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Letters to Children: Marriage

I’m not going to recount the history of marriage, or why it is properly viewed as a sacrament, or anything like that. I’m going to talk about your marriage and how to be happy in your marriage and why it will, naturally, hang together and be a good marriage if you approach it correctly.

The first thing you need to understand about marriage: it’s sacrifice. When you marry, you give up a lot: the ability to choose someone else, a huge chunk of your money, a lot of your time, a host of personal preferences that litter your day. If you don’t understand that marriage is a sacrifice, if that truth doesn’t soak into your bones and shape your whole existence, your marriage will never be really happy.

This is a bizarre fact, incidentally, and some might say it is a cruel hoax by nature. Men and women are instinctively attracted to each other by Eros, a desire to use that other person for one’s sexual enjoyment. The initial attraction is, far from a sacrificing act, a selfish one. But that sexual attraction is what leads people into marriage—which is a sacrificing institution.

But this bizarreness also points to its goodness. I tend to think everything good starts with selfishness and ends in selflessness. When I first started the studies that eventually led me to things like the philosophy of saints Augustine and Aquinas, for instance, I was trying to obtain knowledge that would make me a powerful thinker, debater, writer and (perhaps) politician. I ended up learning that humility (a/k/a self-forgetfulness) and love are the highest things and that desire for power is one of the worst things. The pursuit of art is another example. It is usually selfish motives that trigger the man or woman to paint or write or engage in some other artistic pursuit: the love of money, the desire for fame. But as the man or woman gets absorbed in his or her art, they begin to get absorbed by it. When it comes to great artists, they find themselves caring nothing for themselves, only caring for the work they are creating. It is a common feeling among the great artists that they would be willing to die with no recognition or other reward—if only their work of art becomes famous and its riches revealed to the world. Traces of this paradoxical selfish-to-selfless tendency of good things can also be found at the root of religion. We have an innate sense of restlessness, of incompleteness, and we seek, for our own satisfaction, to be calm and find completeness. It is a selfish desire in a way, but one that leads us to selflessness because that is the ultimate teaching of all the great religions.

Well, the same thing applies to marriage. It is a good thing that gets started by a selfish thing and ends in a selfless thing. Sexual desire—the seed of lust—lures us into marriage, which, at its core, is selfless.

This, incidentally, should give you good insight into the wrongness of pre-marital sexual relations. If my studies had immediately blossomed into money and success (the parents of power), I doubt that I ever would have moved onto the works of the philosophers and saints who warned me about the poison of power. If an artist has quick success with his works, he or she would also taste that intoxicating poison of success and potentially become addicted to it—and not devoted to the selfless act of making art. If you taste the pleasures of sex quickly, it is more likely that the selfishness of sexual desire will never move onto the devotion of love and marriage.