How Marriage Improves Happiness
In reading the Gospels, one can spend as much time meditating upon what is not said, as what is said.
Take, for instance, the story of the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. Who, one wonders, is the fortunate couple that had Our Lord and His Blessed Mother present as honored guests at their nuptials? Were they some childhood friend of Our Lord’s, perhaps some early disciples, or was it one of Mary’s relatives who was being married (more likely)?
We don’t know. All we are told is that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is there and that Jesus and His disciples were also invited to the wedding. Certainly, whoever the bride and groom were, they must have been dear to both Jesus and His Mother.
And then there is the miracle itself. We are told explicitly in the Gospel that this is Christ’s very first public miracle. And yet, this first miracle is not some dramatic miracle, carefully designed to demonstrate Christ’s power to His disciples. Instead, it is a quiet miracle that represents the bountiful graces Jesus will bestow on the human race in the new creation.
Indeed, as told in the Gospels, it is not Christ Who is the driving force behind this great sign. It is His Mother, who comes to Him with her appeal: “They have no wine.”
Christ immediately understands what it is that His Mother is asking of Him, and yet does not seem inclined to do anything about it. “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come,” He replies. And yet, Mary is not to be put off. “Do whatever he tells you to do,” she tells the servants.
Mary enters the moment, a crisis of life, and speaks as a loving mother caring for her children in need. She cannot allow that the newly married couple should suffer the indignity of running out of wine. Christ understands. His Mother has spoken; she has interceded. And so, the water is turned into wine. Fine wine, the choicest of wine, we are told.
Because of Mary’s intervention, as the spiritual mother of Her son’s disciple who precedes them in faith, the disciples’ faith in the promised Messiah begins to grow. The disciples, having witnessed such superabundance, such overflowing generosity in this miracle, come to believe that Jesus is the promised Bridegroom, the Messiah. The wedding, thus, becomes an image that points beyond itself, to the hour of God’s marriage feast with His people that has begun in the coming of Jesus.
The Great Dignity of Marriage
What else are we to take from this story, other than that Christ thinks very highly of marriage—that human institution that He was to elevate to the level of a sacrament?
In light of this miracle, it seems only fitting that St. Paul should, in time, come to compare the relationship of a husband and a wife united in marriage to that of Christ and His Church. “Husbands,” writes St. Paul, in but one of several passages in which he uses this metaphor, “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).
In other words, the union of a husband and a wife is—or ought to be—so entirely imbued with a self-sacrificial, Christ-like love, that this union is an image of how Christ laid His life down for the salvation of all. Even as St. Paul advocated the superior state of the vowed virgin, who gives his or her life entirely to the service of Christ and His Church, he repeatedly affirms the enormous good of the holy marriage of a man and a woman.
In his 1981 encyclical Familiaris consortio, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirms the resounding affirmation that Christ Himself gave to marriage in that miracle at Cana. In some of the first lines of the encyclical, the sainted pope writes that “marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values.”
The Holy Father goes on to quote St. Tertullian, one of the earliest Church Fathers, who speaks of marriage in the loftiest terms, writing:
How can I ever express the happiness of the marriage that is joined together by the Church strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels and ratified by the Father? …How wonderful the bond between two believers with a single hope, a single desire, a single observance, a single service! They are both brethren and both fellow-servants; there is no separation between them in spirit or flesh; in fact they are truly two in one flesh and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit.
Marriage, in other words, is one of the greatest goods available to human beings. Through marriage, the separation between persons is overcome, and two souls are fused together in an intimate communion of persons. As Pope St. John Paul II notes, “By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.”
Freedom and Human Flourishing
One of the themes that I return to often in these columns is that the things that contribute to authentic human flourishing—i.e., to a rich and joyful life—and the provisions of God’s law are one and the same thing. That is to say, God does not issue His commands capriciously, so as to “impose” Himself on us, but rather provides us with laws that draw us upwards, to the fullest, most-alive version of ourselves.
In our modern world, alas, it is often taken as axiomatic that “law,” which is taken to be nothing more than a set of rules imposed upon people against their will, stifle “freedom,” and thus inhibits happiness (since happiness requires—or so our culture assumes—unrestricted freedom).
One of the laws laid down by God, and consistently affirmed by the Church, is that sexual relationships ought to be restricted to marriage, and that marriage itself ought to be the life-long, faithful union of a man and a woman, which is open to the begetting of children.
Our culture has rebelled against this view, asserting that freedom (and thus, happiness) is only to be found in the exact opposite view: sexuality is to be freely “expressed” in any way that anyone decides, and to the extent that anyone even bothers to get married, this marriage should only be viewed as being as permanent as the subjective feelings of the members of the marriage. The minute one or another member of the marriage wishes that marriage to end, then so it does, and there is no extrinsic force or obligation that can or should prevent them from going their separate ways.
As Pope St. John Paul II noted, after cataloguing the various ways that marriage and family have been denigrated in the modern world, “At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being.”
Studies Confirm Correlation Between Marriage and Happiness
And yet, as is the case with so many moral evils perpetrated in the name of freedom and happiness, the denigration of marriage has most emphatically not produced greater freedom or happiness. Indeed, quite the contrary.
This is the reality that is resoundingly affirmed (yet again) in a recent study by researcher Sam Peltzman. The study is based upon the General Social Survey (GSS), which ever since 1972 has asked a representative sample of Americans the question “… [are] you …very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”
Astonishingly, it turns out that by far the greatest predictor of happiness among American adults is their marital status. On average, married Americans register an astonishing 30 points higher on the happiness scale than their unmarried counterparts. “Marital status is and has been a very important marker for happiness,” writes Peltzman. So important, in fact, that, “No subsequent population categorization will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people.”
Importantly, the GSS has found that happiness rates among Americans have been falling since the early 2000’s. And yet, according to Petlzman, the overwhelming bulk of this fall in happiness can be attributed to the fact that marriage rates are falling. As this chart shows, marriage rates have been in free fall for decades. Many young people are avoiding marriage, opting instead for serial cohabitation or fornication. Those that do get married, are delaying marriage until later and later. Meanwhile, many of those who get married, explicitly intend never to have children. The reasons for not getting married, or delaying marriage, are varied: however, in many cases it boils down to some version of a desire to avoid the massive obligations that come with marriage and children, and to focus instead on “finding oneself,” or pursuing career advancement, financial security, or travel or personal hobbies.
And yet, as the GSS survey makes clear, far from producing greater happiness, this insular focus on the “self,” and avoidance of commitment and responsibility, is correlated with a significant collapse in happiness rates.
Restore Marriage, Restore Happiness
Getting married is not the only way to live a happy life. Our Lord Himself did not get married, and that is an important fact. As St. Paul affirms in the First Letter to the Corinthians, “So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”
And yet, just because vowed virginity is the highest form of life, does not mean that marriage is not a very great state as well. In His first public miracle at Cana, Jesus not only manifested the messianic hour, but He also affirmed the dignity of the married state, particularly when entered into as a sacrament by a Christian couple, who understand the call to Christ-like love within marriage.
To live marriage well requires great virtue from both husband and wife. It requires that husband and wife transcend their own self-interests and place the interests of the other first. Only in this way will the “oneness” enacted symbolically in their flesh in the marital union become fully realized in a oneness of hearts and minds.
When a husband and a wife open themselves up to the great graces of the sacrament of marriage, they are empowered to transcend the pettiness of their own egos, and to unite to a degree that is not possible to unaided fallen human nature. In this union, they truly become “one,” as Christ and His Church are one.
Freedom to Choose Responsibility
Our modern world has turned its back on marriage because it has inaugurated the cult of the ego. Our world overtly lionizes the individual, isolated ego, asserting its own will, regardless of whether this in fact contributes to the well-being and flourishing of the individual. To “assert” is assumed to be the only good. To be “free,” in the sense of being isolated, is assumed to be inherently better.
And yet, what many lonely souls are learning, to their chagrin, is that unfettered, lonely “freedom” is no freedom at all. God gave humans freedom, not simply for the sake of being able to choose anything, but so that in being able to choose, they might freely choose to love: firstly, to love God, and then, in loving God, to be empowered to love their fellow men.
In other words, the point of having the gift of freedom is so that we might freely bind ourselves, just as Christ Himself freely bound Himself, to the point of dying on the cross for the sake of others. Happiness is not, as our modern world thinks, to be found in rejecting all ties, all responsibilities, all demands. It is, rather, to be found in freely embracing ties that break down the selfishness of our own wills and bring us into communion with others.
We should not need the data charts of the General Social Survey to tell us what the sages have known for untold ages: to be happy, do not seek happiness, but rather embrace responsibility. As our world becomes ever more miserable, the data is clear that at least one path out of this pit of misery is available to us: to restore the great dignity of marriage. To have the courage to make a vow, and bind ourselves to another person, so that we might spend the rest of our lives learning how better to love.
Having attended and officiated many happy and holy marriages myself, I can easily envision the great joy that must have been Our Blessed Lord’s, as He beamed at the joy of the couple in that feast at Cana, delighting as well in the fruit of the generosity of His Mother. Such is the great beauty and dignity of marriage.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.