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Why getting married is not an achievement

It’s just the beginning of 2020, and for the past week or so social media were filled of posts about what we achieved in 2019, or in the whole decade that hasn’t actually finished (there was no year 0). A lot of posts from Catholic women included getting married and having children. This post will focus on the former for obvious reasons, but some of the arguments I make are valid for both.

It dismisses the gifts of being single
I had been engaged for a year when a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time looked at me surprised at the news, remarking that I had kept it quiet. I replied that perhaps I had made being single such a big part of my identity that I was still unable to deal with the change.
A lot of this blog deals with feeling inadequate in a culture that promotes marriage as the highest good, and how I had to learn to find my identity in God alone because none of my problems went away just because someone liked me enough to stick around. If I considered marriage an achievement, I would be telling my old self that she wasn’t good enough in spite of all that she has done. It’s the exact opposite of the message I have fought so hard to internalise and accept.

It dismisses the gifts that single people bring to others
I don’t know when this idolisation of marriage began, since it’s pretty clear in the Bible that singleness is the preferred state for serving the Lord fully. After all, that’s the argument everyone uses for not relaxing the rules on celibacy in the Latin Rite to bring them in line with other churches in communion with Rome. And yet, we treat an accident of life as if it made us better and complete, forgetting that people other than priests and religious have a lot to bring to the table. I have married friends I look up to for how to be a godly wife, and single friends I look up to for how to be a better Christian in my own right. They also have the time and freedom to help others in ways that a woman in the overwhelming position to raise a growing family cannot (often the single friends and family help her instead).

Accomplishments require by definition the use of skills
There are 3 definitions of accomplishment in the Oxford Dictionary: an impressive thing that is done or achieved after a lot of work; the successful completing of something;  a skill or special ability.
While I can see the argument that if you organised a big wedding and managed not to kill anybody, and managed to keep other people from killing anybody, and everybody was happy with the end result it is indeed a skill, I don’t think the title can be applied as a blanket on anyone getting married (and even then, I’d say the achievement is good party planning).

I can also see the argument that if you look back on your death-bed and you have been married quite happily until then, it becomes an achievement of sorts because of how hard it is to do that. Still, it seems cruel to me to consider it such because of how many marriages end through no fault of the partner who was left (or end up being declared null in the first place), and I don’t like the idea that these people would be seen as lacking an accomplishment because life dealt them a harder hand than it dealt to a lot of us. Surviving such an ordeal should at least qualify as an accomplishment too.

What I really cannot see is how getting married is an achievement in itself. You meet someone and you like them, something that is lucky or providential because there are also plenty of rubbish people you’ll meet. At some point, you decide that they have all the virtues you seek in a partner, and the things they lack are either something they are willing to work on, or that you can deal without. They think the same of you and one of you proposes, the other accepts, and after a period of preparation (which may or may not involve planning a wedding day), you get to the altar and somehow do not panic when saying your vows, as scary as they are.

All I can see here is deliberate decisions made with courage and faith. If that’s why getting married is an achievement, then we’d be better off saying our achievement was growing into a bold woman (or man) of faith, which applies to more than marriage and plenty of single people can see as a trajectory in their lives too.

It diminishes the importance of marriage as a vocation
I understand why so many were eager to share this on a public medium when often the conversation is stacked against social conservatives, but we don’t have to put others down to celebrate marriage as a good for society. The Sacrament of Matrimony is a promise that two people make to live out a vocation together as a witness of Christ’s love for others. It is countercultural to see marriage as more than a civil contract granting rights to a couple who wants to celebrate their love and that will stand for as long as they want to do that. It creates a domestic church not only in the raising of children (if there are any, adopted included) but also in the role of an open home in the community.

It is admirable that people have the courage to do something so demanding in response to the Lord’s calling and I believe it should be celebrated. What I don’t believe in, is making something that is largely out of our control an achievement, something that by definition requires our control and our effort. Graduating from university is an achievement, educating children to get into a top university with flying marks is an achievement whether you are a teacher or their homeschooling parent, getting a promotion at work after a successful project without cheating and with due recognition of whoever else helped you on the way is an achievement…if we really want to make an achievement out of marriage, how about we start with being the best wife or husband we can possibly be instead?

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