Every day, I bless a merciful God that there was no internet to speak of when I was younger. This means there are no insanely humiliating photos of me in a crop top and acid wash harem pants. It also means that I never published an article like this one in Catholic Exchange: Marriage Is Work.
In this piece, which I absolutely would have written as a newlywed, the earnest, not-yet-married Emma Smith hears her secular coworkers lamenting the way their ex-husbands had cheated on them
“There’s so much of that out there!” my boss exclaimed. “I know one of my girlfriends who is cheating on her husband and I know a couple of other people where both of them are cheating. I guess you’re lucky if it doesn’t happen to you.”
Smith goes on to explain to the reader that she knows that her soon-to-be husband will never cheat on her. She knows this. She knows for a fact that it simply will not happen.
Marriage isn’t a drawing of the straws, where if your spouse cheats on you, well, “sorry, you just drew the short straw. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it!” It’s not an institution where if you are a strong, happy, and healthy couple you’re just “the lucky ones.”
And she knows, she says, that people will think she’s just young and naive for knowing that her husband will always be faithful.
And yet, I can say that. I can say that because I have a faith and a God who stand behind me in that statement. And I can say that because the love my fiancé and I share is not human, it is divine. We love each other because we love God and we have discovered that in loving one another, we get to love God more fully. Moreover, the love that we have for one another is divine in origin. God gave it to us at our baptism and it had a full 15-20ish years to grow and mature so that when we met, it blossomed.
Well, let’s start with all the ways that Smith is right. She says that “marriage is something you work on … marriage is a calling.” And she is right. She says:
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.
And what do we know about human beings? They sin. They sin, and they sin, and they sin. Sometimes they enter into a valid marriage and then they cheat. Sometimes they understand fully what they are supposed to do, and they just don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes calamity strikes, and they crumple under the blow. Sometimes they let their own sorrows and weaknesses and selfishness overcome the love that is offered to them. Sometimes — no, my friends, always — they are a tangled ball of good intentions and bad habits, unhealed wounds and unfounded desires.
Many, many times, the grace of the sacrament helps us to avoid serious sin. Sometimes, though, the grace of the sacrament helps us to forgive each other when we sin. Sometimes it helps us to survive when our spouses refuse to repent.
So the confident if untried Emma Smith is right in sighing over the fatalistic modern view of marriage — right in condemning the idea that some people just get lucky, and there’s no way of improving your odds. But she 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.
Ever heard of Hosea’s wife? Ever heard of Israel? Ever heard of the entire human race? God knows that this is what happens when you enter into a marriage with another human being: one way or another, sooner or later, your love will be rewarded with pain. And I know this because I love my husband — my faithful, loving husband — and I’ve hurt him.
I pray to God, and I hurt my husband.
I understand marriage, I believe in marriage, I have spent years upon years working on my marriage, and I hurt my husband. And He forgives me, just as I forgive him.
I am glad that Smith understands so well that the grace of marriage is something that must be actively pursued, consciously acted upon. And I hope that her confidence in her husband is rewarded with unbroken faithfulness and love, and that she will not be shattered when she discovers that he does have flaws. I hope that people read her piece and realize that it makes sense to look hard for a spouse who is trustworthy.
But I hope to God she is never involved in any kind of marriage ministry — not with the childish understanding of marriage that she has now. What will she say to the woman whose husband is cheating? Or to the man whose wife won’t stay sober, or won’t stop gambling, or won’t stop browbeating him in public? What will she say to the spouses who do work hard, and have found themselves sinned against? Maybe “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how you could have worked harder to prevent this. Good marriages aren’t just a matter of luck, you know.”
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.