by Matthew Cramer
In April of this year, while she was in Intensive Care at the hospital, Ruth Ann and I celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary. She had become very popular during her long stay in hospital so many staff well-wishers from several floors joined in. A question asked over and over was: What’s the secret of your successful marriage?
The questions were from sincere professionals, aware of the high divorce rate, who wanted to beat the statistics. Their friendly probing challenged us to provide insights ad hoc, and I found myself lamenting an opportunity for preparation. Still, because of the genuine interest we encountered, I was moved to distill a few lessons I consider crucial from our 60 years and present them here.
I often refer to our marriage as a “wild ride”. When people ask the secret to our marital success, I usually respond in a hopefully humorous way, “Don’t get divorced”. I say hopefully humorous because any marriage is always under attack. When times get rough, when feelings and egos get hurt and we have staked out our own territories, the ultimate solution always jumps to the front — divorce. We are tempted to throw in the towel, abandon efforts to forgive, adjust, and craft new growth in the relationship.
The attack is always ongoing because marriage is established by God to provide a stable relationship in which the husband and wife can mature and grow in their relationship with God and each other. Equally important, we are partners with God in the creation of new life. God established marriage to provide a stable nurturing environment in which, at the point of conception, other people (children) receive their existence and, like us, their opportunity to live with Him in Heaven. Finally, marriages are the building blocks of society, a model for relationships on which larger elements of society can be formed.
But marriage is much more important than the sum of these consequential elements. It is more than a promise, more than a ceremony, more than a legal definition. It’s a Sacrament, an “…efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC §1131).
When we exchange marriage vows before God, our commitment is to each other and to God. The priest administers the sacramental rite and blesses us at the end. He “witnesses” our vows, but he does not dispense the Sacrament itself. There are just three principals in our commitment, God and us. It is God alone who confers the Sacrament, and His personal involvement with the partnership continues unabated.
We make a solemn, permanent commitment to each other and to God. A commitment to faithfully participate in God’s plans for mankind — to foster each other’s maturity and relationship with God, and provide a stable, loving environment in which new human beings can receive their existence and explore a wondrous opportunity to live with God in Heaven.
When you think about it this way the mission is awesome, almost overpowering. But we take comfort in the fact that God ”…makes present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC §1131). In other words, He’s got our back.
It’s no exaggeration to say that if our relationship with God is our most important priority, a very close second is our marriage commitment. It ranks way above career, sex, money, power, and a host of other priorities that are thrust upon us by our hedonistic society.
The glue that makes a marriage work is Agápe love. Before the wedding, we probably experience emotional love (Eros) and genuine friendship (Filios) for each other. But emotional attachment fades quickly and friendships can be broken. Instead, marriage is built on a foundation of self-sacrificing love, “Godly love” that puts the needs of the beloved first.
It takes time, a lot of effort, and pain to be skilled in Agápe love — to freely forgive, be open to and respect the other’s needs, acquire a willingness to change, and maintain a focus away from self. Marriage provides the opportunities to practice this “Godly love”, put our priorities at the service of the beloved, and grow in character through the graces of Agápe.
Marriage is permanent. There are understandable cases of separation, even secular divorce, due to abuse or intransigence. But the marriage vows are permanent unless dissolved by the Church in an annulment.
Considering the significance of God’s plan for marriage, it’s no surprise the institution is under attack on all fronts. Our society is overrun with anti-marriage activities that weaken the concept of commitment, sacrifice, deference to others, loyalty and a host of other tools for marital success.
Sex is intended to add joy, physical and emotional pleasure, and put zest in our marital relationship. The pleasures of sex are also an incentive to cooperate with God’s plan to create new people that can enjoy life with Him.
It’s unfortunate that many people engage in sex before marriage. In so doing, they turn God’s plan for sex upside down, make sex more important than marriage, cheapen their view of the marriage commitment, and rob their marriage of the full benefit of sex. These effects are not permanent. But it takes significant time and effort to make the proper adjustments.
It’s not easy for a marriage to survive amidst this cacophony of evil. But survive we must if society is to survive, and new souls can receive their existence and a chance to live with God in Heaven. When Ruth Ann and I got married we had one clear objective. There would be no breakup, no divorce — not even a mention of the word. We both came from broken families and were determined to see things through, whatever the cost. That is not the full secret of our marriage, but it kept us together long enough for God to work things out.
Marriage is hard work and requires frequent attention. Each party must constantly consider their own relationship with God, the other party’s needs and those of each child. The needs often conflict, as do the relevant priorities. When relationships get out of order, extra work is required to communicate, achieve forgiveness, and implement changes. This is particularly difficult because real people are involved who are in their own special place on the playing field of life with its constant character challenges.
But none of us is properly trained to do this. We are all incompetent. Our culture prods us to focus on self, power, money and emotional satisfaction. So we must work extra hard to keep our marriage in play as we slog thru life.
Every time we sense life being drained from the marriage, we must communicate, identify the issue(s), work hard to implement adjustments, and release the flow of Agápe love. It’s necessary work, and important work — in the very foundation of the Kingdom of God.
We must trust He is on our side and will provide the necessary graces. There are wonderful benefits, pleasures and joys that cannot be experienced any other way. We will be drawn closer to Our Lord, and our character will mature. But it’s never easy. Just keep in mind that on the other side of forgiveness and sacrifice is new life and all of its blessings.