Blog: How my experience of marriage shapes me. . . .

The Changing Experience of Marriage

grandparentsThe traditional marriage of my grandparents had little to do with “falling in love” or with vulnerability.  To begin with, there were distinct spheres of influence and division of labor.  My grandfather knew nothing about cooking, cleaning, or caring for children.  He left these things up to his wife just as his own father had left all these things to his mother.  My grandmother, meanwhile, knew nothing about running a business, making a living, fixing things (plumbing, electricity, automechanics)–she left all these things in the hands of her husband who acted much like his own father before him.  Both of my grandparents came from the same social class (middle-class), the same culture (Slovenian), the same religion (Catholic); hence, when entering into marriage, there were very insignificant disruptions from the habits of thought and practices which both had been used to in their respective homes.

Where there was disruption, the tacit surmise was that the role of the wife was to accommodate to the wishes of her husband.  Thus, when my grandfather (who took pride in making his own wine) insisted that he always serve wine to guests and, when there were no guests, that his wife serve him his wine, my grandmother accommodated.  So, too, when my grandfather made it known that he preferred this perfume, this dress, my grandmother gracefully accommodated just as she had seen her mother do.  In some things, however, my grandmother refused to accommodate.  For example, she always fed her children first (from infancy onward) even if it meant that her husband had to wait for his supper.  At first, there were angry outbursts.  And later my grandfather fumed about this; yet, in the face of his wife’s stubborn insistence that “the children come first,” she finally won the day and got her husband to tolerate her “deviance” from what had been the practice during his own upbringing.

womanwishingwellDivision of labor and mutual need provided much of the bonding within traditional marriages.  My grandfather, for instance, needed to eat.  Since he regarded cooking as a “women’s work” and never took the least interest in watching, much less learning, the rudiments of the art, he was always dependent upon a woman.  First, it was his mother.  Then, it was his wife.  As was the tradition, they postponed their marriage until he could afford to buy a house.  Thus, marriage marked the transition from his mother cooking, cleaning, ironing for him and his wife doing all these very same things.  The same thing could be said for my grandmother.  She regarded learning a trade and making a living as a “man’s work.”  Thus, with her marriage, she moved from being dependent upon the income of her father to becoming dependent upon the income of her husband.

At one point, my grandmother, who was superb at crocheting, was lured into selling some of her doilies to her friends.  My grandfather was furious.  He insisted that she give the money back.  He felt ashamed that his wife was earning income as if to imply that he was not providing for her sufficiently.  My grandmother, who didn’t want to resort to giving her work away, developed the strategy of trading jams and other preserves.  Later, she returned to the practice of accepting money and insisted that her buyers must not breathe a word of it to anybody.  Thus, in a world wherein “the man was king of his castle,” my grandmother had to make do, by giving in on insignificant issues, by mulishly holding her ground on important ones, and by surreptitiously avoiding my grandfather’s supervision in things where he ought not to have been meddling.

My own experience of marriage

How different this was from my own marriage.  From the very beginning, it was clear that I could cook, clean, and iron with pride and proficiency, as well as carry on my professional career.  My wife would work professionally outside our home as well as in our home and she would not be forever dependent upon a weekly allowance that I would give to her out of my paycheck.  Yet, it was evident that we had great need to influence each other, to decide things together, to work cooperatively. Moreover, I was intent upon being in on all the delights and headaches of raising children. I learned from my wife who was extraordinarily adept at relating to our children and I also had ideas and experiences of my own which entered into our long discussions about how to raise our children.

Under my grandparents system, mutual need and spheres of influence provided the effective glue for marriage. For my wife and I, we entered into marriage when we had discovered we were soul-mates.  Sympathetic listening with the intent of entering into each other’s heart and soul was the primary model for marriage.  It is for this reason that the mutual surrender, the falling in love, the mutual influencing is the sine qua none for entering into such a marriage. Hence, romantic attraction ushering into mutual surrender fashioned the glue of our union.  In this, settled instincts were being transformed quietly and quickly under the guise of the mutual love which was binding us. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, to taste it as she tasted it, to touch it as she was touching it. For her it was the same. Once the period of romantic surrender wore off, both of us had arrived at a blending of our souls, our loves, our hates, our instincts, our habits for engaging in the world.

Even a pope is limited by his own experiences

The trouble that I have with Mulieris Dignitatem is that I never catch any real glimpse of how marriages have changed within the short span of three generations.  More often than not, I have had the feeling that John Paul II either had not noticed these changes or, having noticed them, had not considered them worth mentioning.  If this is the case, however, I doubt whether he had understood or taken into account the stuff of my marriage.  For all I know, he may well have been thinking of marriage as he knew it in his formative years in Kraków–a marriage very much like that of my grandparents.  The fact that he assigned the role and vocation of woman as directed towards the “gift of self” and towards motherhood gives the feeling that he was talking about my grandparents generation.  This wisdom would have admirable fit them.

Today, however, I presume that my wife has a calling and a vocation within the public sphere which stands alongside her being wife and mother.  Might this not have a significant bearing upon how John Paul II envisions women’s role relative to the church.  Like in the case of my own father, he might, under restricted circumstances, allow my wife to continue to work outside the home until the birth of her first child.  But this “work” was not a true vocation; “motherhood” was and will always remain her true vocation.  There is little chance, therefore, that someone fashioned within this era would be receptive to women as ordained ministers or high level leaders within the Catholic Church.  The struggle for women in the Church, accordingly, may indeed be much more a question of enculturation rather than an issue of theology.


#1 Our experience of marriage shapes our stubborn habits as to how we think and feel about all aspects of marriage.

#2 As the experience of marriage has changed so too has the expectation that women could be mothers and, at the same time, have careers that enable them to shape society and commerce.

#3  Because the experience of marriage has changed, most men that I taught in my seminary teaching experience thought that sexual intimacy in marriage would not be in any way incompatible with ordained ministry.  Going further, some even thought that sexual intimacy could provide an important spiritual and psychological asset for any man called to the ordained ministry.

#4 What is good for the gander is good for the goose.  Sexual intimacy and motherhood might be entirely compatible with women’s ordination.  Any society which reserves decision making and ordination to just one sex cannot flourish.  The Holy Spirit cannot fly with just one wing.  God is male and female whether we like it or not.

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One thought on “Blog: How my experience of marriage shapes me. . . .”

  1. Please add me to the blog post mailing list.

    Sorry, Marcia, we don’t have a mailing list yet. But you’re invited to visit us as often as you like. ~Aaron

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