What Makes a Good Marriage?

Douglas P. McManaman
May 18, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

Recently I decided to re-read the Encyclical Letter On Christian Marriage ( Casti Connubi ), by Pope Pius XI. What struck me at this time was the depth of understanding about the specific nature and dynamics of married love, given that it was written in 1930. I am almost certain that the subtleties and depth of understanding exhibited in this encyclical did not, for whatever reason, make its way to the masses - I would even doubt that for the most part it had "trickled down" to the level of the clergy.

The encyclical led me to ask this question: What makes a good marriage? It seems to me that most people would think it somewhat similar to the question: "What makes a good vacation?" The criterion for the latter is, of course, enjoyment. Did we enjoy ourselves? Did we get to see and experience lots? Was it exciting? Would you go again? Even the very title of the marriage preparation program "Joy-Filled Marriage" (Ascension Press, 2014), which otherwise has tremendous content, can nevertheless lead couples to believe that a good marriage is "joy-filled", as though joy were a matter of being "filled", like a jar filled to the brim with a sweet tasting intoxicant. But is joy like that? Isn't joy more the result of being emptied out (kenosis), as opposed to being filled? Again, think of a joy-filled vacation. It means a vacation full of excitement, certainly not hardships. In fact, hardships would have to be kept to a minimum for a vacation to be qualified as "joy-filled". Such a framework is unfitting when the issue is the meaning of a good marriage.

What makes a "good marriage" would have to be congruent with that which "makes a marriage" in the first place, and what "makes" a marriage is the conjugal intention of the couple. We speak of a defect of consent, which is a marriage impediment, for example, coercion, fraud, psychological immaturity, the deliberate intention not to have children, as well as an intention that does not extend "till death", etc. Wedded love is precisely that intention (to be a one flesh union), which of course is an act of the will. And so, it would seem that a good marriage is measured by the character and quality of that love. Hence, the words of Pius XI:

This conjugal faith ...blooms more freely, more beautifully and more nobly, when it is rooted in that more excellent soil, the love of husband and wife which pervades all the duties of married life and holds pride of place in Christian marriage. For matrimonial faith demands that husband and wife be joined in an especially holy and pure love, not as adulterers love each other, but as Christ loved the Church. This precept the Apostle laid down when he said: "Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the Church," that Church which of a truth He embraced with a boundless love not for the sake of His own advantage, but seeking only the good of His Spouse . The love, then, of which We are speaking is not that based on the passing lust of the moment nor does it consist in pleasing words only, but in the deep attachment of the heart which is expressed in action, since love is proved by deeds. This outward expression of love in the home demands not only mutual help but must go further; must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor,...This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other , can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony , provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof [sec. 23-24. Emphasis mine].

An important point Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics is that "one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day. A short time does not make a man blessed". In other words, a judgment on whether or not a life is a good life can really only be made at the end, and a good life is a life lived in accordance with perfect virtue, not a life of enjoyment or renown. To judge a novel as good before one gets to the end is hasty. We cannot judge a marriage that is 10 years old as good any more than we can regard the life of a 10 year old as "good" - a young life judged as good may end tragically, and a young marriage judged too quickly as good has not been tested and may in the end fail the "test". The measure of a marriage, and thus the criterion of a good marriage, is the soil that Pius XI refers to, the love of husband and wife, the holiness and purity of that love, how much it resembles the love that Christ has for his Bride - and consider how often Christ's love was tested: "How long must I remain with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me" (Mt 17, 17).

The important questions to be asked are: "How long has the couple been married?" "How faithful have they been to one another?" "How have they endured through the trials that typically beset a marriage?" Happiness is an achievement because happiness is activity in accordance with perfect virtue; it follows that a happy life is not the same as an enjoyable life, for virtue is difficult to achieve. A good marriage, like love, is an achievement; enjoyment, however, is not. In the end, have the two been a help to one another in achieving holiness and their salvation?