Your boyfriend is not your husband. Your fiancé is not your husband, either.
Maybe you think I’m now going to yell at you for having sex when you’re not even married yet, or for living together when you’re not even married yet. Well, maybe I am. Boo! Stop that!
But I actually had something else in mind.
Practicing Catholics are one of the last few groups of people in the world who take marriage seriously. We may not always manage to preserve our virginity for our wedding nights, but once we make vows, we’re motivated to work through problems, to make sacrifices and compromises, and to learn to live with unpleasant habits, rather than just ditching our spouses when they don’t give us everything we want. We understand that marriage is for the sanctification of both spouses, which isn’t always an easy road to walk.
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This view of marriage encourages us to commit to the necessary work it takes to build strong and holy marriages; but, this being a fallen world, it also sometimes makes it easier for abusers to control their victims. Faithful Catholics often report feeling intense pressure to stay in dangerous marriages; and many miserable spouses won’t even look into the possibility of pursuing a decree of nullity, thinking there’s something holy about sticking with a marriage that may not even be valid. I covered this issue extensively in my piece for America magazine. Many a time, I’ve thought how many abusive and invalid marriages could have been avoided if only marriage preparation helped people discern more rigorously.
And that brings me to the point I want to make today: Catholic people — especially women — very often seem to feel pressure to treat their boyfriend or fiancé with the same devotion and self-sacrifice as they would a husband. (In this essay, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to speak to and about women; but of course you could say these same things about men discerning marriage.) They behave as if dating or engagement is practice for marriage, when it’s really a period of discernment to judge whether or not marriage to this person would be a good idea.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. It’s entirely possible to get cold feet and to worry about marrying someone who really is a good man; and it’s entirely possible to have unreasonable expectations, summarily discarding anyone who isn’t identical to St. Joseph.
More than once, I’ve seen women advise or even command other women to get out of relationships immediately over things that truly can be fixed or accommodated. I’ve seen women to egg each other on to show no mercy, to listen to no explanations, to give no second chances, even when their man’s infraction is relatively minor.
But I’ve also seen young women tell themselves that God has put this man in their lives, so it must be God’s will that she commit to him for a lifetime. That’s not how it works. Right up until the split second you make your vow, there is still time to change your mind. It may be hard and messy and expensive, but not as hard and messy and expensive as figuring out how to escape years after the marriage has fallen apart.
I’m not saying we should hold out for the perfect spouse; and I’m not saying you should flee from a relationship the first time conflict crops up. It’s very good to test how well the two of you can work through problems together. And every human being brings a certain amount of imperfection into a relationship: Bad habits, personality flaws, unsavory pasts, immaturity, selfishness, and so on. Everyone’s got something — probably several things — wrong with them; and every good relationship will have conflict at some point.
But there are some flaws that should make us pause, think hard, and possibly back away before we make any vows. A pattern of dishonesty is one such flaw. Another is a history of porn use without authentic remorse and measurable efforts to change. Any kind of abuse is, of course, a huge red flag, as abuse almost always escalates as the years go on.
But women should feel free to walk away from a troubling relationship even if the flaws that concern her don’t rise to the level of something that would make the marriage invalid. We have every right to say, “You may be a decent man, but this aspect of you simply isn’t something I want to live with for the rest of my life.” If there is an addiction or a mental health issue or he has a sordid past that still affects him, that doesn’t mean he’s unfit to wed. But it does mean you should get a clear view of what you’re signing up for.
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Marriage is a gamble. We can’t control other people, and we can’t control circumstances. It’s not possible to discern so well that you can be completely certain that your marriage will be good or happy or holy.
But, women: when you think of marrying the man you’re planning to marry, you should be delighted. Delighted! Are you delighted?
Or are you facing your upcoming marriage with girded emotional loins, preparing for years of struggle and strife and sacrifice, and praying that God will give you the courage and endurance to make the marriage work? If so, I won’t tell you what to do, but I will ask: what’s the rush? Put the wedding plans on hold. Take a break from the relationship for a few months. Talk to someone you trust. Listen to people you trust. If he’s a good match, he’ll be willing to wait a little longer.
It is a wife’s obligation to try to help her husband get to heaven. It is not a woman’s obligation to marry a man so she may help him get to heaven. We are allowed to decide, “I’m just not up for this.” Might you be making a mistake? Sure. But you’re not violating any obligations or vows — no, not even if you’ve already bought a dress and rented a hall.