How my sister’s speed-marriage challenged my views on true love

When I found out my stepsister got engaged after only six weeks, I was shocked.

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When my dad and stepmom called to tell me that my stepsister was engaged, I was speechless. She had been dating her new boyfriend for roughly six weeks. Now, less than four months later, they are married.

For someone as innately cautious as I am, the rapidity of making such a momentous decision and the plan to carry it out so quickly, left me, if I’m honest, with some sense of trepidation. There is perhaps no more important decision in life than the decision to marry. It touches upon every aspect of one’s life. The need for prudence in such decisions is paramount.

Of course, my background may also help to explain my initial reaction. My parents got divorced when I was young. My wife’s parents did, as well. So perhaps it’s not surprising that my wife and I dated for roughly nine years before we married. Both our religious convictions and personal experiences made us firm in our shared conviction that marriage is for life. And we wanted to be sure that we were making the right decision.

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Most of us also know how easily one can be swept up by infatuation hiding behind the veneer of love. To distinguish one from the other can be tricky, as many victims of a tough first crush or a “first love” breakup can attest. And if Aaron Neville’s falsettos have taught us anything, it’s that everybody plays the fool; there’s no exception to the rule.

The stability of such marriages does positively benefit our society, and there is value in such marriages, to be clear. But perhaps there is a better approach than this highly planned, individualistic “checklist-based” approach.

But many of us have also had the experience of coming to love someone, whether a spouse or a dear friend, in just a matter of weeks or even days. The normal barriers of formality and rigid autonomy are lowered, real vulnerability and intimacy is experienced, we quickly develop a strong sense of who they are at their core as a person (imperfections and all), and we realize that we value this person deeply, that they bring us joy, and that we want them to be an enduring presence in our lives.

This type of love matters. In fact, love is the surest foundation of a successful marriage. But it is love, the virtue, not love the feeling or sensation. Real spousal love is rooted in seeing the person as they are, recognizing their infinite worth as a child of God, committing to the flourishing and good of the other person, and seeking communion together as one flesh through emotional, physical, intellectual, and even spiritual unity.

Instead of seeing each individual’s supposed perfect path to marriage as the key to success, we should spend more time thinking about how spouses can create and preserve a loving marriage through a day-to-day commitment to virtue.

As the wedding approached, I began to reflect on what our culture thinks constitutes a successful marriage in contrast to this understanding of love, communion, and marriage. For some, marriage is just a capstone in a string of individual accomplishments. You ace the SATs, go the right college, then grad school or a promising first job, establish a lucrative career, and then you marry and have a kid or two at just the right age to complete the quest for the perfect conventional, respectable life. Marriage then must be maintained to prevent failure and shattering of this bourgeois existence.

The stability of such marriages does positively benefit our society, and there is value in such marriages, to be clear. But perhaps there is a better approach than this highly planned, individualistic “checklist-based” approach.

Instead of seeing each individual’s supposed perfect path to marriage as the key to success, we should spend more time thinking about how spouses can create and preserve a loving marriage through a day-to-day commitment to virtue. Real love endures all things and is the cornerstone of a marriage that allows us to reach our full potential as persons. But this love needs to be augmented with trust, honesty, openness, understanding, and other practices that are wise, just, temperate, and, at times, courageous. It needs to be lived with mercy, forgiveness, affection, and intimacy.

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For a marriage to be enduring and rewarding, the surest foundation is a commitment to living virtuously and working toward greater communion. There are inevitably bumps in the road for any marriage, rough spots and challenges that threaten such unity. And people change over time, in ways that can be unexpected, no matter how much planning or examining of one’s spouse has been done in advance. Is there a shared understanding of what it means to live and treat one another the right way and commitment to doing so?

There is no perfect formula for meeting the right person, no foolproof guide for when to commit to building a life together. The length of one’s courtship or engagement offers no escape from the need for spouses to treat one another the right way on a daily basis. Couples date for a decade and their relationships crash in the first year of their marriages. I’ve met people who told their spouse on the first date that they would marry them and decades later, they are still joyfully bragging about the prescience of their intuitive wisdom—and the life they have shared since that auspicious beginning.

St. Benedict reminds us that always we begin again. So it is with marriage. In a society that often fixates on how to find the right man or woman, a more important focus is on how to be the right man or woman. Each day in our thoughts, words, and actions, we can choose to double down on love, or not. To reverse troubling trends, or not.

It’s been said that fortune favors the bold. I hope this is true. While I may never be as daring as my stepsister and her husband, I hope and pray that they can build a joyful, rich family life together. And even if fortune does not necessarily favor the bold, I know that they can build this life by choosing to be virtuous and creating an inseparable bond rooted in a shared commitment to building their lives together as authentic partners.

Robert Christian
Robert Christian
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, and a father of two. His writing has appeared at the Washington Post, Time, National Catholic Reporter, Crux, Church Life, Motherly, and elsewhere.

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