A certain old man had a habit of always asking his wife of many years, “Do you love me, dear?” And as often as he asked, his darling wife would respond, “Yes, I do, dear.” Once an inquisitive grandchild queried the man, “Why do you always ask grandma if she loves you?” The old man answered, “To stay connected, dear child. Of course, I know she loves me; but I have to ask nonetheless. Any day she responds, ‘no,’ I know that whatever the cause of her dissatisfaction, it has not gone beyond twenty-four hours. And as such it can still be fixed right away. Our recollections of it are still fresh. So we can address it immediately. It hurts to let such an issue go unaddressed for more hurts build on it and then much later it becomes a lot more difficult to actually identify the initial cause.” What wisdom! Andre Maurois keeps it short and sweet, “a successful marriage is an edifice that must be rebuilt every day.”
I have always admired the enduring grace of many marriages. Those marriages that are said to be made in heaven. Yes, I say grace because it takes much more than human efforts to keep such marriages lasting forever, for better for worse, till death do them part. At the same time I also agonize over those marriages that don’t last, those marriages that seem to be riddled with tears and pains, the ones that, so to say, are built on shaky, sandy foundations and as such exist on the brink of collapse. These might be marriages that are built on erroneous ideals, on deceits, or as the case may be marriages between good intentioned couples, but then, something went irretrievably wrong along the line. As we say (a la, Phil Collins’s 1990 hit single), something happened on the way to heaven. I guess one is never really certain of the end from the outset. But then, those who embark on this journey (yes, for that’s what marriage is, a journey; a journey of the heart—ije obi, I call it) with openness, patience, respect, tolerance, faithfulness, and of course prayer, make their destination, even amidst tears and pains, but, more often than not, with joy, smiles, and consolation.
As I boarded a flight to Nairobi, Kenya at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, on Friday, March 9, 2012, I noticed an “unusual” couple, holding hands, hugging every now and then, and kissing, as they walked the departure lounge, with the man carrying the wife’s handbag. I concluded they were married because I could see their wedding rings. Note my choice of word: “unusual,” because in this clime where the expression of affection is usually a behind-the-door affair, something not so often expressed publicly, such sights are rare. Someone even quipped, albeit faintly, “yeye man, see am dey carry woman bag in the name of love.” See what I mean? One man’s meat is, indeed, another man’s pomo.
Given the couple’s age, in their early thirties, maybe, and how they seemed not to get enough of each other, I thought theirs must have been a new marriage. Actually their wedding rings still sparkled. I remembered someone once told me that Nigerian men don’t dote on their women unless there’s an element of newness present. Strange, how the human mind works. Why such recollection at that point, I had no idea. Anyway, back to my friend. He said for instance, that when a Nigerian man opens the door of a car for a women, it is either the car is a new one or the woman is a new catch. But who says love and marriage must be new to be celebrated?
The warmth and joy I saw the couple radiate caused my lips to dance with smiles and got me thinking about marriage, about the blessings, the graces, and the joys of marriage; and obviously about the tears, the pains, and the challenges of marriage too. But my thoughts were more on the positive end. I recalled a somewhat similar but slightly different encounter few years ago. In 2010, a particular mission got me breathlessly crisscrossing the entire United States in just three months. In one of my many darts across the US airspace, I struggled with fatigue as my flight from San Jose, California, through Portland, Oregon, touched down in Houston, Texas on its way to New Orleans, Louisiana. I was jolted from my half-slumber by the thunderous cheering of my co-passengers. The air hostess had announced that we had a newly-wed in the plane and invited us to congratulate the lucky couple. Then the cheering became even louder when the hostess added that the man in question was ninety-two years old, and the woman, eighty-seven.
Now, that’s amazing. I don’t know why they were getting married at that age. Had they been separated from each other for long due to some factors beyond their control? Were they each previously married to a different person? Questions abound. But their marriage says something about the essential bond and companionship between two people that marriage represents. Even if they each had little longer to live on earth, they needed to live it in companionship with each other. And that is truly amazing coming from a society where, in many quarters, marriage has been under a severe barrage of assaults.
I have heard many a married couple sincerely admit that marriage is a beautiful thing. Marriage, that union of man and woman initiated and ordained by God at creation was so enthralling for Adam, that when he beheld his wife, Eve, he uttered the first poem in the bible: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man she has been taken” (Genesis 2:23). The passage goes on in verse twenty-four to say, “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Little wonder the wise one in Proverbs 18:22 acclaims that he who finds a wife finds blessings, an eternal favor from God. What of she who finds a husband? Same thing, no ni.
Marriage is such a fundamental element of life that Jesus Christ, constituting it as a sacrament (a reality that communicates grace), bid that it be lifelong. Responding to the question of divorce posed to him by the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, he cited the Genesis passage above and then concluded, “therefore, what God has joined together, let no man [or woman] put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Great minds through the ages, including those who had difficulties in their own marriages, have all extolled the good of marriage. Socrates, that enigmatic, classical Greek philosopher, is reputed to have urged his contemporaries, “by all means, marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll be happy.” In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, the 17th century English poet and scholar, John Milton enjoins us to “hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source of human offspring.” For the Canadian writer and playwright, Betty Jane Wylie, “marriage is to family what legs are to a table. It is the agreement to let a family happen.”
This journey called marriage does not just happen; it is a process, it grows. It has to be worked at, to be nurtured. Some elements are therefore necessary to keeping this journey on course. To start with, as I said above, marriage is a journey of the heart. It is a journey embarked on with the heart. The heart is so vital an organ and yet so fragile that minor irritations pose serious danger to it. Something as insignificant as a grain of sand bruises the heart and causes it to bleed. The same is true of marriage. Issues that are thought “insignificant” and are left unaddressed bruise and hurt marriages. It is stating the obvious that the two people on such a journey should have certain things in common. They should not only love each other, but should also be friends, friends who understand or strive to understand each other.
But in addition to such core attributes as love, friendship, and understanding, marriages should also rest on equally important values like fidelity, respect, and tolerance. Fidelity is the call to sexual faithfulness to your spouse. To him/her alone does you body belong, whole and entire. Remember, “for this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” To cheat on your spouse is to cheat on and injure your own flesh. There are some men and women who find it very difficult to even imagine their spouse cheating on them, but then they wantonly cheat on that same spouse, with no regard for the sacredness of their marriage vows. You must actually hate your own flesh to cheat on your spouse. But according to St. Paul, “no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29).
Like fidelity, respect is also an important aspect of the marriage journey. It is important that couples respect each other and have due regards for each other’s feelings, wishes, and views. But oftentimes, this value is misconstrued as something mono-directional. It is true that St. Paul admonishes wives to be subordinate to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-25). As a result many men have misread this to be a carte blanche to not only disrespect their wives, but also to mistreat and subject them to unspeakable dehumanizing treatments. What an erroneous understanding. Yes, St. Paul asks women to be subordinate to their husbands, but that is after he has first asked both husbands and wives to be subordinate to each other out of reverence for Christ (verse 21).
It is a two-way traffic, a mutuality that places the burden of responsibility on both parties. Besides, St. Paul urges husbands to love their wives, “even as Christ loved his church and handed himself over for her” (verse 25). Those who misread this passage feign ignorance of this call to sacrifice on the part of the husband. I doubt if any man who truly understands this passage will raise a finger on the wife. Even the women who take advantage of their husbands’ gentleness to launch violent physical attacks on the man, not because they can overpower their husbands but because the man has decided not to be a wife-beater, also miss the point. Such treatments and behaviors do not portray married love. Again, “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:28-29). Wives too are called to the same self-love.
Added to fidelity and respect is tolerance, the ability or willingness to endure your spouse’s weaknesses and imperfections. Although Christ calls us to be perfect just as our heavenly father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), we know that this is a call to continually strive for this end. No one is perfect. If married couples understand this, it will go a long way to making their journey a lot smoother. With tolerance comes patience and forgiveness. Tolerance enables you to deal patiently with your spouse’s weaknesses, knowing that you too are beset by weakness (cf. Hebrews 5:2). It is only one who understands that they too are not perfect, that they too are weak, is able to forgive their spouse, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22).
Over and above all, the journey of marriage is a journey made in and with God. If God is not present in any marriage, if he is not the constant factor at every turn in this journey, a whole lot of things will be amiss. Key to having God always present in your marriage is to pray. Pray, pray, and pray. That is what Christ our Lord taught us. In times of joy, pray in gratitude, in thanksgiving. In times of tears, pray for consolation and healing. In times of need, pray for blessings and mercy. Above all, pray for God’s will in your marriage, that you may discern and follow it, with the help of his grace.
In some quarters the debate rages on: who is the head of the family? But I think that is missing the point. Yes, the man is the head. But the head sits on the neck, the woman, which gives her a pivotal role too. The neck enables the head to rotate, to operate. Is it for nothing that we say that behind every successful man there is a woman? The neck should be flexible, able to bend and to sway. But it has a limit. Any forceful push or pull beyond this limit introduces strain and causes it to snap, thereby doing damage to both the neck and the head. The pain is often severe. What is important is to understand that they are no longer two but one flesh, and that this oneness thrives on mutual respect, fidelity, and tolerance; it thrives on understanding, friendship, and love. Most importantly, it thrives in God. May God bless your marriage with joy and peace; and may your marriage cause you to flourish and find fulfillment in life, as children of God who is life and love.
Always. Remain blessed and keep smiling.