WHY IS IT SO HARD? | His Needs – Her Needs: Part 1
Why Is it So Hard?
Years ago, several families, including our own, each comprised of several young, hyper, manic, very hungry children, decided to dine at a local restaurant without making prior reservations. While we waited to be seated, the kids became increasingly irritable and unmanageable. Finally, after being led to our table, the mothers and children attempted to sort out the seating arrangements, which appeared to be extremely complicated due to the children’s and mothers’ social needs. Since my bladder was full, nearing explosion, and I was feeling like a pregnant cow, I snuck off to the bathroom. I went into an available stall, closed the door and began—well, you understand. Shortly afterward, one of the other dads entered the bathroom, not perceiving that anyone else was with him, emitted a deep, exasperated sigh, and grumbled aloud, “Why is it so hard?” At that moment I left the stall and our eyes met. His expression was one of surprise and utter embarrassment—not to mention deep angst, frustration, and helplessness. I felt bad for him and wanted to talk to him about how difficult fatherhood and family life could be, but my mind told me that the men’s bathroom might not be the appropriate place to discuss such matters. Actually, we never did discuss his pain—not until a decade later, after his divorce. Let’s face it—if we are honest, marriage and relationships between the sexes are difficult. We are conditioned to believe that we are to get married and “live happily ever after.” Well, almost. Marriage does indeed have its moments of profound glory, intimacy, and ecstasy, but it also is laden and burdened with drama, conflict, tensions, and trials. As Professor S. says, “Somewhere in our soul we remember that marriage was meant to be an experience of total harmony with each other and with God. But we all know that those harmonies were ruptured in the Fall, and instead of total intimacy in Eden we live out our days in a tenuous intimacy lived out in a war zone. We ache for harmony because we were made for it and it’s really great when we have it, but we forget that we’re not in Eden. We live in a cosmic war zone and are surprised when it’s hard and when we’re wounded in the battle. We feel like we’re the only ones who are suffering. We misinterpret the difficulty and think we’re just blowing it, or more often, that our spouse is blowing it.” This is the evil one’s tactic. He convinces us to believe that we are the only ones enduring such trials and therefore there must be something terribly wrong with us. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, “Marriage is a dual to the death.” But often it does not last until “death do us part,” but instead we impart death to the marriage. As Lou Costello once said, “Marriage has three rings: the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and suffering.” So why is marriage, relations between the sexes, and the channeling of our sexual desires so difficult?
Marriage: A Revelation of God’s Love
Imagine yourself at war, and your nation has the secret weapon that would defeat the enemy and ensure not only victory but also freedom for your citizens. However, the enemy has full knowledge of that secret weapon, and is determined to use all his energy to destroy it. This is an allegory for marriage. God created sex, marriage, and the relationship between man and woman to be the secret weapon, the nuclear energy that can launch this world to its heavenly destiny. However, there exists an enemy who is bent on having this power explode in our faces. In ancient Jewish culture, when a couple was married the wedding feast would last seven days, culminating on the seventh day with the groomsmen carrying the bridegroom in procession to the huppah, the wedding tent, where the bride awaited him. There, after the public witnessed the couple’s vows to one another, the two would enter the inner chamber tent of the huppah and the bride would not only remove the veil from her face, but also unveil much more. The word for the act of unveiling in the Greek is apokalypsis, and is translated literally as “uncovering” or “a lifting of the veil” or “revelation.” The pinnacle moment of the Jewish marriage feast is the unveiling, the revelation of the spouses to one another (see Scott Hahn, The End). This is highly significant and has allegorical meaning for us today. God created marriage to be a sign that unveils or reveals the mystery of God, who He is—the divine Bridegroom—and who we are—the Bride, the Church. God created marriage from the beginning to be a revelation, an apokalypsis, a way to uncover or unveil the mystery of God and his plan for mankind. It is precisely because marriage and the sexual union has the power to launch us into, or unveil, the mystery of God and His love for us, that the evil one is bent on maligning and destroying it. This is one of the reasons why marriage is so difficult: It is a battle between good and evil. It is warfare.
Little Relationships Lead to the Big Relationship
God is amazing at problem solving. It seems that one of the greatest challenges for God was to create human beings in such a way that they could become capable of revealing His mystery, His identity. What is God’s identity? God has revealed Himself as an eternal exchange of Persons, three Persons who are so self-giving that they are eternally one essence. What God does in eternity, he desires to communicate and express in our humanity. Considering this, He creates man and woman in such a way that they have an inherent need for one another. The human race would cease to exist if men and women did not have this need. God says, “Let us create man in our image and likeness.” Notice the divine “We.” God is three distinct Persons, who give themselves to one other eternally, which is the Trintiy’s unity, and this union produces life, love, and beatitude. The three attributes of the Trinity are distinction, unity, and fruitfulness. God created man and woman as two distinct persons, who by themselves cannot image God fully, but together, by means of their sexual complementarity and self-giving love, they achieve unity and this union produces life—both spiritual and physical. “Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion” (TOB 9:3).
Marriage and the family has been created by God as a perpetual reminder of our identity (we are icons of God’s love), and our destiny (we are to enter the eternal exchange of love of the Trinity). “God Himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and He has destined us to share in this exchange” (CCC 211). However, there is a qualification: what God does in eternity—eternal self-giving love—is painless, but within our sinful context, self-giving love becomes painful. Christ on the cross confirms this.
Another way to understand this is that little “r” relationships lead us to the big “R” Relationship of the Trinity. Our marriages, familial relationships, friendships, our expression of our sexuality as male and female all constitute the little “r” relationships that leads to the big “R” Relationship of God. What we do in our humanity determines our eternity. Our identity leads to our destiny. It is imperative that we get this right. If we desire to live in union with the eternal Relationship it is imperative that we learn, here and now, how to live in relationship with one another—especially in marriage and between the sexes. God created marriage to be a sign of Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, the Church as revealed in Sacred Scripture: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery—I mean in reference to Christ and His Church” (Eph. 5:31). So marriage has been created to reveal the mystery of Christ’s undying, relentless, sacrificial, fruitful love for His Church. In other words, marriage has been created to launch us into the mystery of Christ and His Church, and the family has been created to launch us into the mystery of the Trinity. As Pope St. John Paul II said, “Our God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.”
Love— The Ultimate Vocation
Sounds a lot like my family—how about yours? Sometimes I sense that my family, rather than resembling heaven, resembles a place located a bit southward. The truth is that each of us, living within the condition of a fallen, sinful context—besides eating and breathing, being selfish is the easiest thing to do. Selfishness not only destroys marriages, sexual relations, and communion between spouses, but it destroys the family and it destroys our children. The evil one tirelessly tempts us, coerces us, convinces us to be selfish instead of being a gift. The evil one’s diabolical scheme is simple: he attempts to cause man and woman to fall into moral and spiritual amnesia; to keep them from understanding their true sexual genius and how to give themselves to one another. “Love is the innate vocation of every human being,” “man is called to love in his unified totality, body and soul,” “sexual acts, exclusive to spouses are not merely biological but [concern] the innermost human person” (FC 11, 22, 23). Therefore, “their bond of love becomes the image and symbol of the covenant which unites God and His people” (FC 11). As Professor S. says, “Ultimately married couples are icons, symbols of Christ’s marriage to His Church. We peer through the symbol to see the reality, much like peering through a window to see that which is touched by the sun. But the window often becomes dirty and diminishes our vision.”
Only God Can Satisfy
Our glory and our essence is love, to be a sincere gift, to respond to the supreme call of self-donation—to be like God Himself. When we neglect to live from our essence, the core of who we are—love—we feel unfulfilled, empty, and long to numb the pain by feeding the senses with temporary fixes.
Marriage is the school where the truth of self-giving love is learned and not only learned but testified to. Marriage, authentic sexual union, self-donation between spouses is a witness to love and therefore the evil one attempts to destroy it, divorce it, malign it, change its meaning and definition. The evil one desires that the sign, the sacrament of marriage, become an anti-sign, and instead of directing the world to heaven signifies the pains of hell. Haven’t we all experienced this in our own lives?
Like magnets, man and woman are helplessly attracted to one another, and often as we draw closer to one another the tension between the two sexes can become overwhelming, causing one to crash against the other. For example, an acquaintance has expressed to my wife her disappointment that her husband continually fails to meet her emotional needs. When she doesn’t receive the affirmation and affection that she desires, she resorts to belittling him, undermining his authority over the children, and speaking ill of him to her friends. Her husband actually prays with his family, spends individual time with each of his four children, and attends daily Mass often. But his wife convinces her friends that he is a terrible father because she is not deriving what she wants from their relationship. Recently, a man confessed that his wife is leaving him because he has burdened her with his expectations to physically gratify and satisfy him. He admitted that he was continually disappointed that they rarely came together, and when they did, he would question her as to why the act wasn’t as fulfilling as he had hoped. Sensing that he could not fulfill his wife, he feels unfulfilled and has now begun to question his masculine identity. The problems between spouses are intense and the wounds cut deep. But one lesson we can derive from these two examples is that we can never hang something on a hook that cannot bear the weight. Our wives cannot satisfy us. We cannot satisfy our wives. As Professor S. says, “In the secret of the intimate night, spouses can whisper it is all so right, but the day confronts and brings to light the truth that marriage is a plight.” She continues, “What happens when after the years of effort, counseling, the tireless attempts to communicate don’t work? We must remember why we are fighting for our marriage—because we are fighting for Christ. Marriage is a symbol directing us to the ultimate end—toward Christ.” If the spouse is the ultimate end, the marriage, most likely, will end. “Communion finds definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He reveals the truth of marriage—the truth of the beginning. Christ’s sacrifice entirely reveals the plan God has imprinted on man and woman from the beginning” (FC 12). What did the two people previously mentioned desire from their spouses? A love that can satisfy, a love that will not diminish, an eternal never-ending love, and only Christ can give that love. However, if spouses become a gift to one another for Christ, and give themselves more fully to Christ, Christ will enable them to experience his love through one another more and more—specifically in the dynamic of self-giving love.
Joseph’s Call: Our Call
“At the center of our Father’s plan for the world, we find the married couple and the family. That is why the Church cannot allow marriage and family to be reduced to cultural constructs or arbitrary living arrangements. Because if we lose the family, we lose God’s plan for our lives and the world” (Archbishop Jose Gomez, First Things, January 2016). Men, the family has been entrusted to fathers, just as the Holy Family was entrusted to St. Joseph. The mark to which we fathers aim is to have our families become icons of the Trinity. Just as in the Trinity the Father generates love, so also we are called to generate and initiate self-giving love, particularly within our marriages and families. We all miss this mark, we all fail, we all succumb to selfishness—and often. But the key is to pick ourselves up, return to God, receive His forgiveness (particularly by going to confession, and letting Christ dust off our sins and wash us in His redemptive grace), and rediscover our vocation. “Man can only discover himself by becoming a sincere gift” (see GS 24). You and I can only discover our fatherly identity and lead the family to its destiny by being sacrificial men, like St. Joseph, who loved his wife disinterestedly. Because of St. Joseph’s self-sacrificial love, because of his self-donation and oblation, particularly by refraining from heaping expectations on the Blessed Virgin to fulfill his desire for love, “the Holy Family of Nazareth shows us that every family is meant to be an ‘icon of God’ and image of the Holy Trinity in the world” (Archbishop Gomez). And so it will be with us. If we initiate self-sacrificial love, our family also can become what God has intended it to be: a hopeful sign to this fallen, darkened world of God’s total self-giving love.