God’s Theo-Logic: A Plan in the Pain
It has been said that there are two times when a man doesn’t understand a woman—before and after marriage. Case in point: Recently, an old friend sent a text describing a bout he had had with his wife. “I lost control with my wife this morning. I yelled at her and pounded the kitchen counter with my hand repeatedly. As I cleaned up the mess, I realized that I had injured my hand. I ask her simple questions and it turns into a vicious circle of her putting me down and me trying to explain that I don’t mean wrong to her. I’m out of control. I can’t even talk to my wife.” It is probably safe to say that there have been times when the words in his text could have been our own. Most of us have had similar experiences and can relate to his pain. Let’s face it, marriage is incredibly challenging. If marriage is not challenging, then we are not challenging our marriages. If our marriages don’t have battles, then most likely we’re not battling for our marriages. Passion is proof that we still love. As Professor S. says, “God originally designed marriage to be an experience of total harmony, trust, intimacy, beauty, and fulfillment. Now, post-Fall, our marriages do experience moments wherein we taste the deep sweetness that God intended. Those moments, however, are temporary and difficult to hold on to. Often we experience frustration, resentment, and bitterness, and [we] wonder, ‘Did I marry the wrong person?’ Or ‘Is this how it’s supposed to be?’ You married the right person, but we aren’t in Eden anymore, and yet we ache for what we’ve lost. There is a disconnect between what we want and where we find ourselves. Marriage, specifically our marriage, seems to be the problem. But this is the paradox or the theo-logic of the Father; the difficulties, joys, pains, and pleasure that exist in marriage are God’s means of saving us. There is a plan in the pain.” Sexual difference invites us to unite with our wives, but the difference causes tension. However, this tension is the place of purification that enables us to become men of greatness. To borrow a term from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, marriage is God’s “theo-logic,” His purifying fire that forges us into men of glory.
Needing Something, or Someone?
Although God’s “theo-logic” of sexual difference affords many opportunities to express self-giving love, this complementarity can also cause intense tensions, rifts, and misunderstandings. When these tensions occur, we tend to believe that we are right and our spouse is wrong. My daughter recently related a statistic that only 2 percent of couples while experiencing disagreements and arguments will admit that their spouse is actually right. Unfortunately, many couples adhere to the pragmatic philosophy expressed by the social exchange theory, which is defined as getting the most from the other with the least amount of investment in the other. But what happens when we don’t get what we want out of the relationship? Over fifteen years ago, my marriage was imploding. My wife and I concluded that we weren’t understanding each others’ needs. Considering this, we decided that we would both write down what we desired from the other, then come together and diplomatically, calmly, charitably, share the results. What resulted was nothing less than a verbal cage match, a throw-down war with words, comprised of sucker punches of criticisms, complaints, and accusations. Eventually, we realized that we were approaching our relationship from the wrong vantage point—that is, from the angle of “What I need; what I can get out of it; what my spouse isn’t giving me, but should give to me.” A friend gave us a book that discussed the idea that human beings have five love languages and that the key to a great marriage is learning your spouse’s love language. If you speak Chinese and she speaks Russian it will be difficult to relate. So also, if a husband is speaking one love language to his wife when she actually speaks another, the two will struggle to understand one another. The book was helpful in that it identified the five basic love languages. However, by following the principles expressed by the author, my wife and I fell into the pitfall of marital bargaining. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I’ll speak her love language for the purpose and hope, if not the expectation, that she will fill my “love tank.” It was as though any need, such as sexual intercourse, emotional intimacy, or quality time, was understood as an object that could be placed on a table between us and bargained over. This approach led to discontent, and the sentiment of feeling used by the other and believing that the other was wrong. Over time, we realized a profoundly simple truth: we are not in need of some thing from the other, but we are in need of someone—the other. We don’t love the other for the gifts they give, but rather love them for the gift that they are. My wife and I realized an essential truth that applies to marriage and to all relationships: One cannot determine another’s giftedness. We cannot determine the manner in which our wives are a gift to us. We can only express our needs and hope (not expect) that our spouse will respond with generosity by means of her gift of self. And that is precisely where we experience the tension: how do I know and understand my own needs, let alone express them? And furthermore, how do we communicate those needs to one another?
The Need for a Marriage Map
These are difficult but essential questions. What are his real God-given needs? What are her God-given authentic needs? Needs like dinner on time, keeping the yard landscaped, arriving home from work on time, couch time, and sexual intimacy are very important, but we must understand why we need these things. It is important that we dig deeper and attempt to understand ourselves and the sexes in light of one another. It is imperative to understand what his and her fundamental needs really are, and be ready to disclose and discuss them with our spouses. We need a marriage map, an overview, a schematic that shows how his and her needs complement one another, why these authentic needs are essential, and how they move couples away from selfishness and toward self-giving love, and enable them to experience God’s altruistic self-giving love in their own lives. Last year five of us men went on a backpacking excursion in the Appalachians. The adventure consisted of three main components: first, the goal—not to return in a body bag. Actually, the goal was not to merely survive, but to relish the experience of challenging ourselves, discovering more about ourselves and God in the remote wilderness; second, a map, supplies, and a team. Without a map we would have wandered aimlessly and perhaps become some hungry bear’s dinner. The third component: we simply had to muster the courage, will, and tenacity to accomplish the task. So it is with marriage. We must understand the goal; we must have a map, a plan, and the supplies to benefit from the journey; and we must exercise our will to endure to the end.
The Three Goals of Marriage
What is the goal of marriage—your marriage, my marriage? Is it simply to survive—or to thrive? Many couples’ marriages are simply existing, buying time, selecting activities that numb the pain. Who desires that? No one does. No one ever gets married thinking, “Oh good, the next fifty years of my life will be a living hell.” Our aspirations for our marriage must be higher than simply surviving and believing that having a good marriage means remaining married until death. That is a death before death. The story goes that a wife got so mad at her husband that she packed his bags and told him to get out. As he walked to the door she yelled, “I hope you die a long, slow, painful death.” He turned around and said, “So, you want me to stay?” As the saying goes, married men live longer than single men, but married men are a lot more willing to die. Our goals for our marriages must be higher—that is, they must have a divine purpose and vision and mission. What does God desire for our marriages? First, he desires that our marriage relive His eternal love. He desires our marriages to be nothing less than the living reality of the love that God, the Trinity, experiences in eternity. God desires that we experience His glory, joy, intimacy, and self-giving love, not only in the eternal marriage of the Lamb, but here and now in our earthly marriages. Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life and be miserable.” Not quite. He says, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.”
Second, our Lord desires that our marriages reveal Christ’s marriage with the Church. As the author of Ephesians states, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, I mean in reference to Christ and His Church” (Eph. 5:31). The word “mystery” can also be interpreted in the Latin as sacramentum, or sacrament. A sacrament is more than a symbol. It is a sign that communicates real, transformative, divine grace.
In other words, our marriages have a bold, noble, challenging mission— to reveal Christ’s marriage to the Church to the world; to give the world hope that real love exists and that this love is worth sacrificing for. How do marriages reveal to the world Christ’s marriage to His Church? They reveal it when the couple depends on God’s grace and that grace transforms their marriage into a shining, magnetic example of His love to the world. What is the message that a solid, vibrant Christian marriage transmits to the world? Our faithfulness in marriage transmits the message that God will never, ever, divorce us, and He will always remain faithful to us—even if we are unfaithful (2 Tim 2:13) Far from simply enduring one another, God calls us to experience the life-giving love that liberates us from the chains of self-deception and self-absorption. As Professor S. says, “We must trust that God desires happiness for us. We must trust Him enough to invite Him into the mess of our marriage and believe that He will bring life out of death, light out of darkness, harmony out of friction, and intimacy out of irritation. Marriage is the stage upon which the theo-drama occurs, that is, the day-to-day struggle to remain, and not despair that ‘things will never change’ or that ‘this is too hard.’ If we embrace the trials while trusting the Father, He will provide the grace that heals, perfects, and elevates our marriages. God’s specializes in bringing good out of evil.”
In addition to reliving and revealing God’s love in our marriages, another goal of marriage is to teach our children how to love as God loves, to help them enter into an intimate relationship with God. As Pope St. John Paul says, “In a society shaken and split by tensions and conflicts caused by the violent clash of various kinds of individualism and selfishness, children must be enriched . . . by a sense of true love. . . . The family is the first and fundamental school of social living: as a community of love, it finds in self-giving the law that guides it and makes it grow. The self-giving that inspires the love of husband and wife for each other is the model and norm of the self-giving that must be practiced in the relationships between brothers and sisters and the different generations living together in the family. And the communion and sharing that are a part of everyday life in the home at times of joy and at times of difficulty are the most concrete and effective pedagogy for the active, responsible and fruitful inclusion of the children in the wider horizon of society” (FC 37). In other words, the most effective way to teach children of God’s undying love is through our marriages.
The Marriage Map Overview
Now that we understand the goals of marriage, we need a map—a marriage map. This marriage map (exhibit 1) is the product of many conversations with men who either desired better marriages, desired to repair their broken marriages, or wondered where they went wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. It is a schematic that is divided in half vertically. On the left side is the man, his role as husband, his essence—which is to set the pace of self-giving love and ultimately discover that his manhood is fulfilled in spiritual fatherhood, that masculinity culminates in spiritual paternity. The map also demonstrates the two polar extremes that a man toggles between in attempting to live from his essence: dominating woman, or abdicating from his role and neglecting woman. Also listed is his core need: to be respected as a leader who needs his ezer chenegdo—his essential counterpart, his other self, his completion of self in her, his life-bearer and life-giver.
On the right side of the map is woman, her role as wife, and her core essence—which is to be life bearer and life-giver, which culminates in spiritual maternity. The maps also shows the two disordered behavioral polar extremes of manipulation and domination of the man, or desolation—that is, offering little to no life to the man, perhaps even seeking to be needed elsewhere. Also listed is her core need: to be needed as an essential counterpart to the man. At the top of the map is the goal: God’s glory, which is nothing less than what God is—self-giving love. Toward the bottom of the top half is the key to achieving the harmony of God’s self-giving love: communication. Communication leads to communion. Therefore, it is imperative that spouses communicate their deepest needs. Beneath both the man and woman are listed their most fundamental needs respectively, and how these needs complement one another. It is my hope that in the following sessions we will discuss these fundamental needs in detail and discover more about ourselves, our wives, and how to foster a relationship that reveals and relives God’s eternal glory—His self-giving love.
Let’s close with a word from Professor S: “Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we have to make the choice to love the other precisely when we are tempted to not love, when things are difficult. There is a cost to love and to life. Your marriage can be better. It can be the deeply satisfying, life-giving relationship you want it to be. There is a plan in the pain. God has a plan.” It is my hope that the marriage map will help us understand this plan more deeply.