Question 126



Today we have a real problem with marriage. Half of our marriages now end up in a divorce. This indicates that something is very wrong with the way we view marriage. We are not reaping the benefits of a stable relationship where the couple has lifelong security and the children have a place to grow up in a normal family with their own father and mother.

There are many advantages that flow from a marriage-for-life mentality. There are many serious disadvantages coming from an easy divorce mentality. Have you noticed that every young couple, when they are preparing for marriage, wants their marriage to last forever? They are deeply in love, and they want that love to endure for the rest of their lives. No couple takes the attitude: “This is a five year arrangement, and then we split.”

Children and family go together. A marriage is not complete until the love of a husband and wife ripens into fatherhood and motherhood. (Sterility is a real consideration today, but even then many of these couples opt for adoption.) Children are the natural fruit of marital love. But it takes at least 18-20 years to bring a child to that level of maturity when he or she is prepared to face life on his or her own. The child is God’s greatest gift to a couple and their marriage, but the child also requires unwavering commitment from his parents. For their emotional stability, children need parents whose marriage is tightly bound together. Children learn about the rich complimentarity between men and women by watching their parents as they pass through their growing up years. Children discover what committed love and marriage look like by the example their parents give. Indeed, it is in a strong, committed family where young boys and girls acquire all the natural and civil virtues they will need to become useful citizens.

The family antedates the state and society. The family arrived on the scene first. Only later did such human inventions as the governing state or community arrangements appear on the scene. Society and the state depend upon strong marriages and healthy families to provide them with resourceful and well-balanced citizens. Indeed, the health of a society depends upon the well being of its families and family life. Thus, society and the state have a natural interest in promoting an environment where strong marriages and healthy, happy families can flourish. The state exists for the family; the family does not exist for the state.

We see that everyone wants strong, committed marriages: the couples, the children, and society. Everyone wants this, but it is not happening. What is frustrating these natural desires?

Many things could be mentioned here: a turn towards absolute autonomy, a reluctance to deal with problems in a relationship and the temptation to run from them; self-love in preference to self-sacrificial love; lack of support from the churches, the secular media and the government …

We need to concentrate our attention more on why marriage, by its very nature, is for life and why it requires an unbreakable commitment between a man and a woman.

First off, we need to realize that we did not design marriage. The institution of marriage is greater than any of the couples who enter it. We do not design marriage; marriage designs us. Marriage has endured over the many centuries of human history, and it will continue on when we are gone. This is because God designed it, when He decided to create the human race, composed of men and women, as bodied persons, who are both sexual and fertile. Marriage is God’s plan for the vast majority of the human race.

This means that marriage has certain features, recognizable contours, a discernable nature that can be described by laws and principles. God has a plan for marriage, and that plan can be known, put into practice, and his plan can produce its benefits for everyone who abides by it.

Why is marriage a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman? The simple answer is that it takes a lifetime to fully realize the potential of a marriage. You cannot exhaust a marriage in only 10 to 20 years. At their silver anniversary, a couple should be entering into the best years of their relationship.

The more complex answer is that a permanent, irrevocable commitment is the only place where two entirely different people, a man and a woman, can pursue the tasks that every marriage contains. Any relationship presents problems. The deeper the relationship, the greater the potential there is for more complicated problems. Marriage is the most profound, and all-inclusive relationship we know. Two completely different persons, a man and a woman, with their unique personalities, their different set of talents, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, set out on a journey of life where there are no guaranteed outcomes. Marriage draws each partner into all the network of relationships associated with the other spouse. This is the perfect formula for guaranteed problems, challenges and frustrations. This is real life. This is what every marriage involves.

To live is to change, Cardinal Newman once said, and to be perfect is to have changed often. Every life sees many changes. In marriage, the couple multiplies that by two, because now they are involved with the “other self” as well as their own. A new problem, an unexpected change of events, a new pregnancy, a shortfall of income, successes, failures, … all these require patience and persistence. 

When a husband and wife are deeply committed to each other, to their marriage, and to their family, then they function in a framework where they can consistently and successfully address their problems. They know they can rely upon the other. They need not face the world alone. They draw upon each other’s strengths and protect each other’s weaknesses. They do not know exactly how the problem under consideration will be resolved, but they are certain that together they can handle it.

Marriage forces a couple to mature, to remove themselves from the center of the universe, and to find their true position in the human universe. They discover that real love means to serve, and not always to be served. They discover the true role that sex plays in their relationship. They progress away from an erotic, self-grasping love, and move towards an agapaic, self-sacrificing love. They soon learn that they have to make sacrifices, die to self, for the benefit of something greater than themselves, which is their marriage and their family. They learn that true happiness comes only from pursuing what is best for others, especially for their loved ones, instead of doing what is most satisfying for themselves. 

Marriage and family are the schools where everyone deepens in their humanity. No one is exempt from the demands of these schools. If they do exempt themselves, then they stunt their development as full persons, develop bad habits which become flaws in their character, and then carry these immaturities with them wherever they go for the rest of their lives. 

It is a good thing for couples to experience real problems in their relationship. Having a problem is a signal that something important is missing from the relationship, and it must be addressed and corrected. Real love does not demand perfection in the other; it only demands that a person tries his or her best to address the problem. In a successful marriage, couples do not defend their inadequacies, or pretend that they do not exist; rather, they address them and work with them. That is the normal way we grow into the natural virtues, which give meaning and satisfaction to this life. Problems force us to move beyond our present comfort zones, and aspire to higher levels of maturity.

Marriage is an irrevocable, indissoluble commitment. Marriage requires a lifetime for its completion. It is until death do us part. This is God’s plan for marriage, right from the beginning (Mt 19:4). Once a couple enters into a relationship with God and themselves, then that relationship continues for the rest of their life together. The love they first discovered in one another was meant to continue throughout the marriage. People do not fall in love, and then fall out of love. If there was authentic love there in the beginning, then it can be rediscovered and sustained, if both parties work at it. 

When you talk to couples married for 50 years, and ask them for the secret to their happy marriage, they will inevitably tell you things like: “Place your trust in God and the grace of the sacrament.” “Take each day as it comes, and keep working at it.” “Marriage is not a 50-50 proposition; usually it seems to be a 90-10 proposition. Learn to be very generous.”

Doesn’t everyone want a strong marriage, and a happy, healthy family? Well, that is what God wants for all of us too. And this is possible for every couple who is willing to work with marriage as God designed it to be. In addition to the natural helps and aids to making a marriage work, God gives us additional spiritual helps. These are the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Couples draw upon the grace of their special sacrament of Marriage. Other divine helps are prayer, the Gospels, and the teachings of the Church on marriage and the family. 

NFP is another great help, both on the natural and the supernatural levels. Contraception is the great enemy of a successful marriage. In contraception, a woman soon discovers the difference between being loved and being used. In contraception, the emphasis is upon release of sexual tension and orgasm, not on self-surrender and total gift of self. In contraception there is a fear of the child, a rejection of the child instead of a welcoming embrace of the child. The child is perceived be an unwanted, uninvited intruder into his parent’s lives, instead of being God’s greatest gift to them. In contraception there is a refusal to sacrifice one’s self for the betterment of the marriage and family. It is a selfish focus upon my immediate wants and needs, here and now. Contraception does not regard our fertility as a great gift bestowed upon us by God. Rather, our fertility is an obstacle to our immediate gratification. Contraception attempts to reduce our fertility to something subpersonal, something subhuman, over which we have total control. Contraception and sterilization are our attempts to redefine human nature, to destroy a perfectly healthy and normal functioning organ of our bodies.

If you want to take out a good marriage insurance policy, then learn NFP, which is God’s way and nature’s way of planning your family. If you want to play Russian roulette with your marriage, then allow contraception to work its devastation upon your relationship. With the arrival of the Pill in the 60’s, divorce rates began to skyrocket. By contrast, the divorce rate of NFP users is less than 5%.

God designed marriage to be permanent, irrevocable and a source of great happiness and completion. He knows what is best for us. He never asks the impossible. He always gives us the means we need to live by his wonderful plan for us. Jesus is the model for all husbands in unlimited self-giving love (Ephesians 5, Philippians 2). The choice is ours. Choose to have a strong committed marriage, and a healthy happy family.