What should marriage be like (answer!)

Benjamin The Loving Life

It was a pleasant surprise to see how many people voted on our mini-poll (53 votes in one week), and also to see that an overwhelming majority voted for Number 4, which was:

4) Marriage is a free gift of love: the love between the husband and wife should be a self-sacrificing love that reflects the love of Jesus for the Church.

Only one person voted for “social contract” as the best idea of marriage [the truth is that no one actually wants their spouse to be able to renegotiate or cancel whenever they want to, even if people might like the idea of having that freedom for themselves.]

If you reject the idea that a marriage can be anything I want it to be, then you must accept the idea that marriage is beyond the power of society to change or redefine. The opposite is also true; if you permit society to redefine marriage (e.g. as including persons of the same sex, as being a contract that expires after X number of years), you have rejected the idea that marriage is a gift of love. If marriage is an act of love, then it has to be lived in a certain way.

The reason we are not free to make love whatever we want is because we have not invented love. In fact, it is just the opposite: love has invented us. We owe our existence to love. We would not be here if our mother had not sacrificed her body for our sake, and there are many other people, hopefully our father as well as family and friends, who were willing to care for us even though we could give them nothing in return. Our life is a gift that comes through the love of others. This is the reason abortion is such a terrible evil: we refuse to pass on the gift that was given to us when we were helpless and vulnerable.

The love we feel from family and friends is a manifestation of the love that surrounds us and embraces us and keeps us in existence, the love which is God. It is God who has given us life through our parents. In my post about the stars I talked about recognizing love as the source of the universe. When we see that our life and the world has the same source, we feel a profound connection with the created world, which should lead us to a deep respect for it.

The Christian idea of the person does not focus on our rational mind or our free will (which is where the social contract idea is rooted), but on our power to love, and says that we were created by love and we were created in order to love. Here are two quotes pulled from our Catholic treasure chest:

Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes 24).

God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 11).

We can put the two quotes together by saying this: you cannot find yourself unless you learn to love, which is to make a sincere gift of yourself. This might only be in kind words or a little kiss, but if we use those words to sincerely give ourselves, then we have truly loved.

This little girl is loving because she is making a gift of herself. Notice that her little brother can give her nothing in return, not even a real kiss. Love is true love when we give without looking for anything in return.

This is where the Christian idea of marriage and every other idea become radically different: in the economic, political or social contract marriage, I want to GET something from marriage, I want someone to serve ME. This is not love, but selfishness, and I try to make my partner into my servant.

True love always means using our gifts and talents to serve another person, as Jesus showed his disciples at the last supper that he loved them by washing their feet (John 13). Instead of entering the marriage wanting to gain, you enter the marriage wanting to give. Instead of trying to make your spouse into your servant, you decide to make yourself into a servant for your spouse. Of course, the way God intended marriage is that your spouse reciprocates and offers to be your servant, and so each one becomes a gift of love for the other.

Every sincere act of love is a gift of yourself, but marriage is a unique gift of love. It is unique because you do not offer part of yourself, but all of yourself, and that is why we say that marriage is not just a gift of love but a total gift of self. The man no longer belongs to himself, but he belongs to his wife, and she no longer owns herself, because she belongs to her husband. This is why something is very wrong when a person enters marriage with one eye on the door, planning to leave if things don’t go well: they are not totally committed. This is also why contraception undermines marriage: when you are giving everything-but-your-fertility, you are not giving everything. There are many other ways that couples undermine their wedding vows, but contraception is a serious and damaging way.

Put in this perspective, marriage is more daring than any extreme sport: you have to take that leap, give yourself away, put yourself at the service of your spouse, with no guarantee that your spouse will do the same. Obviously marriage opens you up to the risk of being hurt, taken advantage of, even abandoned, and this is why you begin a relationship slowly: looking carefully to see if you can really trust your partner to respect you and care for you.

However, even if your spouse is not there to catch you, this does not mean you will fall into oblivion: God is always there, and not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God noticing. I believe the reason that marriage in the experience of so many couples has slipped into a social contract is because God has faded to the edges of our minds. As God has faded and drifted out of sight, we can no longer see that we are walking in the hands of God, and we feel only an abyss below us. Out of fear of being dropped, people hold themselves back from their spouse, they build the “safety net” of divorce and erect a barrier of contraception to make things “safe”. The tragedy is that not only has this failed to protect us, but in trying to keep ourselves safe we are no longer able to give, and when we cannot sincerely give, there is no possibility of love.

The reason why answer n. 4 mentions “the love of Jesus for the Church” is that the way Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross and continues to give Himself in the Eucharist is the purest image of true spousal love, and this is the reality that marriage was created to imitate. The self-fulfillment idea was supposed to bring us happiness without sacrifice, but it failed to deliver because the measure of our ability to sacrifice is the measure of our love. True happiness does not come when the sacrifices disappear, but when the love of our heart is stronger than the sacrifices, so much so that they no longer disturb us. The heart that sacrifices is the heart that truly loves. +