After 10 years of marriage, I am now prepared to share the secret to marriage I’ve discovered – ready? Grace. Without it, you’ll be in hell (pun intended). Why are marriages plagued by legions of issues? Because the union of two fallen people can only be a struggle. But what if we don’t let our struggles define us, but instead work to embody grace?
Caveat – I am not a marriage counselor. In fact, there may have been an intense argument or two in my own marriage recently, where one or more people needed to apologize. I now consider the seriously rough patches in our relationship as “street cred” for insight into marital healing and joy. My marriage isn’t quite flawless but I’d like to share my experience of grace.
A mystery Sherlock cannot solve
Is marriage a problem to decode? At its deepest level, marriage is a mystery not of the Sherlock variety, but rather an invitation to wonder and awe at how God can join two into one. It’s a call to celebrate how human love images the Divine. Marriage reminds us that, “our God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since he has in himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.” (St. John Paul II)
If the declining health of marriage as an institution means individual marriages are struggling, then our best response is to strengthen each marriage, which in turn will fortify our culture.
What forces are sucking the life out of our happily-ever-afters? Probably many, but I will highlight three:
Obstacle 1) Nowadays we expect quick fixes and insta-eveything.
We never received an “easy” button wedding gift to hit amidst marital conflict. Incredibly, marriage is both a sign of the perfect union of Christ and His Church and an instrument of God’s grace. Yet, the joining of two people on this side of The Fall must be a work in process. So even though marriage both represents God’s love and simultaneously actually gives it, all is not well. The effects of sin entering the world means our intellects are darkened, our wills are weakened, and our passions are disordered. In other words, your entire home-date may consist of fighting over which Netflix movie to select (First, a subtle disagreement. Then, accusations fly!). Sin means we need constant conversion, apologies, and restarts – did you hear about that in your wedding homily? Our inclination to self-love needs constant reordering toward the other. And if you doubt you are less than perfect, ask a small child – he won’t lack honesty. Exposing faults may be painful but worthwhile because it leads to healing. So remember to be gracious so the light of truth can warm and not burn.
Obstacle 2) We think sex is the answer.
Our culture constantly insists only huge amounts of sex on demand with multiple partners can make us happy. In the wake of the sexual revolution, social decay reveals people don’t thrive when they are reduced to their sexual appetites. Otherwise, wouldn’t we as a culture be happier? If you only focus on yourself -including satisfying every impulse – you won’t be happy. Alternatively, what if we view marriage as a way to give oneself as a total gift to the other? What could be more joyful than hearing, “I give myself to you and no one else”? For a gift to be total, it must be exclusive. Saying “yes” to one means saying, “no” to the rest. Total self-gift also means all of me, including that special and unique aspect that can bring new little mini-mes into the world: my fertility. The best gift you can give and receive from another person, is the total self-gift of permanence and openness to new life. In a word, we traditionally call this, “marriage.” Note, gifts are not merit-based but flow from the graciousness of the giver (that’s you!).
Obstacle 3) We know too much.
We are saturated with knowledge but starving for truth. We are bombarded with factoids, quizzes, and memes that pique our curiosity, but don’t require commitment. When it comes to marriage, it’s not about how much you know. It’s about how gracefully you are willing to listen to what you already know, so that those words can penetrate your mind, enflame your heart, and bear greater fruit in your hands.
“Its what you learn after you know it all that really counts.” – Coach John Wooden We need to repeatedly hear things we already know. Each of us should stand in front of the mirror and tell the know-it-all inside us, “Go to hell,” – he can learn something new there. Yes, we need to know truth, which means opening our ears and allowing it to move from our minds to our hearts. Real listening gives birth to love-infused action. We need constant opportunities to practice things we believe, to have continual openness to self-improvement, and to tell our hands and feet to take up what our minds already know.
Talented athletes plagued by know-it-all-ism are routinely benched. Knowledge is wasted on bad attitudes – it needs the fertile soil of humility to be digested. And by humility, I don’t mean thinking, “Oh, lowly, no good me,” but acting as if the other person is more important. Again, humility is an act, not a thought.
A Victory Celebrated
At my wedding, my wife struggled to fit my ring onto my finger. Finally, she succeeded and celebrated with a fist pump. The attendants roared. A wedding ring is sign of permanence, but sometimes that golden circle below my fat knuckle reminds me of the struggles we go through together and the opportunities to pump fists in triumph.
Sources of Grace – these have given our marriage life!
Marriage is not the end but the beginning of your relationship. So go on dates outside your home and reserve quality time inside your home – this always brings new life to my marriage. Learn her love language and speak it: give gifts, write letters, cook a meal, or clean something – if nothing needs to be cleaned, please come to my house. Read a book on marriage, maybe even together. (Like this one).
We naturally desire to be healthy, so why mention this? It’s obvious but not easy. I have been mentally and physically unhealthy at times, and I’ve learned that choosing healthiness means 1) an initial choice and 2) an ongoing choice, aka, discipline. We become unhealthy when we’re overwhelmed. Here’s the key I’ve discovered, the difficulty of discipline will make you happier and will be easier in the long run, than the path of least resistance and instant gratification.
Fertility is an aspect of health and embracing it gives life to your marriage (we don’t take this for granted and know many are unable to have children, though trying). To those who see fertility as a problem, I offer the following: Children enhance your strengths and reveal your weaknesses, and both will enhance your relationship if you let them. They exist as a fruit of your bond, so allow them the metaphysical right to be treated according to their nature: allow them to deepen your spousal love. Yeah, kids are tough, but so is marriage. Difficult things are worth doing, even if you’re not excelling. You don’t hear the people who celebrate the greatest victories in life complaining, “Yeah, but it’s hard.” Hard is the same as amazingly rewarding, viewed from a different perspective.
What prevents us from building a morally sound culture? The two great attacks on the family are sin and error. To combat these, embrace and echo truth and nourish morality motivated by love (btw, its not enough to just obey the rules – such “moralism” misses the point and ultimately collapses into a worse decay). Our first focus must be our own family, but make sure to spend time with other couples/families. Some need your help, some will be allies, some will help you.
When we have to do the dishes, we can be grumpy, or glad we didn’t starve. Every moment affords freedom, even within an obligation, because we can choose a good or crappy attitude. We can make the most of it or feel sorry for ourselves. We can smile or whine. Our problem today is that we wait until we feel like smiling. Instead, we should take C.S. Lewis’ advice – if you don’t feel love towards another, act as if you did, and the affection will follow. We are obsessed with our feelings today and allow them to dictate our lives. Don’t be a slave to your passions. Rather, as Lewis says, allow your head to rule your stomach through your heart.
We’re far from perfectly embracing these, but to date, here’s my prescription for marital joy: Pursue. Embrace. Fight. Choose. Start and end with the gift of grace.