When Archbishop Charles Chaput was appointed head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he noted that “my appointment to Philadelphia is an arranged marriage…When arranged marriages were common, there was an expectation that people would get to know each other and then come to love one another…For any marriage to work, two things need to happen. People need to fall in love, and together they need to be fruitful.”
Reading this quote recently led me to contemplate this idea of arranged marriages and how it applies to some marriages today.
Initial Flame…or Flicker?
Oftentimes, advice about improving or saving a marriage has a presumption that the relationship started off great, and the recipe for fixing any problems that have cropped up is getting back to the first love. Sure, people acknowledge that the couple has matured and that the love is supposed to be deeper with the passage of the years, but it’s often assumed that there’s something special about those first weeks or years…some flame that a struggling couple should go back to and rekindle and thus find a new energy for today.
That’s probably true for many couples. It’s probably true in some sense for all couples — I mean, if we’re married to someone, we went to the altar freely. There was some spark or flame that carried us to wed ourselves with the spouse we chose.
But for me, when I read the advice about “going back to the first flame,” there’s always a bit of a sinking feeling. And even if my experience isn’t in the majority, I’m also convinced I’m not entirely alone. There are some wives who realize that we made a choice to marry the husbands we chose because of unique, perhaps difficult, circumstances in our lives at the time. It’s not that we weren’t free…we knew what we were doing and freely chose to enter into the sacrament (without that freedom, we wouldn’t have been able to perform the sacrament and our marriages would be null). But maybe we were rebounding, or maybe we were worried about how time was passing and how few good men seem to be around, or maybe we thought that some set of qualities were so important for our mate that we were willing to reluctantly let go of other things we would have liked to have. Maybe we were scared of solitude, or overly eager for children, or excessively dependent on someone. There might have been a lot of things, but the result is that the “first flame,” from the beginning, burned (and flickered) with a good dose of misgiving and resignation.
And now here we are, five or ten or thirty years later. Maybe many children later. Many houses or jobs or life situations later. And maybe things have always been hard…objectively hard, because marriage is hard for every couple, but also hard because we’ve allowed ourselves the idea that Mr. Right was in some sense Mr. Wrong right from the beginning. And it falls to us to shoulder on.
Choose to Love
That’s where this idea of arranged marriage has just really struck me. Now, I realize that there’s a whole lot wrong about the whole idea of arranged marriage, and thanks be to God it’s no longer common, in our culture at least. But, Archbishop Chaput noted, “When arranged marriages were common, there was an expectation that people would get to know each other and then come to love one another.” And that fills me with hope. It fills me with hope because it means that I don’t have to worry too much about what sort of flame was burning or spurting at the beginning of my marriage, or how right or wrong my Mr. Right was.
Today, I have a decision to make, a power in my hands, totally unencumbered by the past. Do I choose to grow in love for my husband today? To take a step today toward falling more in love? When the archbishop says, “For any marriage to work, two things need to happen. People need to fall in love, and together they need to be fruitful,” it seems implied, given the context, that that “falling in love” can happen after the marriage has already taken place.
We all know that love is a decision, not a feeling. That some days, the feelings won’t be there even if the decision is, and that the decision often opens the door so that the feelings can grow. Even if I can’t look back to an era when the feelings soared effortlessly and tugged the decision along in the glee of giddy love, or if I look at that era and see all the extenuating circumstances that were at play, still my marriage can work, truly work, because I can come to fall in love with my husband today. The presence or absence of some initial flame is not the make-or-break of my marriage. I do not have to be enslaved today by that piece of the past.
Every Marriage is an Arranged Marriage
Further, perhaps those who do look back at a strong initial flame think, “yeah, but it’s like that for me too. Regardless of how strong the flame was at the beginning, it’s still a daily decision.” Probably more than one priest has used the Gospel reading of Cana at wedding Masses to talk about how the merely human love of the beginning has to become spiritual over the years, has to become God’s love, charity. How the physical attraction will fade, but how the end result is that the water is now transformed into wine. So maybe the situations are not all that different.
Regardless, for those of you who, like me, might catch yourselves mourning what never was, or allowing yourselves some level of a sulking sense of victimhood over being married to Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Right with a large portion of Mr. Wrong wrapped in, it’s time to stop and be filled with hope.
So we’re in “arranged marriages.” Our Heavenly Father arranged them and surely he knows what he’s about. Even if you think he was trying to tell you not to marry the man you chose, and you stubbornly turned a deaf ear, I think in the mystery of his permissive will and the ocean of his creative, resourceful mercy, he’s already taken your stubbornness and worked it together for your good (Rom 8:28), and this is the marriage he has arranged for you. (I’m presuming, of course, that we’re talking about a marriage between two decent people, not abusive situations or anything like that). This marriage is for your happiness. It’s for your husband’s happiness. Not just getting to heaven, but being happy and delighting in your marriage. This man is the match the Divine Matchmaker has made for you. It’s time to let go of fears about the past. Regardless of how long we’ve been married, it’s time today to fall in love…
“…the results are always joyful if we commit our wills to cooperating with God’s plan…”