Not everyone was happy with my post yesterday. A few people felt that I was making fun of others, or just plain being mean. I was being a little mean, and I was making fun, but I pointedly directed all that snark toward the principle at stake, not individual people. As I said in my post, I have no leg to stand on when it comes to marriage advice. This isn’t me covering my ass, either. It’s just the truth. I suck at marriage.
Simcha’s post today got me thinking even more. I felt like our posts dovetailed in a weird way. Here’s an excerpt, with apologies for the sloppy quote-within-a-quote thing — the italics are the original post at Catholic Exchange that Simcha is responding to:
Our faith allows us to make these promises [of faithfulness] because He who gave us love was faithful in His love until the end. … We as Catholics are granted the same strength of faithfulness to the end when we return our love to the one who is love. When we participate in making our love a sacrament, when we make a way for God’s grace to enter the world every day, when we demonstrate outwardly our inner devotion, we can say with full knowledge and confidence that we are not in a game of luck.
Yes indeed. A strong marriage doesn’t just spring into being on its own. If we translate our love of God into love for our spouses, and when we let our love for our spouses nourish our love for God, then we will be fulfilling our vocation.
But that’s it: we’ll be fulfilling our vocation, period. That is all we can depend on: that God will be faithful to us. Beyond that, things can get very messy. When Catholics fulfill their vocation of marriage, it can turn out looking like an awful lot of things, and that includes ugly, painful things that may or may not ever get resolved in this lifetime.
Because here’s the deal: you aren’t marrying God. You’re marrying another human being. Your spouse is marrying you, and you are a human being.
Although yesterday I focused mostly on the way drastic bans like the Modesto Manifesto contribute to the thingification of people, many of my commenters picked up on the fact that even a strict set of rules won’t keep your marriage safe, if that’s all you think you need. Similarly, Simcha was right to point out that Emma Smith “is disastrously, innocently, offensively wrong when she thinks that we can somehow guarantee that things will turn out well, just because we intend to work hard.”
A set of rules, a proper understanding of sacramental marriage, a good work ethic, even a Ph.D in Theology of the Body won’t guarantee you protection from your own humanity. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past nine years of marriage, it’s that I’ve been wrong about all of it, all along.
I don’t mean that I stand here, 9 years wiser, staring back at my offensively wrong shiny-eyed self of yesteryear. I mean that I stand here looking at my offensively wrong self of last week, yesterday, 2 hours ago, and probably tomorrow. Probably tonight, actually.
Everyone points at infidelity and porn as these great twin evils that a marriage must be protected from at all costs. They are, to be sure. But we can be so blinded by the ever-present threat of these things that we don’t notice the evil creeping up under our feet, wrecking our marriage from the inside out. By “we” I mean me.
There are a thousand shades of betrayal that can undermine a marriage. I didn’t understand that as a newlywed. I barely understand it now. But in the meantime, I spent years pointing my finger at my husband, just waiting for the ball to drop. I’m not sure why I was so convinced that he would eventually betray me, but I was, so I spent years preemptively punishing him for things he hadn’t done, things he might never do. All around me were blog posts and books and how-to guides offering strategies to protect my marriage from betrayal. I read them like a woman possessed, seeing the shadow of betrayal in every gesture, hearing it in every word. What I didn’t read was anything like what Simcha posted today. Even if I had, I’m not sure I would have understood it until the time was right.There was a comment in her combox that took my breath away.
It is during these times when we least want to be married to them when they probably need the most devotion from us. I remember a horrible day when I said “I choose to decide that his soul is right now more important than my feelings.”
That is a decision I have never truly made. In recent years I’ve made a few fledgling attempts, but usually my mouth outruns my good intentions and I end up talking yet again about how I feel. It’s rarely “happy” or “well-loved” or “grateful that you work your ass off for us”. It’s almost always some variation of “lonely” or “neglected” or “stressed” or “overwhelmed” or, on the rare occasions when I manage to keep my mouth shut long enough for the Ogre to ask me what’s wrong,
The Ogre doesn’t talk about his feelings much, because (in politer terms than he would put it) he’s a man. Sure, lots of men talk about their feelings. He’s just the kind that doesn’t. So our marriage has revolved almost entirely around mine. In no way have I made a concerted effort to put the welfare of his soul above my feelings. That’s a kind of betrayal as well, and a kind that’s much harder to recognize than the thunderclap betrayal of infidelity.
I wish I could blame it on poor pre-Cena, but we had excellent pre-Cena. I knew at the outset that I was joining my soul to my husband’s, and that the vows I was taking could only be truly fulfilled if I put his welfare above my own. What can I say? I’m selfish right down to the roots.
A wife who loves herself more than her husband will destroy her marriage, and vice versa. A wife who loves her husband more than herself will create a marriage of beauty, and vice versa. It’s just that simple to say, and infinitely complex to do. Sometimes it might be one-sided, and it might look like a train wreck. Sometimes you might be wrong about the best way to love your spouse more than yourself, and it might feel like a train wreck. There’s no way to ensure perfection. All you can do is keep trying. It’s choice you have to make every moment of every day, and it’s the hardest choice to make. So hard that on the rare occasions when I’ve managed it, I always feel exquisitely sorry for myself in the choosing, because who’ll take care of me? It requires trust and faith. It requires the willingness to look honestly at myself, then put myself away.
Maybe that’s why I get so annoyed by things like the Modesto Manifesto, or abstinence-only sex-ed, or even the excessive glorification of Theology of the Body. Sure, some of that has its place, and some of it can be helpful. But nothing is a panacea against the fact that all marriages are made up of humans, and when they are presented as such they can be devastating. There were plenty of times when I was convinced that this book or that strategy would fix everything in my marriage and shore it up against future catastrophe. Lucky for me, my will is weak, and I was never able to carry them out. If I had, I might never have understood that the problem with my marriage is that all my problems begin and end with me…they’re my hurt feelings, my self-pity, me at the center of every wrong, every injury, every injustice, everything.
And what will she say to herself when she finds herself sinning against her husband? Maybe she will not cheat, but oh, she will hurt him. She will. This isn’t a warning about your husband-to-be, dear confident, untried brides. It’s a warning about you.
It wasn’t cruel of Simcha to say this. It was a kindness that I wish someone had showed me. They did, probably, but I was too convinced I knew where evil lay in wait to listen. Still, we should say it more. There are plenty of people like me who need to hear that the greatest threat to their marriage resides in their own heart, alongside the greatest way to protect it.