There's no better day than Mother's Day to consider an age-old question: Can marriage make you happy?

The answer is No, according to the American Psychological Association, whose 15-year study of marital satisfaction — which surveyed some 24,000 married people — made the headlines in many news outlets in March.

The single most talked-about finding: Most newlyweds experience a brief emotional “bounce” after their wedding — only to return to the same emotional state they were in before they stepped up to say “I do.”

This should come as no surprise to Catholics. After all, the Church's idea of marriage is that God designed it not to make people feel happy — but, primarily, to call them to participate with him in the creation and stewardship of new life. And this, say Catholic marriage experts, can help people feel fulfilled.

Happiness vs. fulfillment in marriage: Do Catholic couples know the difference?

Some do, but many Catholic couples do not understand marriage as a calling, says Father John LeVoir, who counsels engaged couples at his parishes, Holy Trinity Church and St. Augustine in South St. Paul, Minn.

“Fulfillment is a beautiful word to describe the sacrament of marriage,” he says. “Marriage doesn't bring the happiness that the world brings. It brings a Christian joy and peace to life because you know you're doing what you're called to do, and nothing compares to that.”

Father LeVoir uses Pope John Paul II's theology of the body as the basis for his counseling. He has co-authored two books on the subject, Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage and Family in the Modern World (Ignatius, 1992) and Faith for Today: Pope John Paul II's Catechetical Teaching (Doubleday, 1988).

The love of God is “a permanent love, a faithful and fruitful love,” he explains, and the love in a marriage should reflect that — exclusively with one spouse for life and open to life. “I always tell couples, ‘You're going to be living a countercultural life. But you're going to make it because Christ is there, you've built your house on rock, and you've got a call to fulfill.’”

That's not to say that Catholic couples, like all others in today's culture of rights-assertion and self-seeking, don't have their work cut out for them.

In fact, surveys during the last 40 years have shown a decline in happiness among all married people, according to the National Marriage Project, a think tank at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J.

Dave Popenoe, Rutgers professor of sociology and co-director of the project, says marriage has dissolved from a respected social institution upheld by economic, legal and religious components to a private agreement based on feelings and emotions.

Fueling the decline is the practice of cohabitation, whose basic ingredient is a lack of commitment. This, says Popenoe, “has made a mess of the dating scene; it's given men a free ride while leaving women disenfranchised. People can't depend on relationships anymore and there's not enough holding marriages together in the sense of obligation and calling to make it fulfilling.”

Sacrifice that Satisfies

The Christian family, though always countercultural, is vital to a modern civilization whose foundation was Christian to the core, says Register columnist Jennifer Roback Morse, author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence, 2001).

In apostolic times, she points out, Christianity transformed the family. Where Western pagans had thought of the family as essentially being under the ownership of its father or highest-ranking male, Christians redefined it as a relationship of generous love and sacrifice. The appeal of the Christian way for all involved was one reason the faith eventually blossomed where paganism had flourished for so long.

Then, too, in Christianity lifelong monogamy was the norm. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life” (No. 1603).

Today, however, the traditional message of Christianity has become almost incomprehensible to a society that, for the most part, is politicized and commercialized. If people are to understand the vocation of marriage, “layers and layers of rubbish have to be swept away,” says Morse.

“The idea of individualism is so embedded in our culture that understanding interrelationship is all but impossible,” she adds. “People view it in terms of commerce, ‘What's in it for me,’ like you would look at a new car. If it doesn't work out, you exchange it for a new one.

“People are so afraid of being taken advantage of that they're reluctant to give of themselves. If we are really confident of our ability to take care of ourselves and our own needs, we don't have to be afraid of being consumed by another person. Generosity is a sign of interior strength.”

Morse believes society is confusing freedom and autonomy. It has created a whole new definition of freedom to mean that one is completely unencumbered by human relationships, which bring about discomfort and fear. The attitude, she says, is that we are only free if no one is in a position to make legitimate demands upon us — and no one is in a position to hurt us.

“That's why we fear dependent people, such as children and the disabled,” she says. “That's why women continue to work [when they] would really prefer to be home with their kids. All of this is based upon fear, not love. I think a lot of people are undermining their own marriages by their fears and by a lack of trust in each other.”

Contentment

Catholic observers agree, as well, that our society cannot disregard the toll taken by its contraceptive culture.

The current generation of young people is having a harder time and taking longer to get from adolescence to adulthood, according to a March 23 report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In what the reporter termed the “quarterlife crisis,” many young people are experiencing paralyzing angst over what to do next with their lives. The urge is to keep open all options and choices as long as possible; this leads to protracted foot-dragging, which is often enabled by unprecedented affluence in parents’ homes and sustained by unrealistic expectations for careers, relationships and quick wealth. In this cultural climate, many, if not most, young adults appear reluctant to commit to a career — let alone to marriage and children.

The Star Tribune article concludes that the biggest single enabler of the mass procrastination is the birth-control pill. “[The pill] meant that people didn't have to get married anymore to start a regular sex life,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, in the article. “That opened up that period from the late teens to the mid-20s, where they're free and unfettered.”

There is an appeal to perpetual adolescence and its qualities can be found even in “married singles,” says Morse. She uses the term to refer to couples with no children who pay their bills and go to work but put off starting a family — sometimes indefinitely.

The reality, she adds, is that “reproductive freedom” is not so much about independence and autonomy as it is about fear — “fear of relationship with the child and the other parent, fear of intimacy, fear of the responsibility for the care of a dependent child.”

Still, despite all the negatives, there are encouraging signs of hope for married life. As Popenoe points out, not only has the divorce rate stabilized, but there is also a national movement under way to promote the benefits of marriage to society. Political pressure is mounting to enact a marriage amendment that recognizes marriage as only between a man and a woman. And organizations such as the National Marriage Project are adopting and promoting education and marriage-preparation programs similar to those embraced by the Catholic Church.

And Father LeVoir reports a greater faithfulness among engaged couples today, combined with an openness to natural family planning. “They're listening to the Pope's theology of the body,” he adds, “because it makes sense to them.”

“John Paul says the complementarity of male and female is an invitation to all human persons to actively participate in creative and faithful love,” says Morse. “This is a very uplifting vision of what our marriages can be.”

And what is that? In a word: fulfilling.

Familial fulfillment — the ultimate Mother's Day gift. For Dad as well as Mom.

Barb Ernster writes from

Fridley, Minnesota.