To Love, Honor, and Obey
“Mawwiage…mawwiage is what bwings us togevver today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam wivin a dweam. Then wove, twue wove, will follow you fowever.”
--The Princess Bride
I was surprised, when doing a little digging on the history of the Sacrament of Marriage in the Church, to find that the vows most of us said (or will say, for my young love-bird readers) are not required. Indeed, the form of the vows is basically up to the bride and groom, because in the Catholic Church the couple are the ministers of their own joining, and the priest or deacon is there to sanctify it. (Interestingly, this makes it true only in a legal, and not a scaremental sense, to say “Father Orr married us.”)
But even the recommended form (the one most of us use, about loving and honoring all the days of my life) does not contain the words we hear so often on television, about the wife promising “to love, honor and obey.” This is really too bad.
[“Ladies and Gentlemen, please withhold your flames until the airblog has come to a complete stop and the captain has turned off the ‘no flaming’ sign. Thank you for flying Kairos Airways, and we hope to see you again soon.”]
Just to keep you in suspense, I’m going to take the words in the order they come.
“Love.” When you promise to love your spouse, poetry ain’t in it. There is nothing in there about being gushy, or arguing about who is going to hang up the phone last, or even about continuing to bring flowers and sing love songs. (Am I dating myself with that Neil Diamond reference?) I’m not knocking any of those things; several of them, in fact, have gotten me out of more than one marital jam. It’s just that promising to love your spouse is not the same thing as promising to be in love with
Being “in love” is just a mood, really, like being mad, or being happy. I don’t take the same slightly mocking view of the mood that CS Lewis sometimes did (before he was married, by the way) but I do believe that people who think the point of marriage is to be in love, and that the marriage is worthless when that feeling goes, are foolish and childish in the extreme. The emotion of romantic love ebbs and flows like every emotion, some days it is very strong, some days it is entirely absent. Some days I am snarky and sarcastic, other days patient and charitable.
I find thinking about romantic love as it really is to be tremendously helpful. After all, it doesn’t surprise me when I have a hard time being patient with the people around me. There are no poems or Britney Spears songs pouring out of my radio hour after hour extolling the magnificent bliss brought about by feeling patient. No one has ever invited me to a movie in the hopes of seducing me after the movie induces a feeling of deep, abiding patience in me. (Come to think of it, no one has ever actually taken me to a movie in the hopes of seducing me period. Memo to self: discuss with therapist.) No wife has ever yet rolled over at midnight and said to her husband “We need to talk. How come you never tell me you’re patient anymore?” Nor would any sane person expect this to be true. Everyone understands that patience is not a permanent thing.
And honestly, what kind of sick and twisted religion would require its members to take a vow to be in a particular mood for the rest of their lives? All you “recovering Catholics” out there, put your hands down. You’ve mostly missed my point.
So if the vow isn’t a vow to be in a mood, what kind of love are we talking about? An act of will. You cannot make yourself be in a mood, but you can make yourself do something. You can love as a transitive verb, however out of reach the intransitive is. (Another odd quirk of language: the mood is an intransitive verb, but a transitory state; the act is transitive but potentially intransitory. Discuss amongst yourselves.)
This kind of love can be done even when not felt. When I provide for my wife’s material comfort (at least to a point) I am loving her in this sense. When she walks away from a fight I am trying to pick, she is loving me. When one of us is sick, and the other picks up the slack around the house with the chores, that is love. When I am tired and due for an early meeting, but stay up to let her vent about the problem at work, that is love as an act of will. Every time she bites back an acid reply to a stupid remark, whenever one of us would rather be doing something else but instead stick it out, these are love as acts of will. There is nothing romantic about any of them.
Remember a while ago, loyal reader, when I wrote about the “bad aim” we have as a species? This is another example. If you make the goal of marriage “being in love” you will fail. There are no qualifications to that. Failure will result.
But if you make the goal of your marriage loving as an act of will, you will find yourself feeling in love a great deal of the time. Not all the time, mind, but a lot of it. The various feelings of compassion, of pride (the good kind: pleasure at another’s success), of shared sorrow and mutual joy, all conspire to trigger the mood the poets write about.
“Honor.” This word, honor, is fairly alien to western society in the early 21st Century, which is a real shame. (Really. Shameful.) Postmodernism has no room for anything that smacks of chivalry, since of course chivalry was all about keeping women in their proper place. (I think I read that in a book somewhere, so it must be true.)
But set the Marine Corps ideal of “keep our honor clean” aside. Again we are talking about a verb, an action we can take. I doubt anyone objects to the word in the vows, but few people think much about it either. To “honor” a wife is to hold her in esteem, to grant her dignity, to revere her. This is not to say, put her on a pedestal, but to treat her as a fellow human being worthy of at least as much consideration as yourself. The duties of charity and humility inform this, and mean you actually need to grant more consideration to her than to yourself. “I deserve better” is a statement that often conflicts with the duty to honor a spouse. (Flamers please note the use of the modifier “often.” “Often” is an adverb meaning frequently, but not necessarily always.)
[Ed. Note: My wife, having no knowledge of what I am writing, just turned on “Wedding Story” on TLC. The groom just promised “to honor you.” Creeeeeeeepy.]
“Obey.” Okay, take a deep breath, and read all the way to the end of this section. Marital obedience is a concept so alien to the modern world for most people, that the merest mention of it sets many pulses quickening and much blood a’boilin’.
I do not advocate for a situation where a wife surrenders her will with the taking of her vows, nor where a husband gains the powers of a tyrant when the priest introduces the married couple to the congregation. Neither, however, does the Church, nor has it ever envisioned that, though some have deliberately misconstrued the teachings, and some husbands have abused the vows.
Marital obedience means two things to me. First, it is mostly mutual. And second, it is a tie-breaking procedure.
If there are two partners in anything, there must be a mechanism for deciding disagreements. It is all well and good to say “we’re partners, 50-50, and we decide everything together.” It is also a bunch of hooey. No two people, no matter how like-minded, ever agree on everything. In spite of the denials of ideologically-driven people, science continually reveals details about our makeup that confirms the truth of this as regards men and women. Though once a tautology, it now bears constant repeating. Men and women are different. Our bodies are different and our brains are different. This means our marriages will have differences. In this regard, a properly constructed marriage is really going to be split 51-49.
Now, of course, it won’t always be the same 51-49 split. In many couples, only one person is trusted with managing the checkbook, because the other is hopelessly dangerous with it. It is not always the man who is in charge of this. In those same couples, however, the other person may make the decisions about the cars, or the house. A sensible couple divides responsibilities according to ability, and recognizes the appropriate person’s sovereignty in each area. For example, in our marriage, I am in charge of Cleaning Up Vomit, while my wife is in charge of Birthday Parties That Involve Other People’s Small Children. This is very mutually satisfactory.
But there is the larger question, too. St. Paul tells wives to obey their husbands and husbands to love their wives. These, as you may have noticed, are not exactly the same things. In keeping with St. Paul, I approach this question with “fear and trembling.” Why it should be so, that the wife is instructed to obey the husband, is not an easy question to answer.
The easiest reason to give, though the hardest to understand in most ways, is that the Sacrament of Marriage is modeled upon the union of God and His People. Christ is the Bridegroom of His followers, and the Church is his Bride. Christ is the head of this union, and the Church the subjects. And so, the Groom, holding the place of Christ in the union, is the head, and the bride the subject.
Ironically enough, it was the Protestant reformation that began the process of calling this idea into question. (I say ironically, because you will find many more Protestants who believe the wife should be subject to the husband than you will Catholics.) Calvin and Luther both considered this concept of the Sacramental nature of marriage to be a late invention, though they did not deny the sacramental nature of marriage. This notion of “late invention” has become an assumed first principle of western discourse for many years, even though Calvin and Luther were hardly notable for their ideas about women’s equality.
Now, let’s forget the “late invention” question, and assume the truth of it for the moment. The biggest problem is most readily apparent: though I may be filling the role of Christ in my marriage, I am hardly Christ, nor very much like Him. But many men take this idea to grant them god-like powers in their marriage, which is surely a sin of pride of the worst sort.
Every military officer is trained from the first never to give an order that won’t be obeyed, and this is the kind of obedience a husband must start from. A good officer rarely needs to give direct orders as such. He and his troops are in accord, and when they are not, the troops trust the officer because he has earned the trust—in some sense, the troops and the officer “love and honor” one another. A good officer listens to his troops, and learns when they need to be led and when they need to be pushed. He finds compensations for his own limitations within the body he leads, so that the sum of strengths is truly greater than the individual parts. On the other hand, tyrannical officers cause mutinies, and tyrannical husbands do too.
If we are to continue the military metaphor, we should think of a wife as not so much “the troops” as an officer of the same grade, only with slightly less seniority. A senior colonel may tyrannize a junior lieutenant with little fear . That same colonel would be wise to treat a junior colonel with more respect and deference—even when giving orders—for the junior colonel may be a general in charge of the senior one at a moment’s notice.
Thus, for a husband, “orders,” if given at all, are given with due respect and deference, with a realization that it is greatly to be regretted that the decision had to be arrived at in such a manner, and in the firm hope that mutual understanding will be soon enough restored that such unfortunate circumstances will not arise again. For a wife, the realization ought to be that she has tremendous power to influence decisions in advance, that her duty to obey is tempered by her duty to solve problems without pressing the issue of who is subordinate to whom. After any such occurrence, both parties must make whole the rift, that personal rivalry not affect the good of the whole.
This is not to tell you wives should in fact be subordinate to their husbands. I say all this to explain what that idea means, because so many men and women think it means something entirely different. Before you decide to reject something or accept it, after all, you need to understand it.
It seems to me that the method of allocating 51% decision-making power among both partners is probably going to avoid most, if not all, situations where it might otherwise come down to, “because I’m the husband!” and that that is greatly preferable to any circumstance that might result in the husband or wife feeling a harmful resentment of the other.
Marriage, after all, ought not be about power at all. It ought to be about mutual respect and caring, about loving and honoring, and about the rearing of children. To the extent we pay heed to St. Paul on this, we ought to view his instruction as a last resort guideline for solving what might otherwise become irreconcilable, not as a starting point. “In case of possible sundering, break glass,” not “It’s good to be the king.” Any to whom such power is granted should approach it as the power of the physician to heal, not to rule. And like a physician, the use of that power should be governed by the first principle to do no harm.
[“The no flaming sign has been turned off, and you are now free to move about the cabin.”]