Marriage is the most peculiar of all human relationships. Canonical doctrine reflects the tenet of Christian anthropology that the marriage union is the principal representation of relation, which means marriage places two people closer together than even a mother and child. Two spouses in their union are the foundational relation from which all other relations flow. With or without children, together they are the family.
The marriage bond is a reality that is not identical to the marriage relationship, or the actual living out of the married state. The bond is not a mere symbol, but like all other sacraments it is what it represents. And it will exist as long as the spouses are both living. So, no matter how much trouble or difficulty spouses encounter in their married lives, if the bond is validly formed, there is no possibility of destroying it. A marriage relationship, however, may seem to have its breaking point.
The fact that a marriage bond can never be destroyed does not mean the marriage relationship cannot be harmed. This means that, for spouses, forgiveness must be constant.
Putting marriage first
If forgiveness is constant, so are apologies — but apologies only come after acknowledging the problem. Bringing one’s spouse to acknowledge problems sometimes means making a firm stand. Sadly, one of the common similarities among cases that claim marriage nullity is the lost opportunity to be fierce with one’s spouse, to waste no time in admitting that mistakes are dictating family history.
Spouses are not an actual “second-self.” There is no such thing as a union of body and soul such that individual identity is swallowed up by a “couple’s personality” or destiny. Spouses are pledged to help each other and they do so with a love that is decided more than it is sometimes felt. Loving the other like a second self means putting oneself in front of the other in the hope of breaking the cycle of sin and also, importantly, the other’s denial. Some behavior prevents a person from seeing things clearly and a spouse has to knock some sense into the other, not because it feels good to hit back at the one causing pain but because at the moment the other cannot do this for himself. Causing a certain kind of storm can lead to real peace. This is easier said than done — uncovering bad decisions made by the other can make a spouse feel a million miles away “with nothing more to say.”
Married people often describe their situations as if the problems encountered are proof that they should never have gotten married or that they never really were married. Choosing to live with problems is a kind of passivity that dulls the sense of urgency that would normally be felt at the first sight of a gushing wound. The importance of constant forgiveness instead indicates that a marriage is an everyday critical concern. The marriage relationship deserves the priority of one’s effort and attention. Pope Francis has said on many occasions that no spouse enjoys the privilege of going to bed angry.
Loving amid temptation
Marriage is hard, and spouses may develop substance abuse and addiction to things ranging from alcohol to pornography. The reliance on stimulants and depressives seems to ease the challenges of being a married adult. Marriage is a conjugal union, which means that the physical aspect of the relationship will always be a source of both meaningfulness and concern. Marriage is an arrangement of mutual help, which means that economics and emotional states are shared and require cooperation and generosity. Marriage is procreative, and if there are children, the joys of parenthood will nevertheless be accompanied by the stress of determining needs and the understated adjustment of accepting the motherhood or fatherhood of one’s spouse that might make one feel like he or she has to compete for spousal attention. Amidst all of this, to discover that one’s spouse is attached to something else (stimulant or depressive) more than his or her commitment to the marriage relationship brings anger and, in many people, great personal shame. This is also why, instead of confronting problems, many spouses end up exhibiting the same “neurotic” or “disordered” tendencies as their respective spouses.
It is impossible to avoid being unaffected by the other’s violations to the bond, and so the need of forgiveness is constant. Forgiveness in marriage many times first requires a ferocious response to a spouse’s temptations but, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, forgiveness always needs confession. And forgiveness in marriage requires confession of both spouses. If one is able to forgive, it means he or she also seeks to be forgiven. What upsets a marital relationship is not removed by dialogue or communication alone, no matter how heartfelt and intimate. What destroys marriage relationships is removed by confession. Marriage likewise relies on the Eucharist. Again, Mother Teresa attributes the ability to see, and to see even with an anger that continues to love, to union with Christ in the Eucharist.
Tenderness and humility
Forgiveness is always effective when it is authentic. But consider the difference between treating an illness aggressively in its early stages or instead letting the illness spread and enduring a long period of recovery because this illness has caused great disability in the long term. The disability of a marriage relationship does not occur overnight and so the fear that comes with the first sight of relationship danger must be met with courage. No marriage is perfect and being tough in this sense will not hurt marital relations. Instead of damaging the relationship this toughness illustrates just how real the bond is and that devotion to it radiates and grants the relationship a feeling of comfort that cosmically outweighs the meager satisfaction of thinking one’s marriage is just fine or will work itself out in the end. When forgiveness arrives after many years of a festering wound the relationship may have suffered a crippling disability that requires a supernatural perspective and serious penance to embrace. And for those who do not believe in the reality of marriage, forgiveness may only seem like a civilized gesture or the respectable manner of parting ways. Forgiveness is constant and builds stamina that broadens the capacity to love and experience love.
Forgiveness may begin in a hard place but always turns sweet. Fierceness soon gives a spouse the opportunity to be tender with the forgetfulness that must come with forgiveness. It calls for a humility that might seem out of place when it was the opposite response that led to the reconciliation. But this humility is the acknowledgement of the victory of forgiveness, and the memory of the moment health was restored and will be restored again and again. This humility is the same in the happy marriage that battles daily for its health as much as in the marriage that after years of denial finally embarks on a steady recovery. It is also an element that is almost never seen in depositions of cases claiming marriage nullity.
Key to happy marriage
The sequence of a fierce no-nonsense confrontation followed by sincere forgiveness and tender humility reveals an answer to the golden marriage question: What is the key to a happy marriage? Kindness? Sacrifice? Patience? Physical attraction? Forgiveness? The insight the boldness and constancy of forgiveness proposes is that the key to the happy marriage is not a quality but simply the other. The marriage bond will always be real despite the condition of the relationship, which means the spouses will always be the most real part of the marital relationship, not their dispositions or interaction. Forgiveness and its humility are key to a happy marriage as well, but only because they are demonstrations of the absolute centrality of the other.
It is forgiveness in both its roughness and tenderness that represents the uniqueness of the marriage relation. But it is also a characteristic of the marriage everyone desires: two spouses who treat the other as someone who will always be seen and will never go away. This is done imperfectly, but forgiveness always makes things look new.
Catherine Godfrey Howell writes from Indiana.