Well, my friends, this one is bound to cause some controversy. This talk was delivered last night to a fine group of young men. It seemed to me well received. I am sure it was the first time many of these young men even considered the issues treated in it.
It is the duty of the theologian to engage difficult matter, especially when that matter is important. No good service can be done by avoiding it. The problems treated below have been avoided - by clergy, by experts. That is unfortunate, and more than likely an effect of cowardice. Conscience over cowardice. And sensitivity: priests are weighed-down by a collective sense of guilt in regard to Christianity's perceived historical ill-treatment of women, and so now they overdo things with unconscious, unreasoning deferral to a woman's experience, thereby neglect the man's. One evil cannot correct another, however.
The Secret Talk for Men, or, What I Wish I had Known Before I got Married
For young Catholic men who are thinking about marriage. Also useful for men who are contemplating the priesthood, so that they don’t mess up the lives of married men later.
The advice in this talk is the fruit of a great deal of theological formation, ten years of marriage, and many conversations with married people.
1. The greatest problem in Catholic Marriage today: ambiguity regarding roles.
First, you will not escape this problem, unless one member of the couple is excessively domineering and the other excessively submissive. There is no guarantee that the passive one is going to be your wife, and even if it is, I do not think this is good. This will likely not be necessarily conducive to the good of friendship (one of the goods of marriage). More likely, given the nature of marriage and of women and men today, your wife will be the dominant one. Or, at least will attempt to be, and this will be a cause of deep and long conflict. This is, believe it or not, probably especially likely to be the case with OLSWA girls. Why? Because they take marriage seriously and they are entering into it with a great deal of idealism, and, thus, such a girl would demand that this idealism be a reality. This creates a great number of problems, since if she perceives that her view is “of the Faith”, then that will trump your authority as a husband. Is the answer to avoid girls who take the Faith seriously? Hardly. That leads to more and greater problems than that one.
The fact is, conflict is inevitable. The character conflict will take on in your marriage depends upon you and depends upon the woman who marry. I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll just reflect upon this stuff insofar as it relates to the Faith. A problem today lies in the literature and with the experts, including the clergy. I have looked for ages for a satisfactory interpretation of, for instance, Ephesians 5:21-33, about wives submit to your husbands, etc., and I have never heard a satisfactory homily on it. I do suggest that during the courtship period the couple seriously engage this text, offer their interpretations, and really consider if their views of it are amenable. Nevertheless, people change, and so not even this is a guarantee of a smooth marriage. An unmarried, 20 year old, idealistic, single girl will inevitably change and grow into a much strongly, practically-minded 30 year-old wife and mother. For all intents and purposes they will not even be the same person. If she grew with the Lord, she is now a much better person. But you cannot anticipate everything about her. She may become a worse person, and how will you cope with that? Look to her parents – especially her mother. This is the woman she will become ever more alike in her personality. Do you respect her mother, do you respect her father? For this is the man she will expect you to become.
But of course, a smooth marriage should not, of course, be the goal, at least not the short-term goal. A real marriage, a good-enough marriage, should be. If you are engaged in serious repeated fights in courtship, as harsh as this may sound, I recommend that you seriously consider reconsidering this relationship. Fights are almost necessary in a marriage, but not debilitating, unproductive, humiliating, continual fighting. Fights are sometimes the only means of effective communication, often because men are too slow to express themselves and women too quick to do so.
Division of Tasks? By marital roles I do not mean exclusively or even most importantly who works and who stays at home with the kids. That is a part of it, but not the main part. Decision-making. Are there decisions that the man makes, that the wife makes? How does agreement come into it? Is it best to divide-up areas of authority? For instance, should the woman is in charge of child-rearing and the man in charge of financial decisions? There is a part of this that should come into play, but a part not. What if your wife wants to send your kids to daycare, to public school, or to relatives who you know are a bad influence? What if you are very bad with money, what if she can get a really well-paying job and you are a dufus, or you are physically or emotionally ill and can’t work well?
Agreement in everything base? Should a marriage rather be consensus-based – that everything has to be the result of agreement? Agreement should play a large part in your marriage. But how men and women look at agreement is really dissimilar. Women think agreement is wonderful, men think it is a loss of authority. Who is right? It depends upon the situation, of course. It is important that you tell your wife that this is a factor for you, although admitting weakness is itself hard for men – but she sees it as you two coming closer. It’s weird, I know. Women are territorial too: their home is their domain, and to not respect that can cause her deep hurt. This does not mean that the kids are hers more than yours, and that doilies should be everywhere in your home. There are zones of expertise: if you know more about cars then your opinion should be the predominant one in that area. But it doesn’t mean that you should be a domineering know-it-all when you go to buy a new car. If she knows more about health and babies, then hers should predominate. You must have the same mind before entering into marriage about the big things: sex, the nature of marriage, morality, etc.
Husband Head of the Wife. I believe that there are limits to agreement, not because agreement is bad, but because no two people can possibly actually agree on everything. This is where we need to discuss the role of man as head of woman and father as head of family. Of course, no one has a right to sin. But who gets to decide in a specific difficult case whether it is sin or not? You must respect and love your wife with your whole heart, but she must likewise respect your headship. If she doesn’t respect it, you can be certain that no one else will: not society, the law, your pastor. You must know what your headship is and what it is not. It is your right to make the final decision on any non-moral issue, that is to say, insofar as your decision is not an immoral one. In another time and place this would go without saying. It does not go without saying in this culture, so for sake of the good of your family you must combine prudence with authority. Since you will lose your de facto authority (i.e. she will leave and take your children and there is nothing the law will do to prevent this) if you exercise it without prudence, for sake of the good of your marriage and family your must exercise your authority with prudence, that is, rarely in a unilateral manner. A family without a head is not a good one, thus preserve your authority by means of discretion. The most important way in which you can ensure the good of your family insofar as it relates to your authority is to respect hers, is to respect her. Even more so than you, but like you, she is an emotional being, and you must make her feel your love. After that, she really doesn’t care about anything else. You care about a lot of other things, but she really doesn’t. If you make her feel loved, you can get away with virtually anything. Use all that collateral on making the right decisions for your family. Never marry a woman who in principle rejects the teaching of Ephesians 5. And don’t get married if you are a jerk; don’t inflict that on any of God’s precious daughters.
2. The Problems today with Sex and Catholicism
Principle problem: men and women do not experience sex the same way.
It is popularly said that a man thinks with his groin. I reject that, and say, rather, that a man feels with his groin. A woman does not, so don’t assume that she knows that if you two are not having sex for a period of time for some reason that you feel her love anyway. You won’t: your heart is in your groin, hers is not anywhere close to her groin.
It is a mistake to view the complementarity of the sexes naively. Men are fertile 30 days a month; women once a month for about 4 days. Thus, men want to have sex roughly 30 days a month; women roughly 2-4. Do you want to have a limitless number of children? Are the two of you psychologically able to? Otherwise, you must avoid intercourse at the only time when she really wants to; the times you will actually be having sex will be when she doesn’t really want to. I don’t have much to say to those who reject NFP out of hand and believe in what is often referred to as “Supernatural Family Planning” – I don’t have much to say about it, not because I think it is necessarily sinful or stupid, but because that is not my marriage. I could caution people not to think that this is an easy way to go. I have a feeling that very few couples are cut out for that in today’s world. (But anyone who wants to talk about this further, you can ask me in private some other time.)
My theological opinion is this, since cooperation is essential to marriage, you must give in as much as you are given in to. This translates into having sex between 5 and 10 times a month, if you are attempting to space pregnancies. How did I come up with this number? You want to have sex every day, she does not want to when not fertile, therefore, one day she gets her way, the next you get your way. This sounds crass, but it is a good rule of thumb. It is very bad when guilt and shame come into it. You guilting her into sex when she doesn’t ‘feel’ like it, and her shaming you for having sexual desires that don’t resemble hers. Mutual generosity is central. For you to always get your way is not good, and does not conduce to virtue; for her to always get her way is not good and not conducive to virtue. Both of you will automatically identify your preference with the truth. But the good is to be found in your compromising: this means that 50% of the time what you want doesn’t happen. She must see that your sexual desire is such as it is and that’s a good thing because that’s how God made you and you desire her, this woman you married and are committed to for life, and your must understand how she experiences things. She must avoid shaming you, and you must protect her sense of self-worth, that she doesn’t feel used and that her emotions are not being respected. You must both approach this bald fact with no equivocation: all things being equal, you should have sex between 5 and 10 times a month. There are lots of reasons why this might not actually happen: pregnancy, post-partum, illness, menstruation, physical separation – but let it never be because the two of you were not respecting each other’s different sexuality.
Questions for discussion:
1) How do you imagine the man’s headship of the family works in particulars?
2) What do you think about my idea of sex 5 to 10 times a month?
3) Have you thought about what meaning you have attached to sexuality in your own life? Will this be a source of strength for your wife, or suffering?
4) What about crises?
5) What kind of things should you look for in a wife and avoid in a wife?
6) What’s the best way you can prepare yourself for marriage today?