The Compound Meaning of Marriage and Family

When I teach spelling to my home-schooled kids, I always begin by presenting them with a basic spelling rule with a list of examples.  For instance, the basic rule of making words plural is to add an "s."  Words like dogs, forts, balls, trees, and rainbows follow this rule.  After that, I teach them how to handle exceptions to the rule and give them a list of those words, such as: flies, cacti, loaves, deer, and men.  With spelling, then, I first teach the way things are designed to be (the rule) and then the way things sometimes are (the exceptions).

The other day, while introducing the rules for creating compound words, I realized that marriage and family are like compound words.  A compound word, by definition, is a word with a unique meaning consisting of two independent, coordinate words.  Those independent words are always distinct nouns.  Two rules are significant here.  The first is that neither of the two independent words is a modifier of the other.  Neither word is an adjective or adverb whose job it would be to change, clarify, or duplicate the meaning of the other word.  This means that each independent part of a compound word retains its unique identity and spelling even when combined.  The second rule of significance is that a compound word is not simply the sum of the two independent nouns.  The creation of a compound word brings into being a third word, which has a meaning all its own. 

Understanding the third meaning created by a compound word can be really challenging for people learning English as a second language.  For example, although a waterfall is falling water, a butterfly is not flying butter.  Knowing the basic rules of compound words can significantly help those trying to become proficient in English.

A marriage, by definition, is a unique union consisting of two independent, coordinate people.  The first significant rule in this coupling is that the independent people are always distinct, a man and a woman, so that neither person modifies, clarifies, or duplicates the uniqueness of the other.  Secondly, a marriage is not simply the sum of the two spouses.  Like a compound word, marriage is designed so that the spouses, by retaining their unique, complementary identities, cooperate in creating a third entity which has a meaning all its own.  Since the beginning of civilization, that third entity has been called a family, and children have been seen as the miraculous confirmation that one husband plus one wife does, in fact, equal three (or more!). 

Understanding the third, larger-than-themselves meaning created by marriage can be really challenging for newlyweds.  Knowing that marriage has deeper importance than cohabitation, for example, can significantly help individuals learn how to become proficient at marital unity.

 Everywhere we look in Catholic teaching, we find that children are the desired outcome of the marital union and that marriage is structured to be the foundation for family.  Because of this, we could easily coin the compound word "marriagefamily" to characterize the mutually supportive community a man and woman bring into being when they slip on their wedding bands.  "Marriagefamily" is the way things are designed to be.

Exceptions happen, and we have to learn to accept the way things sometimes are when tragedies like death or divorce occur, but we don't have to let exceptions become the rule.  In fact, as Catholics, we can't let exceptions become the rule.  If we expect to live in a healthy society where the primacy of marriage and family is reinforced, respected, protected, and not redefined, then we who have "marriagefamilies" need to take out our pencils and paper, sit down with our spouses, and take seriously the job of learning how to exemplify the way things are designed to be.

On the flip side, if we have marriages or families that fall on the list of exceptions, it does not mean the people involved are any less than the people in "marriagefamilies."  No one walks down the aisle with hopes of sitting at a gravesite or in divorce court.  Individuals who are involved in exceptions need comfort in grieving the loss of their "marriagefamily."  They need help in accepting the way things sometimes are without giving up on the way things are designed to be.

Fortunately, becoming a better speller is not a moral issue, well, unless you are a spelling teacher as I am.  Bettering the health of our marriages and families, however, is a moral issue that has profoundly public implications.  Without a doubt, our families are the classrooms and our marriages are the examples by which our children, and others watching our behavior, are learning whether the Catholic rule of "marriagefamily" really works and is worth their endorsement… or not.

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  • Guest

    The article is beautiful and I really like the analogies used. While I agree whole-heartedly with what was said, I would like to comment in regards to one statement made which was "Individuals who are involved in exceptions need comfort in grieving the loss of their 'marriagefamily'."


    As we all know, marriage does not necessarily come first if at all with children. While some may be grieving the loss of a "marriagefamily", not all families start as "marriagefamilies". We as a community should not make single-parent famililes that did not start as a "marriagefamily" feel any less a family. If it does become a "marriagefamily", then wonderful. But, if not, then the mistake is not the single-parent-family. While making a family without the benefit of marriage is not the correct thing to do, it does happen. It was a mistake made by single people that did not end in a mistake. Children of single-parent families should not feel that they are any less family.


    I realize the word mistake was not used or even implied, but I just think that a single-parent may feel that this article may not be giving the full meaning of family to single-parent family as it does to "marriagefamily".


    BTW, is the photo backwards? The hands appear to be right hands and not left.