How Does Idealism Negatively Affect Marriage?

Those who seek to strengthen Holy Matrimony and stem the tide of failed marriages propose many remedies, among them better catechesis, improved marriage preparation, and greater emphasis on the sacrament in sermons. All of these are fine ideas and necessary steps, but let’s also ponder a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today: idealism or unrealistic expectations.

Although we live in cynical times, many people still hold a highly idealistic view of marriage: that it should be romantic, joyful, loving, and happy all the time. It is an ideal rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vincit! (Love conquers all!) Surely, we will live happily ever after the way every story says!

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, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” to borrow from a U2 song.

There is no such thing as an ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have been married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world that is governed by a fallen angel, have entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. 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. Like baptism, it offers graces that unfold gradually. The graces unfold to the degree that, and at the speed with which, the couple cooperates with God’s work.

It takes a lifetime of joy and challenge, tenderness and tension, difficulty and growth, in order for a husband and wife to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. 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 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 (see Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tension; without tension there is no change.

This may not describe the ideal, happily-ever-after marriage, but it describes the real one: full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, stress, and disappointment.

Cultural expectations – Our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is also seen through the lens of our culture which has gotten very good at supplying comfort: air conditioning, medicines, indoor plumbing and electricity, nearly instant communication, vast numbers of consumer products that are reasonably affordable, etc. This all creates the expectation that everything should be comfortable and everything should be just the way I want it.   There is also in our culture an impatience and need for instant gratification culture that that comes from an efficient economy:  “Rush shipping,” “Have it delivered today!” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now.” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments along with impatience come very quickly.

There is a saying that “unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly unrealistic notions of the picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality.

Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se; but we must become more sober about our conception of these ideals through the lens of expected comfort in everything 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 some do rather quickly today—is not the solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage leads to another and perhaps yet another.

In the past, even the relatively recent past, people tended to stick things out, to work through some differences while agreeing to live with others. We would do well to regain something of this appreciation that earthly life is a mixed bag, that there are going to be challenges. Marriage is no different. Though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentment and disappointment if we don’t 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 rate of divorce, but an overlooked root is the expectation of an ideal marriage. Yes, many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (We would do well to remember that in a world full of adults behaving like this, it is the children who really get a raw deal.) This is a deeper and less discussed cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.

5 Replies to “How Does Idealism Negatively Affect Marriage?”

  1. “”Marriage is hard, but so is life.”” ??
    actually Not really … been married 35 years ~ no problems ! Pick the Right Girl !!!
    Its Really Easy !!!

    1. Really? So I have been married to the wrong girl for 53 years? Wow! All this time time I thought of my hard working, selfless wife and mother of our 5 children as a good partner.
      I thank God for all of my many blessings and my wife for her Love and support through a less than ideal life.

    2. James , In most cases though its not picking the one “ right “ soulmate but rather a lifetime of dying to self to become the “ right “ persons .
      There is a danger in stating to others that marriage is easy If you “ pick the RIGHT person”. It implies that If marriage – even at times – takes any work – that then therefore maybe one “chose wrong “ the first time and needs to dump this spouse and choose a “soulmate.” Because even the 2nd replacement spouse is still a flawed sinful human who may need still to grow in the virtues and learn how to love unselfishly .
      Many divorces happen because one or both spouses decide they didnt choose the right soul mate once the honeymoon years are over and struggles occur as they do in the great majority of marriages

  2. I’m with James. Marriage does not have to be hard.

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard on marriage came from a book written by a priest in the 1950s. I confess I laughed at a lot of the advice because it was so outdated by the time I was reading the book in the early 90s (“always put on lipstick, freshen up your dress, and brush your hair before greeting your husband at the door when he arrives home from work in the evening”), but one thing he said really struck me:

    “Be very careful about the habits of interaction you fall into in your first year of marriage. Those are the habits that will stick throughout your marriage, and if you form bad habits in the beginning, they will be very difficult to change later on.”

    I took that to heart, and I spent the early part of our marriage trying to make sure that we formed good habits. We are not perfect, by any means, and we made our share of mistakes. Over the years, though, those efforts early on have paid off in spades. I wish I still had the book so I could give that priest credit, but the book is long gone.

    Nearly 29 years and six children later, our marriage is what makes the hardships of life endurable. It’s good to have ideals and to strive to attain them, but of course you do also have to be realistic than any marriage is a marriage of two imperfect, broken human beings. Assuming the best of intentions of the other goes a long way.

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