Staying Married: Getting Past the Honeymoon Hype
Christian marriage is a lifelong commitment oriented to God. If you’re thinking about marriage, consider how to identify a worthy Christian spouse — then, become that person.
That I may love her with the perfect love of a perfectly whole heart,
Cause me to love Thee more than her and most of all. Amen. Amen.
~ Temple Gairdner
I’m standing in front of, say, a dozen masked high-school juniors, and there’s another half-dozen or so watching the live stream from home. It’s Catholic education, pandemic-style, and I’m a guest speaker in Mrs. Meyers’ Sacraments class — actually, all her afternoon classes, and this is the last.
“So, why do people get married?” It’s an appropriate opener since I’m there to talk about the Sacrament of Matrimony. “And, look, I know this is a Catholic religion class, but don’t get all pious on me. Why does anybody get married, Catholic and non-Catholic?”
A hand eventually goes up. “Love” — the expected first response. Yes, and next? “Commitment,” and then, “companionship” or “partnership.” Also, good answers. Eventually, a wise guy chimes in: “Tax benefits,” he grins. Actually, another good answer, which I duly affirm with an indulgent smile. Then, a pause. Someone ventures, “Kids?” You bet — the “supreme gift of marriage” (Gaudium et spes 50), to be sure. I click up a photo on the screen behind me. “Here’s my seven ‘supreme gifts,’ but it’s also an image of my whole marriage.” I note that, while my wife and I aren’t in the photo, we’re still very much represented in our offspring. “Kids incarnate married love, you see. As a priest-friend of mine says, children are the embodiment of the ‘two become one’ idea from Genesis and Jesus.”
As that notion settles in, there’s another awkward pause. “What else?” I ask.
Nobody wants to say it out loud — it’s a Catholic religion class, after all, and I’m a guest speaker. “C’mon, you guys. What’s directly connected with ‘Love’ and ‘Kids?’ Just say it.” Most the time, it’s one of the students watching anonymously from home that eventually finds the courage. “Sex!” rings out, loud and clear.
“Right!” I respond. “It’s not the main reason people get married — especially these days when too many people have sex without getting married — but it’s certainly part of what’s good about marriage. And God made sex to be good, in part, because it leads to more kids.”
After that quick review of the natural goods of marriage, I bring them back to the task at hand. “All right, given all that, why did Christ raise Matrimony to the dignity of a sacrament?” Not every major life choice is associated with a sacrament — there’s no special liturgy, for example, for a new job or cross-country move. Marriage is different, of course — a holy crux, a “your life will never be the same” moment, and so the Church marks it with ceremony and ritual and public celebration.
But ultimately, it’s a sacrament because you’ll need supernatural help to accomplish it! It’s hard, hard work, and I urge the students to ignore the rom-coms and TV shows and carefully-crafted social media posts that would have them think otherwise.
Yet, there’s one more point to underscore. “So, what’s it for? What’s the love and companionship and shared expenses, the sex and kids — what is it all oriented to?” Someone pipes up, “Happiness!” Indeed, our happiness, but what kind? Here the class recalls the concepts Mrs. Meyers has been emphasizing all semester. “Eternal happiness,” someone says, or simply, “God.”
Exactly. Marriage, as a sacrament, helps us get to God — helps us on the way to heaven. If we shoot for less than that — mere temporal happiness, in other words — there’s a good chance we won’t find much happiness at all. St. John Chrysostom gives us a pithy summary of this idea:
If a man and a woman marry to satisfy their sexual appetites, or to further the material aims of themselves or their families, then the union is unlikely to bring blessings. But if a man and a woman marry in order to be companions on the journey from earth to heaven, then their union will bring great joy to themselves and to others.
In other words, the goal of marriage shouldn’t just be about companionship and material comfort, or sexual pleasure and the associated car-full (van-full?) of kids. All those represent a temporal happiness that’s good, but, well, “temporary” by definition: Humans die, or leave, or throw in the towel and divorce. Marriage — particularly sacramental marriage — is really about getting us ready and able to enjoy the Beatific Vision forever, to help us get holy, stay holy, and assist others (our spouses, our children) do the same.
But it’s not automatic — same as the other sacraments. They’re supernatural, not magic, and the abundant, real grace they bestow can only facilitate and bolster our own efforts to follow through accordingly. Chrysostom, commenting further on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, spells this out for us in no uncertain terms — and note that he especially calls out us guys:
St. Paul writes: ‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:22). Thus a good marriage is not a matter of one partner obeying the other but of both spouses obeying each other.
When the Apostle Paul says: ‘Husbands, love your wives,’ he does not stop at this, but gives us a measure for true love by adding, ‘as Christ loved the Church’ (Ephesians 5:25). And how did Christ love the Church? ‘He gave himself up for her,’ the Apostle says. So even if you must die for your wife, do not refuse.
Chrysostom, an Eastern Church Father, goes on to suggest that a “good marriage is like a castle,” which connotes the Eastern wedding liturgy’s literal “crowning” of the bride and groom. It’s a beautiful, moving symbol of the newly-married couple becoming as king and queen to each other in their own domestic kingdom — which, hopefully, will be populated by numerous loyal subjects in the years ahead.
But there’s another image associated with crowns — that is, the crown of martyrdom. Marriage is about sacrifice, and sacrifice always involves death: Somebody or something has to die or get destroyed, or there’s no sacrifice. And what gets killed in the martyrdom of marriage? Certainly not the personality or aspirations or character of either or both parties to the marriage. Instead, as Chrysostom and Paul teach us, what gets killed is selfishness, ego, and any thought that it’s about you — “it” being your marriage itself, not to mention the children God has blessed your marriage with.
To help the students visualize this, I bring up a comic on the screen: “The Six Stages of Marriage” from Pearls Before Swine. It succinctly captures so much marital wisdom — see if it resonates with your experience. Like, look at those newlyweds in the second panel. Remember that? It’s the honeymoon “haze of happiness,” and there’s no denying it’s a good thing. The young lovers are finally married, and they have a glorious life together ahead of them! The sun sets; the music swells; the kiss. Ah, it’s the stuff of tearjerkers — pass the Kleenex (sniff, sniff), it’s so, so marvelous!
The rub, of course, is that this honeymoon phase doesn’t last — it was never supposed to! Yet, Hollywood and popular media are bent on pushing the idea that it will last forever … or should, anyway. That’s why so many folks are surprised when they get to panels 3 and 4 — the “you’re not as great as I thought” stage, swiftly followed up by the “you need to be changed” stage.
Then, the hammer falls in panel 5: “You can’t be changed!” It’s a sobering scene, but it’s the pivotal moment of every marriage. So many — too many — marriages don’t make it much past panel 4, let alone panel 5, and that’s why the divorce rate is so high. “Don’t be fooled into thinking you can avoid these stages,” I tell the Sacraments class. “Ask anybody that’s been married for longer than maybe 2 weeks — you’re no different. You’ll definitely hit these same stages with whomever you choose to marry, guaranteed! Expect it; get ready for it!”
I tell the students to determine right away, now, even before they’re engaged — or even dating anyone! — that when they hit the “need to be changed” and “can’t be changed” stages in their future marriages, they’ll hang on, honor their vows, and push through to panel 6: “I accept you as you are.” I love it that the comic’s sage insight clearly applies in both directions, husband and wife, but I especially appreciate that panel 7 features the widowed husband reflecting that his wife was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” I zero in on the male students in Mrs. Meyers’ class: “Regardlessof who you marry, and regardless of how bumpy things get, respect your vows — don’t be a cad! Don’t be a coward! You’ll never regret it.” Then I tell the girls, “And don’t settle, ladies! Find a guy you can really trust to live those vows, no matter what!”
Bottom line? Three takeaways for the high-schoolers. First, discern your vocation: “Do you even want this? Think about it, and discern your vocation — your calling, that is — to married life as if you were discerning a vocation to religious life or the priesthood.” The initial question to ask isn’t who to marry, but whether to marry. “As you’re growing into your teen years and twenties, you should be doing the math: Do I want what marriage is all about? Do I want the martyrdom and sacrifice? Do I want to die to myself every day, every moment, really, and live for others — for my wife, for my kids?”
If the answer is “No,” then skip getting married. Seriously.
Second, if you discern a vocation to Christian marriage, then construct a template for the kind of person you’d want to marry, a person to be on the lookout for — the qualities, virtues and characteristics commensurate with a lifelong commitment. “You need to be thinking way beyond just physical good looks, right?” I ask the students. “And way beyond wealth and cool factors. You need to be gauging whether that cute guy or that hot girl will help you get to heaven, will stick with you when you lose your job or become incapacitated due to illness, let alone when your skillfully veiled idiosyncrasies and annoying habits rise to the surface three weeks after your wedding day!”
Finally, and perhaps most important, I tell the class to “take that template you crafted, and apply it to yourself!” I urge the students to take a look in a mirror, a long, hard look — an interior look. “If you were someone of the opposite sex, would you want to marry that person looking back at you?” If the answer is “hell, no!” or even a tepid “well, I dunno,” then there’s work to be done.
At this point, I feel like I’ve oversold the “work” part of marriage, so I wrap up by adding that it’s all worth it — that marriage and family life, lived intentionally as a sacrament, as a heaven-bound camaraderie, as a dying to self in order to live for those dwelling in your domestic kingdom, is a tremendous joy and gift! Yes, yes, it’s hard work indeed, and even risky with no guarantees, but it’s well worth it. This, too, is affirmed by Chrysostom. Here’s his advice for how a groom should speak to his bride — and, most assuredly, vice versa:
Our time here is brief and fleeting, but if we are pleasing to God, we can exchange this life for the Kingdom to come. Then we will be perfectly one both with Christ and with each other, and our pleasure will know no bounds.
Discern a vocation to Christian marriage as a lifelong commitment oriented to God; consider how to identify a potential trustworthy partner to share that vocation; then, become that person. Follow these steps, and you’ll be much more likely to not only get married, but also stay married — for life, for love.