Even in an age when couples live together before marriage, the first year of married life is the hardest. This was the case before life dealt us the curveball of Covid-19 already. It’s shocking, then, what little preparation you get before you embark on the hardest thing you’ll ever do with another person. Due to some circumstances beyond our control, we were stuck with the one-day diocesan preparation that was the biggest waste of time for us, except maybe for providing us with an opportunity to get down to some hard conversations without distractions.
I ended up reading a lot of psychology books about married life trying to prepare myself, but it was still not enough. A lot of it proved unrealistic when life hit us hard (I’ve talked about it before for LoveBlog). That’s how I ended up finding the gems that, I think, should be given before marriage and not afterwards, in a book called “Before the last resort“ by George Kenworthy. It bothers me how the intended audience is people on the brink of separation because a lot of what’s in the book would help people avoid getting to that point in the first place, but I guess there are people who aren’t newlyweds anymore and so would need it packaged that way.
I was, however, inspired by the stories of people in dire straits beating all odds through prayer and a commitment to work on their relationship, and I wonder if a book targeted at another stage of life would dare to present these case studies for inspiration (I think they should, it can be easy to be discouraged when your life is a mess and the examples you see are people who seemingly fell into married life effortlessly). So this post, I guess, is half book review and half reflection on being ready for marriage, partly inspired by a recent episode of the Catholic Feminist podcast. I think, to an extent, you can never be fully ready for what life will look like because to be that ready means to know the future (which we can’t), but very few people would go hiking through the whole Appalachians with unsuitable shoes and no food or containers, and basic survival skills, right Lorelai?
One thing I really liked about this book is that it’s doable and realistic. I was sold at the index showing chapter 2 being titled “When prayer doesn’t work”. This isn’t the kind of just pray hard and everything will be fine advice that goes around a lot. It’s also realistic about how much energy (emotional and physical) couples have got left at the end of the day, especially at that stage of their marriage when everything is bad, and it doesn’t ask a lot of people. It’s realistic about healing a wounded relationship and how long it takes, and how much it demands of us in terms not just of faith that God can and will provide, but also in terms of what we should be doing for the sake of our marriage.
Of course, as I mentioned it already, this is framing it as a marriage that is broken, but I think it applies also to a marriage that isn’t broken, but that started on the wrong footing because nobody is willing to talk about the reality of making a commitment that expects you to stick by a person no matter what until either of you gets out of it in a body bag, and with the caveat that you can’t be the one making that happen. It’s a scary thing to do, I am terrified whenever I think of the magnitude of what I got myself into, and frankly, if I wasn’t Catholic I’d never have done it. The only reason I managed not to be a runaway bride was the assurance that God would be the foundation on which this whole crazy edifice is built. No amount of “amor vincit omnia” would ever persuade me to enter a covenant like this otherwise. Maybe I’m just unromantic, but I see marriage as the start of the journey rather than the destination, and the cute little wedding with the bride in white as the culmination of love only on the Hallmark channel.
I don’t think I’d advocate marrying someone you don’t love, but what you really need is not the kind of romantic love that is shown in fiction, although if you have that stuff you hit the jackpot. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry hit the nail on the head when he said that “love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction”. You’ve got to want to build something together and give what it takes for it to happen instead of counting what you can get and how it makes you feel. In a way, marriage is being in vows with God just as much as the consecrated life. The vows might be said to another person, but really what you are saying is “I accept this mission you called me to”. I have very few memories of my wedding day, I hated it and sort of treated it like a traumatic memory, but one thing I remember is that Father’s homily talked about how marriage is a symbol of God’s love to others. Talk about a lot of pressure!
I already mentioned chapter 2 being what sealed the deal, and I’d like to talk more about it even if it’s kind of a spoiler. One of the stories there is of someone who grew up with the perfect Christian life, except that it had always been about duty. I could relate, and I could see the ramification of that in more areas of my life than the way I related to my husband feeling like I failed at being a good wife by just being me. My spiritual life has been very hard during lockdown for similar reasons. Over a number of days, I kept bumping into Job 38:4 in random places, and it’s now one of my favourite verses when I’m discouraged. Where was I when God laid the foundations of the world? I may know a lot of intellectual stuff about God, but the knowledge of God was barely scratching the surface even of the limited amount of knowledge we can have.
That was a pivotal moment for me, my mindset about the whole situation shifted, and the rest of the book just provided some practical ways in which to deal with practical problems that I now see as opportunities rather than signs we were going to end up in trouble because of xyz, since we did not look anything like the happy honeymoon-phase newlyweds that we were told we were going to be. Paradoxically, letting go of that expectation has done a lot towards actually being that happy couple, but that’s maybe a topic for another time. On top of doing marriage prep that doesn’t present unrealistic expectations of what it means to have a happy, successful marriage, I think we’d all benefit from marriage prep that uses these very simple but very effective ideas as the basis of the marriage rather than the last resort before everything falls apart, and I’d highly recommend this book to anyone in all stages of a relationship, even I just to pat yourself on the back for doing the right thing already without needing to be told.