Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Auntie Seraphic & "Settle for Less?"

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

I was just reading one of your recent columns and something prompted me to remember a conversation I had with a friend awhile back. She and I are both single and (reasonably) convinced that our vocation is marriage.

Anyway, I was telling her that the last several men who have crossed my path, although practicing Catholics, have not been suitable. Somewhere in there, mention was made of my long-time-ago engagement to a man who ended up becoming a priest. I said that we had shared such a deep connection that it is hard to settle for less than that level of intellectual/spiritual/interpersonal intimacy. I felt like he really "got" me. My friend observed that obviously it was not God's will for me to marry him because he is a priest now. Was it possible that I was maintaining an attachment to what he and I had shared that is blocking me from being open to the men God is now bringing into my life? Even if I don't have the same sense of connection, she thought, if God's vocation is for me to be married, then I shouldn't let the lack of "that kind" of connection be an obstacle.

Needless to say, that doesn't sit well with me. If there isn't that kind of connection, i. e. if I don't really get him, and he doesn't really get me, I can't imagine what the point of being married is? I don't think I could be bothered.

Thoughts?

Settle-for-Less?


Dear S4L,

Once upon a time, we had a rock-solid sense that marriage was for life and that no matter hard it got, once we were married, we were stuck. However, we also believed that being Single was worse than being married, unless we were called to the priesthood or religious life, and those ways of life could also be very hard, and if we went into them, we were just as stuck.

Today only a minority of people in the West have the same confidence in marriage, priesthood or the religious life. And at the same time, we are incredibly naive. When we make our fatal choice, we tend to think marriage, priesthood or religious life is going to fabulous 99.9% of the time, and if they aren't, then we have made a terrible mistake and must move on, pronto.

Now this is not to say that people do not make terrible mistakes. Marriage, priesthood and religious life are not supposed to be ghastly 99.9% of the time, either. We are supposed to have a period of preparation for each, to make sure we aren't making a mistake: engagment, seminary formation, or novitiate. And bad stuff still happens. How happy am I, for example, that my divorce was relatively easy. My annullment was not, but, hey, neither is chemotherapy, I've heard.

But divorce seems easier than staying married when the chips are down, and marriage is increasingly seen not as the bedrock of society but as a lifestyle choice.I have personally heard one nervous bride being told that if her marriage doesn't work out she could always get a divorce, as if her groom were a cardigan she wasn't sure about but could be returned to the store if she kept the receipt. But this flies against what we know about marriage as Catholics, and in general and barring early death, we have only one shot at it.

Therefore, if you are going to get married, you are going to have to be absolutely darned sure that (A) you yourself are capable of maintaining a marriage for the rest of your life and (B) your fiance is the kind of man you could rub along with happily for the rest of your life.

Now, when my mum was 23, she was capable of maintaining a marriage for the rest of her life, although I don't know why, other than that she was born in an entirely different world from the one I was born in. I certainly was not capable of maintaining a marriage when I was 23, or 25, or probably even 30. How much of this I can blame on society is an open question. But, happily, by the ripe old age of 38, I was capable of it, and I did get married, so that is my own answer to A.

Now, my own answer to B is a bit hilarious, but bear with me. Essentially I fell in love with B.A. within 48 hours of meeting him and miraculously kept my mouth shut about it up until a few days after he had realized he was in love with me. The question of whether he "got" me never crossed my mind. Mostly I was in a turmoil of "OMG he's so smart, funny, sexy, devout, loyal and perfect, I hope he likes me. I really, really, hope he likes me, and now I must think of something else or I will brazenly seize him in my seraphic arms." And then when we were engaged but cruelly divided by the Atlantic Ocean, he stopped eating and I was in a welter of fear lest one of us die before we could be married. On our wedding day, I was half-insane, and he was a skeleton.

Now such transports could have led to disaster, and probably would have had we been but 20 years of age. But being practically middle-aged and both (thank the Lord) gifted with senses of humour, the inevitable moment when the lovestruck haze rolls away to reveal the landscape for what it really is, was not so bad. B.A. was still smart, funny, sexy, devout, loyal and, if not perfect, at any rate perfect for imperfect me. The long-term weather forecast is looking good.

So what I am telling you is that the only reason for getting married that I can think of in this day and age, this enlightened era in which single women can make their own money and even adopt children, is that you have fallen madly in love with a man of good character, who has fallen just as madly in love with you, and that you both think you will die if you don't get married to each other. The shared memory of this madness will get you through the hard parts, if only to make you both giggle nostalgically. It's impossible to throw pots and pans when you're giggling nostalgically.

But as for a man "getting you", this is where I will make you sit up in shock. My husband, whom I love sincerely, and who loves me sincerely, does not, in fact, "get me." The man is brilliant and few women could ask for a better intellectual companion, but he does not "get me." There are dark moments when I am overcome by some grief, and he is giving me a philosophical lecture, and I am tempted to wallop him with a pillow. But then my Guardian Angel never fails to murmur in my ear, "Men are who they are, and not who you want them to be." At which point I become calm, wait for him to fall asleep, and then, going to the sitting room, call up a woman on the phone.

If you are expecting other sexy men to be as woman-like as your now-priest ex-fiance, you are in for a shock. I like to say that it takes a man three years of ministry school to learn what women know from the schoolyard; I suppose some unusually empathetic men go into the seminary already knowing a thing or two.

In short, I would stop worrying about whether a man "gets you" and think more about whether you would like to go to bed with him every night of your life, wash his socks and listen graciously to his philosophy of housework because that, my dear S4L, not pastoral counselling, is what marriage is. Well, okay, there is also a lot of giggling. There is approximately 99.9% more giggling than satisfactory "I-feel" heart-to-hearts. And, if you're me, endless hours of watching "Country House Rescue" and "Antiques Roadshow" on TV.

Update (21:35): Incon-CEIV-able! "Country House Rescue" is on again!

16 comments:

healthily sanguine said...

*standing ovation*

theobromophile said...

Brava!

Two additional thoughts:

I've always thought that advice to "settle" is applicable for only a small minority of (very superficial) women and just causes untold grief to every sensible woman who has her values in place.

Second thought: (I hope this doesn't come off badly, as things on the Internet have a habit of doing):
So what I am telling you is that the only reason for getting married that I can think of in this day and age, this enlightened era in which single women can make their own money and even adopt children

Neither "this day and age", modern technology, nor modern mores change fundamental truths. One of those truths is that the primary purpose of marriage is child-rearing. Certainly, many joyfully Married couples don't have kids, but that doesn't change the fact that the best environment for children is in a family headed by a stable, heterosexual marriage. (Sort of wish I could quote the Catechism or CS Lewis or someone at this time....)

I'm not disparaging women who find themselves at age 40 or 45 and without a husband, and who then adopt a baby (or a foster child) and give that child a better life, but I do think that the default position for a man or a woman who desperately wants children should not be that Marriage is optional; it should be to move earth and storm Heaven until you get yourself down the aisle.

bolyongok said...

Great article, Auntie Seraphic! I look forward to finding a man who doesn't necessarily get me, but who is smart, funny, kind and capable! The 'getting' each other thing is kind of optional- I think the gender divide largely stands in the way. Even couples who have been married for a really long time still seem to have moments where they're like "Why did you do THAT?!"and don't 'get' each other.

Theobromophile- if I might comment on your comment, I will prefix my own comment by saying that I agree with you that the optimal situation for raising children is a two-parent, heterosexual, married couple.
I just take a little issue with
"it should be to move earth and storm Heaven until you get yourself down the aisle."
You can only get _yourself_ down the aisle. You can't drag anyone else along. If God doesn't send someone your way, that's that. But what do you do if you still have that strong urge to raise children? My cousin, when she was 30 something, adopted and raised a little girl by herself. Was it optimal? No. But my cousin's daughter is a pretty well-adjusted grown-up now, so it can be done. Is that or should that be the norm? No. Can it be a good thing? Yes.
Sorry if I'm soapboxing a bit...

Seraphic said...

Oh, deeeeeear! I so do NOT belong to the storming down the aisle so as to pop out the puppies ASAP school.... I love little, ickle babies, and even fight for their right to wail all through Mass, but, really, they would be a bonus on top of the blessings of B.A., not the whole raison d'etre of B.A. Even if it turns out I am too old for babies, I'd rather have B.A. and no babies than some shmo who bored me and a brace of them.

Alisha said...

'In short, I would stop worrying about whether a man "gets you" and think more about whether you would like to go to bed with him every night of your life, wash his socks and listen graciously to his philosophy of housework because that, my dear S4L, not pastoral counselling, is what marriage is."

Hmm...I think that each marriage is as unique as the individuals that find themselves in it. For some, what Seraphic described, is perfectly fine - it answers everything they were created for in that marriage and that is good. But certainly there ARE marriages where husbands and wives get each other as S4L described.
I'd say if you have a sense that being understood in that way is important to you, for now, pay attention to that - you were made that way, and if it wasn't important you wouldn't be asking the question.
If you are open to God's will and someone comes along that you discern you should date/consider marrying, He'll make it clear whether that aspect you are looking for is something that you should be looking for, or that you should re-evaluate.

theobromophile said...

I so do NOT belong to the storming down the aisle so as to pop out the puppies ASAP school

Well, I'm not either; I'm just not being a Cafeteria Catholic about child-rearing and the necessity of matrimony, which is exactly what you are doing. Big-time dropping of the ball, Seraphic.

If God doesn't send someone your way, that's that. But what do you do if you still have that strong urge to raise children?

Okay, I'll tell you what a woman should do in that situation if you tell me what someone should do in any of the following marriage- and childrearing-related situations:
1. A woman or a man really wants to have sex, experience intimacy, and be physical, but is 40 and cannot find a spouse.
2. A woman gets pregnant (or a man gets a woman pregnant), but does not want to get married.
3. A woman gets pregnant but does not want to be pregnant, and the embryo is only the size of a kidney bean, so.....

Now, if exigent circumstances don't justify breaking moral law then, why would it when a woman wants kids but can't find a spouse? Isn't the answer the same: life isn't perfect, sorry, but deal with grace and dignity? Be a good aunt, older sister, cousin? Find other ways to be a mother (teaching, ministry, coaching sports)?

Or are your values only there when they make you feel good?

some guy on the street said...

But Theobromophile, adoption isn't contrary to moral law, it is a work of mercy: to comfort the stranger, the widow, the orphan. It's preferable of course, that adoptions be to loving married couples; but if an upright and moral single person with visible means of support is able to support some specific child who otherwise would become a ward of the state, I can't find fault.

Put another way, adoption is about drawing good out of a past ill --- could it have been better? Of course! that doesn't mean we have to despair now of some good deed. It's not a case of doing evil so that some relative good may result; it's repairing an old evil.

Seraphic Spouse said...

I don't see how I'm dropping the ball. All I said was in this day and age--for Western women, obviously--Afghan peasant girls are kind of stuck--you don't HAVE to get married to survive or even to mother children (because now even single women can adopt). I didn't suggest it was better for a child to have a single adoptive mother than a mum and dad, although perhaps the child who has been adopted by his beloved new mother would loyally think so.

Back when I was picketing hospitals and abortion clinics and, on one exciting occasion, being thrown in the clink for it, I seem to remember holding a sign saying "Adoption not Abortion." There wasn't any fine print suggesting who the adoptive parent shouldn't be. I'm not pleased, incidentally, to be called a Cafeteria Catholic.

I realize we're all a bit nervous about what adoption can mean these days--as Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close left and right--but it is a legal and laudable option for childless married couples and, heck, Marilla Cuthbert. Yes, Anne of Green Gables was herself adopted by a single woman (and her brother), although Marilla was actually thinking of farm labour, not motherhood, at the time. In the nineteenth century there were so many children that needed homes, that just about anybody could adopt, it seems to me.

Meanwhile, I can imagine a woman forcing herself to marry Mr. Good Enough to Breed With solely to have children, but it seems awfully hard cheese on him. Perhaps if he'd known he was only Mr. Good Enough, he would have waited for the girl who thought he was Mr. Wonderful. One imagines him ten years later, divorced, with seriously garnished wages. Every man's worse nightmare.

My point is that marriage today is freaking fragile and there are so many temptations to get out of it at the first cold wind that you really ought not attempt it unless you are really, crazily in love with the man and you are both of good character. But, meanwhile, women should realize that men are not women and therefore are not necessarily going to "get" you the way your BFF does, but vive la difference.

Seraphic Spouse said...

By the way, there are two aspects to the marital act: unitive and procreative. These are indivisible; every sexual act has to be at least psychologically open to the possibility of conception, but every sexual act has also got to be unitive, i.e. an exchange of love between the spouses. And you'll notice "unitive" is always mentioned first.

Just as you can't shut out the procreative aspect, you can't shut out the unitive, which is one reason why Catholic ethicists (the ones who really are Catholic) go mental about test tubes and petri dishes. You can never use another person as a means to an end, even if that end is having a baby.

When two people get married, they are risking never ever having a baby at all, for without advance testing, there is no way of knowing if one or the other can have children. And you can't get an annulment just because your husband or wife turns out to be infertile. If you have enough money, you can apply to adopt. Or you can be a good aunt or uncle, which is a role I stress in my book.

aussie girl etc said...

A couple of points:

These days there are fewer and fewer children available for adoption. Couples who try to adopt often have to wait for years. Adoption agencies have a duty to put such children in the best home available for them. This would be a married man and a woman. I have no problem with a single woman providing a home to a child who needs it. However, in a situation where a child is without their natural parents, such a child should be given the best possible family to raise them. That means a mother and a father. Not a single mother and not a same sex couple. However things happened in a fictional book is irrelevent.
I can understand how the suggestion that a single woman has the option of adopting rather than settling in marriage can upset your readers. No woman has a "right" to a child. Personally, as a single woman I live out my vocation to motherhood by being a teacher.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Fine, but adoption is not actually what this post is about.

Meanwhile, if any sane man gets it into his head is that a woman's principal interest in him is his fertility, he will run a mile.

The only point that I was trying to make is that wanting to have a baby (any baby) is not THE best reason to get married, even though it is A reason and A chief end of marriage. Living with another adult person--no matter how charming--day in and day out can be very difficult, calling upon vast resources of patience, self-denial and generosity. As there are fewer and fewer social supports for marriage today, the best--and sometimes only--glues are (A) deep affection between the spouses and (B)obedience to God's law that a sacramental marriage is for life.

healthily sanguine said...

Whoa! This thread certainly got heated! From my cursory glance, it seems to me that there's some equivocation going on in terms of "reasons for marriage" here. Seraphic means that there's no good reason to marry, in the CONCRETE, except the fact that you have found a person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. I think theobromophile agrees, judging from the quote, "I've always thought that advice to 'settle' is applicable for only a small minority of (very superficial) women and just causes untold grief to every sensible woman who has her values in place." So there's agreement here.

On the other hand, theo. is looking at marriage from an ABSTRACT perspective and rightly stating that the primary reason to marry, on a broad level and not reaching to particular cases, is to have and raise children. It's an important fact to keep in mind, certainly, and I think Seraphic agrees here, since she says, "it is A reason and A chief end of marriage." So, more agreement. :)

Ok, but now I'm going to jump in and add just a wee bit of disagreement. theobromophile said, "[T]he default position for a man or a woman who desperately wants children should not be that Marriage is optional; it should be to move earth and storm Heaven until you get yourself down the aisle." I could be wrong here, but I don't necessarily think that a strong desire for children is a foolproof sign you are called to the vocation of matrimony. It COULD be a sign, certainly, but it is also a very natural desire that, in one's particular life, must be ordered to the supernatural--to spiritual motherhood or fatherhood. I think this might be related to the point Seraphic was trying to make in that the broad and abstract reason for marriage doesn't necessarily apply in a particular case.

Seraphic said...

The phrase that now jumps out at me is "desperately want." Christians should not "desperately want" anything but God. Inordinate desire for created things leads to sin. We should only want those things--and want them in the measure--that lead to our salvation.

Annie said...

Seraphic, my friend and I have actually been trading this post back and forth over the last few days and this was my most recent response after much thought. My friend suggested I copy and paste what I had written and share it with your comments wall.

"Ok, so I've actually been thinking about this over the last couple days and not only do I think it's incorrect that the only reason to get married is that the couple can't imagine life without being together, but rather that that concept is utterly ridiculous. I think that's potentially, but unlikely, the case if the bride and groom, or at least the bride, are well over 40, but it's wrong to think that anyone who has a vocation to marriage does not have some responsibility to actually allow him/herself to get married for the sake of bringing children into the world. Ignoring that inherent within the vocation is the charge to find that person for whom you are meant to pray so he/she can receive the graces to return back home to Heaven, we were told to be fruitful and multiply and the Church here certainly will not survive unless some of us actually listen to that call."

Seraphic said...

Oh dear. I feel like the rock singer Madonna calling out to a live audience, "Do you believe in love?"

What is the difference between a vocation and wishful thinking?

A vocation is a calling and it is concrete. Stage 1 may be a vague pull in one direction or another ("Hmm...I think I'd like to be a religious"). Stage 2 is a concrete falling in love ("I wanna be with THESE guys!"). Stage 3 is a formal recognition of your vocation by church and community ("Could we have a round of applause for our newly professed novices?")

Wishful thinking is confusing reality for what you want. And we all want to think that marriage is a walk in the park, and that if we are just good enough and faithful enough, we could marry any old doctor or lawyer and never ever ever get divorced no matter what.

Meanwhile, falling in love is not a myth. It is a very real thing to be avoided regarding people of weak characters but to be embraced regarding people of good characters.

Wanting to have children is a wonderful desire, and certainly children are the fruit of marriage. However, few people nowadays get married JUST to have children. It is possible the poor Prince of Wales did it in 1981, and look what happened to that.

Many female readers are distressed when men much older than them start making advances, wondering if this has something to do with them just wanting a mother for their children. (A tip-off is when, on the first date, the 40+ man starts talking about future children.) It is not pleasant to be desired only for one's baby-making potential.

When you meet the right man, hopefully you will no longer long for children in the abstract, but for THAT MAN'S children.

Children, of course, do not in themselves keep a marriage together. And the most important person in a marriage is not the child of that mariage but one's spouse. The most important person in the FAMILY might be the child, but the most important person in the MARRIAGE is the spouse.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear. I feel like the rock singer Madonna calling out to a live audience, "Do you believe in love?"

What is the difference between a vocation and wishful thinking?

A vocation is a calling and it is concrete. Stage 1 may be a vague pull in one direction or another ("Hmm...I think I'd like to be a religious"). Stage 2 is a concrete falling in love ("I wanna be with THESE guys!"). Stage 3 is a formal recognition of your vocation by church and community ("Could we have a round of applause for our newly professed novices?")

Wishful thinking is confusing reality for what you want. And we all want to think that marriage is a walk in the park, and that if we are just good enough and faithful enough, we could marry any old doctor or lawyer and never ever ever get divorced no matter what.

Meanwhile, falling in love is not a myth. It is a very real thing to be avoided regarding people of weak characters but to be embraced regarding people of good characters.

Wanting to have children is a wonderful desire, and certainly children are the fruit of marriage. However, few people nowadays get married JUST to have children. It is possible the poor Prince of Wales did it in 1981, and look what happened to that.

Many female readers are distressed when men much older than them start making advances, wondering if this has something to do with them just wanting a mother for their children. (A tip-off is when, on the first date, the 40+ man starts talking about future children.) It is not pleasant to be desired only for one's baby-making potential.

When you meet the right man, hopefully you will no longer long for children in the abstract, but for THAT MAN'S children.

Children, of course, do not in themselves keep a marriage together. And the most important person in a marriage is not the child of that mariage but one's spouse. The most important person in the FAMILY might be the child, but the most important person in the MARRIAGE is the spouse.