Marriage: Contract or Covenant?

Fr. Joel Human Relationships, The Loving Life Leave a Comment

It may seem that marriage has fallen out of popularity. Many young people decide to live together first, buy a dog, buy a house, maybe have a kid before finally choosing to get married in a backyard ceremony. Grandma complains, “How come kids these days don’t want to get married?” But interviews reveal that young people really want a deep, intimate, life-long union. They don’t want to dive head-first into the icy waters of commitment. If you’re going to sign a life-long contract, you’d better know what you’re getting into first. So they wade in slowly with sex and cohabitation before finally deciding to “sign on the dotted line.”

As the years go by and babies come and the marriage moves on, they start to feel cheated. There’s not enough sex, or there’s too much sex and not enough conversation. One partner feels like he or she is doing all the work and the other partner is having all the fun. You realize you didn’t bother to put the expectations in writing because you thought  you both agreed on things. Both partners are mystified at why the whole thing seems to be so hard and frustrating. Multiple conversations happen trying to renegotiate the contract without success. Finally one says, “I’m just not happy,” and files for divorce. The other partner is devastated.

It’s not you — it’s the contract. A contract is fundamentally selfish. I sign a wireless contract because of what I can get (phone service) not because of what I’ll have to give (the monthly fees). This is fine for things, but not for people. Approaching marriage as a contract turns people into objects. They are giving us pleasure, or making us feel complete, filling our +1 at a wedding, helping with the rent, and we are doing the same for them. We end up using people, and letting them use us, and calling it love. But that’s not love.

Love demands a covenant: a gift of self that is total, faithful, fruitful, and free. Preparing for a covenant is not about a “trial period.” Rather you must give your heart, and that means taking back the gifts-of-self you have made to others. Giving your heart means time, deep conversations, plans for the future, engagement, and planning a marriage. Before the altar you place yourself totally in other other’s hands, and they put themselves in yours. The last thing you give is your body and it seals the deal, creating a bond over the total gift of self. It’s about giving, but when we give generously, we get so much back in return. Do you treat marriage like a contract or like a covenant?

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