Question 55


What must I do to ensure that I will have a strong marriage and a happy family? The odds today are so high against that. What can I do to enhance my chances of success? 

            -- Bob R.

Dear Bob, 

When God designed marriage for a man and woman, He had in mind a lifelong relationship that would bring fulfillment and happiness to the man, the woman, and all their children. God wants every couple to have a happy marriage, a strongly bonded relationship, and a healthy, happy family. He intends that their love for each other will deepen and mature. To catch a glimpse of God’s original design for marriage, read the first three chapters of Genesis, and then Hosea 2, Jeremiah 16, the Song of Solomon, and finally Matthew 19 and Ephesians 5. 

We can know both God’s original plan for marriage, and all the means that He provides to make a successful marriage possible. God designed marriage as the personal vocation for the vast majority of the human race. He will help each couple to achieve a good marriage, but He also leaves to each couple many things that only they can do make it happen. Created as persons with free will and intelligence, and graced with freedom, we must use these powers in a manner that freely cooperates with God’s plan. 

What is our end of the bargain? We must learn how to love. This means that we must move away from a self-assertive, self-grasping, and self-seeking expression of love (erotic love) and move towards a self-giving, self-sacrificial and self-emptying expression of love (agapaic love). Simply put, we must learn how to make the total personal gift of ourself to another. As we grow older, we are expected to leave former stages of life behind us and grow into more complex and richer stages. We understand this in physical terms, intellectual terms, and even emotional terms. But most important of all are the affective terms, the capacity for loving. 

A couple falls in love, almost unconsciously. But they must make repeated conscious choices to remain in that love and to carry their share of the burdens that will keep this love alive and growing. It is easy to fall in love, but keeping that love alive requires good choices, repeated acts of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, and a willingness to do whatever is required for the welfare of those we love. 

Real love means that we place the welfare of those we love above our own comfort. We want what is best for them. We want what is truly good for them, all the goods that make them flourish as persons, even if that comes at a personal cost to ourselves. Thus, a man is most happy when his wife and children are surrounded by love and have the opportunity to develop themselves as full persons. The same is true for a woman, wife and mother. 

Making the total gift of self means that we must sometimes say “No” to our personal inclinations and preferences. My habits and recreations as a bachelor must yield to the needs of my marriage and family. This means giving up some of my previous forms of recreation. As a married man, I recognize that my wife and children have claims upon me that must be met. 

To have a good marriage, I must admit that I am no longer the center of the universe. Rather, I am now part of a new universe, which is my wife, our marriage, and our family. I will only be truly happy if they are thriving as persons who are open to all the gifts of love and life. My God, my marriage, and my family are the center of my universe. If relationships among these persons are not in good condition, then I cannot be happy, because those most important people in my life are not happy or healthy. 

A relationship, like life itself, is never static; it is always developing, like a flower that is unfolding. A relationship requires constant attention. We foster it by attending to what the real requirements are for the present day and present circumstances. A relationship, like real life, constantly brings new challenges. These challenges call for adjustments, greater maturity, and the willingness to find adequate solutions. Love finds a way. 

When there is a spirit of generosity and self-giving, then relationships flourish within a marriage and within a family. A person knows that he or she is loved when their real needs are being attended to. That is so characteristic of a home, and of a marriage. 

Parents learn self-discipline and self-sacrificial love. They must help their children to learn these values. Activities in a family that enhance family life are good and beneficial. Activities in a family that detract from family life are evil and harmful. Because contraception closes a person off from making the total gift of self in the spousal act, it is destructive of authentic spousal love. 

Every marriage, and every family is unique because the persons involved are unique. But there is a commonality to all successful marriages and families. They have all discovered God’s plan for authentic human love. They have learned that real happiness comes from generous self-giving, and not from self-taking. They have discovered that the greatest model for human love is the God-man, Jesus, who gave Himself completely for us, because that is what real love required of him. True love follows in the path of Jesus. 

If we bring these dispositions to marriage, then God will bless all our efforts with success. Spouses and children will know that they are loved just for being the persons they are. The child will be recognized as the greatest gift God can give to a couple. The spouses will understand that their love for one another comes from God, and that each spouse is the God-given complement to the other. They will know that every day God is drawing them closer to Himself and into his own communion of love and life. 

Cordially yours,
Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB