Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Catholic community here.
Here's a true story about a woman who preserved unity in her marriage by nearly breaking it up—not just the unity, that is, but also the marriage.
She and her husband had been married ten or twelve years and had two young children. Both parents had fulltime five-day-a-week jobs, so weekends were particularly important as times for family togetherness.
But then the husband got a bright idea. He and his brother heard about an attractive moneymaking scheme. To be sure, it was labor-intensive and would take a lot of their time, but they were game. So the two guys started getting together nearly every Saturday and Sunday to do work—which, as it happens, was something they both enjoyed.
They did that for a year or two, until finally the wife had had enough. In no uncertain terms, she told her husband that he was neglecting his kids and dumping all the weekend parenting on her.
Of course he wasn't buying that. He had a bright idea, you see, and like lots of people with bright ideas, he was sticking by his idea even though it was starting to look kind of dumb. And after all, he was earning extra money for the family, wasn't he? What could possibly be selfish about that?
So the wife took matters into her own hands. She packed up her stuff, moved into an apartment, and settled down to wait her husband out. She saw the kids often, sometimes had them spend weekends with her. As for him, this was how things would be until he changed.
It took a few months for the message to sink in, but finally it did. He came to see that not only was his wife serious, she was right. So he sold his interest in the joint venture to his brother and got out. At which point the wife gave up her apartment and came home.
That was about twenty years ago, and these people have been happily married ever since. At least, as happily married as people generally are.
Somebody might call this a story about a marriage that nearly fell apart. I wouldn't argue with anyone who saw it like that, but I see something more in it.
This woman faced an intolerable situation. Many others in a situation like hers, having moved out, would then have gotten a lawyer and filed for divorce.
She didn't. She wanted to stay married. She also wanted a husband who would face up to his responsibilities as husband and father. So she administered strong medicine to get him to see his mistake. And it worked. Behind what she did was a real commitment to unity in marriage, along with the courage to do what it took to bring it about.
An extreme case? Maybe so. But there are plenty of seemingly less extreme cases in which husbands (and sometimes wives) also walk away from their duties as spouses and parents in order to devote large chunks of time to doing something that suits them better—playing golf or taking fishing trips with pals, or maybe even doing volunteer work or puttering around the parish. (The human capacity for self-deception is both boundless and highly inventive.)
Of course unity in marriage will never be absolutely seamless. Nor is there only one way to bring it about. The best advice I ever got on the matter came from a wise counselor who said, "Stop trying to shape others according to your tastes. Making allowance for the obvious exceptions, you have to accept them as they are."
That doesn't mean ignoring serious faults by which other family members are doing, or threatening to do, real harm. It means creating conditions in which they can realize their potential for moral excellence, not merely fall in line with your preferences.
It also means recognizing the tough yet reassuring truth of something St. Josemaria Escriva once said about marriage: "Don't forget that it is impossible for husband and wife to avoid at least some arguments." Don't quarrel in front of the kids, he added. "But quarrels, so long as they don't happen often, are also a proof of love, and they are almost a need."
Some might say, "Now, that's a relief!" and they'd be right.
More to the point, though, unity in marriage is worth fighting for.