As far as credentials are concerned, I cannot claim any expertise in marriage counseling or sociology. The only experience I have in finding the right person outside of my own marriage is that I have been a speaker at diocesan engagement encounters, taught at catechetical conferences on human sexuality, led Cana programs for local parishes and have worked closely with children who were sexually abused. As one who used to work at a Catholic talk radio network, I had conversations with people who called in and needed help. Among the callers were wives who found out, some years after getting married, that their husbands had sexually molested a son or daughter. Other cases involved a spouse who was addicted to pornography. In my own mind, I wondered why they missed the red flags early on. After all, vices never exist in isolation. Put another way, if a person is in entangled in sexual sin then he or she invariably has other vices or character flaws. These vices should have indicated to the fiancé that the person they are about to marry has problems to resolve.
Probably just as important as being a participant in these Church forums is speaking to countless couples in my own social life who have buyer’s remorse when it comes to their own marriage. As such, I read, study, observe, pray, reflect and try to put two and two together in order to make sense of this epidemic.
Although it is no consolation to singles that have yet to find the right person, it can nevertheless be argued that it is better to be an unhappy single than be an unhappy married person. After all, being unhappy as an individual is bad enough. However, when you add another unhappy spouse to the mix, it can be hell. But some people cannot stand the thought of being single, so they settle for a man or woman who turns out to be their biggest cross in life.
The point of this post is to remind the reader that although it is more difficult to look for a spouse today than it was in previous decades, there are helpful principles to keep in mind as you search. Keep in mind that what was once a matter of instinct in discerning red flags is much less so now days. Because our culture has drifted away from the wisdom of Christ and because there are many broken families, there is something lost with each younger generation in the field of dating, marriage and parenting. We do not realize that the moral and social strength of previous generations enjoyed the spiritual capital of a once Christian society. The less we pray, practice moral virtues and attend church, the less that spiritual capital can provide healthy sexual and marital instincts.
As each generation fails to draw from the well of Christian wisdom, they experience more difficulty in finding the right person for marriage. Indeed, you will be surprised how shortsighted materialism and sensuality can make us. Too often, attraction is confused with love and love with attraction. Moreover, people can easily fall in love with the idea of marrying a particular person without really loving the actual person. Practicing Catholics are by no means exempt from this! More than anyone else, they want to get married and get on with their life. But in the process of doing so, they can overlook danger signs.
Here are principles and tips that may help you find that right person. You may find that some of these basic principles may seem like high and unrealistic ideals; attainable goals, if you will. But remember, with God everything is possible. It is He who will lead you to that right person if you are meant to get married. However, He needs your cooperation. And that cooperation may require a great deal of self-denial in some cases:
1. Love’s priority: Your prospective spouse should love God more than you and you more than their parents. Christianity brings a right order in the priority of love. A person who does not put God first in their life will likely put others, including their own parents, before you. The right order is this: God first, spouse second, children third and everybody else fourth. Too many wives and husbands will not defend their spouse when their mother, father, brother or sister meddles into their affairs. This causes problems. And more importantly, a person who loves God more than their wife or husband is much more likely to be faithful when no one is looking. More often than not, their priorities will be what they should be.
2. Christian identity: If a person claims to be Catholic or goes to church, do not assume that he or she is follower of Christ through and through. So many prospective spouses are fooled by this. Keep in mind that each soul is like a mansion or building. As you enter it, you will find that the first floor may be tidy and may even have Christian décor so as to express their religiosity. But as you proceed to the second or third floor, what you may find are things wholly contrary to that Christian expression. In other words, church pews are filled with sinners; sometimes of the worst kind. Do not take someone’s word that they are Christian nor should you consider their church-going practice as proof their faith is authentic. Indeed, there has never been a time when people are confused as to what a Christian really is at today. Pastors, parents and teachers are partly (if not, mostly) to blame for this. Just remember that the garb of religious devotion can mask many a sin. Some may pray the rosary or even do other pious acts and yet, they may have no qualms about backstabbing or doing things that will betray a relationship. The real test of Christian identity, therefore, is not so much in devotion but in virtue; especially when their will is contradicted. Ask: How do they respond when others contradict them?
3. Character and Contradictions: Before you get married, make sure you know how your prospective spouse responds to adversity and contractions; especially when you are the source of that contradiction. Ask yourself: What is my boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancé like when I disappoint them, when I contradict their will and when I am a burden to them? When they have nothing to lose, how will they treat you when you have a chronic illness, when your family becomes a burden to them or if you should be employed for several months causing them financial inconveniences? In other words, know how they carry their crosses; especially when you are likely to be one of them! If you get married and still believe that your fiance can do no wrong, you do not know him or her enough!! Love is not only an act of the will but it is based on knowledge. You cannot really love a person you do not know.
4. Mom and Dad: Another very important consideration is how they relate to their own parents. If there is any discord between your prospective spouse and their parent, know that it just may carry over into your marriage. For instance, when a man does not get along with his mother, he may have difficulties, in some form or another, with his wife. There may be a tendency to be too rough or too insecure on his part. And if a woman is not secure in her father’s love for her, she may develop codependency habits in the marriage. Sometimes the slightest disapproval will cause a great deal of insecurity for her. On a very important note: If you were sexually abused, get help, talk things out and make sure the counseling you receive is coupled with good Catholic spirituality. A key to a happy marriage after having had your innocence violated is to forgive your offender.
5. Vices: Remember that vices rarely exist in isolation. Rather, they exist in families. The same applies to virtues. For instance, if a man is into porn, he may have problems with lying or fidelity. If gambling or alcoholism is a problem, again, dishonesty, intemperance and covetousness are probably vices that lurk near by. Also, how someone treats a previous romance will most likely an index as to how a you will be treated. I can never understand why a man and woman can marry an adulterer without realizing that they too are likely to be a victim of the same sin.
6. Sex and Cohabitation: Sexual activity is not only a distraction before marriage, it is not only a rehearsal for divorce, but most importantly, it is a serious sin against a loving God. A man or woman who says “I love you” or has sex on the first date is a person who will leave a relationship just as quickly as they committed to it. They are not to be trusted because they know not the value of love. For this and other reasons, when there are sexual attachments involved, it is exceedingly difficult to properly discern the right person for you. Christ elevated marriage into a sacrament because married couples need his grace. Sexual sin forfeits that grace. Exercise the virtue of chastity before marriage; deny yourself in that area and open yourself to God’s grace. As such, you will lay the foundation for a long and enduring marriage.
7. Spirit of Sacrifice: Try to look for the greatest of qualities in your future spouse: the spirit of sacrifice. John Gray, author of “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus,” stated that God gives every marriage about 3-5 years of a strong dose of attraction or hormones. After that expires, love as an act of the will must carry you the rest of the way. This is not to say the romance ends after five years. In fact, I believe that the biggest mistake that husbands and wives make is that they stop courting one another. And this is the point: Marital love is accompanied with sweetness and romance in those first years of marriage but when children come along, that marital love matures and moves beyond the romance. Instead of frequenting restaurants and going for walks in the park during their free time, the couple now has to change diapers, take the children to the doctor and the like. Believe it or not, some people take this to mean that their love has lost its sparkle when it could be that it has matured into a more selfless love. And always remember that love is an act of the will. It is a decision. Feelings come and go and for that reason they can never be fully trusted.
For some readers, all this might be water under a bridge. You may in fact be in a difficult marriage. If you are, I encourage you to google: “Fulton Sheen, Life is Worth Living audio series.” There should be a list of mp-3 talks. One of them is “Bad Marriages.” Listen to it. It will help you process the difficulty you might find in a bad marriage.