The Art of Marriage

Everyone is aware that there is a crisis in marriage and family life, and no one knows what to do about it. Some people see that crisis only too clearly as the marriages of their children and their friends break down. It is clear in the abundance of one-parent families, and in the prevalence of divorce, ill-health, depression and suicide. Neither the Church nor the wider society seems to know what to do about this crisis.

Marriage is no longer seen as a contract based on social roles, but as an intimate relationship of love. Traditionally, each partner in a marriage had a clear and separate function. The man was to be the breadwinner, the head of the family, the decision-maker, the ambassador of the family to the outside world. The woman was to be the child bear-er, the child rearer and the person who looked after the home. Provided they ful-filled these roles and remained faithful to each other, they were considered to have a good marriage.

This model has changed over the last 100 years, and particularly over the last 50, with the dramatic effect on Western society of the liberation of women. The man is no longer the sole breadwinner — but far more than that has changed. Relationships no longer operate as hierarchies; women and men are seen as different but equal, and communicate on an equal basis. Another change is that, with smaller families, the rearing of the children takes up far less of the parents' lifespan.

As the social structure changes in this way, there is a corresponding change in the criteria for judging the success of a marriage. Whereas before, the fulfilling of roles made for success, now the key factor is the quality of the relationship. The trouble is that this requires new social skills, which neither the Church nor society has succeeded in teach-ing.

These relationship skills can be summed up in the word 'love'. To learn more about love in the context of marriage, we need look no further than the documents of the Second Vatican Council. They contain a marvellous theology of marriage which speaks of it as a community of life and love in a covenant of personal relationships.

Far from being afraid to address the world on this subject, we can do so with confidence on the basis that we understand the ways of love. But these entail faithfulness and the readiness to forgive.

The worldly understanding of faithfulness is these days limited to sexual fidelity. But it actually means far more than that, encompassing the total attitude of the spouses to each other. When they are faithful to the image of God in which they are created, a Trinitarian God of three persons in a mutual relationship of love, the love of God is seen.

How to understand human love? The first intimate relationship of love in our life is that between parents and their children. A baby needs constant attention. It is held, stroked, fed, changed and talked to. This availability which parents show to children is also needed in the second intimate relationship of marriage. Research has shown that couples need physical and emotional availability. They need time together, sitting, walking, shopping, sharing their whole selves with each other. They need to be in touch with each other's inner world, to be aware of each other's feelings.

Communication, as learned by children, is essential to sustain the relationship — both verbal and non-verbal. Faithful love is expressed in words, and in disclosure of one-self to the other. The trouble is that communication between men and women is an extremely complex phenomenon. Men and women talk differently. Men- emphasise things and report facts. Women communicate to achieve connection with other people. Women talk more, talk better and communicate better.

Another legacy of childhood which-con- tributes to a good relationship is the demonstration of affection. Children feel. wanted and loved when they are kissed, hugged and caressed. The same applies in marriage: Tokens and gestures of affection are appreciated. I get couples corning to me in which the wife says: 'Nowadays; he never tells me he loves me.' The husband looks lost, scratches his head and says: 'I told you I loved you 25 years ago. Why do you want to hear it again? If I change my mind, I will let you know.' Communication of affection is at the heart of loving, and the balance between affirmation and criticism is crucial. Another important factor basic to the faithful integrity of the couple is the ability to resolve conflict. As children, we quarrel with our parents. For a short time they are angry with us, but soon we make up and love is restored. The same applies .to couples. There is no intimacy without quarrelling. We have to see every quarrel, not as a platform to win a victory, not as a power struggle, but as a crisis which helps us learn how we have hurt the one we love, and how to avoid inflicting hurt again in the future.

This is what a relationship needs to survive — but we fail all the time. So relation-ships need forgiveness, taking away the anger and hurt towards the person who has let us down. Forgiveness must also include a resolution to do better in the future; to avoid repeating the hurt.

One thing which often needs forgiving is the failure to be available. Through _marriage counselling, people must try to understand what they are doing to repel their partners. Are they taking enough care ,with their appearance? Are they food listeners? Do they talk too much, or cot enough? Are they sufficiently concerned to share topics or ventures of interest? The healing of a relationship may entail one partner finding out such faults.

The failure to communicate often requires healing too — people may talk too much or too little, or not listen to their partners properly. Forgiveness may be neede4 for a failure to demonstrate affection. Non-sexual affection is a key to love. In all these acts of forgiveness, it is essential to understand the cause of the conflict and avoid repetition. It is easy to move from one reconciliation to another, avoiding understanding of the root of the -problem, and perhaps even feeling smug about our magnanimity.

The healing of the other is a particular: expression of loving faithfulness.- Spouses may come to each other feeling anxious, lacking in confidence, insecure, frightened; unwanted, unlovable, rejected and unsure of themselves. One way of being faithful is by restoring the integrity of the other. Spouses do this by-giving each other a second chance to experience the feelings they missed the first time round in' their upbringing. The wounds of one's partner may be particularly tedious— he or she may appear selfish, self-centred; egotistical; may be habitually 'late, avoid relatives, and ignore requests for change; or may even be aggressive. The most fruitful way of continuing to love such a husband or wife is by noticing every little effort to change for the better and appreciating it. Forgiveness, although it includes toleration, has the characteristic of never giving up.

Faithfulness means helping each other to grow, socially and emotionally, so as to become independent and creative. Unequal rates of growth and change between spouses means that forgiveness sometime requires us to put up with the fact the our spouse cannot keep up with us.

Another factor at the heart of a couple's relationship' is their sexuality, for sex conveys a body language of love. Sexual faithfulness demands much more than the avoidance of extramarital sexual intercourse. Through the ecstatic pleasure a couple talk to each other with their bodies, communicating mutual roues. Sex can also be a powerful tool of reconciliation. It can be a language of hope anti of thankfulness for the other.

Sometimes sex produces a child but the meaning of intercourse does not sit there. There is also a spiritual dimension Intercourse is the central and recurrent act of prayer in the life of the couple. It reflects the Trinity in that two people are united through the third element of their love. They re in complete unity while remaining separate as persons. The giving and receiving If each others' bodies is also a reminder of the Eucharist. In sexual intercourse the world sees merely a physical encounter which ends in a climax of pleasure. Seen through the eyes -of faith, intercourse is a language of love it which the couple give their whole being to each other, and in so doing enter the very essence of the life of God, which is love. There are, however, negative aspects to sexuality. We must be careful how we seek change in sexual matters, because in this area we are at our most sensitive and vulnerable. When things go wrong sexually, we have to be patient and tolerant.

All in all, marriages need constant examination of their health and nothing should be taken for granted, particularly ai a time when men and women mix freely in society and at work outside the home. Marriage is essential to evangelisation in the world today, for the love between each of us, our spouse and our children, is our life of prayer which conveys an understanding of what it means to say that Got' is love. So the ordinary experience of every lay family life can become the extraordinary events in which the human meets the divine.

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02 December 2022

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Jack Dominian

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