You are in a large church basement on the upper east side of Manhattan. Like all church basements, it freelances as a basketball court, a dining hall, a wailing room for various twelve-step programs. This morning, it's marriage preparation. Seventy-five couples who plan to marry in the Catholic Church are here for a day of Pre-Cana. Some arrive with an attitude. Their parents want a big Catholic wedding. It can't happen until they get their Pre-Cana certificate. So, here they are: under duress, as it were.
Devout Catholics in the audience have their own thoughts: What are we about to hear? What will my non-Catholic partner make of it? The anxiety is perfectly justified; more than a few non-Catholics who attend a Pre-Cana program find it so embarrassing that they refuse to have their children brought up Catholic as a result. Finally, there are the lapsed Catholics. The room is full of them -- people who have not thought about religion for two consecutive minutes since grade school. This is the last shot the Church has at them. If someday they are surprised by an impulse to return to the faith, they may first recall that day in the church basement.
The Call to Self-Giving
Nobody was more concerned about these couples than the late Pope John Paul II. As a young priest in Krakow, he set up a family institute and spent hundreds of hours listening to and counseling young couples. One of the fruits of that experience was his 1960 masterpiece about conjugal love, Love and Responsibility, and he repeatedly addressed the theme of love and marriage during his pontificate. For a Pre-Cana speaker, these writings are like a gift from a heaven. For one thing, they avoid pre-Vatican II legalisms that bounce off young people like tennis balls off armor plating. Instead, the pope took the "personalist" approach. Without compromising norms like fidelity and indissolubility, he articulated a Catholic vision of marriage that can resonate even with a post-Christian yuppie sitting captive in the back row.
Unfortunately, John Paul's theology of marriage has yet to be absorbed by many who supervise Catholic marriage preparation. As a result, Pre-Cana programs tend to come in two flavors: traditionalist and antitraditionalist. Traditionalists read the riot act about marriage norms (all perfectly true), but in a tone that violates the injunction that we propose, rather than impose, the truths of the faith. Antitraditionalists ricochet in the other direction, cracking jokes, using psychological jargon, and fudging as many Church teachings as possible. In other words, they pander to what they assume to be the mental habits of the young. Couples often find this sort of presentation the more alarming of the two.
In documents like Familiaris Consortio and Letter to Families, John Paul II offered a third way, a Pre-Cana syllabus that actually works. It avoids both rigorism and psychobabble. It communicates the unchanging norms of marriage, but only in answer to a question that bothers all young people: What will make me truly happy? In attempting an answer, the pope started with a line from the Second Vatican Council, which he probably drafted as Cardinal Wojtyla: "Man cannot fully find himself except through the sincere gift of self." That is the way to real happiness.
Every person is called to a vocation of love. Giving oneself totally to another person responds to a very deep human need. Certain people have the vocation to give themselves directly to God and so live a life of celibacy. For others, their path to self-giving is through marriage.
The Catechism puts it like this: "The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator-God who created man out of love also calls him to love -- the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being."
When you marry, you make a full, unconditional (and therefore irrevocable) gift of yourself to your spouse. Marriage is not just a partnership, a mutual accommodation of two independent egos. It is something much deeper: a communion between two beings who, in the words of Genesis, "become one flesh." Short of death, you can no more become an ex-spouse than you can become the ex-parent of your children.
The indissolubility of marriage is a "hard saying" for the modern mind, which deems Catholic teachings about fidelity insufficiently therapeutic. But an unconditional gift is, by definition, not retractable: It is not a lending, but a giving. What is more, in pronouncing marriage to be indissoluble, Christ recognized a problem at the core of our being. His teaching about divorce is a spur to fallen humanity, since real love and happiness are not achieved by people who give up easily. As one writer puts it, "Those who seek divorce because of the difficulties that marriage involves are simply balking at the difficulties that happiness involves."
A Few Examples
When teaching Pre-Cana, it helps to put an image in the mind of the audience, something concrete to convey the profound unity of marriage. My favorite is from an avant-garde verse play about marriage published in 1960 by an underground playwright -- yes, Karol Wojtyla. The Jeweler's Shop is about three marriages, one of them on the rocks. One afternoon, the wife Anna is walking down the street and notices a jeweler's shop. She stops, looks at her wedding band and thinks, "I don't need this. I can sell it. My husband won't even notice." She enters the shop and hands it to the Jeweler. The Jeweler puts the ring on his scales, but they register nothing. He looks at her and says,
Your husband must be alive --
in which case neither of your rings, taken separately,
Will weigh anything -- only both together will register.
My jeweler's scales
Have this peculiarity
That they weigh not the metal
But man's entire being and fate.
Ashamed, Anna takes the ring back and leaves the shop to reflect on what she is doing. You can unpack many truths from this little drama. For one, most of us truly are weightless until we answer the vocation to make a full gift of self in marriage. My father once told me that I wouldn't grow up until I married, and he was right.
Marriage only makes sense as a vocation. And a vocation is something you work at. Marriage can make a couple very happy, but it cannot make them effortlessly happy. We live in a culture where everyone is driven toward achievement; we can place tremendous demands on ourselves at the office and in our recreations. The question for an engaged couple is: Are you entering your marriage with this same attitude, that you are going to make it work? Emotions alone are not going to do it. Your feelings are going to fluctuate, and at some point, your will -- your ability to make free choices -- steps in and decides the fate of the marriage. Studies have actually shown that a couple's understanding of the words "I do" shapes a marriage for better or worse, more so than shared interests, good communication, or even feelings of genuine love.
Years ago I had a colleague who came from a part of Greece where parents still arranged marriages. Both sets of her grandparents had married this way. I once asked her what those marriages were like. She replied that both had actually been quite happy. When I asked her how that could be, given the lack of choice, she said, "Back then there was no possibility of divorce, so a couple knew they had to make their marriage work." Once a couple takes that attitude, the emotions fall into place quite nicely.
The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset divided the human race into two categories: those who place demands on themselves, and those who don't. This certainly applies to marriage. And one area where every spouse needs to work is communication. Look at any happy marriage and you'll notice not only that the couple is good at communicating, but that they make an effort in this area. Conversely, look at any marriage that is falling apart, and you'll find communication problems; in fact, it's often the case that an unhappily married couple, even before they got married, never communicated very well.
A Few Observations
First, we have to recognize some differences between men and women. Men and women are created beings of equal worth and dignity, but it is the complementary nature of the sexes -- physical and emotional -- that makes marriage so interesting. A good marriage is like the Kreutzer Sonata: sometimes the piano leads, sometimes the violin.
One difference between men and women is that men tend to be more rationalistic -- notice I am not saying rational -- more "objective," more results-oriented. They tend to think that logic can solve every problem. Women, and this is their great strength, are more people-oriented. They have a keener interest in persons and their feelings; they like to communicate. This difference between the sexes is easy to demonstrate: The average adult male uses 13,000 words a day, whereas the average woman uses 24,000.
Gary Smalley, in one of his books about marriage, has a catchy way of illustrating this difference between men and women. A couple on a long car trip pulls into McDonald's. She is perfectly content to sit there, sip coffee, and talk to her husband. She has things on her mind and looks forward to a moment of rapport. He, on the other hand, is thinking about the number of cars he passed that morning that are now passing him. He wants to reach their destination by 7 p.m., whereas she is not overly concerned about ETA. He is thinking schedule, she is thinking people. It's a male/female thing which, if you think about it, occurred between Christ and his mother at the original wedding feast in Cana.
Because of this rationalistic tendency, more often than not men are most comfortable in a logical, structured environment like the office. Family life, especially if there are small children, is anything but rational. So, a husband tends to tune out and put a premium on order and peace. If his wife calls on him to solve a problem, he wants to do it quickly. Husbands, in general, are very fast with logical advice and very slow with sympathy. But sympathy is needed first. She doesn't want your wisdom, wonderful and infallible as it might be, but your understanding.
Men also have their emotional side, but it plays itself out differently in a marriage. There is a bestseller, Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I don't agree with everything in that book, but the author uses an image that is true and arresting: On Mars, where men come from, there are a lot of caves. When a man gets upset about something, he doesn't want to talk about it. He retreats to his cave. The wife senses that something is wrong; in fact, she can easily think that he's mad at her about something. Again, the complementary character of marriage comes out. Here the man can profit from his wife's attraction to words. At least if he talks a little he can let her know that she is not the source of his problem.
Secrets of a Happy Marriage
What are the secrets of a happy marriage? First, ponder St. Thomas Aquinas's definition of love, which has never been improved upon: "To love is to will the good of another." Notice that Aquinas does not mention feelings. If you decide that the good of the person to whom you're married is the most important thing in your life -- more important that your job, your friends, even your children -- then the feelings will take care of themselves, and the children will be cared for in the depth of your love for each other.
Second: Marriage is a continual courtship. I once attended a depressing lecture on marriage by a woman who said that marriage is like an airplane flying from New York to Philadelphia: It uses 80% of its fuel on takeoff. After the honeymoon, she warned, a couple should be prepared to settle into boring, quotidian reality. But marriage does not have to be like that. On your wedding day your courtship should be just beginning, not ending. Husband, give your wife the sense that you are preoccupied with her; let her know that pleasing her is very important to you. Wife, you must do the same. You have to build memories; watching TV together doesn't count. How about some distraction-free time spent together?
Third: Successful spouses listen. When their partners have something to say, they put down the paper, turn off the television, and listen with their eyes, so to speak. There is a constant exchange about small, daily details -- for example, the family finances. There are marriages in which the failure to agree about seemingly small matters can spiral into serious breakdowns. Keeping open the lines of communication will prevent both partners from dwelling on imaginary problems.
Fourth: Good spouses make quality time for one another. I do not believe in quality time with children. I once heard a Wall Street banker make the classic remark, "I only see my children on Saturdays from two until four-thirty, but it's quality time." The problem with this is that the truly extraordinary moments with children, the ones that stay lodged in your memory, are always unscheduled. There is, however, such a thing as quality time between spouses. Especially when the children come, you can get a little overwhelmed. You need to get off alone, if only to the coffee shop around the corner, and talk. Not just about little things, but about larger issues: What goals are we setting for the children? Is my job really worth the time I have to spend away from you?
Fifth: Learn to yield cheerfully in matters of personal preference. It did not occur to me until several years into my marriage that a father can give a bath to a small child and do it cheerfully. Marriage should never be a fifty/fifty proposition. Each spouse must try to make those small daily sacrifices which are a key to family happiness.
Sixth: Be cheerful, period. Even a serious disagreement should not make you lose your cheerfulness. There is far too much talk in our society about feelings. Feelings are important, but they are not the final court of appeal. You can decide to be cheerful. William James, whose insights about these matters will survive longer than Freud's, wrote: "The sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look around cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not soon make you cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can." Wonderful advice for a couple.
Whenever I speak at Pre-Cana assemblies, I bring up the issue of living together before marriage. Once, during a break in the session, a young woman came up to me and asked in a low, nervous voice: "What about the high divorce rate among couples who live together before marriage?" Well, what about it? Couples who live together prior to marriage have a much higher divorce rate. The longer they live together, the higher the divorce rate. It seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? A friend once said to me that she wouldn't dream of marrying a man unless they had first lived together for three years. Makes perfect sense: Take a test drive before you buy the new model.
But it doesn't work that way. Marriage and living together are different states of being: There is no such thing as a trial marriage. One problem is that when you move in with somebody, you seldom ask yourself any questions, or at least not the questions you should ask about a person with whom you plan to spend the rest of your life: Do I really share this person's values? Do I want my children to have this person's values? It's doubtful that a Pre-Cana speaker will persuade a cohabiting couple to cut it out until the honeymoon; but he should suggest, contrary to what these couples probably suppose, that they actually have more issues to discuss than couples who are not living together.
Marriage counselors are often astounded, when dealing with young couples having difficulties, at the number of issues that were not discussed before the wedding day. The two that cause the most trouble are money and in-laws. A couple should also talk about children, religion, the financial budget, and so forth. These problems are not going to solve themselves automatically after the honeymoon.
Finally, marriages work better if there is a recognition by the couple of their dependence on God. Christ performed his first miracle at a wedding, and in a sense, every marriage needs a miracle. St. Thomas Aquinas said that marriage can be so difficult that it requires special graces from God -- but you must be open to them. This means following God's laws about marriage, including the one that our modern culture finds so perplexing. I save the low divorce statistics among couples who use Natural Family Planning for the sex talk, but it's always worth recalling. Maybe 3% of Catholic couples use NFP. If this were to rise to even 10%, it would change the Church, not to mention the divorce rate.
Couples about to marry are embarking on a great adventure. You ought to be aware that, as John Paul II wrote, "the future of humanity passes through the family." In getting married, you are entering a much larger picture. The health of a society depends on the health of its families, and by working to build a fruitful and happy marriage you are doing more good than you can know.
George Sim Johnston is the author of Did Darwin Get It Right? (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998). This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.