The Key to a “Perfect Marriage”

Is not to think there is one.

Back in the late 90s, Mary Beth Bonacci wrote a column about how the purpose of dating is to break up.  So often, that seems to be the purpose not just of dating but of most “relationship” articles.  “How to tell if your [guy/girl] is [cheating/wrong for you/the right one,” “How to tell if your relationship is failing.”  “What do all successful marriages have in common?”

Bai MacFarlane once observed of her divorce that there’s a certain attitude of the “perfect Catholic marriage” that has grown out of the JP2/NFP/TOB movement that sets a certain standard, and people are often led to stress about trying to achieve that standard.

A few years ago, Matt Walsh wrote a piece called “My Marriage Wasn’t Meant to Be,” which he apparently recently revised for his new Blaze column in response to the Sparks divorce.  His point is that we have free will, and the notion of being “destined” to marry someone takes away from free will but also creates an ideal that is too easily lost to sentimentalism–or questioning whether “this is the right one.”  I’d argue that a Mystery is far more complicated than that, and he is quite literally touching on the basic question of free will versus predestination and God’s plans versus our own, but he makes a good point.

Closer to home, my wife, thinking about cases like the MacFarlanes, or Nicholas Sparks and his wife, or of how every celebrity couple who give an interview about their great marriage seem to divorce shortly thereafter, always says, “Don’t say we have a ‘happy marriage.’  Saying that is just inviting the Devil to tempt us.  There’s no such thing as a ‘happy marriage’ or a ‘perfect marriage.'”  It wasn’t until recently that I connected all those thoughts and realized that’s what she means.

Maggie Gallagher a few years ago wrote of attending a 50th anniversary party, where the husband was asked the secret to staying married 50 years, and he said, “Arrive for your wedding and then wait.”

That, really, sums it up.  There are plenty of good points available for guidance in discerning whether someone is the “right” person to marry, and there is plenty of good advice for trying to do better.  But there is a great danger in constantly thinking that a relationship must be “perfect,” that a person must be “perfect,” that if you’re *not* living up to the standard, that you should call it quits.

Nonetheless, however you get there, presuming proper formation and discernment, and no canonical impediments, whether you’re “best friends,” “soul mates,” or arranged, or whatever, after the vows are exchanged, the key to marriage is a) to remember that divorce is never an option; b) to always keep working at it; c) to remember that you’ve given yourselves to each other and be grateful for that gift.

And that’s really all there is to it.

2 responses to “The Key to a “Perfect Marriage”

  1. One of the most important things my parents told me repeatedly when I was growing up was “marriage is hard work.” I didn’t really believe them, then, but I’m glad they hammered that into me when I was young.

    And when I started dating, I came to the early conclusion that I would only ever date practicing catholics, because that’s the kind of man I wanted to marry. Also that dating means looking for your spouse, that if at some point you realize you would not want to marry this person, you should break it off immediately. No one ever told me any of this. It’s something I thought of on my own, though I’m sure there were influences I can’t recall.

    I think the key to marriage is self-sacrificial love and an endless river of forgiveness. This means constantly working on improving yourself in how you relate to your spouse, with no expectation of your spouse doing the same. Any effort on your spouse’s part should not be looked on as fulfilling an obligation, but should instead be accepted with surprised gratitude.

  2. I’m still working on alleviating that stress that leads people to quit those “imperfect” marriages.

    A September 26 Rome Symposium on marriage (co-sponsored by Human Life International and the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation) at which I will be speaking on canon law, has a welcome letter from Cardinal Raymond Burke.

    HLI Rome is distributing the papers presented at the symposium to all the delegates at the upcoming Synod of Bishops – including my paper.

    I’m asking the Church to apply our own canon law to those whose marriage is on the brink of separation or divorce. To leave marriage for a reason that is not morally legitimate is abandonment. Catholics are not supposed to file for divorce without Church intervention first, though this has been disregarded in the U.S. for decades with disastrous results.

    See Spero News: Catholic marriage advocate asks Church to obey canon law on marriage.

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