Excerpts from Christian Courtship in an Over-Sexed World: A Guide for Catholics
It is surprising how many young men and women have barely a clue as to what to look for in a potential spouse. Most simply try to find someone they are attracted to and then fall into a relationship. If there are no major crises along the way, or even if there are, they get married and hope it works.
There is a better way: Establish what you should be looking for before you get started.
A number of “essentials” should never be compromised when looking for a spouse: solid faith, friendship, no addictions or major hang-ups, a real interest in raising good children, the ability to communicate, the ability to stand up to controlling parents, some interpersonal chemistry, and a willingness to commit to self-giving love.
Women: avoid the perpetual adolescent, the control freak, the liar.
Men: steer clear of the deceiving woman and the manipulator.
Both: Keep your standards reasonably high. It is better to be single and wish you were married than to be married and wish you were single.
This must be a person who will help you to get to heaven. You need to see him/her in a number of different situations, not just dinner and a movie. You should consider the opinions of other people, but sift them with prudence. Above all, stay close to the Lord through prayer, Mass, confession, and living a moral life. Ultimately, only by God’s grace can you make the right choice.
The first consideration in choosing a spouse is, “Will this person help me to get to God’s Kingdom?” For any good Catholic, salvation should be the prime consideration in any endeavor.
Look realistically at the issues facing couples nowadays: sexual activity during courtship; abortion and contraception (much of which is abortifacient); the number of children (good Catholics tend to be open to having more than the average number); Sunday worship; baptizing and educating children in the Faith; schooling, including the choice of Catholic, secular or home; etc. The list seems to grow by the hour.
You will share your whole life in the most intimate of relationships with the person you marry. No person on earth will be closer to you, not even your father or mother. (See Genesis 2:24.) Do you really want to spend a good deal of time in your marriage arguing with a spouse who will fight you on contraception, or going to Sunday Mass; or who won’t give you an ounce of support in your most important lifelong mission? Wouldn’t you rather have someone who will actually support you rather than fight you? Salvation is hard enough without having to drag an unwilling spouse along behind you!
Is there any possibility for a relationship with a non-Catholic? Perhaps, but these moral issues can be difficult for Catholics, not to mention non-Catholics. The question to ask is if he/she is open to your moral convictions. Chances are, only a devout Protestant who sees the goodness of the Catholic faith would be.
What if you meet a lapsed Catholic or an atheist who seems very nice? My advice has always been that if they don’t become more religious during the first six months of the courtship, there’s a good chance they will never accept Christ or the Church. If you marry this person, you may well find that your most intimate friend on this earth will in no way help you on your journey toward the Kingdom.
Now some might say, “Well, Father, that’s easy for you to say, but it’s hard to find someone you like. If you add these sorts of conditions, it will be next to impossible!”
I agree it will certainly narrow the field. But remember, God doesn’t say “I call you to the vocation of marriage. Now go find someone on your own.” God is there to help. If you say, “Lord, I’m going to seek someone who loves you so we can nourish each other in that love,” do you think God will say, “Good luck!” I think he will rather say, “Great. I’ll help you find someone.”
Many other elements go into choosing a marriage partner, but if you get this one wrong, you could be in for a lifetime of deep trouble.
How do you know if someone is a good Catholic? One thing you don’t do is to ask. Virtually everyone thinks he/she is a good Catholic or Christian even if he/she hasn’t set foot in a church or prayed in years. Observe! Does he/she go to Mass each Sunday? Does he/she go to confession? Is he/she willing to live gospel chastity, not just for you but for Christ? Does he/she pray regularly? Is he/she willing to pray with you? Can he/she talk about these things? Often if the person refuses to talk about his/her own spirituality, it’s because he/she doesn’t have much of it. If you’re considering marrying someone, you have every right to know how he/she relates to your best friend, God. Is he/she willing to learn more about the Faith by reading, etc.? Does he/she understand the Cross, i.e., that following Christ and loving others is hard, and involves real sacrifice? (This is a big one.)
You need not quiz someone on the first date, but as the relationship develops, you should indicate little things about your own spiritual life and see how he/she responds. If you never get a response, you might have to be more direct: “Would you like to pray together some time?” If he/she responds, “That’s kind of personal,” you couldcounter, “Yes, I’m looking for a personal relationship.” After all, what could be more personal than marriage?
Don’t sell yourself short. I have worked with lots of young, single Catholics who found good, religious spouses, people who share their own values. You don’t have to compromise in this area, unless you give up before you start, as so many do. It takes some planning and effort to find a religious mate, but it is quite possible, and definitely worth it.
Does he/she have any major hang-ups, such as being a drug user or dealer, an unreformed alcoholic, or a compulsive gambler? Any of these should set off red lights everywhere. Marrying someone like this is an invitation to disaster. If you are frequently attracted to such people, get counseling right away!
One lovely young woman came to me and asked what she should do about her boyfriend, who took and even sold drugs. I told her, “Get rid of him today! He’s trouble!”
“But I love him,” she insisted.
“Love won’t conquer a drug habit. Don’t make yourself miserable for years and years for a few moments of pleasure.” I never heard what she did. I hope she got smart.
Once a woman asked me what I thought about her continuing with her boyfriend. “He prays the Rosary, and goes to Mass often during the week. But, well, he’s trying to get me into kinky sex.”
“Run for the hills, I told her. This guy is a terrible hypocrite.” (She needed me to tell her this?)
Another danger: Does he/she have a lot of unresolved anger? Anger is poison to a marriage. If someone is angry a good deal of the time, he or she needs to resolve this through therapy before marriage. Otherwise, they’re going to be big trouble to any prospective spouse.
A husband once told me his wife would get angry with him and refuse to talk to him for two weeks at a time. What infantile behavior! When you’re angry with your sweetheart, you may need some time to cool off, but after that you need to be able to talk. Silence as a weapon is utter folly.
To the person who says, “But I can change him (or her),” I say, “Go into religious life. Then you can reform people without having to live with them.” Gandhi was right on the mark when he said, “A reformer cannot afford to have close intimacy with him whom he seeks to reform.”
The person you marry should be your best friend. This is crucial. After thirty or forty years of marriage, physical beauty may fade, but friendship can remain forever. My own mother delighted in the friendship of my father two years before she ever fell in love with him. Friendship is based on sharing the same values and viewpoints. Do you share religious beliefs, moral beliefs, some recreational interests, intellectual interests, interest in the arts, reading, etc.? You can each learn to share each other’s interest in some things, but there should be a strong base from the beginning.
Years ago a young couple got married and their friends doubted it would last. Yet every year things got better. A friend asked the secret of their success. The husband attributed it to their anniversary presents. He had been heavily involved in photography before they married, but had given it up since she had no interest in it. For their first anniversary his wife got out the camera and they took some stills together, and then developed them. She whispered to him “This is my anniversary gift to you, dear.” She had secretly studied photography so they could do this together.
The next year he took dancing classes, and as they waltzed together on their anniversary, he said, “This is my anniversary present to you, sweetheart.” Each year thereafter they would give a similar gift, thereby cementing their friendship more and more. As their friendship grew, their marriage grew stronger.
Of course, spouses don’t need to do everything together. It’s healthy to have things you do alone. Nevertheless, you should be able to do a number of things together to help build a strong friendship.
You can’t manufacture chemistry, but if you think, “Well, Horatio is right in every category, but after two years there is no chemistry,” then he is not a good marriage prospect for you. You don’t have to experience fireworks every time you see the person, but you should be drawn to them, not repelled by them, although you can sometimes grow into attraction by way of friendship.
On the other hand, how important is it that you are deeply in love with this person, and can hardly stand to be apart? Not very. I was infatuated with a good number of women before I entered the seminary, but often not wisely so. Eros, that strong desire for the good, the beautiful and the true in the other, is not nearly as important for marriage as friendship and agape, the ability to give oneself unconditionally for the good of the beloved.
Incidentally, if you were a bit more deeply in love with a former sweetheart than you are with the person you are currently with, this does not mean the one you love now is not the right one. You need not have a peak experience every time you’re with him/her.
There is no doubt that emotional love has been over-stressed in our culture, especially in the movies, but it’s not the end-all and be-all. Nonetheless, it helps if there is a real attraction to the other person.
What about flashy women or handsome, cool men? Beware. Flashy women may be manipulators or persons who don’t know how to accept good, decent treatment. (Flashy women often do not get treated well.) Regarding handsome men, one happily married woman commented to me, “Father, you’ve got to tell these women they can’t all marry a handsome guy. I used to date lots of handsome men, and they treated me horribly. They were all spoiled brats!” When a man is both handsome and “cool” you have double jeopardy. Humility is the key. Is he self-effacing, able to go unnoticed for a while? (This, by the way, is a major ingredient for sanctity.) Or, is he arrogant, and always seeking attention in a group? Quiet men often make great husbands and fathers.
Do opposites really attract, as they say? Perhaps it’s true for magnets, but not for people. Often the thing that most attracted you to someone, the thing that was most different from yourself, is the thing that will drive you batty in marriage. Psychologist Neil Clark Warren writes in Finding The Love of Your Life, “Nearly every current psychological study indicates that it’s crucial to find a spouse who is a lot like you. If they are different from you, there may be some early attraction, but the most enduring and satisfying marriages are usually ones in which the partners are very much alike.”2
This makes sense, since friendship is the most important natural ingredient for a good marriage. Since friendship is based on sharing common interests, similarities are very important.
What are some of the key similarities a couple should have for a successful marriage? Certainly religion and morality are key. Personal habits are also important. These include things such as orderliness, dependability, responsibility, and punctuality. I dated a woman once who was, on the average, forty-five minutes late for everything. If that bothers you when you’re dating, it will bother you more when you’re married. Other key areas include smoking habits, eating habits (health food vs. junk food), energy level, spending patterns, and the ability and willingness to talk. This is not to say that if you have differences in one or two of these areas you should break up. Rather, as Neil Clark Warren says, if you have differences in several of these, or if in a few of these you are very different, or if you can’t deal with such differences, be cautious. There could indeed be problems.
One of the things that can make up for a number of differences, and any number of other marital problems, is adaptability. This is essential for any relationship, but especially for marriage.
One couple was so busy being involved in studies and jobs that they only discovered on their honeymoon how different they were. They told Neil Clark Warren that if they had not both been raisedin large families in which they had to be adaptable, they could not have survived their differences. “Being flexible, instead of unbending, adaptive instead of rigid, can save a couple’s marriage from being destroyed by differences. Of course, it takes two people willing to compromise and adjust,” he explains.
No, this is not about sex. The intimacy I’m referring to here is spiritual or emotional intimacy. Neil Clark Warren says that “Intimacy has the potential for lifting the two of you out of the lonely world of separateness and into the stratosphere of emotional oneness.” Psychologists tell us this intimacy is one of the most important ingredients for a good marriage, yet at least one study looked at scores of couples and discovered that only a small percentage experienced real intimacy.
We are all created in the image and likeness of God, the Trinitarian God, the God of three persons. In the Trinity there is a complete intimacy of love between the persons, and in fact the persons themselves are defined only in relation to each other. We discover ourselves and are fulfilled only in relating, to God and to others.3 But in order to be fulfilling, our relationships must be intimate, not superficial. Who, after all, would really want a superficial relationship with God? In fact, it is precisely such a relationship which makes religion boring.
So it is in marriage. A superficial relationship between husband and wife can be catastrophically boring and unfulfilling. To share intimacy a couple must be able to share their innermost thoughts, desires, feelings, dreams, fears and joys. As Neil Clark Warren says in Finding The Love of Your Life:
It is when this “core” information is revealed that partners become acquainted with each other’s inner workings. In this process of discovery, they gain vital information about whether the two of them belong together permanently.
Many of us are moving so fast in life that we may not even have an inner self, an inner person, to share with another. Sometimes our fast-paced society allows us to live life in a superficial way without ever developing any deep, inner thoughts and desires. We never ask: What is most important to me and why? What is my greatest fear? What are my goals in life? What people are most important to me? What are my strengths and weaknesses? Do I want to grow as a person, and how am I pursuing that? How do I feel about friendship, about maturity, about parents, about classmates, about siblings?
These are examples of intimate things we should be able to share with a person once we get to know them. This is not to say we have to make a list of these things and define each one. We may never have articulated them. But when we have time to think about them and we know what we think, we can articulate them when it is appropriate.
(Incidentally, when women have an intimate conversation with their husband before marital relations, they are generally far more responsive. Intimate verbal intercourse fosters intimate sexual intercourse.)
The question here is, does your sweetheart have any depth and can they share it with you? Often men have more trouble with intimacy than women. Sometimes a woman will say, “He never shares anything about his inner self, and he is uncomfortable when I want to share the things that are really important to me.” What they sometimes discover is that the man has no inner self because he hasn’t developed one. This can be a major problem, something to beware of, as Neil Clark Warren warns.
On the other hand, it could be that a person does have an inner self, but is unwilling, or uninterested in sharing it. This too can be a red flag for a courtship. Intimacy is one thing that can bond acouple together and enable them to become one mind, one flesh. “Intimacy: Don’t leave home without it.”
It’s important to see a person in many different situations. Go on a ski weekend together (in a group, with separate rooms!); paint a room together; go camping with friends or chaperones; do volunteer work together; visit a sick friend in the hospital. If all you ever do is go out to dinner or dancing, you won’t get to know him/her well.
Place some real importance on how others view this person. What do his/her friends have to say about him/her? What do your parents think? If they have a good record for recognizing character, consider their opinion carefully. However, remember, it’s your decision, not theirs.
Because love is terribly blind, even for the wisest of persons, and because you can never be absolutely sure that you’ve found Mr. or Miss Right, prayer must play a huge role in the discernment process. Pray, pray, pray! Pray the daily Rosary, go to Mass daily if possible, get to confession at least once a month. And, of course, live in the state of grace, i.e., no sexual activity. If you live in God’s grace, you will have the Holy Spirit and his gift of Counsel. Choosing a spouse is no time to be without the counsel of the Holy Spirit.
When I was in college I dated a smart, attractive girl. She was Catholic, too. Well . . . kind of. She went to Mass every week but she skipped Sunday Mass, and would go during the week. She was also into other types of rebellion. But love is blind. I thought she was “the one.” However, when I prayed, I asked God to make things work out if it were his will, and that if it were not, to let me know. It wasn’t his will, and he let me know. She broke up with me.
In an emotional fog, I kept thinking that somehow I’d get her back. “I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved her!” I thought. In the afternoons, with my head in control, I told my heart, “Look, stupid, you’re lucky. This woman was trouble and she was not Catholic, in any true sense.” But the next morning I would wake up with my heart in control again: “But I love her. What a woman!” By the afternoon my common sense would come alive again and present the reasons why I should forget her. After several weeks of this, inspired by lots of prayer, my emotions gave up. My heart conceded, “Okay, okay, I give up. You’re right. She would be trouble.”
This experience taught me two things: First, prayer is essential to even have hope of a good choice. And not just any prayer, but prayer specifically asking God to bring about his will. Second, to live reasonably and happily, you must use your head to convince your heart which way to go. If you let your heart lead you’ll always be miserable. You must relentlessly hammer away with reason to convince the heart to accept what is right. (This incidentally, is analogous to the way you develop the virtue of chastity.)
What about people like Joshua Harris, who decided not to kiss until he married, or Elisabeth Elliot and Steve Wood whose first kisses came with their respective engagements? Are their approaches the best way?
I can understand why they might take that course, since so many good things such as affection, have become sexualized and thus exploitive. But I think their approaches are overreactions to our oversexed culture. There is a great need to rehabilitate affection in our world, to restore it to its proper place, to purify it of its sexual connotations. Affection when it is pure and noble is a beautiful thing. When a couple puts off kissing, even the most innocent sort, until marriage or engagement, they may be implicitly conceding that affection is just a milder form of sexual exploitation. It isn’t. It’s a wonderful expression of love and it fulfills a human need.
What about affection in public? Please, very little, and only in the right places. Holding hands while taking a walk, briefly kissing goodbye or hello, hugging at the airport, or holding hands at dinner are fine, but ongoing caressing or repeated kissing are personal things that belong in private. Practicing good manners has primarily to do with making others feel comfortable. When a man and woman can hardly keep their hands off each other in public, it is really discomforting for everyone else.
Affection, as Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) wrote in "Love and Responsibility," is not aimed at enjoyment, “but the feeling of nearness.”12 Sharing affection, “has the power to deliver love from the various dangers implicit in the egoism of the senses. . . .” Affection is an important “factor of love,” but requires an “inner self-control.”
Occasionally a person discovers his or her sweetheart has little use for affection; he/she has difficulty embracing or touching. Sometimes this reticence is due to a fear of sexual advances in our sex-soaked culture. Or, it could be that he/she comes from a family where outward expressions of affection were rare. In either case, I would recommend discussing this delicately and diplomatically, and explaining the importance of trying to gradually ease into a habit of sharing chaste affection. This is something that can be learned, but it must be done gradually, without any outside pressure.
A third possible reason for being affection-shy is a psychological block due to a bad experience in the past. In this case, for their own good, and that of their future spouse and children, they should consider getting some counseling to get at the root problem. Often such a problem can cause major difficulties with loving fully or trusting. Getting counseling from a good, skilled Christian counselor can be extremely beneficial.
To be sure, cultural background has a huge impact on the ability to share affection. Generally the Latins, Philippinos, and some Eastern Europeans are quite comfortable with hugging and kissing among family members and friends. This does not mean that those from other backgrounds should be satisfied with minimal affection. Many studies show that sharing affection physically is quite therapeutic for everyone, regardless of nationality.
It is also important to be affectionate with children. As Gary Smalley indicates in his excellent book for parents The Blessing, “. . . meaningful touching can protect a child from looking to meet this need in all the wrong places.” Jesus himself had the children come to him, “ . . . he took them in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:16 ). Pope John Paul II goes so far as to say children have a “special right to [affection].” Smalley also points out that meaningful touch brings physiological benefits, lowers blood pressure and can add two years to the life of a husband.
Many fathers do not hug or kiss their daughters once they become teenagers. Perhaps this is because as their daughters begin to develop into women, they feel it might be exploitive to show them physical affection. Not so. It speaks volumes for a father to give his daughter a good, chaste hug. Psychologists who have dealt with the sad consequences in daughters whose fathers did not hug them, are united in strongly encouraging this.
So, men, when you become fathers, remember the importance of affection for your daughters and for your sons as well. With discretion and sensitivity, affection is a real plus at any age.
Affection: it’s a great aid for mental well-being and a great thing in courtship.
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