By V. Rev. Constantine Nasr
(Note: This chapter is excerpted from Fr. Constantine Nasr's book, Mastering the Art of Marriage, available from Conciliar Press .)
Throughout the years I have been in the ministry, I have learned from firsthand experience that a successful marriage requires a commitment—one that includes work, adaptation, and martyrdom of the will. I have also witnessed the dynamic life that is the result of such a commitment. This commitment can produce the miracle of a man and a woman becoming one flesh within a marriage that is beautiful and enriching to both husband and wife.
For Orthodox Christians, marriage is a sacrament; it is holy for those who love Christ and are obedient to His will. “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:5–6).
I married my wife, Sharon, when I was 28 years old. I met her at a parish life conference in Boston in 1972, and was attracted to her by her dress and her eyes. I found a way of meeting her, and our courtship had lasted less than three months before we began to speak of marriage. Somehow, by God’s grace, He blessed me with the gift of life with this woman. We “dated” by telephone, and after I had paid two visits to her home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, we were married.
We did not participate in any marriage encounters, nor did we attend any marriage enrichment classes. My understanding of marriage and my education in how to be a husband came from observing how my parents lived and acted, how they related to each other when facing serious issues and challenges, how they exercised patience with each other, and how they resolved issues. I also learned from Sharon’s parents. They were a wonderful model of what a loving marriage looks like when two people become one flesh. The words of Proverbs held true for us: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
This is not to suggest our parents never faced difficult times. There were times when tempers grew short and they shouted in frustration. At times tears were shed. And I would be lying if I said I did not have difficulties and serious challenges in my life with my wife. But a marriage grows when two people discover common ground and how to stand side by side in facing the challenges. We faced all our crises with respect and sensitivity to each other. Most importantly, we never took our marriage or each other for granted.
For thirty-eight years, Sharon and I have been working on our marriage. We talk about our marriage and our life together. We seek wisdom and counsel from other couples with successful marriages. We read on the subject. We also have learned from the mistakes of others whose marriages did not survive. In short, we are always working on our relationship.
When I was ordained a priest in 1973, I was newly married myself, and I needed guidance in counseling young couples for the sacred and holy union of marriage. I was eager to learn for the sake of those I was counseling, and being a newlywed, for my own sake as well.
After thirty-eight years of reading, studying, and offering marriage counseling, after countless hours dealing with marriages in conflict, I am convinced that I need to share with you what I have learned about marriage. There are dangers to be avoided. But there are also insights to be learned and wisdom to be gained.
A scene in the movie Four Christmases shows couples in a dance class learning how to dance at their weddings. When asked when the date of their wedding will be, the characters played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon pour out an anti-marriage spiel about how they come from divorced homes and why would they want to ruin their relationship with something they had to work at called marriage. Of course, by the end of the movie they discover the meaning and value of families.
Couples eagerly take dance lessons before their wedding because they don’t want to embarrass themselves at the wedding reception. Vaughn and Witherspoon’s characters were willing to put out the effort to learn how to dance together, but they were unwilling to put out the effort to make a marriage work.
A successful marriage does not happen nonchalantly. Like an intricate dance, marriage is the art of two people learning how to move gracefully through life in step with each other. To become an accomplished dancer requires many lessons over several years. Learning how to move gracefully through life in step with your spouse will require weekly if not daily effort. It is never too late to learn how to dance. Nor is it too late to master the art of marriage. It will take a lifetime of lessons, but that’s what marriage is: a lifetime of moving gracefully through life in step together.
Throughout the years I have collected much information on marriage that has improved my skills both as a counselor and as a husband. From this information I have created practical exercises that couples just like you have found very useful in learning how to talk with each other about themselves and their hopes and dreams for their marriage.1
No one wants their marriage to fail. That’s why you’re reading this book. Whether you’re in the courtship stage or married, whether this is your first marriage or a second, whether you’ve hit a rocky spot in your marriage or you’re doing preventive maintenance by looking for ways to improve your marriage, this book is for you.
Remember when you first fell in love? Remember how you gushed over her, bought her flowers, and took her on dates? Remember how you wanted to share every moment with him and thought he was the best man on earth?
Most of us have been there. So we decide to get hitched, settle down, and tie the knot—we decide to get married. We make grand plans for what the wedding day will be like. What will we wear? What will we say? Where will we go?
We spend months and months planning for that one big day, but what about the days, weeks, months, and years to follow? How much time do we spend planning what that will look like? Unfortunately, we get so caught up in planning for the wedding that we overlook preparing for the marriage.
And because we did not prepare for the marriage:
Now you’d rather go out with the guys than with your girl.
The only flowers you buy are for a day of yard work.
The only dates in your life are shriveled-up fruits.
If you have to spend another minute together, it might be
You wonder if you’d want him if he were the last man on earth.2
Television has given us Desperate Housewives. But we are also a nation of desperate husbands and desperate marriages. When we look at the basic institutions that undergird society, such as the family, religion, politics, and education, the majority of them are in various degrees of collapse around us.
One thing that is not collapsing is the Orthodox Church. The Church plays an important role in the life of the home and family. It represents an oasis of sanity in the midst of a nation that has lost its consensus on values. Knowing that over half of our marriages end in divorce, one can easily be discouraged and, just as Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon’s characters did, pour out an anti-marriage spiel.
This book is written to offer hope. A successful marriage is possible, but it won’t happen by accident. It has been said that marriages may be made in heaven, but they are lived on earth. It is on earth that the work of mastering the art of marriage takes place.
The primary focus of this book is on the internal realities of a marriage. We do not marry our spouse’s father or mother, tribe or friends. We marry a beloved partner who needs all the care and attention we can give, not just for the weeks or days leading to the wedding, but for the days, months, and years to follow. Marriage partners commit themselves to each other, in the words of Protestant ceremonies, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, so long as we both shall live.”
In real estate, the three most important qualities of a successful property are said to be “location, location, location.” The three most important qualities of a successful marriage are “relationship, relationship, relationship.” This book focuses on the two of you and how you can become one.
1 I have tried to cite every source. But some information has become so much a part of me that I no longer remember what its source might be.
2 Brian Bolton, Desperate Marriages. Downloaded from SermonCentral.com on 12/21/2005.