Advice for Newly Married Couples

Douglas P. McManaman
August 20, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Recently I was asked to be interviewed about marriage. The following are the interview questions and my best replies to those questions.

1. What advice do you have for couples marrying in the Church today?

If I were asked to offer some advice to couples marrying in the Church today, I think I would first advise them to be skeptical of the current cultural understanding of marriage. I think most people don't really understand what marriage is anymore. What is it that couples want when they say they want to be married - as opposed to simply living together? Most people have a very difficult time with that question; very few people understand that marriage is a joining of two into "one flesh" as a result of a complete and mutual self-giving, a total giving of the self to one another. That self-giving includes the body, and so marriage is exclusive, permanent (until death), irrevocable (indissoluble), and implies an openness to children. The Catholic understanding of marriage is very rich, and I would encourage couples to dive right in and explore that understanding. In doing so, they are coming to a deeper understanding of themselves and the mystery that they are entering into through their own marital commitment.

We often hear of married couples who have broken up say things like "I just wasn't fulfilled" or words to that effect. One must never enter marriage for one's own personal fulfillment. Such expressions reveal that it is the "self" that was the fundamental reason for the decision to marry. One must enter the marriage state not for the sake of one's own personal fulfillment, but for the sake of the other's fulfillment. Love seeks the fulfillment and well-being of the other for the other's sake, pure and simple - not for my sake. This is hard to achieve, and most people are not capable of such a love. But that is what married love is. And so, I would advise any couple about to be married to carefully examine his or her own motives. Are you getting married for the sake of your own "fulfillment"? Or is your motive the fulfillment and good of the other, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, etc.?

Next, I would strongly advise couples not to use contraception, but to learn NFP (Natural Family Planning). There is no doubt that this advice sounds strange to modern ears, but the reason I say this is that the divorce rate for couples who use NFP is under 4%. Choose NFP and you reduce your chances of a failed married by about 50% right from the get-go. Of course, there are reasons that explain this reduction, and exploring these reasons is also something worth looking into.

The next piece of advice I would offer to couples about to be married in the Church is to make a resolution, right from the beginning, to exclude divorce as an option. Couples about to be married are in for some very beautiful moments, but they are also in for some very trying moments, some very difficult periods. The reason for this is that marriage is a vocation, and every vocation in the Church is a specific sharing in the life of Christ, and that life is always a "way of the cross". Marriage is a Way to Heaven, and the way to heaven is always and necessarily a way of the cross. Each individual person's worst enemy is his or her own "concupiscence", which is the inclination to selfishness (sin). If your marriage is going to fail, it is this that will be at the root of that failure. Marriage is work. It is not easy, just as priesthood is not easy - learning to live and put up with others is very difficult. But marriage is the very foundation of civilization; it is a very important vocation, and its importance is commensurate with its difficulty.

The next piece of advice I offer to couples about to be married is to pray. A very devout religious life centered around the Eucharist and regular confession is very important. Couples must have a serious prayer life. If not, they make themselves vulnerable to being overcome by temptation, and it is only a matter of time before that marriage will begin to disintegrate. Do not be that couple that attends Mass whenever it is convenient. Make the Mass the center of your married life. Receive the sacrament of reconciliation often and pray regularly.

2. Where do you see God in marriage today?

The problem is I see God virtually nowhere in marriage today. God must be returned to the very center of a couple's married life. Too often He is not there. As I said above, when a couple begin to recognize that their own sinful inclinations are the corrosive influence that is slowly eating away at their marriage, they will take the right measures to work against it, and those measures involve the faith: devotion to the Eucharist, prayer, confession (at least once a month), etc.

3. How can a couple invite God into their marriage, even if God has not been important to them in recent years?

Start going to Mass together. Make that a priority. Start living like a good and faithful Catholic, and you will soon become good and faithful Catholics. You will see that your thinking is gradually changing; you will begin to see the world differently. You will experience peace and strength in your married life.

4. What should couples realize about the demands of marriage before they take it on?

They should realize that every couple is destined to "fall out of love", as Dr. Scott Peck writes in his book The Road Less Travelled. See the following article: Romantic love is wonderful, but it is temporary. It is not love in the true sense of the word. A couple that does not realize this when they enter into marriage is at a serious disadvantage. They need to realize that the "sweetness" of their love will eventually dissipate, and that is when they are called to begin the difficult work that authentic love demands. It is easy to love another for what that person does for you, but there is nothing heroic about it. However, to love someone faithfully for 50 years or so, to will the best for one's spouse and to commit to his/her well-being and the good of the children is heroic and thus demands heroic virtue. In short, it demands a love much more enduring and resilient than "Romantic love". Genuine married love is not a feeling, but an act of the will, a sacrificial act. Not many have the moral and psychological "equipment" to be married today, which is why a large percentage of marriages in the Church are not valid marriages - hence, they are not sacramental, and will likely begin to unravel after a time. This means that there will be an increasing number of cases for annulments in the future, and more annulments granted on that basis. And so, each person must take a sober look at their prospective spouse and ask themselves whether that person really has the capacity to be married, the capacity to fulfill the commitment that marriage is. They need to pay close attention to any red flags that may suddenly appear.

5. How will couples become strong in love and faith? What virtues do they have to learn, and what do they need to do?

As I said above, couples will become strong in love through their faith, through a serious devotion to the Mass, regular prayer, and regular confession. They will need to cultivate the virtues of patience and humility, because there is a lot of growing up that must occur throughout married life. Moreover, they will also need to cultivate the virtue of chastity. It is so important that a couple come to a proper understanding of what sex is. We have been raised to regard the sexual act as a means of "fulfilling a need". It will be very difficult for young couples to rise above this misunderstanding, which is dangerous to any marriage. To employ the sexual act as a means of fulfilling one's needs amounts to using the "other" as a means to an end. This is not love of the other, but self-love - loving the other for what he/she does for me sexually. To use a human being is to abuse a human being. This does not strengthen a marriage, but actually weakens it. The sexual act is a marriage act, a joining of two into one flesh; as such it is an expression and celebration of married love. It must be 'other' directed, not self-directed. And it need not result in the conception of a child, but it ought to be "open to the possibility" of new life. What this means, we believe, is that couples should not intentionally close their act of sexual union to new life by choosing to render the act sterile, through contraceptive means. Abstaining from sex periodically during fertile periods to avoid a baby, for good reasons, and choosing to engage in the marriage act (the sexual act) during the non-fertile periods of the woman's cycle, is very different from contraceptive intercourse. Here the couple are "choosing not to cause a baby" by abstaining from sex for a period of time, as opposed to engaging in the sexual act and then "preventing a possible baby from becoming an actual baby". The former is non-procreative, but the latter is anti-procreative (contraceptive). A couple who uses NFP is not acting with "contra-life" intent, and so their act of intercourse remains a "marital act", and the marital act really does promote the fullness of one's married life. I would argue that this is not the case when the procreative purpose of the sexual act is deliberately and intentionally nullified by the couple themselves.

The moral difference between contraception and NFP is one of the most difficult things to explain convincingly today, especially within a short space, but I cannot stress enough the importance of reverencing the good of fertility, especially the woman's fertility cycle, treating it not as a disease, but as a good to be revered. Contraception treats an aspect of the other as though it were not a "good", but a disease, as something to be suppressed or protected from. Complete love means loving the other in his or her totality (including his/her fertility).

Final Thoughts

Marriage is a tremendously important vocation today. The reason I say this is that so many people today have serious mental health issues. We live in a very fragile society. People are hurting deeply, and for the most part these deep and often subconscious wounds can be traced back to the family, to issues with the mother or the father. Any teacher knows that the persistent correlation between emotionally healthy students and a healthy family life (two parents who love one another) is not mere coincidence (merely correlational). Two parents who love one another is a condition for an emotionally healthy child. And so, the vocation of marriage is utterly important; civilization really depends on the health of marriages.

And so my final piece of advice is: trust in the providence of God. Do not be afraid to be generous. Pray to want to do what God wants you to do. Do not fear to go where God will lead you. Generously give yourselves to Him; you may soon discover a joy that is impossible to find when you alone are the master of your own destiny.