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What is Marriage?

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What is marriage?

In contemporary culture, there are at least two competing worldviews of what marriage is: the consumer understanding of marriage as primarily about individual fulfillment and the Christian understanding of marriage as the gift of self.

First, let’s look at the consumer understanding. As one of America’s top marriage therapists, William Doherty notes the market model has increasingly invaded every sphere of life — including marriage. Whether it’s at work, church or marriage, Doherty suggests that “[i]n a generation we have moved rapidly from being citizens to being primarily consumers.” In other words, we’ve moved from being citizens of marriage who ask, “What can I do for my marriage?” to being consumers of marriage who ask, “What can marriage do for me?” The problem, as Doherty notes, is that consumers are inherently disloyal which is why it’s so rare for us to stay at one job for a long time or even to stay in one church for a long time. When one takes that consumer attitude into marriage, the consequences are pernicious. Instead of asking how he is called to sacrifice, he says “I deserve better.”

The consumer understanding of marriage distorts what marriage is really about: a gift of self. Marriage isn’t a supermarket of goods, ready-made for our consumption. If the supermarket down the street stops selling our favorite ice cream, no problem. We buy ice cream at another supermarket. But marriage is a vocation more rigorous — and more heroic — than that of the consumer. It’s more like a garden that calls us to pick up a spade, get our hands dirty and — after much patience and persistence — to enjoy the fruit of our labor. Even then, with growing a garden, sometimes crops wither. But it doesn’t mean we abandon the garden. It just means we plant the seeds again and keep tending the garden.

In the same way, marriage isn’t necessarily a ticket to our own version of individual fulfillment. What if your future wife becomes severely paralyzed? What if your child has Down syndrome? I suspect we have not adequately wrapped our minds around the meaning of marriage until we have considered the possibility that at any moment, whether during the honeymoon or in mid-life or in old age, tragic circumstances could call us to give up almost everything—our dream career, our comfort, our “happiness” — for the sake of the beloved. Marriage makes heroes, not consumers.

Marriage is heroic in that it calls a man and woman to give the gift of “I” — a gift so radical that it constrains our choice, but also so creative that it creates a “we” (the one-flesh marriage union) and other little “I’s” (children!).

The decision of marriage at once narrows the horizons (you can’t marry anyone else) and extraordinarily expands them (you raise your own family).

In other words, in marriage, we discover another paradox: the paradox of gift. The paradox is that in giving the ultimate gift (our self), we gain what humans throughout the centuries have described as “the meaning of life” (the love of one’s spouse and children). When it would seem that we lose ourselves, we find ourselves. Not only do we spiritually “find ourselves,” but we also physically find a reflection of ourselves in the children that come from the marriage union. As John Paul II said, “The lover ‘goes outside’ the self to find a fuller existence in another.”

This paradox of gift stands in direct contrast to the consumer understanding of marriage, which so easily lends itself to the paradox of choice.

From Consumer to Lover

When our view of marriage shifts from a consumer understanding to an understanding of marriage as the paradox of gift (as something that is in essence about sacrificial love and giving oneself to another), we build up immunity to the dizzying effects of the paradox of choice. And I can’t prove this, but my hunch is that it becomes easier to choose whom to marry.

How? Because the mystery of marriage invites us to adopt a particular orientation in dating, a way of discovering the person — their unique personality, life dreams, character, quirks — that does not reduce the person to a means to our own fulfillment, but encounters those qualities in “Ryan” or “Ashley,” a distinct person who is an end. Rather than primarily seeing Ashley as a way for me to feel good about myself, I see her as a person with whom I can share my life.

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This does not mean we blindly give ourselves to whomever walks down the street. Again, marriage calls us to discover the other person. And that process of discovery may involve asking difficult questions about the truth of the other person: “Has Ashley indicated by her character that she will respect the integrity of what marriage is and love me for better or worse, for richer or poorer, until death do us part?” “Has she demonstrated by her conduct that she will be a loving mother to our children?” There is a subtle — yet vast — difference between a discernment that asks, “Will she be a loving wife and mother?” and “Will she make me happy?” The former is a discernment focused on the objective truth about the other person, whereas the latter is a discernment focused on how she makes me subjectively feel. Lovers should ask hard questions of each other and of themselves. But, again, that’s all a part of discovering a person — a person who is an end, not a means to our own happiness.

There’s a difference between a consumer who is looking to use a person for his own end and a lover who is seeking to discover the beloved. A consumer evaluates his options; a lover woos his beloved. A consumer considers the trade-offs of not choosing Jennifer in favor of Ashley; a lover just looks into the eyes of his beloved and asks, “Ashley, will you marry me?” A consumer is enticed then carefully calculates; a lover is bewitched then ardently pursues. A consumer shops, seeking the best deal; a lover discerns, seeking to know the other person.

In courting and choosing whom to marry, we would do well to focus on the person and to remind ourselves that marriage is about giving ourselves in love to another person, and not primarily about individual fulfillment. Marriage rescues us from the paradox of choice and introduces us to the paradox of gift: Give yourself, and you find yourself. Focus on your needs, your happiness, your desires, and you get neither fulfillment of your needs, happiness, nor desires. Give yourself unreservedly to your beloved, and you discover the meaning of life.

*** The above excerpts are taken from the full article on Boundless.Org ***

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