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Thursday, March 1, 2012

What do I need to know before getting married?

Most of what we tend to think we know about love, romance and marriage comes from books and movies. Oddly, while we don’t take much stock in what else fiction has to “teach” us, it seems like we take fairy tales to heart and expect our lives to match them in this respect. Well, life is not going to do that so cut it the hell out. Don’t get discouraged here. It’s really great and I’ll get to that bit in due course. First let’s be clear about what marriage is supposed to be, the bits you don’t get from the books and movies.

Marriage is based on the idea that a husband and wife are to be as one unit. “They shall become one flesh,” as you might remember seeing somewhere. This is not intended to be a sentimental saying but a statement of fact about the nature of marriage, that husband and wife are a single corporate being even while retaining their own identities, like how a transmitter and receiver makeup a single radio-telephone device, how a bow and violin are a single instrument etc.

Marriage isn’t just for “while we’re in love” or until we fall in love with someone else. This isn’t a matter of Christian morality as much as it is a mater of simple justice and common decency. You promise to make it life-long and that promise has no special out-clause related to your emotional state now or later. If the words are empty to you, whom are you trying to fool when you make the promise? Your spouse? Yourself? The guests? At best that’s dishonest. If you’re content with that I’m quite disappointed. Otherwise you have bound yourself with a life-long covenant, one you must dishonor if you would “justify” separation due to no longer being in love and if the promise itself is not held above such considerations it should not be made at all.
Consider the matter and you’ll see that on some level you already knew the promise, the contract of marriage is indeed an inseparable part of it. Even while “mindlessly” caught up in the heights of romantic love our natural inclination is to make promises that our devotion and fidelity will be forever. No one ever wrote a love-ballad pledging constancy “until I don’t feel like this anymore.” That would be ridiculous, so act like it’s ridiculous.

Anyway, a pledge, covenant, promise etc is always about some action one can perform or refrain from. Do you really think the marital promise of life-long love is a promise about how you will feel? No, it’s not. It’s a promise about how you will behave. In this sense, the most important sense of the word there is, love is something you do, not something you feel. That is what your pledge is about; otherwise you might as well promise you will never be thirsty or bored. I think you would never consider making any such promise so resolve not to confuse your marital pledge this way. It is not an empty untenable promise about future feelings; it is a real and wholly doable promise about how you will behave and you should keep that promise for reasons that are more important than the heady feeling of being in love. Your children are more likely to be better off in countless ways if raised in an intact mom and dad home. One or both of you no-doubt sacrificed or at least diminished your career for the marriage so ought not to be dropped when your partner tires of you.

Most importantly though is something I don’t think I can explain clearly, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway.
Being in love is great. Everyone should try it some time, but it’s not the best thing there is and you cannot make it the basis for your life and your future. Even the fairy tale ending doesn’t claim, “They felt for the rest of their lives exactly like they did the day they were married.” Who could do that? Who would want to? How could you work? How could you have any friends? This doesn’t mean your love ever ends, just that it matures into what it was always designed to be. Real love is more than an emotional state. It is a deep-down unity of your heart, mind and soul. It is also something you chose to maintain and something you make happen. It endures right through the deepest anger you may have with each other, those times when you look at your spouse and don’t even like him. Don’t pretend you don’t understand that or that you don’t believe it’s possible. You all have families filled with siblings, parents, cousins etc who you most certainly did not like every day of your life and what I’m describing here is something very much like that.

Our culture, our books movies and such do us a great disservice. We get the idea that if we find the right person we’ll be “in love” forever so when that sensation diminishes we think we made a bad choice, that the right person is still out there somewhere. That initial thrill is good and certainly useful. It leads us into the married state for which we are designed and if kept in its proper perspective it moves aside for us to discover even better real and permanent love. Like in other areas of life, the initial thrill fades away and unless you are unduly fixated thereon it makes room for you to develop something even better. Think of anything you ever added to your life, maybe learning to ride a bike or play an instrument. Remember the excitement at the beginning? That’s long-gone but now you’re better at it and I’ll bet you prefer it that way and would rather not go back to being all wobbly about it. How much better a feeling is being in love than being excited you can just barely ride a two-wheeler? Are you beginning to get the picture; beginning to get some sense of how much more wonderful real “boring” love with your spouse will be once you get your marriage past the wobbly bit? The truth is there will be only brief periods that are anything like boring. Excitement keeps finding surprising ways to rear its head and I suspect these are very different for each of us. If you try to cling to or replace that first kind of thrill you will eventually fail and grow into a bored disillusioned and bitter old fart. Let it die and go on working on this second sort of love and I promise new sorts of thrills will abound.

While we’re thinking about new thrills, there will no-doubt come times when something rather like that earlier “falling in love” feeling comes up in the form of attractions to new acquaintances. You will meet someone who looks good, makes you laugh, with whom you find things in common etc and this will trigger a sort of reflexive kindling of that thrill. This does not mean it’s time to give-up on your marriage or that you have failed your spouse in any way – unless you choose to give-up on your marriage, of course. When you meet someone smart, attractive etc it’s natural to notice and admire these qualities and to feel some of that thrill you felt once – with your spouse – and likely over the same qualities. Just remember back then you had to act on those feelings to make the connection you did with your spouse. It’s not an uncontrollable thing that just happens to you like catching the flu, no matter how some part of you may try to convince you that it can’t be helped.

You're going to need outside support. You may find your own way but the best thing I've found is to be involved in a Church - and with other people likewise involved. You can find most of what you need to know about an appropriate and successful marital relationship there.

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