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Is Marriage Supposed to Be Hard?

How we talk about marriage matters.

Giving marriage advice is a dangerous affair. It’s impossible to speak of such an intimate relationship without implicitly betraying some of your own marriage’s inner life. And it’s especially dangerous for the young spouse, as it’s entirely possible time will prove his advice misguided should his marriage turn sour in later years.

This was probably what more gray-headed couples had in mind when my wife, newly married, would say, “Marriage is so easy!” Some would smile and gently shake their heads, viewing this as the babble of a girl fresh in love.

But after some years of trials and tribulations, my wife is a little more gray-headed herself (don’t tell her I said that). And she still says marriage is a lot easier than she was led to believe.

Of course, marriage isn’t always easy. My wife has suffered through sicknesses, fights, and insomnia. She doesn’t mean we walk on sunshine. She means that marriage isn’t supposed to be hard—and the times that it is should be viewed more as an aberration than a norm.

How we talk about marriage matters. Marriage rates in our country keep plummeting, and we do them no favors if we paint matrimony as a lifetime of rubbing against a cheese grater.

Many spouses would balk at the idea that marriage isn’t supposed to be hard. But let’s think about the definition of that word. Sometimes when we say something is hard, we just mean it requires work, as all close relationships do. Sweat isn’t always pleasant, and sometimes taking out the trash for your wife really is difficult. But it’s a misnomer to say “marriage is hard” just for this. Though certain particular tasks of love can be tiring, that shouldn’t imply that the overall work of going on dates, chasing romance, and staying in love makes for a life of tedium and toil.

Other people just mean that married life is hard. They know that those optimistic lovers at the altar are likely imagining sunshine and rainbows for the rest of their days together. But every couple that steps out of the church as Mr. and Mrs. is entering a world of possible sickness, injury, financial strain, and death (see 2 Tim. 3:12ff). Even parenthood—the happier side of their future—will bring trials big and small. Yet it would be a mistake to say that marriage is hard. Life is hard—whether married life, friendship life, or perpetual bachelor life.

But many Catholics actually mean that marriage is hard, by design. It’s supposed to be hard, and it isn’t doing its job if things are too pleasant. It has the quality of punishment or discipline—a lifestyle that will break you down (painfully), with the benefit of building you back into something better.

Metaphors are thrown around. When two come together in marriage, like jagged rocks, their edges snag and grind against each other until finally, after many painful years, there are two smooth, virtuous rocks. Or we say marriage is or is an occasion for the cross, leading us to Jesus through a difficult, sacrificial offering.

Indeed, living with someone can smooth our jagged edges. We are forced to work on faults that would otherwise remain hidden to us. But this must be viewed as an accidental benefit of marriage. Otherwise, marriage wouldn’t be good for the perfect, Mary and Joseph least of all.

Marriage is just a good—not an instrumental good to some larger project of virtue. Not good insofar as it breaks us. It’s the good of companionship. It’s the good of mutual support. It’s the good of loving and being loved. As Proverbs says, “he who finds a wife finds a good thing” (18:22).

This good should produce a corresponding joy and peace—in short, qualities that contribute to a feeling of ease. Or, more precisely, qualities that usually don’t accompany things that are “hard.”

We thus do people a disservice when we speak of marriage as a miserable affair. St. Augustine counsels us, “In marriage, let the goods of marriage be loved: offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond” (Marriage and Concupiscence, I, 19). He is only repeating the command of St. Paul: “Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Heb. 13:4). Being too negative runs the risk of masking marriage’s great good, and it is a poor strategy for promoting it among our flagging youth.

Rather than saying marriage is hard, we should say life is hard. Careers, parenthood, and aging can be unbelievably hard. They’re full of great beauty, but also great challenges that will reduce you to tears. Such difficulties reach everyone, from the richest and most powerful to the smallest and most ordinary man.

Marriage is meant as a help in this rollercoaster. It’s an injection of love into our sin-stained reality. A married relationship is the firm base from which couples can tackle those trials of child-rearing, poor health, and whatever else. When life is good, it’s more enjoyable to celebrate with another. And when life is bad, it’s good to have someone to lean on. Marriage gives this in a deep, lifelong friendship with another. Consequently, it’s meant as a good and a comfort for life, and not a further source of suffering. As God told us from the beginning, “It’s not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Life is better with a helpmate (see Eccles. 4:9-12, Prov. 12:4).

Practically, it doesn’t always work this way. Some marriages really are a source of suffering, sometimes because of the failures of one or the other party, and sometimes because tragedy and the strain of life’s difficulties overwhelm them. And all marriages have seasons of hardship and moments of friction. This is okay—even expected in a fallen world, and in relationships between imperfect spouses.

But even though we anticipate such moments, we shouldn’t define marriage by them. They are normal, but they aren’t the goal of marriage, and aren’t what inspires people to plunge into it.

Marriage should be a reflection of our life in Christ. By dying on the Cross, Jesus enters into all of our hurt. When we suffer, we can confidently turn to him who is suffering with us and for us, standing against the evils afflicting us. God is always “on our side” (Ps. 118:6, Rom. 8:31-39). He is always willing our happiness, and he remains the best of companions and supports in all of life’s trials (see 1 Pet. 5:7). Following him isn’t always easy. But neither is it a life of drudgery and pain—for his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:28-30).

So yes, perhaps marriage isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard. Marriage is meant as a source of refreshment, bringing the joys of love to the inescapable cares of life. It takes work, it has bumps on the way, but it’s ultimately a source of happiness, and not an endeavor of misery.

This is an attractive picture of marriage, indeed. And one that should inspire many to pursue it.

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