Marriage Is Not a Game to Be “Won”

Recently, many well-known authors and speakers have been trying to address the lack of meaning in the lives of many young people by returning the focus to something traditionally important: marriage.  But, in a self-same sense; these speakers have been addressing the “marriage game” and how young people ought to compete with each other in order to find a potential spouse. 

In this view, dating is like a sports arena.  The better players end up getting the ‘best’ spouses and end up having healthy relationships that are for the most part, stable.  Obviously, not everyone is at the top of the totem pole – and so there’s a descending hierarchy of ordered relationships to chaotic and fragmented ones. 

“Winning the game” ends in marriage – but it’s not over; in the ad-libbed words of Jordan Peterson – Marriage is a game where the fundamental rule is that you don’t get to leave.  The entire endeavor is therefore contingent on this one rule – the key point Peterson makes in his writings (specifically Beyond Order) is that adopting responsibility together makes life bearable and therefore has the potential of encouraging each other towards healthy growth and meaningful lives together. 

I’m here to argue that this view is not only absurd, but it’s also very worldly and anti-Catholic.  First and foremost – the primary rule of marriage being about loyalty seems problematic if we really think about it; because by depriving marriage of the important notion of having children naturally, anything goes.  Who’s to uphold the Church’s view about same-sex marriage at that point? 

Not only that, but as a result, marriage becomes overwhelmed in an amount of “give and take” circumstances.  Negotiations could be another good word for this.  Because marriage is contractual upon the mutual acceptance of the one rule listed above, it follows that, to keep the “game” going, negotiation becomes the next big thing.   These speakers often don’t mention the fact that it’s possible to over-plan and over-analyze every aspect of marriage.  It’s good to have structure.  But love and spontaneity can get crushed under the massive weight of planning. 

Furthermore, who does one expect to “win” these negotiations?  Man is biologically more muscular and stronger than his female counterpart – and just is more aggressive in tackling problems in general (neuroscience is helpful to understand here – we’re just built different!).  So by saying that negotiation and constant planning are the ways to keeping a marriage going when it gets rocky, we’re also partly saying that the male has to either make more concessions or be more aggressive towards his wife in problem solving. 

These speakers also argue that marriage should be something that lasts for your whole life – and yet, under this worldly perspective, what reason is there for continuing it if the fundamental rule is broken or if negotiations become less appealing or productive? 

It seems that these speakers think that marriage makes you whole because it fulfils needs that you have and by accepting responsibility to someone else it makes you live more authentically and helps you live a more fulfilling life.  These are admirable goals.  But all this does is justify a legal contract and for living with someone else.  By making these arguments, there is no religious justification for marriage; and still even less of a justification for the existence of marriage as an institution outside of “it’s always been this way.”  Just because the past exists doesn’t mean it should continue this way – history is an evolving process. 

Contrary to this view is the view of the Catholic Church; expressed magnificently in the Catechism:

“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”  CCC 1601

Unlike the view discussed before, there are so many things to consider here.  The Sacramental view of marriage elevates it to something that Christ Himself blesses and sanctifies with the power of His divinity.  But notice what the Catechism says – it is ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring – for the whole of life.  It’s something that is a lifelong journey, and the good of the spouses includes accepting responsibility – but also leaves room for sacrificial behavior.  Being kind and trying to help alleviate the burdens of your spouse isn’t weak; it’s only weak when you’re a pushover and there’s an imbalance in the relationship. 

By putting the second pillar of marriage on the procreation of children and their education; it’s pretty obvious that narrows the gap to man and woman, and also continues well beyond childbearing age.  If you think the education of the children stops with them moving out, you couldn’t be more mistaken.  Some of my best memories are found in listening and learning from my grandparents by hearing their stories and their experiences. 

That focus fundamentally differs this Catholic view from the view put forth at the beginning.  At the beginning, dating and marriage are acts of self-interest, and self-interest is projected onto accepting responsibility and in sharing your life with someone else.  It’s a very capitalistic and materialistic view of marriage despite some of these well-known producers trying to back it up with theology and myth.  In the Catholic view – marriage is sacramental and fundamentally social.  It is not just about tradeoffs and self-betterment.  It is a vocation in which one is called to directly participate in the life of the Church by means of the family – which includes the extended family, and which is primarily focused on the familial aspects of marriage and sacrificial nature rather than just trying to frame the question as “it is in my best interest to be sacrificial.”

Dating with the intention of marriage is seen in a very different light too.  Under the first view, the argument seems to be that since it’s advantageous to find someone to share your life with, you should get married young so you can learn more and know more together.  Thus it becomes a game – and because people change over time, the case could be made that marriage should be terminated if it’s no longer advantageous.  Under the second view, dating for marriage is much more of a question about “do I really want to build a family and a mini-society with this person for the rest of my life?” – it’s not focused on what’s advantageous – it’s focused on an authentic understanding of wanting to give everything over to another person to build the Church on Earth.  It’s not a game to be won, a box off a checklist to be done; it’s something that is truly self-sacrificial and heroic in the mundane aspects of everyday life. 

Being practical is important.  Romantic books and movies oftentimes make marriage seem so much more perfect than it really is.  But everyday life is messy, boring at times, and people disagree.  Negotiation is important.  But centering the entire idea of your marriage just around it being ordered and structured is oftentimes why many Catholic families shelter their kids and even their local community from the wider world.  A little bit of chaos is healthy – it keeps the day new. We can’t run from the wider world – and it isn’t a good idea to do so. 

I know many young people who have had difficulties in finding a spouse.  They’ve heard these arguments by these speakers of “get married young” and “marriage is good for you” in addition to how our worldly culture emphasizes casual sex and no real loyalty to any meaningful relationship.  They just get…sad.  But in the Catholic view, dating and marriage are simply pieces of the puzzle we call life – the world doesn’t owe us a spouse to be objectified, and we’re not weak for not having one.  They’re not necessary – but marriage serves an important role in participating in the life of the Church on earth by means of sacrificial love for someone else, not the objectification of someone as someone “to be won over” for the sake of “winning” the dating game.   This makes being single much less about “not finding the right person” and more about not being called to marriage at this stage in life. 

To be truly counter-cultural: A strong, joyous, and sacrificial relationship & marriage, with all the difficulties and baggage that comes along with it, shouldn’t be something hidden away from the rest of the world – it should be the example!  In a world where a natural view of marriage is under attack, where contractual give and take becomes the only law of the land – we Catholics need to show the world that there is something better out there and that, although happy endings may not happen like the movies – they can still happen in everyday life at home.  Marriage isn’t a game to be won – it’s a humble offering of one’s own life to someone else for the greater glory of God. 

Photo by Annie Williams on Unsplash

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Joshua Nelson attended Franciscan University of Steubenville to earn a BA in Philosophy and a Minor in Finance, along with attending the University of Michigan for a Masters in Accounting. He has a deep love and passion for the philosophy of Stoicism, and believes it applicable to many aspects of our modern Catholic life, especially when it comes to bringing the supernatural into our ordinary routines. Having worked in the public sector, and currently working for a Public Accounting firm, he works to integrate his unique Catholic perspective through all aspects of life.

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