All this crazy business with California and marriage laws, and then this pops up in the news.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not ready to make any bold statements about the wisdom of this couple. Who knows what really drives this marriage. But in a country where one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, they're doing something right.
It all sounds eerily familiar. A good friend of mine tried to arrange his own marriage while we were in college. Citing (among other things) the high success of marriage in cultures where it was customary for parents to arrange their children's nuptials, my bud decided love had very little to do with picking a spouse and everything to do with being married to one. Over Christmas break, he asked a marriageable girl he knew from high school to marry him on November 11th, 2011 (11/11/11). She agreed. We were all mightily entertained by the whole thing.
Some months later, they both thought better of it and called it off. None of us really believed it would last—I’m not sure my friend ever was completely sold on the idea, so obviously this wasn't the sort of arranged marriage you and I think of when we hear the phrase. Nonetheless it all came back to me after reading the above story.
This got me thinking. Why are arranged marriages so successful? One could argue pretty convincingly that couples in unions not of their own choosing expect much less from marriage than couples who spend most of their lives waiting for that perfect person to fulfill all their dreams of happiness. Lower expectations means higher likelihood of satisfaction. Sounds like a magic recipe for America's divorce rate to me.
Okay, so maybe that falls a little flat.
However, the example of the above couple should not be lost on Catholic Christians. Most of the rhetoric in response to the gay marriage question drives at how defining marriage in any way other than between one man and one woman undermines the dignity of marriage and reduces it to a legal arrangement between entities irrespective of the common good. Marriage loses its meaning and value, like a word with a meaning so broad that it can't be said to have any meaning at all.
Now, all this is true, so far as it goes, but is it possible that we're on the wrong track? Can it be that the problem is not expecting too little of marriage, but too much?
If human beings are only happy when they achieve social, emotional, psychological, and sexual satisfaction, where can this satisfaction be found? It seems to me (and to the culture at large) that all these can only be found in a relationship of intimacy. Normal people have a healthy desire to be united to another person, to love and be loved, to share their bodies, and to lose oneself in the gaze of another. Such ideals are presented repeatedly in the popular culture through romantic films and fiction, though with inevitable trivialization in order to make them marketable commodities. With few exceptions the conclusion is foregone: find a partner, and you will be happy. When that partner no longer makes you happy, find another one.
This creates all sorts of neuroses and dysfunction in a culture. Look at our hyperemphasis on dating, body image, and self-regard (bridezillas, mid-life crises, etc.). Our fondness for disposability in consumer goods stems from and reinforces our pursuit of the perfect relationship. Marketers harness and exploit this by capitalizing on the need to invent and reinvent oneself after each subsequent alliance is formed and abandoned. Got dumped by your boyfriend? Get a new hairdo. Wife left you? Buy a new car. Can’t get a date? Work harder to make more money so you can buy yourself more stuff to quiet your self-loathing. You'll forget all that heartache soon enough. In the meanwhile, treat yourself to something nice. The capacity for intimacy is deadened with each liason—certainly the one-night stands, but so too the sex between more committed couples who eventually part (see Dawn Eden's testimony in The Thrill of the Chaste). It builds and builds in a feedback loop, and the potential for real relationships of intimacy (that’s what this is about, remember?) grows more superficial with each lap through the boudoir. Those who long for authenticity see real culture not as the backdrop of real life but as a refusal to partake in the emptiness that surrounds and antagonizes it, and this continual act of resistance saps its vitality and spawns bitter progeny.
The issue rests in the relation between marriage and fulfillment. If the “perfect partner” doesn’t exist, then is the desire for happiness and satisfaction simply a dream?
Consider, now, the life of the celibate. As Catholics, we look to men and women who have given up the good of marriage in order to teach us a very important truth: there is only one relationship of intimacy that satisfies. In answer to the question, “Who is the perfect partner?” the consecrated answer:
GOD. God is the perfect partner. Intimacy with God is the answer to every human longing. To be lost in that gaze is to find everything. All desire, all emotion, all longing for union with another, all passion to know and secret hope to be utterly known finds its origin in God and, if ultimately prolonged, has Him as its object. To be happy, God must be your spouse.
What liberation this is. Far from ripping love from our hearts and hoarding it, this invitation to find satisfaction only in the infinite frees us to be at ease in our loves rather than wrenching them to yield a precious sap that flows, not from them, but through them.
All other love is merely a reflection of the heavens in the puddles of a muddy road. You will become sullied too if you allow yourself to sink into it. But if you always remember that it’s a reflection of the light from that other home, then you will rejoice at its beauty and take good care that you do not destroy it by churning up the mire at the bottom.
These words from Kristin Lavransdatter (spoken, by the way, to a married woman by her celibate brother-in-law) have turned up in similar fashion time and time again in Catholic fiction .... Brideshead, anyone? It's no fluke.
Nor is it an accident of the ancient Palestinian world that the messiah presented himself as the Bridegroom, the spouse of every soul and of the whole world. It is a divine response to the desire of every human heart.
As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
Don't ignore it.