A couple weeks ago, Emma Smith, a young Catholic woman who is engaged to be married, wrote a piece at Catholic Exchange entitled "Marriage is Work". She frames the piece by recounting a conversation between co-workers about marriage. They talk about people they know who have cheated on their spouses or been cheated on, and conclude that marriage is pretty much a roll of the dice and perhaps a bad idea. The author remains quiet:
I didn’t think they’d understand that if I said, “my fiancé and I are never going to have that issue” that my statement would be one of fact and confidence, not one of blind love and young bravado.
I didn’t think they’d understand what I mean if I said “marriage isn’t just a luck of the draw. It doesn’t work like a lottery.” Because, to them, it does, while for me, I know that it doesn’t. Marriage isn’t a drawing of the straws, where if your spouse cheats on you, well, “sorry, you just drew the short straw. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it!” It’s not an institution where if you are a strong, happy, and healthy couple you’re just “the lucky ones.” It’s not an institution where the fates decide who “wins” and who “loses.” It’s not a promise you enter into like buying a lottery ticket – someone will win the jackpot while most people just buy empty tickets.
It is a foreign concept that one would be able to say with complete confidence “my spouse will never cheat on me.” And yet, I can say that. I can say that because I have a faith and a God who stand behind me in that statement. And I can say that because the love my fiancé and I share is not human, it is divine. We love each other because we love God and we have discovered that in loving one another, we get to love God more fully. Moreover, the love that we have for one another is divine in origin. God gave it to us at our baptism and it had a full 15-20ish years to grow and mature so that when we met, it blossomed.
We have a faith that can make these promises. Promises of faithfulness, love, commitment. Our faith allows us to make these promises because He who gave us love was faithful in His love until the end. He who originated love in our hearts died for us out of that same love. We as Catholics are granted the same strength of faithfulness to the end when we return our love to the one who is love. When we participate in making our love a sacrament, when we make a way for God’s grace to enter the world every day, when we demonstrate outwardly our inner devotion, we can say with full knowledge and confidence that we are not in a game of luck. We are in an institution of work and prayer, and we can rest assured that our success rests squarely on the shoulders of our prayerful work and the support of a God who made the universe.
Blessed Pope John Paul II is famous for his line: “man finds himself only in true gift of self.” If we only receive what we give away, then we must strive every day to give our hearts and our love back to Christ.
Giving a gift back doesn’t take luck. It takes work.
I think there's a mix of truth and starry-eyed youthful naivete in the piece, and it's drawn some criticism, notably from Simcha Fisher who wrote a response entitled "God is faithful, but we’re not marrying God."
[T]he confident if untried Emma Smith is right in sighing over the fatalistic modern view of marriage — right in condemning the idea that some people just get lucky, and there’s no way of improving your odds. But she is disastrously, innocently, offensively wrong when she thinks that we can somehow guarantee that things will turn out well, just because we intend to work hard.
Ever heard of Hosea’s wife? Ever heard of Israel? Ever heard of the entire human race? God knows that this is what happens when you enter into a marriage with another human being: one way or another, sooner or later, your love will be rewarded with pain. And I know this because I love my husband — my faithful, loving husband — and I’ve hurt him. I pray to God, and I hurt my husband. I understand marriage, I believe in marriage, I have spent years upon years working on my marriage, and I hurt my husband. And He forgives me, just as I forgive him.
I am glad that Smith understands so well that the grace of marriage is something that must be actively pursued, consciously acted upon. And I hope that her confidence in her husband is rewarded with unbroken faithfulness and love, and that she will not be shattered when she discovers that he does have flaws. I hope that people read her piece and realize that it makes sense to look hard for a spouse who is trustworthy.
But I hope to God she is never involved in any kind of marriage ministry — not with the childish understanding of marriage that she has now. What will she say to the woman whose husband is cheating? Or to the man whose wife won’t stay sober, or won’t stop gambling, or won’t stop browbeating him in public? What will she say to the spouses who do work hard, and have found themselves sinned against? Maybe “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how you could have worked harder to prevent this. Good marriages aren’t just a matter of luck, you know.”
And what will she say to herself when she finds herself sinning against her husband? Maybe she will not cheat, but oh, she will hurt him. She will. This isn’t a warning about your husband-to-be, dear confident, untried brides. It’s a warning about you.
Leticia Adams writing at The Catholic Stand is similarly unimpressed in a piece entitled "Marriage is not a Fairy Tale":
The common thing that I see among believers and unbelievers is the need to avoid pain. It’s what motivates people. “Happiness” is the carrot that is hung in front of us and the way to get “happiness” is to avoid pain. That is the trick of the devil. The only way to happiness is through pain, it is through resurrection, after the worst pain that life really begins. That belief is the center of our faith. That includes our life, our conversions, our marriages, our bodies, our relationship with Jesus, our friendships and everything else. Nothing can become holy without pain, death and resurrection. The more we avoid that fact the more we reject a Christ who was crucified, died, was buried and rose from the dead. That is our Christian faith.
It goes for marriage too. Catholics cannot go into a marriage thinking that there will be no pain. We are human, we sin, it’s how we roll. Then we have to reconcile ourselves to God through confession and mercy, and in marriage there has to be those same elements.
I am thirty-seven years old. I was thirty-four years old, divorced, been around the block and had four children on my wedding day and I thought that God would protect me from being hurt by my husband because of the grace of the Sacrament. I was wrong. I have hurt my husband deeply and he has hurt me. In fact, this marriage has caused me (and my husband) more pain that any other relationship ever has.
However, there is a grace in the Sacrament of Marriage that you can do nothing to earn. Sometimes that grace is the only thing you have when you are sitting in front of the tabernacle telling Jesus how much you wish you had never heard of Him because this whole Christian thing sucks and marriage is the worst part of it all.
It is grace that helps you get past the pain and get to marriage counseling. It is grace that helps you see the human being in your spouse and realize that his wounds are why he has let you down and not because you are not worthy of love. It is grace that helps you realize that God is faithful and His Love is where you go for the safety, security and the promise of not being let down. Your spouse isn’t God. Your spouse can not carry the weight that is intended to be carried by God. It’s that simple. Anytime you put that kind of expectation on a finite human being, you will be disappointed.
As I said, I find the original piece somewhat naive, but the pile-on against it is starting to bug me as well, because while I suppose people could accuse us of not knowing that much about marriage either (thirteen years and six kids isn't a lifetime) the "you and your spouse will constantly hurt each other" account of marriage does not resonate with me. We've experienced pain and frustration during our marriage: miscarriage, the breakup of my family through death and hers through divorce, the many difficulties and frustrations which can surround issues ranging from finances to child rearing to sex. But if there have been times when we have hurt each other purposely, they have been so small and so infrequent I can't think of them. And while we may occasionally hurt each other unintentionally, the fact that we know it is not intentional takes much of the sting from such occasions.
Now, don't get me wrong: I do not think that there is any guarantee that spouses will not intentionally (or unintentionally) hurt each other. Being Catholic, understanding some theological concept of marriage, loving each other: none of these impart impeccability. Anyone can sin. But you can also choose not to sin. That's the thing about sin, it doesn't just "happen"; you do it. Which means you also have the choice to not do it.
And while "being Catholic" -- whether by that one means simply being a baptized member of the Church, or being a sanctuary rat, or spending one's hobby time arguing about theological and liturgical fine points on blogs -- is certainly no guarantee that people will not sin, or will not sin in some particular way, even aside from the graces of the sacrament of marriage itself, one of the ways in which sharing a Catholic understanding of marriage is helpful to a married couple in being happy together is that it provides an shared understanding of what marriage is and what it is for. MrsDarwin and I are naturally well suited to one another, but another thing that aids us in a happy marriage is that we shared a deeply and clearly held understanding of what we were getting into by getting married. Not in the sense that we knew what would happen to us. There are lots of things about what it's like to share a house and a bed and a crowd of children that we didn't know when we got engaged. But we did understand the nature and purpose of marriage, and that understanding we share was one of mutual sacrifice and self gift.
We shared an understanding that love is an act of the will, not only something you feel in your heart (or your loins.) We shared an understanding that the purpose of marriage is to form a family together, not necessarily to experience ever increasing satisfaction and fulfillment. We shared an understanding that our actions matter, and thus that it mattered how we treated each other, even in seemingly insignificant ways.
Because we knew we shared a commitment to the same idea of marriage, I would have said then, and would still say now that I know MrsDarwin will never cheat on me. That's not a probabilistic assessment of the future or a claim to some magical foreknowledge. It is a statement of faith. Knowing MrsDarwin as a person, and knowing the ideals that we share, I have faith that she will never cheat on me.
In saying that, I know full well that MrsDarwin is a person with free will that allows her to betray that faith of mine. I'm not claiming that because I'm Catholic and hold certain beliefs that I deserve to have a happy marriage. But I do make this claim: to the extent that spouses act virtuously (and as a Catholic, I believe that the Church reveals to us what virtue is -- both through nature and through revelation) they will be happier than if they did not. To the extent that people share and strive after a correct understanding of virtue, they will be happier than if they did not.
It's worth distinguishing between two kinds of hurt in marriage. One kind of hurt is what I'll call external hurt: things that happen to us which cause us pain. A lost job. A lost child. An injury. The inability to conceive. Conceiving when it seems utterly overwhelming to have another child. There are any number of things which can happen to people sharing a life which are incredibly difficult. And most certainly, being a Catholic and trying to live according to a Catholic view of marriage will do nothing to prevent these things.
Another kind of hurt is what I'll call inflicted hurt: things that we do to each other that cause pain. Nagging. Browbeating. Cheating. Selfishness. Insulting. All the ways, great and small, that one person may hurt another by intentional act or omission. Now, if we think that the Catholic Church has an accurate understanding of marriage and of virtue, then I think that we have to say that if people are living according to that Catholic understanding of marriage and virtue, they will not do these things to each other. That doesn't mean that people who are Catholic won't do these things. But it means that doing these things is acting contrary to the Church's understanding of virtue. In other words: sinning.
If both spouses actually act according to the Church's understanding of virtue, they will be protected from inflicted hurt. The times when they inflict hurt on each other are those times when they do not live according to the Church's teachings. So when I say that I know that MrsDarwin will not cheat on me, I am saying that I have faith that she will live according to her belief that cheating on me would be wrong.
Indeed, I would say that the reason why a major act of inflicted hurt such as adultery is so damaging to a marriage is that it is important to maintaining a relationship to have faith that your spouse will not hurt you. It would be very, very hard to maintain a relationship with MrsDarwin if I could not say that I knew she would not cheat on me. If a couple can't say that before marriage, they better not get married until or unless they can resolve that issue. And if a married couple has reached the point where one of them can no longer know that the other won't cheat -- rebuilding faith in that relationship until that can be said again is going to be a key aspect of saving the marriage.
Holding the Church's beliefs about marriage (or any other topic) is not a magic talisman. It doesn't ward off catastrophes that may befall us, nor does it assure that people will live according to their stated beliefs. But our faith is also not irrelevant to our happiness in marriage. Our faith teaches us what marriage is and what it is for. It is a guide, and to the extent that we follow that guide, we will indeed be happier because we will be living more in keeping with the purpose for which we were created. I was struck the other day by a quote from a book on (what else) World War One that I was reading, and I think it's relevant to marriage as it is to other aspects of life:
"If God binds our wounds, he does not prevent them from burning. On the contrary, they are supposed to burn, but in feeling them burn we understand the meaning of our suffering." Marc Boasson, "Au soir d'un monde", 1916
Not reading this whole marriage tempest-in-a-combox has been the best thing that's happened to me since going off Facebook for Lent.
I think that we can speak with confidence about the possibility of fidelity in a marriage, because, although we have no guarantee of the future, we have the witness of the past and present. We draw on the examples of the saints as models of heroic virtue, and we look to them as proof that what seems impossible can be realized, and not just realized by the skin of our teeth, but in full, glorious richness. There have been saints in hard marriages -- St. Rita of Cascia comes to mind, or St. Monica. They were not defined or destroyed by their traumatic marriages. Examples of bad marriages abound, but good, faithful, virtuous marriages abound too, in all walks of life. Bob and Harriet. Frank and Dee. Jon and Mary Ann. Liz and Eric. Charlie and Charlotte. Barb and Mark. Jake and Christina. These are the merest fraction of the good marriages I've known, true examples of what it means to be faithful to one another in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, as long as they both shall live. If any member of these couples had predicted before marriage, as very likely happened, that the other would never cheat on them, they would have been right. They would have been right! So there is some measure in which it isn't presumptuous to state that your spouse, or fiance, will never cheat on you. In fact, as Darwin said above, if you can't say that with confidence about your fiance, it's time to reexamine the relationship before you make it permanent.
If I have to be honest here, though, let me say that I grow weary of reading articles and advice on marriage from kids who aren't married yet or have been married for two or three years (two whole years!). Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and the Church's teaching is right there for anyone to explicate, but the challenges you expect to face as a youngster or a newlywed are generally not the actual challenges of living out a marriage. Cheating is very dramatic, but takes a lot of effort that most people aren't going to expend. Much harder is the lifetime task of remaining faithful and charitable to your spouse in every word and every thought, in every conversation with friends and in every situation. Everyone knows, and rightly so, that the self-giving of sex can lead to heights of ecstasy, and that abstinence can be bitterly difficult. It's harder to foresee that in certain seasons, abstinence is the easier path, the cop-out, and that expressing love through sex, the making a free gift of one's body, without reservation, without the luxury of detachment, can be a crucifixion.
Crucifixion? Yes. Marriage is a crucifixion. It's total self-giving, which sounds romantic until you're actually having to to die to self. It's the death of selfish, and selfishness has a long, hard, painful death agony. It's wringing every last drop of mine out of yourself. Crucifixion is groaning, stretching, dying -- but it's not hell. And marriage doesn't have to be hell either.
That's because crucifixion is the opposite of hell. The crucifixion is a total act of love, love made so physically real that it can die to rise again. Hell is the absence of love. Crucifixion is the emptying of self. Hell is full of self, a suffocating overabundance of self feeding on itself. Hell is bitterness and recrimination, the nursing of deep wounds and petty scratches. Hell on earth has the potential to be Hell in eternity. Crucifixion on earth ends. It ends, and the end is joy. Julian of Norwich said that the pain of Christ in the crucifixion was the worst pain that could ever be suffered, but that the pain was completely overshadowed by the joy of Christ, because his pain was finite and his joy is infinite.
I will go so far as to say that in as far as a marriage on earth can be perfect, I have a perfect marriage. So far as men can be perfect, I think Darwin is perfect. I don't believe he's ever knowingly hurt me, and the few times when I have felt hurt have been not because he caused my pain, but because no person on earth, no matter how good, can stand in God's place and give total happiness. Part of the sorrow of this vale of tears is the realization of the limitations of this life, of how imperfectly even the most perfect are at doing good. The crucifixion of marriage is not caused by being nailed to the cross by your spouse (or by nailing your spouse to the cross either). The contradiction of crucifixion is that I nail myself to the cross. Jesus said that no one took his life from him; he laid it down willingly. And I will go so far as to say that there is no growth in marriage without crucifixion. The good times can be a deep source of joy, no doubt. Love comes in many forms, and many of them are pleasant. But unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains nothing more than a grain of wheat, and until spouses bury themselves in the deep trenches required to uproot selfishness, the marriage remains nothing more than shallow soil that can be blown away by the slightest disturbance.
And hey, I prefer the crucifixion of marriage to the crucifixion of the single life, no question. I'm going to die anyway. I'd rather do it with my own dearest one than alone. They say that the coward dies a thousand deaths, but that's not true: it's the brave that die a thousand deaths every day, and the coward who holds so tightly to his own life that he's only willing to die once. For myself, I need all the dying practice I can get.