Thursday, 3 February 2011

Auntie Seraphic & How Will I Know

This was a comment in the combox, and I loved it so much, I thought about it during my flight to Toronto and I reproduce it here as an Auntie Seraphic letter:

Dear Auntie Seraphic!

I have a request/idea for a future post: How does one *know*?

Lots of well-meaning priests and spiritual advisors have told us that you could be perfectly happy with more that one person and that having one single soul mate is a myth. This is reassuring, but a little confusing when you're trying to figure out who should be your mate, since most other people you ask say "someone you can't live without!," or "when you don't even think about anyone else" (unlikely, there are lots of attractive people in the world), or "you'll cry when you leave him to go on vacation" ;) or even worse, "you'll just know."

I ask this rather selfishly in part, because I'm in a "relationship" with a guy I love and trying to discern whether he's 'the one.' It's complicated by the fact that we've been together a long time, so the firework, can't think of anything else, swoony feelings that everyone claims are the main sign aren't even there all the time anymore, and he's the first person I ever dated, so I can't really compare.

(Plus, sometimes I like it when he's not around or when I go on long-ish trips with my girlfriends and without him. But surely that can't mean I don't love him?)

How Will I Know

Dear HWIK,

You don't have to marry this boyfriend.

That is the most important thing I have to say. I don't care how much you like him, or how long you've been together, or how happy you are when you get some breathing space away with your girlfriends, or how happy you are when you see him again.

I don't care if you've been talking about marriage for a long time, or if you've been kissing him so hard and so long, you have permanent beard rash, or if your boyfriend's mother has picked the names of your possible children, or if you've mentally picked the wedding hymns. You don't have to marry him. Dating relationships end all the time. That's okay. Marriages ending horribly in divorce, one or the other or both saying,"I never really loved you"--that's not okay. That's terrible.

Once upon a time, like 110 years ago, all Single women who weren't nuns were at a serious social disadvantage. They expected to marry, they learned from other women how well they were expected to do in the marriage market, and they were vastly relieved when their husbands turned out not to beat them or drink too much. They married young, quickly, and not necessarily for love.

Those days are behind us.

I cannot imagine why any woman in this day and age and hemisphere, when social forces attack marriage with all the power they can command, would marry a man unless she was head-over-heels in love with him.

Marriage is not a lifelong honeymoon vacation in a Caribbean resort. Marriage is washing dirty laundry, washing the kitchen floor, making boring everyday meals, sex, burping at inconvenient times, snoring, backing each other up in public, laughing at a joke you've heard 345 times, taking out the garbage because even though he said he would he didn't, picking up the snotty handkerchief, pregnancy 'moments' (or actual pregnancy), going to church, squabbling and laughing together almost every day. Laughing if you're lucky and in love, that is.

Sometimes relationships run their course. You date an exciting man for a year or more, and it goes flat. He's your comfortable habit. You're his comfortable habit. Or maybe you started dating in high school, and you grew up and he hasn't yet, or vice versa. You're great pals. Pals who make out. (Which you shouldn't be, as I have decided in my super-conservative middle age.) But if you don't want to marry him, you shouldn't marry him. You don't have to marry him.

I didn't have time to get bored with my husband. I fell in love with him something like 48 hours after we met in person, and he fell in love with me something like 48 hours after that. His heroines--including Dame Emma Kirkby, Helena Bonham Carter and Iris Murdoch--were a lot like me in some ways. My heroes--tweedy intellectual types--were a lot like him. And we both had something the other had always hoped to find in a member of the opposite sex. He was so cheerful, funny and friendly. I was so supportive of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. We were both adults--36 and 38 respectively, our homes were thousands of miles apart, and we both fell madly, crazily in love. We were married 8 (7.5?) months later. I gave up my country for him, and he gave up...hmm...the ability to spend his entire paycheque on himself.

Now it is over two years since we met, and it was all I could do to drag myself away from him this morning at Glasgow Airport. And, two years on, I know some things I didn't know two years ago. For example, he snores. Very loudly. So loudly I wake up and have to put on ear protectors. And he doesn't like how I wash dishes because it is not exactly the way his granny washed dishes, and he claims I leave greasy fingerprints on doorknobs. But he is the most beautiful person in the world to me, and probably around tomorrow I am going to have a hysterical sobbing fit because I am all the way over here in Canada, and he is all the way over there in Scotland.

Marriage is a calling, but it has several parts. You feel vaguely called to marriage in general. That's part 1, and nice, as it goes. But then you meet someone--a SPECIFIC someone---someone good and mature and kindly--with whom you fall madly in love and who falls madly in love with you. You both feel a strong conviction you're meant to get married. That's part 2. Then you marry in church, taking those binding, solemn vows before God and your community. That's part 3. You're not 100% called to be married until you take those vows to that specific person.

In short, if you don't KNOW--don't KNOW with all your heart--that you want to be married to this man, don't marry him. Travel. Get a job. Get a professional degree. Don't get married just for the sake of getting married. Get married because you think that if you don't marry the man who loves you as crazily as you love him, you will die.

Married love is friendship caught fire. A great blaze at the beginning of your marriage may settle down, but it ignites the logs of married life so that it burns brightly and warmly for decades. Sexual attraction is the tinder, good character, patience and maturity are the logs, but romantic love is the match.

Don't sell yourself short. I hope this is helpful.

Grace and peace,

P.S. If the well-meaning priest is in a religious order, ask him if he would have been as happy and fulfilled in a different religious order. If the spiritual director is a married woman, ask her if she'd turn her husband in for another, somewhat similar model. There might not be such a person as a soul-mate, but men are not interchangeable. I admire other deeply attractive men. (Marriage doesn't strike you blind and insensible.) I know lots of good, attractive, fun, intelligent, Catholic men. I wouldn't trade my own man for any or all of them, even if they came with a million dollars and the secret of eternal youth.


Marie Catherine said...

This is a good post, but I can't help reading it with a sense of....confusion. I totally agree with all of your points. However, everything I have experienced with marriage(observing my parents, hearing about the marriages of other people, mostly my mom's friends) seems to say that not very many people at all marry the right person. Why are there SO many unhappy marriages? I am scared to death that if I DO find someone I feel called to marry, that after we have spoken our vows he will display some sort of fault that will be very hard to handle and that I would not have been able to see during the dating process(sexually demanding, for example). What if we DON'T find that person? I know your answer, then be content with being single, which is all fine except....

There is this argument I have heard put forward by supposedly "good" Catholic men that women who don't get married are just selfish wenches who are putting off what should be their vocation just because they won't settle. These men state that if a woman isn't a nun, she had BETTER get married and have children because that is her duty as a Catholic woman. She shouldn't waste her time getting an education, because a woman's "place" is at home and in the kitchen. How do you counter arguments like that?? I have a problem with coming up with proper words on the spot in conversation, especially when I am angry.

Basically, I'm in a bad place right now where I'm unsure of what my vocation is, but I don't feel drawn to religious life, and I need to graduate and earn money before I can travel and explore other options and find my "mission" as you explained in a post a while back.

Seraphic said...

Dear Mary Catherine, my guess is that that kind of Catholic man is the kind of Catholic man who would be shocked speechless if you said, "Wow. Your attitude towards marriage sounds really Protestant to me. Martin Luther said something very similar, only he left out the possibility of being a nun part."

John Paul II's theology on women included the idea that women were made, not for men, but for themselves. Prior to JP2, theologians like Edith Stein thought whereas men were made for themselves, women were made for men. However, JP2 was clear in his own theology: both men and women were made for themselves.

No Catholic woman has to get married becauase a man says so. There were dozens of virgin martyrs who refused to marry, and were born before convents were properly established. There was an informal order of virgins and an informal order of widows in Christianity before St. Benedict got Western monasticism going. There weren't just Desert Fathers living as hermits or semi-hermits in the desert; there were Desert Mothers, too. Perhaps St Paul's attitude on celibacy has been lost on your pseudo-theologian friends.

I think one reason why there are so many bad marriages is that people are afraid to be Single. They are afraid to wait for God's clear "marching orders." They are afraid to wait until they are really grown-up, or to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend whom they love but secretly know they are not in love with. They are afraid. And sometimes not all that smart. We might physically be adults at earlier and earlier ages, but for many social reasons, most of which are not at all our own faults, we aren't adults until much later these days. This is not a value judgement; this is a warning about our intellectual and mental ability to sustain marriages.

But John Paul 2 said something else, both to your generation and mine. He said, "Be not afraid."

I remember youth as a very scary time, full of self-doubt and doubts about other and fear of the future. But life got a lot better and a lot more clearer, and I felt much more confident, after I was 32. In part this was because I went to my Canadian theology school, where I first really started thinking in an adult, mature way about God's plan for my life instead of just begging Him for favours.

Hopefully most people do not have to wait until they are 32 for this!

Bossy young neo-conservative (or neo-liberal, for that matter) Catholic men ain't the boss of us. Our boss is God Himself, and we are daughters of God first and foremost, and soldiers of Christ. We take our orders from HIM.

Seraphic said...

P.S. If you're in school, your number one mission is to finish school and--if you are in a secular school--not to lose your faith while doing so!

Seraphic said...

P.S.2 There are many happier marriages than you know. The divorce rate is skewed by multiple divorcees. And happily married people don't get all the attention unmarried people do.

Unless you are currently feeling pressured into marrying against your will, there is no reason to worry so much about your own marriage failing. As Our Lord said, (I paraphrase) leave tomorrow's worries for tomorrow; you have enough of today's for today!

Seraphic said...

P.S. 3 Who are these weirdo guys? There have been so MANY great Catholic women philosophers and theologians! Should St. Catherine of Siena (never a nun, never married) have done nothing but embroider? What about St. Edith Stein when she was a professor? What about Simone Weil? What about Dr. Alice von Hildebrand now?!

And don't get me started on never-married woman scientists! Legions of them! Aaaaaah!!!! Look in the sidebar for some fantastic famous Single women!

Med School Girl said...

I really liked this post because I'm such a romantic at heart, but tend to err on the side of practicality.
The subtext I got from your response was that somehow, you did "just know" that you were in love with B.A., and that there are no universal clues or signs of being in love that readers can twig into, because being in love is just an individual response.

This gives me hope in the spontaneous, the unexpected, and the beautiful surprises God has in store for us.

A part of me (the practical side) thinks that there is no way a person can fall in love within a matter of a few days like in the movies. That part of me believes that there is a cookie-cutter kind of recipe for dating, where you HAVE to have dated for 1 year before knowing that you can weather storms together, you've seen and accepted one another's faults, etc...

The other part of me believes in God's mysterious ways, and that He works in His own time, not ours. While I might think that I have to date a man a year to know for sure, God might be able to guide my discernment process and show me the truth about a potential spouse in less time than that.

My very dear friend just got engaged after 6 months of dating, and both parties are wonderfully discerning faithful people.

It makes me wonder if there is a chance that I am in love with (from what I know of him) my friend's sibling. I've been miserable since I've been back here, far away from where he is.

Anna said...

Kinda want to slap some sense into those "good" Catholic men. But, Auntie Seraphic, rather than women being made for themselves, shouldn't it be that women (and men) were made for salvation?

leonine said...

I once asked my mother how she knew she wanted to marry my father, and she said, "When the prospect of life without him was worse than the prospect of life with him."

I like that, somehow. It's funny, relentlessly practical, and was a refreshing observation in the sea of you'll-just-know-in-some-mystical-way advice.

Anne-Marie said...

Great post Auntie! It's in the same vein as Alice von Hildebrand's advice.

Anne-Marie said...

Great post Auntie! It's in the same vein as Alice von Hildebrand's advice.

Seraphic said...

The point both St. Edith Stein and Ven. John Paul II were making was that while animals and other earthly creatures were made for man, man was made for himself. And so was woman made for herself, said JP 2. The question was not "Why were we made?" but what is our proper relationship to other created goods.

Med School Girl, love is not just a feeling, it's a feeling in the context of a concrete, personal relationship. I am quite sure you are attracted to your friend's brother, and he certainly may be attracted to you, but you'll probably need more than a few snatched conversations here and there to really get to personal relationship.

In general, the movies are stupid. I knew B.A. through my blog and his blog and our emails for months before we met in person. As we are both rather frank and open people, there was none of the nonsense that usually accompanies internet dating, for example. In person we looked better than our photos.

Leonine, sounds like that definitely worked for your mother! The thing with "you'll just know", though--as annoying as it is--is that it is true. "How will I know I will like this ice-cream?" "Because you will have tasted it." "How will I know when I have met Mr Right?" "Because you will have met him, and he will ask you to marry him, and you will want to marry him with all your heart." Basically, it's experiential. "How will I know when I've drawn a perfect circle?" "How will I know when I've thrown the ball exactly right?"

I know that's hard to believe. But it is so. Have there not been times when you just KNEW something because the answers to all your questions just fell into place?

KimP said...

I was a teenager when I asked my grandmother how a woman knows she has found the right man. And she answered with that vague, "You'll just know." But then she followed up with, "And if you don't know, then he's not the one."

Now that I've met the man who I believe is right-for-me, I would say she is right, although I will say, I didn't know right away. It took me about a month to think, "There might be something to this guy," and a few months after that before I could say to myself, that I "knew". You have to get to know that person first. And hopefully, your relationship is a constant discovery: you keep finding out things about him that delight you.

Also, the right-man-for-you is as thrilled with you as you are with him. If there is some disparity of committment, affection, or attention, he's not the right man. You don't want to spend your married life begging your husband to pay attention to you! And you don't want to spend your married life being bored by him!

Catholic Pen said...

Question: Then what about the possibility that psychological or other impediments may be making someone from commitments. Do you think that even if they have some kind of block like this that somewhere in the back of their mind they will just know? A friend of mine is discerning a relationship right now and may have some of these issues...

Rachelle said...

This is such a good post - and I loved your follow-ups in the comments. I am SO SICK of being told (by very well-intentioned, lovely married women at my parish) that women shouldn't get higher education but should get married young and get to work producing babies! I love babies, I'm not career-minded, I'm all for traditional gender roles, and I think it's great if you meet the right guy at a young age and everything goes swimmingly for you; but I also have a pretty decent brain, loved my education, and know that if I'd settled and married one of the good Catholic guys who proposed to me when I was 18, 22, or even 27 years old, I'd be miserable right now and so would he. As things fell out, I met "the one" three years ago and knew it right away; and even though things with him didn't work out, that hasn't made me regret turning down previous offers. I don't know what God has in mind for me, and right now my biggest struggle lies in trying to "be calm and carry on", trusting that He knows what He's doing. In the meantime, getting my (very orthodox Catholic college liberal arts/Great Books) education has provided me not only with thoughts and curiosity to amuse me when I'm bored, and a means to make enough money to live at a level of comfort that I would not have if I had been all "feminine" and forgone further studies, but that college experience also strengthened my faith and gave me the best friends a girl could ask for.
Idea for a future post: how do you balance praying for things with trusting in God's will? On the one hand we're told to simply be good and trust that all will be as it should, and on the other we have saints such as Padre Pio telling us things like "Do not lose heart when the tempest rages... pray, and I might add, devoutly pester the Divine Heart" (Look up his Irresistible Novena, which includes references to the "Ask, and you shall receive" bits of the Bible.) What are we supposed to pray for??

Sofie said...

But auntie, what about if you know you're madly in love, but you aren't sure if you are compatible enough? I have seen enough relationships fall apart because they were based solely on love to know that's not enough, if you aren't also compatible, but at the same time a lot of secular sources seem to think that you have to be 100 percent on the same page, which seems, frankly, unlikely. Can you talk about compatibilty and love, and how you balance that?

Alephine said...

What bothers me is all the women (to take only the female perspective) who fall head over heels in love with Mr Wrong and end up either divorcing quickly or – more often than one would think from the statistics – loyally going through fifty years of purgatory with him. I know several cases like this.

I'm sure being madly in love is a wonderful thing when you fall in love with the right person, like you, Seraphic, or the heroines of Jane Austen novels. But I don't think it's adequately recognized in our society, either inside or outside the Church, that romantic love. like fire, can also wreak havoc (and not just when one of the people involved is already married). I especially think the love-conquers-all-differences mythology (which I know is miles away from your thinking on the subject) of so much popular culture has confused an awful lot of people.

Seraphic said...

Alephine, but it isn't just me and the heroines of Jane Austen's novels. (By the way, Jane observes the disaster of of passion-gone-amock in the ridiculous marriage of Lydia Bennett in "Pride and Prejudice@ and the ruination of Edmund's sister in "Mansfield Park". Cold-blooded marriage for marriage's sake she observes in Charlotte's "P & P" marriage to Mr. Collins.) It is generation upon generation of happy men and women. Happy married people just don't get the airtime of unhappy married people and divorced people. Our lives make boring narratives. Fairy tales end "and they lived happily ever after" because with happiness there is nothing exciting to say.

Passion, like fire, does wreak havoc. But that is when it rules reason, instead of reason guiding it. One thing I stress over and over is that one must fall in love with a GOOD, MATURE man and that one must endeavour, as soon as possible, to become good and mature oneself.

Intelligent passion falls in love with the good. Stupid passion falls in love with the shape of an eyebrow or a confident smirk.

Passion must always be the servant of the intellect and the will, and the intellect must always be given precedence over the will. All are good, but all must be in the correct relationship to each other.

Seraphic said...

Compatibility begins with self-knowledge. You have to understand what your core values really are, not what you think they should be. Perhaps you think your core value absolutely ought to be Catholicism. However, your core value might very well be your ethnicity. On a very basic level, it may mean more to you that (if you were Calabrian) that your husband be Calabrian or at least Italian than that he go to church. You will therefore be more compatible with an Italian backslider (whose dad never goes to church, but his mother and grandmother and undivorced aunts all do) than with the most pious Anglo-Saxon in the universe.

My husband and I share absolutely the same core values, although we debate or argue or simply squabble over less important stuff, like whether or not our children (if God gives us any) should have Gaelic names. We also come from slightly different social backgrounds,which causes shrieks of dismay, but that doesn't mean anything in light of our shared rraditional Catholicism, university educations and love of social life.

You are unlikely to agree with your husband 100%, and to share all his likes and dislikes, but you must share your core values or there will be a problem.

This reminds me of a column I read in a magazine on the flight to Toronto. A newlywed woman wrote disparagingly of her husband and how they fought over whether she should take his surname or not. From how and what she wrote, I give their marriage two years, tops. I don't know why they married, but the fact that she wrote both that her husband was a "37 year old fogey", that taking his name would mean erasing both her past and herself (ridiculous!) and that he had looked over her shoulder and said, "Maybe you don't love me enough" suggests they have made a serious mistake.

Seraphic said...

By the way, don't underestimate the feedback of friends. When your best friends think you have found Mr/Ms Right, they get all grinny and giggly. At least, B.A.'s did. I have never had so much smug, delighted scrutiny in my life. Oh, and two or three of them tried to set us up in the first place.

Seraphic said...

Catholic Pen, the most common thing keeping someone from making a commitment is the knowledge that they don't want to make that commitment. Healthy men are very good at this. Although with enough pressure and temptation they will sleep with almost anybody cute, they usually put their ears back and refuse to marry a woman they're not crazy about.

But then, of course, there are problems that women (in particular) try to ignore in the quest for marriage, like a man's alcoholism, homosexuality, marijuana addiction, manic-depression, or vows of celibacy. The better you get to know (and I mean really know, not ignore all the bad stuff) a man, the more obvious his defects should appear. This might take it; it might not.

Meanwhile, not wanting to marry is a perfectly legitimate wish, and does not necessarily point to immaturity, unless he or she is immature in other ways, too, or is happily getting the milk for free from Miss Not-Loved-Enough-to-Marry.

Seraphic said...

Or Mr Not-Loved-Enough-to-Marry. Goodness me, I remember a fellow screaming at me because I let him give me back rubs when I didn't love him. Well, was I supposed to turn DOWN the back rubs? There were strings attached to the back rubs? Well, live and learn.

Seraphic said...

Argh! "Take time", I meant in 14:30.

SarahClaire said...

Hm... I (the original poster!)still have a few questions about this response.

I worry about the idea that you shouldn't marry someone unless you know you are ABSOLUTELY 105% sure.

Most people can't be that sure about anything. I myself am never sure about anything -- even if it's whether I want to eat a delicious cookie. Most of the time, the only way I go from 99 to 100% sure about something is by just doing it. I've always had trouble making firm choices and being "sure" about things, so that might be a personal problem (was Catholic Pen talking about me?!). And I feel as though modern media tells you so much how marriage gets boring and terrible and people fall out of love so often that I can't help worrying about that possibility. Maybe that has something to do with it.

But I do know it would be awful if we broke up because I wasn't 105% sure about him yet, and then recognized that he was "the one" just as he was marrying someone else.

Also, the idea that you should feel like you have to marry someone or you'll die seems a little odd to me. I am pretty sure I would like to marry this guy (although I do waver a bit). I think it would be fantastic! I loved the Alice Von Hildebrand article because it made me think of us. And I think we'd be good at even the not-honeymoon parts of marriage (most of the time, anyways).

However, I know that if we don't get married for some reason, or we break up unexpectedly, I won't *die.* I would be terribly sad. I would certainly fall to pieces for some time. But I would also survive. It strikes me as a bit unsafe to put so much of yourself in another person that you would die without them. (Although I'm sure you mean it metaphorically) Aren't you only supposed to have invest that much faith in God?

So many questions! Thanks so much for making this a post, Auntie. The comments have been very educational.

invocante said...

What a marvellous post Seraphic one of your best ever! It is a great post because of the wise advice on marriage thatnypu share but also because the fierce love and pride you have for your husband just shines out from your text. As an old friend of BA it gave me great pleasure when you two fell in love and I am delighted that you are both so, so happy together. I hope and pray that Our Lord gives you many, many more happy years together.

Christine said...

Thank you for this post, Seraphic! This is a great discussion! I wish I had read the "You don't have to marry him. Dating relationships end all the time. That's okay." part when I was dating my ex-boyfriend a few years ago. At the time, it seemed like that marrying him was the only chain of future events that I wanted to visualize.

But it must add, with my ex-boyfriend (a N-ishCB) many of our family and friends (some good orthodox Catholic ones, too) were all giggly and winky about our relationship in the beginning. I just think it's important for women in their first romantic relationship to be careful of letting their loved ones' giggles to be the proof that it's "meant to be." My friends were so happy for me to have a romantic relationship, they would have given me the thumbs-up in almost any case. Hope that makes sense.

Thanks for the post, Seraphic! And good luck and God bless you in your discernment, Sarah Claire.