UCA News
Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
Marriage and its variables
Even if more and more marriages are breaking up, they are also reuniting ‘in their own way’
May 16, 2023 03:45 AM GMT

May 16, 2023 03:53 AM GMT

The basic need for physical and emotional closeness cannot ever be done away with.

In the fairy tales of my childhood, the prince and his beloved princess fell in love, got married and lived happily ever after.

We know of course how untrue this is — for when people fall in love, they don’t necessarily get married; and if they do marry, it’s even more rare that they live happily ever after.

Marriage as a bedrock

So what are we saying? Two things: firstly, all societies recognize that a stable relationship between a man and a woman provides them with sexual and emotional fulfillment, or what is usually referred to as marriage.

Even more, this stable relationship becomes a durable bond between families and clans, contributing to the well-being of society.

And secondly, marriage has always been variable.  This means it changes according to times and places, customs and needs. Some matches are encouraged; others are expressly forbidden.

Today much ado is made of “love marriages,” specially in this country.  But in fact, power and money have always had a much greater say in marriage than love. Surprising, but true.

How Catholics see marriage

Most Catholics have been brought up to consider marriage as a “sacrament” — that is, an unchanging reality, willed by God, and insoluble in itself.  A largely static view, not dynamic enough.

How ironic that this view is strenuously promoted largely by a celibate clergy!

In God’s plan, so Catholics believe, marriage is something one enters on attaining adulthood, and which introduces the couple to family life and its place in society.

In this thinking, the underlying value was stability. A man and a woman entered this state by pre-arrangement and were expected to live together until the death of one of the partners.

There were variables, of course, usually in favor of the man. A man might legally marry more than one woman; he might also enter into informal sexual relations with whichever other woman caught his fancy, and keep that relationship as long as he pleased.

In this women were always at a disadvantage.  Society generally looked askance at women who had more than one partner. And when married women became widows, they were expected to live as celibate recluses for the rest of their lives.

How marriage has changed

But marriage changed immensely in the latter part of the 20th century. Now its paramount value is no longer stability, but freedom; its purpose is no longer children but the mutual affective relationship of the partners.

In this, the religious aspect of marriage is slowly being jettisoned for arrangements of equality, supported by legal structures and civil rights.

Most of our contemporaries see religion as feudal and oppressive, specially with regard to women.

For with education, travel and better jobs, women are exercising their right to choose. They want to choose their partners and even desire the right to move out of a defective marriage (unlike their mothers, who would have opted to endure it).

And if they do not find suitable spouses within their faith community, many women opt for partners from without. Inter-faith and inter-community marriages are on the increase, much to the dismay of traditional leaders (in the Church, yes), and in spite of the ‘honor killings’ from men with patriarchal mindsets.

While women have changed, and are changing still, men are still stuck in a medieval rut. Male attitudes are still those of entitlement, control and violence, as the media keep reminding us with every newspaper headline.

Why families become dysfunctional

As society changes, so do families. But when change is too rapid, those subject to change feel they can’t keep up, and cannot function adequately. Many families today have become therefore severely dysfunctional, whether between spouses or between parents and children.

Why is this so? The changed expectations of women are one important reason. The refusal of men to accept these expectations is another. The ambitions of both parents and growing children are a third — for rampant exposure to the media has changed the way we look at ourselves.

Then again, unlike in more traditional times, most families today do not pray. Prayers that are said mechanically — like the Rosary or Sunday Mass — usually do not address adult issues.

Deeper prayer explores meditation, “mindfulness” and the practice of forgiveness, but most marriages have no experience of this at all.

No longer does home and family provide a template for values and behavior. Their place has been taken by the peer group and the media. And the values so promoted are usually shorn of any ethical basis.

But if more and more marriages are breaking up, they are also reuniting ‘in their own way’ — whether through a second civil marriage or through simple cohabitation. 

It seems the basic need for physical and emotional closeness cannot ever be done away with.

But there’s less guilt now, and many continue to seek communion in the Church they grew up in. It is urgent that the Church accept them.

Tasks for the Church

In this context, therefore, the Church has to become more than just a ‘praying community.’ It needs to understand families in contemporary society and support them emotionally. 

Whether this can be done entirely by a celibate clergy or without encouraging a greater role for women in the pastoral ministry remains to be seen.

Marriage and its variables confront us with a complex range of issues at the sociological and psychological levels and still remain the most challenging area of human relationships.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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