Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Secret Talk for Men, Revised

I promised to re-write this a long time ago. The previous post, and especially the comments made about it, got me to thinking about it. Here it is in its revised form, without further ado.

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, eleven 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 traditional "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 "good Catholic girls." Why? Because they take marriage seriously (as they ought) and they are entering into it with a great deal of idealism, and, thus, such a girl will bring her high expectations into marriage. 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 would lead to problems that would make this one seem by comparison mild.

The fact is, conflict is inevitable. The character conflict will take on in your marriage depends upon you and depends upon the woman you 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 agreement in principle on marital obedience can guarantee a smooth marriage. An unmarried, 20 year-old, idealistic, single girl will inevitably change and grow into a much stronger, practically-minded 30 year-old wife and mother. She might 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 the she will likely become ever more like. Do you respect her mother? do you respect her father? - for this is the man she will quite unconsciously expect you to become.

But of course, a smooth marriage should not 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. Nevertheless, people who are exceptionally prone to conflict are in need of healing. Are they ready for marriage? I suggest no. At the very least I suggest waiting. Your spouse is not your patient or your penitent.

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 play? 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 have no appreciable, marketable skills, or you are physically or emotionally ill and can’t work well?

Why do they say 'agreement in everything'? Should a marriage be consensus-based, that is, that everything has to be the result of agreement? Agreement should play a large part in your marriage; it should be the norm, not the exception. 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 pride is a factor for you. Of course, admitting weakness is itself hard for men – but she sees it as you two becoming closer. It’s weird, I know. Women are territorial too, though: their home is their domain, and not respecting 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. Marriages do, however, ultimately involve zones of expertise: if you know more about cars then your opinion should be the predominant one in that area. But this 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 in that area. You will never agree on everything, but you must absolutely make sure before you get married that you two agree on the big things: sex, the nature of marriage, children, 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 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 welcome them? 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 few couples are cut out for that in today’s world.)

Avoiding intercourse at a time when she is most interested can create some moral difficulties, obviously. I don't have to lecture you that every act of sexual intercourse must be intrinsically unitive and procreative. But remember, even if she is not physically overly interested in intercourse when you are free to engage in it (if you are spacing pregnancies), she primarily experiences sexual life affectively - so winning her heart is a great way to ensure sexual contentment for the two of you. Do not 'appeal' to her erotically, but to her heart.
Down to brass tacks. 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 tend to identify your preference with the truth. But the good is to be found in 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 it's a good thing that it's this way, because (1) that’s how God made you and (2) it's her and her alone you desire, this woman you married and are committed to for life. Of course, you must never forget how she experiences sexuality. 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 sexual differences. She just respect the strength of your desire; you must respect that hers is not really very much like that.

3. Why You Should Not Marry a Non-Catholic

If you haven't already figured it out, it is clear that a lot more needs to be considered when choosing a spouse than what church appears on her baptismal certificate. Of course, this is hardly an inconsequential matter. In fact, it is very important. It is important for a number of related reasons, which can be summarized under these two headings: a) the truth brings good, b) the sacraments of the Catholic Faith are the most efficacious means of grace.

a) The truth brings good - the Catholic Faith reveals the truth about God and man, and this leads to happiness. False ideas about life, about man himself, lead to heartache and sadness. One example amongst a million that could be suggested was pointed out by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humane Vitae: artificial contraception conduces to the woman feeling used (and not respected) sexually. Why does the Church teach what it teaches about the Lord's Sabbath, about euthanasia, about pre-martial sex, etc.? Because they have been revealed by God to ensure our happiness. The Articles of Faith are not arbitrary, but are for our good both in the here and now and in eternal life. As a consequence, for the person who is not guided by these teachings, happiness will not be as certain and life will not be lived as wisely. This is not just a question of marital agreement and harmony. It is no good to be in agreement about things that are bad for us. All things being equal, it would be better to have one party in a marriage Catholic than neither one of them, even if that meant sameness of outlook as Baptists or Buddhist, etc. Why? - because the truth is good, even in half-doses.

b) Even more important for the happiness of human life in general and for marriage specifically, are the moments of grace found in the sacraments. Over and above the natural graces contained in our constitutions as man and woman, the very things that in fact fulfil this natural goodness, are the sacraments, especially in this light, baptism, marriage, Holy Eucharist and Penance. A non-sacramental marriage is not a fulfillment of the divine plan, though it is yet good in many ways. The same holds for a marriage not sustained by the sacramental life; it does not fulfil the divine plan.

For these two reasons, you should not marry a non-Catholic. This does not mean that every Catholic marriage will be better than every non- or mixed-Catholic marriage. Experience tells us that is not the case. Nevertheless, just like no one prefers to have rather than to not have any given deficit, a non-Catholic marriage cannot be preferred to a homogeneously Catholic marriage. Yes, other deficits are often greater sources of difficulty in marriage than this one, but, in the end, the homogeneously Catholic marriage is to be preferred. The statement "I prefer to marry a non-Catholic" is ultimately self-refuting. This statement signifies a preference for less rather than more grace, for less rather than more truth.

4. The Catholic Problems

I have already pointed out a few of the specifically Catholic problems with marriage. Too emotional a dependency on idealism in either or both spouses is a recipe for easy frustration and global-questioning, and might stand in the way of something that is really quite necessary: a day-by-day sense of commitment to the often ordinary, and sometimes difficult, life that marriage really is.

The Cradle-Catholic. Sometimes marriage is entered into with a sense of fear about sexuality that might even be so extreme as to include disgust for the body, or naivety about sexuality's pleasures and emotional costs.

When a Catholic young person has been raised to have a prudish fear or hatred for sexuality - branded as 'modesty' - great difficulties can arise. These are often fixable, but they must first be recognized as disfunctions. As strange as it may sound, such a person must realize that he or she is no longer unmarried, and that he or she must not only no longer avoid the beauty of his or her spouse, but must positively attend to it. If attaining to a healthy view of sexuality requires a radical reconceptualization, this will no doubt be a drawn-out process. It is best for both spouses to recognize and name this for what it is, and be sensitive to the difficulties for both spouses that it involves, especially if they are not in the same boat in this regard. Often in cases like this the woman will be anxious about being naked in front of her husband. She should recognize that this is, in fact, misplaced modesty, and work toward the ideal of being comfortable in front of his loving gaze. For him, seeing her naked body is one of the greatest blessings of his life, and so he, for his part, must not take this anxiety personally - it was a condition forged long before he came on the scene. He should be careful that he not force her to adjust more quickly than is comfortable. In the long term rushing her will cause much more distress than this process is meant to alleviate. It is a big thing moving from covering up her body from all men to being more open with this one man than she has been with anyone else in her life. Sex is a gift from God. It is beautiful when its full beauty is permitted to come out. This beauty has everything to do with trust. It is not easy to trust as much as marriage requires us to; few people act so as to deserve this much of trust, but every married person needs to trust and to be trusted that much.

(It should be noted that the above paragraph only considers sexual anxiety as it might emerge from 'Catholic' reasons. a theologian should only concern himself with the beneficial and deleterious effects of true and false ideas as they pertain to faith and reason. There are many other causes of sexual anxiety, and these things must be carefully attended to both when considering marriage and after marriage has been entered into.)

The Convert. Conversion away from a sinful life can bring about two things pertaining to this subject in general. One, an over-reactive fear of the sexuality which had been previously experienced in a negative, sinful manner. Some of the above observations can be applied if this is the case with you. Gentleness, patience and affirmation are the greatest cures for this. Two, when one fails to recognize the various long-term consequences that sexuality's former debasement can produce. In this case one may believe that just because one is married any experience of sexuality must be a good one. In this case one may be unaware that certain acts are intrinsically debasing - like anal sex, pornography, sado-masochism and artificial contraception. Or, one may be unaware that some of the feelings that are being produce by the couple's sexuality are not loving and dignifying. These feelings are often, but not exclusively, attached to these intrinsic evils; sometimes they are the much subtler products of resentment, anger, anxiety, depression or previous abuse, triggered within sexuality for reasons that are not always clear. Odds are that all the unanalysed negative emotions and all the unhealed traumas of one's earlier life will surface within sexuality. This is not a bad thing: in fact, it is one of the greatest virtues of marriage. Loving sexuality is one of God's most powerful means of healing and sanctification. It is specifically set-up to do just this. But, of course, further negative, insensitive experiences of sex can lead to greater hurt and dysfunction. Sometimes the advice of spiritual and psychological professionals is just what is required - but there is no substitute for love, effort and compassion within the marital unit.
Finally, something should be said about the Catholic 'problem' of shame. Shame sometimes necessary and sometimes problematic. Yet, even when shame is doing what it is suppose to do - that is, make one feel regret for sin - spouses have the special duty to minister to each other so as to bring about quick and dignified healing. No one sees as much about you as your spouse does; no one else gets that privilege! Thus, no one bears as great a responsibility for your well being. In sexuality, shame might be the result of objective evils, like masturbation or looking at pornography, or it may be the result of something not per se evil, like certain sexual expressions, things which are either perceived as evil or as simply embarrassing after the flush of excitement that sexual intercourse gives rise to dissipates. Whether the source of shame is actually sinful or not, sensitivity is what is required from one's spouse, not lecturing. Chances are, one's own shame can do more (perhaps even more than might actually be required!) than any lecture can. Love and compassion are the right responses to shame.

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?


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  2. You say, "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."

    How does that jive with the Catholic teaching on "the marriage debt"? Or did that go out with Vatican II as well?