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Office Hours: Happy Ending? Part 2

What can you do to improve your chances of a good marriage?  

Part 1: Happy Ending? »

“Nolan, are you asking what you can do to improve your chances of a good marriage even if you don’t have the help of grace?”

“Yeah, I think so. Because you aren’t saying that only Christians can have good marriages. Or are you?”

“Not at all. In fact Christians don’t always do the right things either.”

“I’ve noticed. So here’s what I’m saying. I’m not asking you to convert me into a Christian. Just tell me what I can do as I am to have a good marriage.”

That was an interesting bargain. Twenty years ago I might have turned it down. In those days I didn’t have enough respect for the ordinary grace, short of saving grace, that God extends even to unredeemed people. And I didn’t have enough respect for the way that if you get into the habit of saying yes to that ordinary grace, you begin to want the other kind too. So I told Nolan I’d do as he asked.

“Well,” he answered, “then start!”

“This is going to sound preachy.”

“I don’t care about that. And you can be frank with me. Don’t pull any punches.”

“All right,” I said. “First, then — you don’t mind, by the way, if I enumerate?”

He shrugged. “You’re a professor. It’s probably the only way you can talk.”

“First, then, when you marry, you have to mean your marriage vows. You have to bind your will. There is no such thing as ‘I promise to do X unless I break my promise.’ To promise is to promise not to break your promise. Do you follow me? So you can’t be thinking that there is a door out of marriage. There isn’t. It’s closed. There isn’t a door out of anything else in the marriage vows either — ‘forsaking all others,’ ‘in sickness, in health,’ ‘for richer, for poorer’ — any of that.”

“You said something like that before.”

“There’s more,” I warned. “You have to mean not only what your marriage vows say, but also what they imply. You’re giving yourself completely to your wife, and she is giving herself completely to you. If you give yourself completely, you aren’t yours any more, so you can’t take yourself back. Your lives are completely joined.”

“If she gives herself completely to me, does that mean, like, she has to do whatever I say?”

The question surprised me a little. “No,” I answered. “The fact that you’ve given yourself to each other doesn’t mean that you’ve given away responsibility for your acts. Neither of you gets to hurt each other. And neither of you gets to ask the other to go along if you’re doing something wrong.”

“Why wouldn’t ‘self-giving’ mean that?”

“Because if you truly give yourselves to each other, then each of you wants what is truly good for the other. How could you want to hurt your wife? How could you ask her to hurt her soul by going along if you’re doing something wrong and hurting your own soul?”

“You talk like when you do wrong you’re doing harm to yourself.

“I’m not ‘talking like’ that, Nolan, I’m saying it.”


“Whenever we do wrong we twist ourselves.”

“You said you wouldn’t try to convert me.”

“I’m not. But whether you’re a Christian or not, why should you want to twist yourself, and why should you want your wife to become twisted by going along with you? Your married life should be an encouragement for each of you to be a better person than you would have been without the other.”

“All right. Go on.”

“Next, just as important as being faithful in your own marriage is encouraging others to be faithful in their marriages.”

He looked surprised. “I don’t want to judge anyone.”

“Who said judge? I said encourage. Marriage is a social institution. The health of every marriage affects all the others.”


“Need to think about that one?”

“Yes. I might want to ask you about that some other time. Go on to your next point.”

“There are so many. I guess my next point would be that to really love each other, you and your wife also have to be open to the fruit of that love.”

“You mean, the side benefits? Like sex?”

I laughed. “Yes, but I assumed that you would express your married love in conjugal sex. I’m talking about the next step — the fruit of that.

His face was a map of perplexity. “Pleasure?”

“Of course it should be pleasurable, but that’s not what I meant either. The fruit of sex is children. To join in one flesh is to say, ‘I give myself to you and to everything this means.’ To say ‘But I don’t give myself to the happy chance of children’ is to say ‘I don’t give myself to you and to everything this means.'”

“That’s crazy, Professor. I mean, kids might be OK if that’s the kind of thing you like. But if you don’t — after all, you did say the husband and wife give themselves to each other — then it’s all about what they decide, isn’t it?”

“No, it doesn’t work that way. Children are a necessary and natural continuation of the shock to our selfishness which is initiated by marriage itself. Not only is it selfish to deliberately refuse the gift of children — it turns out that when a married couple do that, they become even more selfish than they had intended. Instead of two selfish Mes they merely become a single selfish Us.”

“Does it have to happen like that? What if you’re sterile?”

“I’m not talking about unintended sterility. I’m talking about deliberate refusal of new life. The unity of the spouses and their openness to children are a package deal. If you aim for unity but refuse the gift, you still get a kind of unity, but it goes bad; it ferments, turns sour, and begins to stink.”

“I think I’m going to have to come back and argue with you about that one too. I can think of a thousand objections.”

“So object! I’m listening.”

“Not now. I want to hear the rest of this. Go on to your next point.”

“My next point would be that it’s difficult to build a good marriage if you wait until you’re married to begin. You have to prepare for your future marriage by the way you live now.


“You have to become a good person.”

“What do you mean, become a good person?”

“Nothing mysterious. I mean practice the virtues.”

“Like what? You mean like being a good recycler or something?”

I smiled. “I was thinking of the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. For starters.”

“How do you become just and courageous and temperate and, um, that other thing you said?”

“By trying to act as though you already were like that. By performing the acts required by justice, temperance, courage, and that other thing I said.”

“That’s an interesting idea. Is it original with you?”

I laughed. “No! Even the pagans knew about this.”

Practice the virtues, you said.”


“If I want to have a good marriage, shouldn’t I practice at marriage too?”

I asked, “Do you mean that husbands should work at being good husbands, and wives should work at being good wives? Of course. But that’s after you’re married.”

“No, practice at marriage. You know, live together. Like trial marriage. When you got good enough at it, then you can get married for real. Like that?”

Not like that. Living together isn’t practice for marriage.”

“Why not?”

“If it were, wouldn’t divorces be less common among couples who had first lived together?”

“Aren’t they?”

“Actually just the opposite is true: Divorces are much more common among couples who have lived together first.”

“But that doesn’t make sense!”

“Sure it does, Nolan. The very essence of marriage is having a binding commitment. The very essence of living together is having no binding commitment. So living together can’t be a trial for marriage, because in everything that matters the two conditions are opposites. Not having a binding commitment is less like training for marriage than like training for divorce.”

“I see that — I think — but still.”

“But still what?”

“What if the two people get married, but turn out to be sexually incompatible? To prevent that catastrophe, wouldn’t you have to have sex first?”

Part 3: Happy Ending? »

Copyright 2010 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J. Budziszewski

Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

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