Some Marriage Advice for Engaged Couples

Recently a friend of mine and practicing Catholic asked me to be a groomsman in his wedding that will take place in December 2016. I felt honored but immediately the former pastor in me began to think about the question, “If I had half an hour with an engaged couple who were orthodox Christians, what advice would I try to give to them before they said, ‘I do’?” As a result of that meditation, I’m “pregnant” with an essay and its time of “delivery” is at hand. Hence, the following article:

As someone who went through a divorce and subsequently received an annulment from the Catholic Church a few years ago, I approach the Sacrament with trepidation and know full well what a fragile union it can be. Figuratively speaking, like Jacob, I walk with a limp and what little wisdom I have about this great mystery did not come cheaply. Sea captains who’ve experienced shipwrecks have tales to tell.

There’s a story about G.K. Chesterton that has been repeated so many times that many people believe it is true even though there is no documentary evidence for it. A major daily newspaper in London, The Times, sent out an inquiry to famous authors asking them, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton’s reply was simple:

Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours,
G.K. Chesterton

A couple may face many challenges—problematic in-laws, a bad local economy, health issues—but, more often than not, their greatest problems will come from inside their own hearts. The Catholic Church teaches that in “Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin,” but “…certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized … as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence…”

Concupiscence is our inheritance from our original parents and is characterized by shifting blame: when God confronted Adam, he blamed Eve and she in turn blamed the serpent. The couple who stands before the priest (or pastor) and knows that their biggest problems issue from a heart that “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9), is ahead of the game. This is one reason why practicing Catholics, and devout Christians in general, have significantly lower divorce rates. A practiced faith daily reminds them of an indwelling, insidious concupiscence that they must fight and inoculates them from the error of passing the buck.

The erudite psychologist and evangelical Christian, Larry Crabb, makes a good case that the main engine driving concupiscence “is justified self-centeredness, a selfishness that, deep in our souls, feels entirely reasonable and therefore acceptable in light of how we’ve been treated.” It’s a part of our Adamic DNA. Crabb goes on to tell the story of a friend who confessed to him that he had committed adultery and said that “his wife was so unsupportive of the tensions he lived with every day, that his desire to be appreciated by a woman simply got the best of him.” In several years of counseling, he has found that adulterers often “see their sin as necessary to their soul’s well-being, and therefore more understandable than wrong.”

Sometimes I will meet a young, engaged couple and flashing red warning lights will go off all around me. If I’m observing their behavior towards one another, either one or both of them will communicate the unspoken message “This person will make all my dreams come true.” This makes me question the wisdom of them getting married without some serious intervention from a seasoned marriage counselor.

Perhaps they grew up with significant unmet emotional needs in their family of origin and are looking to their fiancé to fill the emptiness. Additionally, as C.S. Lewis opines, our species was created in Edenic perfection and created for heaven so there will always be a “something’s missing” feeling in this fallen existence no matter how many blessings we are showered with. This world is not enough.

Because of these factors our future spouse can become an idol: we look to them to meet all our unmet needs, and, unfortunately, people make lousy gods. If I had half an hour with an engaged couple, I would encourage them to work very hard at two things: (1) Be as happy as you possibly can apart from your future spouse. The four major sources of happiness are faith, family, friends, and work. Maximize personal happiness in those areas then, (2), turn to your fiancé with an agenda to serve him or her. Be proactive in discerning their needs and practice the Passion in your relationship—i.e. incarnate humility and sacrificial love towards them whether you feel like it or not.

The Mass is a tutorial on how to do this: Christ’s example of self-donating love is re-presented to us every week. If both people imitate this, it not only makes for a good beginning for a sacramental marriage, but also sends a profoundly counter-cultural message to a civilization marked by narcissism. Again, it’s only a good beginning, but, like the loaves and fishes from the boy, Christ can multiply them and have his followers eat their fill and still have twelve baskets full of left-overs that can, in turn, be given to weary and hungry wayfarers we may meet along the way.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Wedding March,” was painted by Edmund Blair Leighton in 1919.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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