4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
If you have been married for any length of time you should know by now that marriage can be both a delight and a dilemma. It has the potential to provide satisfaction as well as sorrow.
Those who are more caustic have nothing complimentary to say about marriage nor is their view of married people very high.
So we hear from a cynic that a bride is “A woman with a fine prospect of happiness, behind her” (Ambrose Bierce) and another described a bridegroom as “Something they use at weddings”.
A Roman cynical joke runs like this, “Marriage brings only two happy days – the day when the husband first clasps his wife to his breast, and the day when he lays her in the tomb.”
Setting aside for the time being those comments I wish to tease your minds somewhat on the theme of fidelity & oneness using the marriage vows as my springboard.
I assume by fidelity we mean faithfulness, the avoidance of adultery and romantic indiscretion and I also assume that by the troublesome notion of oneness we mean progressive fusion or integration of the couples’ centres of gravity, or dominant life-drives.
I would argue that when emotional realism replaces romantic idealism then one has to deal with the concepts of fidelity and oneness as essentially commitment, and for the Christian, commitment to another human being in the context of prior commitment to God.
The marriage vows constitute our springboard.
I remind you of those vows because they imply valuable pointers on what fidelity and oneness in marriage require.
I give you the summary pointers then we explore the sections of the vows that imply these pointers.
“Fidelity, like oneness in marriage, requires a distinctive, exclusive, whole-life, all-life commitment to the beloved.”
Now let’s explore the four key elements of that summary as they arise from the marriage vows.
- Distinctive Commitment
The first part of that long question that marriage officers usually put to bride and groom says, “A.B. will you have or do you take this woman/this man, C.D. as your wedded wife/husband…”
I stress the use in the vow of the demonstrative this woman, this man and the name of the individual because I find that distinctive. The married partner is answering the question about the particular person at the altar bearing the name called, not any other, even in the church and with the same name.
That is distinctive and so should be the commitment that binds the two persons together in holy matrimony.
Marital love is distinctive commitment to the beloved. That is why I take issue with George Bernard Shaw’s quip that love is “A gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else.”
In the decision to commit in marriage one is expressing, hopefully, the view that there is a radical difference between the beloved and everybody else.
If you reject the distinctive element in marriage then oneness and fidelity will be, not simply difficult but, impossible.
Now to the second key element of the summary which is close to the first. Fidelity and oneness require not only distinctive commitment but also, in the second place,
- Exclusive Commitment
The last part of the same long question put to couples individually asks, “…and forsaking all other, keep only unto her/him, so long as you both shall live?”
When you answered ‘I will/I do’ to that question you were pledging yourself to an exclusive commitment, in short, to fidelity. The rub is, once you have selected a partner, for marriage, you have, in effect, rejected every other possible or real lover.
That’s rough for some men (and women too) to swallow but it is the implied reality of the vows and it is a cardinal reality of marital love that is worth the name.
This dimension of the exclusive means a decisive break with all former romantic affairs and relationships. Every such affair must be, in reality, not merely ‘old firestick’ but ‘old ash’, not merely dormant’ but ‘dead’. Not easy but possible if the commitment is of the right calibre.
These first two dimensions of marital love, and especially the exclusive dimension are very challenging in today’s world. And realism must be tempered with idealism here.
We are not suggesting that a married person will never ever see someone other than one’s spouse who is attractive or even desirable. Nor are we pretending that once married no other will bring romantic or sexual pressure on you, even in the Church.
The point we are making is this – despite the aesthetic or other virtues of any other and despite the pressures from any other, remember and reinforce to yourself the distinctive, exclusive commitment you made to your spouse and summon the moral and emotional strength that you need to hold strain in purity and fidelity.
Believe me, any fool can fool around but it takes a wise and emotionally strong person to remain faithful.
With reference to this issue of exclusive commitment, watch three things, your friendships, your focus and your fantasies.
Watch friendships with anyone, especially of the opposite sex (assuming you are heterosexual) because every deep meaningful friendship has the potentialities of going beyond the safe limits of the lawful or the expedient.
Watch your focus, the nature of your eye. This is especially for men because we are visually orientated and need much help in learning to avoid the second look at a woman or we need much more help in learning to admire and not lust. I offer a somewhat extended treatment on lust on my CD Plain Talk on Sex.
The issue of the second look is this. You see a woman standing or approaching you and by the first look you form the impression that she ‘looks good’ – take that impression by faith. What messes up a number of men is the second protracted look or scrutinizing gaze which is never indulged to examine the lady’s character, spirituality or mind. The second look is almost always a lead up to lust, though it could lead to admiration.
What is the difference between admiration and lust? Simply put, in admiration the woman is appreciated as a beautiful created end and God may be praised for his creative skill.
In lusting the woman is desired as a means to the man’s sexual ends. God is not usually in the picture here, a man simply would like to tamper with the creation. Lust is, essentially, mental sex activity.
The frequency with which a married person lusts is an index of his/her I.Q, not one’s intelligence quotient but one’s infidelity quotient.
Watch your focus, men, train your eyes to admire.
Watch as well your fantasy. Wives, especially, but husbands as well, you will need to find creative ways of getting in touch with your partners’ fantasies. A fantasy represents a deep desire which, if unfulfilled, creates a time bomb waiting to explode if the right opportunity meets such a deep desire. The resulting conflagration can be either delightful or dangerous depending on with whom it happens.
The more a person’s sexual fantasies are fulfilled in marital sex the less open that one is to infidelity.
Sexual greed can be a factor in adultery but often the real cause is emotional or sexual need. Regrettably, such need is not usually disclosed to one’s partner neither is it usually discerned by one’s partner.
[For your consideration I recommend 3 of my CDs; ‘After Adultery, What?’ (Dr. Arline McGill); ‘Sex in the Bible/ The Fantasies & Frustrations of the Married Man’ (Drs. Barry Davidson/ Delano Palmer); ‘The Fantasies & Frustrations of the Married Woman’ (Dr. Hyacinth Peart)]
Before the third element let me remind you of the full question from which we have drawn our first two key elements.
“A.B. will you have/do you take this woman/man C.D. as your wedded wife/husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other, keep only unto her, so long as you both shall live?”
Now for our third element.
- Whole-life Commitment
We get this element from the statement that couples are usually asked to repeat after the marriage officer. Hear the whole statement and then I isolate the section that suggests this third element.
“I call upon these persons here present to witness that I, A.B. do take you C.D. to be my lawful wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I give you my pledge.”
Whole-life commitment is suggested in the words ‘…for better for worse, for richer for poorer in sickness and in health…’ These words imply commitment to oneness because of advantages in life and in spite of adversities in life.
So the couple faces the reality that life brings both advantages and adversities, good times and bad times yet the commitment in love remains solid because it is not a ‘nice-time-only’ commitment.
This dimension of marital love can be scary because none of us knows what the future holds. Today employed and with a fat bank account next year made redundant with very little in the bank; today hale and hearty next month afflicted with a debilitating or deadly illness.
Whole-life commitment is, because of and despite, because in the final analysis, who knows but God.
Couples who are tempted to divorce or give up too readily should remember this dimension when the tensions develop. In this regard I mention the wise words of Harold Nicholson concerning a successful marriage, which occurs, he says, when you “treat all disasters as incidents and none of the incidents as disasters”.
Someone else, with equal insight said that marriage succeeds when the two persons learn to get along happily without the things they have no right to expect anyway.
Before we do the final element, let’s listen to a beautiful song that sets the tone for that final element of all-life commitment.
PLAY CELINE/SINATRA CLIP ‘all the way’
- All-life Commitment
The excerpt from the vow says, “…till death us do part…”
I call this the trickiest element not just because of the divorce statistics even within Christendom but because, if you stop to think about it, we ought to be shocked not so much that so many people get divorced but that so many stay together.
Trying to fuse two disparate personalities for any length of time is hard work and can be very frustrating. So I would suggest that if one is not prepared for the long haul of an all-life commitment or doubt one’s ability to enjoy an all-life commitment then one should exercise the freedom to modify the vow at this crucial point.
Having taken the vow, with this tricky element, the doors have been closed on you, with your knowledge and consent and the hinges move in only one direction – in.
I could not truthfully tell you that it is never defensible for two people to get divorced neither could I tell you truthfully that marital love never dies. What I can tell you is that almost every so-called irretrievable breakdown of a marriage is preceded by the reversible breakdown of personality traits or personal qualities.
No married person who is serious about oneness can do without help in knowing the personality and interpersonal needs of his or her spouse. Your spouse’s personality pattern and your spouse’s interpersonal needs (inclusion, control, affection) are bedrock realities of your spouse’s being and behaviour. Marriage counsellors can put you on to options in this regard.
I close by reminding you of what I have said, simply this, the wedding vows we all took, imply, in summary, what fidelity and oneness in marriage require. That summary again, “Fidelity, like oneness in marriage, requires a distinctive, exclusive, whole-life, all-life commitment to the beloved.”
Based on our openness to Him may God give each of us that kind of commitment in our married lives and the sincerity to mean the vows. Amen.