The news from the Synod this day is improved. Thanks be to God, many, yes many of the bishops and synod participants have articulated how deficient and misleading the “rough draft” Relatio was. Keep praying! The struggles to lay hold of and articulate with clarity God’s stunning teaching on Holy Matrimony and family in a doubtful world will continue.
But, frankly, even at the moment Jesus uttered his unequivocal insistence that marriage was one man and one woman in an indissoluble bond, many were stunned and scoffed, If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10) Jesus, of course, did not back down and went on to reiterate His teaching while also affirming that celibacy (never to marry) was a positive, not negative role (Matt 19:11ff).
Our struggle to recapture and reaffirm without compromise what Jesus taught is surely challenging, especially in a climate in which so many marriages fail. I was listening to an interview yesterday in which the question of how to stem the tide of failed marriages was pondered. All the usual remedies were discussed: better catechesis, better marriage preparation, more sermons on Holy Matrimony, etc. But both participants in the interview concluded that, in a culture as troubled as ours, the “education/catechesis” model was going to have only limited effects. Both agreed that deeper cultural changes and healing would be required in order for marriage (and many other things) to recover substantially and statistically.
Let me ponder with you a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today. It is interesting because it actually emerges from something good, but something that is good in a detached and therefore unmoored sense: our high idealism about marriage. Let me explain.
We live in times that have become quite cynical about anything being good or noble or pure. But many today still have an extremely high ideal for marriage: that it should be wonderful, romantic, joyful, loving, and happy. Yes, this is quite an ideal, rather rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vicit! (Love conquers all!) Surely we will live happily ever after the way every story says!
But here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal! Yes, many are wandering about thinking, as in the U2 song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for!”
Yes, the problem is that there is no ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, have entered the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. But, like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify but, like baptism, its offered graces gradually unfold, and they do so to the degree and at the speed with which the couple cooperates with God’s work.
Real marriage is going to take a lifetime of joy and challenges, tenderness and tension, difficulties and growth in order for a man and woman to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. And some of God’s gifts come in strange packages; struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are really all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (e.g., Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tensions. No tension means no change.
This may not be the ideal, “happily ever-after” marriage, but it is the real one, full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, disappointment, and stresses.
The real problem comes not from our ideals about marriage, which are good to strive for, but from the fact that we conceive of these ideals in a hedonistic and “instant-gratification” culture.
Hedonism is the “doctrine” that the chief goals of life in this world are happiness and pleasure. (The Greek word hedone means “pleasure.”) In the hedonistic view, any diminishment of pleasure or happiness is the worst thing imaginable, a complete disaster. On account of this “doctrine,” many insist on a kind of God-given right to be happy and pleased. Even many devout Christians fall prey to the very exaggerated notions of hedonism and excuse some pretty selfish and sinful behaviors by saying, “Well, God wants me to be happy doesn’t He?” And thus, when the Church or an individual suggests that perhaps someone should do what is difficult, the hedonistic culture reacts, not with puzzlement, but with downright indignation, as if to say, “How dare you get between anyone and what makes him happy!”
So, our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is seen through the lens of hedonistic extremism. And thus if the ideal is not found, many sense a need, a perfect right, to end a less-than-ideal marriage in search of greener pastures.
And this is just one more thing added to our instant gratification culture of “overnight shipping,” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now!” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments come quickly.
Yes, resentments. There is an old saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly our unrealistic notions of the instantly ideal, picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality. And thus we return to the premise: many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.
Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach and become aware that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se, but we must become more sober of our conception of our ideals through the lens of hedonism and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard … but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage, as too many do rather quickly today, is not the ultimate solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage yields another and perhaps yet another.
Rest assured, I do not sit in judgment over everyone who has ever divorced. I speak here to a cultural trend (perfectionism jaded by hedonism and instant gratification) that contributes to the perceived need and “right” to “move on” if happiness is not quickly and stably attained. In the (even recent) past we tended more to stick things out, to work through some of our differences and to agree to live with others of our differences. Life was more seen as hard, a kind of exile to endure on our way to our true homeland and to true happiness. Surely we looked to some joys here on earth, but we had more of a sense of the passing quality of all worldly things, whether good or bad. We would do well to regain something of this more sober appreciation that life here is a mixed bag; it’s going to have its challenges. Marriage is no exception. And though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentments and disappointments if we do not balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.
Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high divorce rates. But here is one often overlooked root: many expect an ideal marriage, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (And we would do well to remember that in a world with adults behaving like this, it is the children who get the raw deal.) This is a deep cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.