It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors — C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
Marriage as an institution is in trouble. We all know that. The institution cannot be in trouble without there being a lot of marriages that are in trouble. Some of these marriages are between faithful Catholics who entered their marriage with confidence in the grace of the Sacrament and a full commitment the good of their spouses. Others of these marriages are between converts who have entered the Church to find in her the fullness of truth about marriage.
But no one enters a marriage who is not broken by sin. And few people enter unburdened by bad examples from their own family of origin, or without wounds from previous relationships with the opposite sex. The complexity and depth of the human soul is ultimately fully known only by God so that even in the most transparent and emotionally intimate and least burdened of marriages, there is a union of two persons who remain mysteries to each other and to themselves. The healing and uncovering of self knowledge is life-long in any case; marry, and the complexities – with the possibilities — increase exponentially.
No two marriages are alike, any more than any two persons are alike. And yet, marriages are similar in the same way persons can be similar. Were there no similarities, there could be no such things as spiritual direction and marriage counseling. I am linking them intentionally because the same kind of discretion we have to use when dealing with the depth of the human person’s relationship with God, the same delicacy and awe before mystery, is required when we talk about marriage. This is especially true when we attempt to extrapolate from specific instances, whether our own or another’s, to general instruction, guidance, or advice — or when we attempt to apply general principles to someone else’s marriage.
Most of us are not qualified to give any but the most general marriage advice to others. A marriage is a mystery and even if your marriage is supremely happy so that you and your spouse look to all the world like a model couple (or think you are one) how you “achieved” this is a mystery, even if you fancy you know. If you have been through a purgatory with your marriage and come out holding hands on the mountaintop of a many-splendored joy, it is also a mystery, even if you think you understand every painful step. It is mystery because it involves God’s own hidden work on your soul and that of your spouse. To delve into it is to step on sacred ground and must be done with reverence. How much more should we respect the sacred obscurity of other marriages?
There are people who are qualified to do marriage counseling and who, through training, are equipped to help other couples apply general principles to their own situation. They can be very helpful, both in strengthening solid marriages and bringing healing and restoration to troubled marriages. But this is personal and confidential work.
When we discuss our own marriages, regardless of how trouble free, or regardless what great troubles we have overcome, we need to have great delicacy and reverence for the mysterious souls of our spouses and for the combined mystery that our own marriage is. Other then publicly giving thanks for the blessing of being married to this person, there is little that we can legitimately make the business anyone outside of the marriage. We can give our public assent and recommendation to Catholic and biblical principles without inviting every passerby into what should be our private conversations.
I said all this to say that among faithful Catholics, there is too much public disclosure on Facebook, on blogs, and in articles, of the details of marriages. Intimate matters, about which we ought to be reverently reticent even with close friends, are being made the subject of online discussions with strangers. The weaknesses and foibles and even sins of spouses are being held up to public scrutiny. The innocent reader can begin an article or post, only to suddenly feel like an eavesdropper.
I do not want to overlook the case of the happy-looking couple who are actually miserable, enjoying no peace in their home, suffering in silence to maintain a public front. I know that many who write about marriage are trying to reach out to such couples, let them know they are not alone, that there is help available and no shame in getting it. I recognize that some (even much) of the over-sharing is motivated from a desire to be helpful to others. But creating a climate (culture, even) of personal information overload will not, in the longer term, do anything to strengthen marriage. Intimacy requires a foundation of trust and trust cannot thrive between married persons when the protective veil of discretion is torn away.
(Many thanks to Karee Santos of Can We Cana? for her helpful feedback during the composing of this article.)