Embracing Loneliness in Married Life
by Richard R. Gaillardetz
One of the most important and influential teachings of the Second Vatican Council was its vision of marriage as "an intimate partnership of life and love." This teaching helped to overcome a long-standing Catholic tendency to think of marriage as a legal contract undertaken for the primary purpose of having and raising children. Now Catholics are regularly taught that the marriage relationship is a covenantal union, a lifelong partnership grounded in love. The language of "love," "intimacy," and "covenant," dominates the writing of Catholics reflecting on the sacrament of marriage, and rightly so. However, in our current cultural climate there is a subtle danger that comes with this positive view of marriage: what happens when romance seems to fade and intimacy is lacking?
In our culture the answer is often, "we made a mistake; we should never have married in the first place." Popular magazines and self-help manuals will offer couples helpful strategies for "recovering the romance" in their marriage. But this approach tends to define marriage exclusively in terms of romance and intimacy. When these are not present, we are told that something is wrong. We should celebrate the role of romance and intimacy in marriage. But if marriages are to be sustained in the hard times, we need to remember that marriage is also about what we Christians call the paschal mystery, the rhythm of dying and rising to which all of us are called as followers of Jesus. The Gospel of John captures its essence:
I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12: 24).
We do not get much of this on television. There are plenty of examples of marital "dying" on television, to be sure, but they usually foreshadow infidelity and/or some quick divorce. Perhaps this is because, in our consumer culture, happiness is gained by "having," by consuming the products and experiences we long for (and our "longings" are themselves often created by marketing experts!) and changing products for another brand when they no longer satisfy. Relationships that do not offer the possibility of immediate happiness and fulfillment are to be abandoned for "another brand." Christians are called to a different kind of "dying," and this paschal dying will inevitably be experienced in our marriages.
In marriage each spouse chooses to find meaning, purpose and companionship in partnership with this one, gifted yet wounded person. But this commitment imposes limits, for while each spouse brings many wonderful gifts to their marriage, those gifts are finite. In time each spouse will become aware—often painfully aware—of what the other partner does not and cannot offer us at any given moment. For every time that one's spouse is graciously present and attentive in a time of need, there will be a time of emotional if not physical absence.
Consider our complicated experience of sexuality in marriage. If the sexual intimacy of marriage is a most tender grace, the experience of sharing a marriage bed with one who at this particular moment may not understand me, can be terrifying in its loneliness. As Ronald Rolheiser put it, "It is painful to sleep alone but it is perhaps more painful to sleep alone when you are not sleeping alone." There is a paschal "dying" that married couples have to embrace in the inevitable experience of loneliness that misunderstanding, disagreement or conflict brings.
When this sense of lack or absence is not embraced, the result is infidelity either in the form of actual adultery or through the many "small exits" by which we avoid the inevitable experiences of emptiness, disappointment and longing. However, when spouses freely accept not only the joys and gifts but also the limits of the marital relationship—when they choose to love even out of the emptiness—in so doing they unite themselves with Christ, enter into the paschal rhythm of life-death-life and work out their salvation.
The community of married life is founded on the most radical of human actions; two people vow themselves, one to another, each casting their lot with this person for the rest of their lives. These vows are most dangerous; they engage us in a perilous undertaking. To remain faithful to these vows is to risk everything. It is to walk a tightrope of marital commitment without a net. It means giving up security, comfort, autonomy, and control. To marry is to choose a very particular and demanding way of salvation. To marry is to submit to a crucible of grace. Here the hammer strikes hot iron often as we are being forged into something new, something noble, and something of God.
Questions for Reflection
Do you recognize any forces in our culture (in magazines, films, television) that encourage us to view the choice of a spouse as if it were consumer choice, a decision about the most satisfying product?
How do you handle the moments of loneliness and misunderstanding that arise in your marriage? Can you discuss them with your spouse?
Dr. Richard R. Gaillardetz is associate professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary in Houston.
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