopy, because God is love.

But that’s what happens; Love himself becomes the heart and center of your marriage; Love himself becomes the thing that holds the two of you together. Not feeble human will, not temporary human feeling. And not the watered-down variant of “love” that only has surface expressions of hearts and flowers. Love. The kind of love that leads people to sacrifice, even die for each other; the kind of love that keeps vigil in a hospital in the middle of the night and scrubs toilets in double shifts to send a child to school. Gaudium Et Spes says that “such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives.”

By having that love pervade our marriages and lives, the nurturing and healing of relationships and the rearing of children become topics we can serve as witness to and things we can concretely help others with, because we share them. Marriage is also a secular institution, so it is common ground for those of all faiths — and of no faith. Secular marriage can point towards sacramental marriage, which always points to Christ/Love/God. However, being in the world and of the world can make it easy to forget that marriage is also divine. Hearing so many conflicting messages on “marriage” from the society around us can cause us to question the accuracy of our compass. Standing up for the truth can cause us to be labelled as intolerant and exclusionary — and I have personally been frustrated by the ignorance and intolerance of Catholics and Christians who condemn LGBTQ people (which is totally against Church doctrine, by the way) and don’t have an understanding or a sympathy towards alternate perspectives and family arrangement — and the very, very real love that lives within them. I’m hoping we will wrestle with these topics later in the course.

But I digress. The beauty of marriage is that you commit to loving someone forever — and that you’re given the grace to do that. It’s possible to do that. You don’t love them for the things they do, or even the qualities they have — you love them for who they are, as who they are, simply because they are. You love them for their sake, because they’re there for you to love, and you have chosen to love them. With all the difficulties that inevitably come up in life and in any relationship between people — how easy it is to get frustrated or annoyed or angry, how fragile these bonds sometimes are — it astounds me that us human beings are given the privilege to make that choice and the grace (if we ask for it) to keep it. I am awed that we can choose that, and I… think that it would be… a real honor to do so.*

*while still keeping in mind that it would also be a real honor to have either of the other two vocations (single life and religious life). God calls you where you’re going to be the happiest, and all that.

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  1. 2 Responses to “Marriage essay 1: what’s marriage in today’s culture, and what do you think a good marriage is?”

  2. “If you’re called to marriage, that means that married-you is the best possible version of you… If you are married, your marriage becomes the base station from which you get your superpowers.”

    I think sometimes that modern western religious thought on marriage has diverged both from history and “the wonder of ordinary companionship.” Most people experienced marriage as a right of passage into adulthood. They did their best with the person with whom they found themselves. Sometimes it worked out amazingly; other times it didn’t. In either case, nobody expected them to be _friends_ with the person. They found friendship wherever they could, but worked together with their spouse to support their lives and raise their children. In that process, one has the opportunity to experience “the wonder of ordinary companionship” — which doesn’t _have_ to be anything more than the feeling one gets with an effective and amiable coworker over time. It’s awesome if it _is_ more, but if it’s not, that doesn’t need to reflect poorly on the family in question.

    It’s great than all those encyclicals brag up marriage. It’s certainly much better than Paul saying “you might as well get married so you don’t burn” (which I imagine is Paul being jealous because he was so busy studying that he didn’t have any of those burn-worthy experiences!). On the other hand, I worry that it’s also setting up excessive expectations — just in a different way. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like it hints at a different form of patriarchy or “nuclear family – archy” — where the couple is expected to get everything they need from within their tent, and not have any relationships outside that enrich and strengthen them. Compare medieval and pre-20th-century religious discussions of friendship — say Aelred of Rievaulx, or even some things that Cardinal Newman wrote of his beloved friend. That kind of stuff doesn’t feel OK anymore if we’re supposed to be getting all of those superpowers from the marriage. Furthermore, people these days are embarrassed to admit that, so instead of finding compansionship by getting closer to their friends — and letting their marriage get stronger by finding its natural setting of closeness — they get all bitter and alone, and take it as a personal failing. “Perfect marriage” is exactly “the wonder of ordinary companionship.”

    Anyway, that was a bit of a rant! Hope it’s not excessive :-)

    By Mark Hoemmen on Sep 16, 2014

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