What do you know about marriage?
How much do you know about marriage? I put that question to all those who think about getting married or are married or who need to know about marriage (for example, clerics hearing Confessions)
Of course we all have our own ideas — discovered through our experience. And through our friends. How do we choose a partner? The qualties we need to recognise the right person? How to cope with difficulties and differences? and so on, and so on, and so on. Naturally we begin to find the answers — from our own experience, and from the experiences of our friends or parents. I could claim a strong position not only because of a 60 year marriage and, currently, twenty seven children, grandchildren and great grand children.
But even that is not enough: I still need to see professional studies which show the measured effects of choices and situations in marriages. Try the marriage foundation. You may be surprised.
I suppose it’s necessary these days, regrettably, to be clear that we’re speaking of marriage between a man and a woman, and not about the thing being labeled “marriage” by the faddish state.
The primary impulse behind the desire to marry in most individuals in the Western world must be, I think, sexual desire. As I understand it, as a general rule, the man finds the woman sexually desirable and the woman finds the man sexually acceptable. That has to be the start, since marriage is a rite agreed upon by a community to recognize and sanction cohabitation and sexual exclusivity between two people. Socially, the purpose must be to prevent a state of general licentiousness that would create chaos, which would destroy any attempt at social order.
Of course, today outside a society ruled by a traditionally organized sexual morality, that’s nonsense. And in today’s hyper-verbal culture, thousands of other considerations are prescribed.
How does any person determine if another person is a suitable person to marry?
A precursor question is how does any individual determine if they are suitable to marry another person?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I would be interested in how other people answer these questions.
David: “The primary impulse behind the desire to marry in most individuals in the Western world must be, I think, sexual desire”.
Not nowadays, not in the Western world, where sexual desire is readily satisfied (or anyway, engaged in) without marriage being on the horizon. People marry for long-term companionship, and, often, in hopes of having children and raising a family. Or in Quentin’s case, a whole dynasty.
So, Iona, has sex become merely one more form of entertainment in a culture in which the highest purpose in life is the repeated evocation of sensual pleasure, as often as possible until death? Is this all that’s left of the noble creature supposedly emancipated by the Enlightenment? Is this where it all ends? Apparently. One wonders that creatures condemned to be nothing more than masturbators do not, once the reality of their plight comes home to them, decide to do away with themselves – pleasurably, of course.
Only now, at the end of my eighth decade of a perhaps abnormally self-centered life, am I just beginning to see and wonder at some small universal commonalities evidently shared by most human minds. Sex, as experienced by humans, is still a mystery to me, growing even deeper and darker the more I learn about it. At the most basic level, it is directed toward procreation. But the damnable human forebrain has made of it what looks to me like a grotesque tangled mess. Free will is another puzzle. Clearly, we have such a thing, but as I look around at the signs of human life surrounding me, I see what seems to be a wholesale relinquishing of it.
And back to marriage. If the desire to marry is simply the desire to have a companion, what lies behind that? Why not find companionship in ad hoc social groupings? Why just one companion? And why another human, and not, say, a robot or a dog? And why have children? Materially, children are an enormous burden.
The list of mysteries is endless.
David, are you married? If so I cannot understand why you ask the questions you ask or draw the conclusions you draw!
David – in my more cynical moods I would simply feel inclined to say “yes” to the whole of your first paragraph.
But actually, it isn’t that bad. And children, – lots of people want children; and even if they don’t. they usually love them when they’ve got them.
The norm, when I was in my teens was that life had a plan – get a job, get a girl, go through courtship and save for the future, then marry, settle down and have a family. For me the family was the objective, coming from a happy family myself. The sex, although integral to the development was a means – creating a family – and not an end of itself. The choice of partner, in part, involved finding someone with a similar family background and understanding. This doesn’t avoid the “magic ingredient” of falling in love which occurs at a different level to concious thought.
The reverse need by young women was to find a mate who could provide for the needs of a family – and woe betide anyone who started the family in the wrong order! Then the pill came along and changed the rules of the game. Women who could previously say no to sex before marriage could no longer argue that particular case.
As someone who has recently been involved in marriage preparation in the Catholic Church, the majority of people presenting for marriage have been cohabiting for some considerable time. The norm now is for people to fall in love with someone with whom they are having sex rather than wishing to have sex with someone with whom they have fallen in love.
Children are now an optional extra rather than a primary motivation.
What do I know about marriage?
I know that for half of us who get married, it works. But I don’t know how well.
Marriages, I know can break down due to conflict and arguments but such things are not absent from marriages that work.
Apparently, some who get married just cannot stay committed in the relationship: some people are temperamentally incapable of maintaining any commitment.
I also know that partners in a marriage can be unfaithful to each other and as a result the marriage breaks down. And sometimes it doesn’t. It continues. But I don’t know how well.
As far as I know, people can grow apart when distance arises within the relationship or physical intimacy ceases to exist and in such cases people can decide to split.
In other similar cases, couples can weather the storm and stay together.
Violence too can take hold in a marriage and other types of abusive behaviour and this makes the marriage space become a place of danger.
I know that marriages can end in these violent circumstances but not all do. An abusive relationship can be sustained for a long time within a seemingly functional marriage.
I also know that substance abuse and addictive behaviours can become causes for partners in a marriage to bond more closely where such behaviours are addressed and successfully managed – and sometimes this does not happen and the split occurs.
It is clear to me that external pressures have a great impact on marriages. Some marry too young and may not have the skills to manage finances, but I also know, successful marriages can survive these pressures. And the same goes for the experience of “falling out of love”.
If you are thinking of getting married, it appears the odds are fifty-fifty, so there’s a good chance of a successful outcome. Personally, I believe the risk is worth it.
That’s what I know about marriage.
is this is a good idea?
I agree with galerimo ( https://secondsightblog.net/2022/05/05/2600/#comment-65961 ). Life and humans are far too complex for any single list of foolproof precautions.
Nevertheless, Quentin’s questions ( https://secondsightblog.net/2022/05/05/2600/ ) –
// How do we choose a partner? The qualties we need to recognise the right person? How to cope with difficulties and differences? and so on, and so on, and so on. //
– are surely worth pondering. I suggest starting by narrowing the definition of marriage to include only one between a man and a woman, with a commitment to sexual exclusivity, and with a commitment to just one partner, for life. Can we agree on that or should we broaden the definition?
I agree. I find when I ponder, at your suggestion, on the next question “How do we choose a partner?”. I have less to offer.
In my personal experience I fell in love with the woman who became my wife after knowing her for some time and not liking her very much for a large part of that time.
I always celebrate that day. Neither of us have ever remembered to celebrate our wedding anniversary in 43 years.
On that particular day neither of us were either appropriate or available for matrimony. We quickly began to co-habit and two years later were wed.
It was too late for me to apply any selection criteria, I knew once I fell in love, she would be my wife, somehow, someday. And that is what happened. Thank God!
Since then, I have heard enough to inform me that ours is not an unusual experience and that many people know that another is to be the one to marry long before they decide to, or are able to do so.
But there is some good light in the way Quentin poses the question itself to add “The qualities we need to recognise the right person?”
I understand this to mean, not the qualities to be found in a prospective spouse, but the qualities in me that will enable me discern well, whom I will choose as my spouse.
Layered in that qualifier question I find two characteristics immediate arise in response
First, what I need is an ability to love truly, and I believe that I had a certainty about that when the time was right for me – but infatuation can also be accompanied by certainty.
And secondly, the quality of being a trusting person, I would suggest as necessary in order to recognise the right person for me – but I am cannot claim to be immune to naiveté.
Two is as much as I can come up with for now – and probably not a bad number for this topic!
Assuming as a start what I suggested in https://secondsightblog.net/2022/05/05/2600/#comment-65968 , I suggest that perhaps our first priority should be that both parties are in complete agreement about sexual exclusivity and lifetime commitment. Today, I imagine, that is likely to be a more burdensome restriction than it has been in even the recent past, because it goes directly counter to today’s cultural norms, which milliganp describes in https://secondsightblog.net/2022/05/05/2600/#comment-65943 . It means that both parties are aware that they’re committing to live counter-cultural lives. Tough stuff.
Quentin wrote ( https://secondsightblog.net/2022/05/05/2600/ ) :
// How do we choose a partner? The qualties we need to recognise the right person? How to cope with difficulties and differences? and so on, and so on, and so on. //
Among the “so on and so on” I’d include the changes in the lives and minds and hearts of two individuals as they grow in experience and understanding and personality and outlook and tastes and desires and hopes and expectations and even needs. For example, importantly in these “modern” times when sexual desire is held in such high esteem, how can men and women be expected to resist the insistently repeated calls to follow our romantic and bodily desires down whatever alluring pathways they call to us most strongly? As I think I’ve already said or suggested, I have never understood how the female sexual imagination functions, though I suspect that it works in far broader fields than that of most men, whose sexual imagination seems firmly rooted in the priapic. And as women’s bodies change in later middle age, don’t their erotic imaginations change also, and substantially? And now that conceiving and rearing children has become practically an afterthought, if that, in what lies the continuing appeal of monogamy? I remember a line from “The Man Who Was Thursday”:
// It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. //
That may well be true. It is forceful. But it still leaves great scope for exploring the endless enticements of sexual desire, in both imagination and real life. How can the “modern” Catholic man and woman reasonably be expected to obey the command to be faithful?
I love the way G K Chesterton admits that humans are never perfect “in spite of a hundred disadvantages…” It is perhaps the square root of John Henry Newman’s “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”.
Quentin has made a number of references to the Stoics and, in particular, Marcus Aurelius and the foundation of Stoicism in nature or natural law. in natural law, the principal purpose of sex is creating new life. The Second Vatican Council also emphasised the mutual support of the spouses (echoing Genesis 2:18 “It is not good for the man to be alone.”).
Every time Quentin mentions the Stoics, I find myself thinking that Christianity is not a branch of Greek philosophy but some incident on the telly last week had me researching Stoicism afresh and its rejection of being ruled by passions and appetites and the practice of virtue seem to speak to the problem of modern disordered attitude to relationships.
I once worked for a company with a CEO who favoured various sex-themed business metaphors one of which was “You cannot become a virgin”. I often recall this when pondering whether we can ever return to traditional values when all our young people are infected with culture of our society. Repentance implies turning from sin, which requires the sin to be identified and acknowledged. Perhaps we need to preach Christian Stoicism.
I enjoyed this thoughtful reflection, thank you!
Acts 17: 18-21 gives evidence of engagement with Greek philosophy in the early stages of our development as Church.
But it is also manifest throughout the New Testament and obviously the world that Jesus lived in was steeped in ideas that we find Paul discussing with the Stoics of his own day.
But whether out of frustration or through philosophical argument, in 1 Cor 1:23 Paul decides that the ultimate message of Christianity is not a process of human argument but simply and tremendously, Christ crucified!
No doubt theology is a legitimate function of God’s Word but it should never try to take its place, as a basis for knowing God, even, I would suggest, natural theology.
But is it really such a good idea to return to “traditional values, as you speculate?
My friend once met a person who claimed how the proofs for the existence of God brought her into the church. But these arguments of reason were precisely why my friend almost left the church.
Is this what Paul learned when he tried to preach Jesus within the terms of a human ideology?
There was a lot of boring stuff written about Jesus in the 19th century and mostly moralistic stuff showing Him to be no more than a good and kind man and therefore worth following.
“Christ crucified” is the awful and awe filled truth about all we need to know and for us that knowledge comes as hindsight delivered by His spirit enlivening us in relationship through the gift of Holy Spirit.
So I will be giving Christian Stoicism a wide berth for the time being!
Some movement to return to tradition is possibly inevitable once a strong rejection of tradition becomes institutionalised and the ‘establishment’ view. Change of this kind produces some casualties, a level of dissatisfaction and discontent remains, people seek new edgy and avant-garde things… After a revolutionary period these may turn out to be traditionalist in character, as if the counter-revolution becomes the counter-culture.
Something else I know about marriage.
God certainly likes to use it as a descriptor of His relationship with us. Even in its more sordid aspects. And I am not just thinking of individuals like Isaiah or Hosea.
The whole tradition from which we spring is a covenantal one, and, as such, instructs us about understanding marriage as a way of understanding ourselves in relation to God
Our relationship to God is a foundational relationship between partners that must travel the bumpy road of all relationship.
“For your maker is your husband, the Lord of Hosts is His name, and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth He is called” (Isa 54:5).
“Go find yourself a whore and marry her” (Hosea 1:2).
How well do such words describe the way we belong to God as His children and His Church?
And in the New Testament too, the marriage of the Lamb is used as an image to help us with the pinnacle of Jesus’s work when he will present it, in its totality, to the Father.
Of course the relationship between child and parent is another image we receive in God’s revelation to us but marriage is one thing and family is another however closely linked they are.
And a view of our relationship with God that looks to focus on the nuptial bond of married love between partners is one that will open up a lot of the depth and richness of our identity as Jesus people.
Another thing I have learned about marriage, comes from personal experience and as such bears all the limits and richness of such knowledge.
Although initially based on a counter intuitive attraction the 43 years relationship has continued into old age, making these dying days the best.
We don’t count our family in big numbers but the likelihood of our name dying out is very unlikely for some generations to come, given the big families to which we both belong.
So the number of progeny does not rank highly when it comes to the strength of the relationship. The test of ageing does. But I acknowledge it as a wonderful gift too.
At the final stage of life the structures, internal and external, bring great satisfaction.
Having a home in which we both find comfort and space for creative activity and a rhythm of personal interaction that deepens that space is a great blessing that marriage brings in its maturing.
The chance to face together the ultimate challenge of mortality is also a gift. Conversations and different ways of acknowledging this reality is well held within a long and loving relationship.
It seems to me that less and less will couples be able to own their own homes and have enough finances to like with dignity in later married life.
And the sheer joy of doing little and together striving to do less – that’s the prize in which marriage in late life abounds.
If we remove children from the marriage compact, fidelity and permanence lose their reason for being therein, and marriage becomes something radically different from what it was when children were its center. In fact, it seems to me likely that the institution of marriage in the Western world today resides primarily in its traditional importance in deciding issues of strictly secular legal concern, like money and the privileges of special standing. The people in charge of the institutional church must find it at least problematic that there is now an element of sham and dishonesty about the marriage ceremonies its ministers perform:
For example, “until death do us part” is likely in most marriages to contain the unspoken, “unless we divorce before then”.
I seem to remember when doing marriage theology, a phrase like “a natural estate raised to the dignity of a sacrament”. If we take marriage in the pre-Christian Jewish society, it was very much about property and inheritance with the added dimension of the Covenant – raising children to be descendants of Abraham.
When we covered nullity, one of the grounds was “mental reservation” which is considered to nullify consent. In my own experience, most couples marrying in church today have lived together for some time and may have had several previous sexual relationships while “trying to find the right partner”. Against this background there has to be real doubt that the responses given and vows exchanged at the marriage ceremony are a sincere expression of being of the same mind as the church.
Sincere, perhaps, at the time of making? Also the ‘raising’ up to sacrament should help rather shouldn’t it? I met and married my wife after I had become a Christian but prior to that had been in several relationships over a long period of time. But when I married my wife I knew it was for keeps.
There’s much talk these days about mental health problems, especially in young people. I am sure mental health problems have a close correlation with marriage breakdowns. Children suffer terribly when their parents separate.
There is also a total disregard for the ten commandments. I wonder how many people know the ten commandments these days. If there was a greater effort to follow the ten commandments, there would be fewer marriage failures. They are a good recipe personal contentment and stable mental health.