Marriage: A Foretaste of Heaven? Or a Foretaste of Hell?

January 19, 2022

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I recently read an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Why Marriage Requires Amnesia,” in which the author suggests that to survive a marriage requires “turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying” and goes on to complain how her phlegm-y husband, who sneezes like an air horn, is “exactly the same as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, almost sentient but not quite.” She goes on to say: 

Do I hate my husband? Oh, for sure, yes, definitely. I don’t know anyone who’s been married more than seven years who flinches at this concept. A spouse is a blessing and a curse wrapped into one. How could it be otherwise? How is hatred not the natural outcome of sleeping so close to another human for years?

Oh, but he’s still as “smart and kind and extremely attractive as he was when [she] met him 17 years ago,” so writing this out loud for all the world to know is obviously wonderful and applaudable. 

Can you even for a second imagine if her husband wrote this article instead of the wife? Saying things like, “I hate my wife because of her many personality flaws and behaviors I find annoying, but she’s a blessing because she’s still as attractive as she was 17 years ago.” This man would be canceled faster than he could be tarred and feathered. 

Another female author penned a piece for The Atlantic in which she explained that although she loved her children and her husband, the constant cleaning of crumbs on the floor “got her down” and she wanted a dream life away from her husband who was “standing between me and the world, between me and myself.” 

And I’m still constantly reminded of a celebrity couple, who, after ten years of marriage, called it quits because the sexual chemistry was waning, and they were becoming (in their own words) “more like friends.” 

If the sacrament of marriage were Mr. Darcy, it would respond, “And this is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully.” 

In the eyes of these women, marriage seems to be a foretaste of hell in which, even though you love your spouse, a human’s many annoyances and inability to satisfy your every need and desire for “self-actualization” and pleasure will eventually lead one to hatred or even divorce. 

Is that the truth, though? Is this the ultimate doom we are calling the majority of Catholics to in the sacrament of marriage? 

I dare say not. In fact, the sacrament of marriage and the love between a husband and wife are supposed to be a foretaste of heaven, not a foretaste of hell. A husband and wife are supposed to love each other as Christ loves us, with an unconditional love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), and a married couple that allows God’s love to be the foundation of their “one flesh” union will bear great fruit indeed.

Is this even possible? I can attest from my own marriage (and witnessing friends’ marriages): “Yes, it is!” 

. . . because my husband loves me as Christ loves me—with an unconditional, tender love—I do experience God’s healing through him.

It is absolutely possible (and necessary) to realize that God alone can satisfy every desire of our hearts (“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”—St. Augustine). My husband is not God, and therefore, it would be horrible and unfair to idolize him and expect him to save me, heal me, and perfect me. Only God can do that. At the same time, because my husband loves me as Christ loves me—with an unconditional, tender love—I experience God’s healing through him. 

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Because our marriage is based on a “virtuous friendship” (which Aristotle describes as a friendship where two people have a common goal and each desires the good of the other), our goal is to get each other to heaven and help each other to be holy. This may hurt like hell in the process, since it is extremely painful to recognize and root out our own selfishness, vanity, pride, laziness, anger, lust, envy, doubts, fears, jealousies, etc., but it is the path of every disciple, and the grace of the sacrament and the healing power of God (and often therapy) helps it to be actualized.

One of our greatest fears as humans is that someone will leave or abandon us when they find out “who we really are.” In a marriage, where we can’t escape or pretend for very long, all of our “stuff” comes to the light. Our faults, our annoyances, our past. The foretaste of heaven in marriage is not just the ecstasy experienced in sex, but the heart-melting reality that someone still loves us—loves us even though they have seen the worst of us. Loves us even when we have shown the side of ourselves that may be comparable to smelly old clothes.

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