Penning his Reflections on America in mid-1950s after a prolonged stint in the United States, Jacques Maritain published observations which today seem prescient. In light of the ensuing sexual revolution which followed in less than ten years and progressive degradation of traditional sexual mores in the decades since, his comments on marriage and relationships in particular are almost prophetic. As he identified as an acutely American illusion, “[A] number of Americans seem to consider that marriage must be both the perfect fulfillment of romantic love and the pursuit of full individual self-realization.” In other words, there seems to be a fantasy about marriage that it primarily serves the individual and their own pursuits and expectations happiness in life, incidentally involving another person.
No recent attempt to unmoor long-held understandings of marriage fully realizes the premises Maritain identifies as the distinctly American trend of “self-marriage”. A recent article in Good Housekeeping chronicles Erika Anderson who, disappointed by divorce and an imperfect dating scene, decides to “marry” herself upon turning 36. In a ceremony likely intended to mock what remnants of matrimony society still reveres, Anderson donned a “vintage-style white wedding dress, stood before a circle of her closest friends, and committed herself — to herself” complete with vows. Of course, the more superfluous elements of marriage ceremonies were present, including Champagne toasts, gift registries, travel plans, portraits, wedding planners, and even a ring for, indeed, she was “saying: YES TO ME…because this is America”. Traumatized by previous relationships or perpetually unsatisfied by her consorts, perhaps she felt she had to turn to herself in this bizarre way.
This absurd situation robustly manifests the disorder Maritain identifies taken to its extreme conclusions. Projecting one’s expectations for life onto another person through any institution is to attempt to bend marriage into something for which it is not intended. It is, thus, no wonder that the institution constantly needs to be revised when it inevitably fails to meet these expectations. Yet it is precisely the expectations that need to be revised when a selfish monstrosity like self-marriage lays bare how shallow the “attempt to found marriage on mutual love…and to have marriage bring happiness to husband and wife as human persons.” For indeed, it is precisely in the intimate interaction with another person, through the trials, difficulties, and disappointments of one’s life that erode one’s will—the crucible of which is the rearing of children, about whom every decision represents a continual merging of wills. It must transcend the romantic love that initially drew spouses together and be elevated to something more constant, “where the one accepts to be entrusted with the revelation of, and the care for, all that the other is in his or her deepest human depths and where one is fully dedicated to the good and happiness of the one loved.”
Bearing someone else’s burdens, adjusting to the movement of a spouse’s will, undergoing trials imposed by the other, feeling another’s wounds as one’s own. None of these aspects bring perfect happiness in the sense of immediate personal gratification or elation, but provide a tried way of escaping the narrow tunnel of one’s own desire and realizing the effect one has on someone else. It can be disorienting, anxiety provoking, and maddening at times. Yet the more doggedly one holds to the premise that happiness can be found in union with an imperfect person the more unhappy and disappointed they will be in others and in marriage itself because the self-realization they hoped for is revealed for being “actually no more than self-centered individuality.” Marriage, then, if it is to maintain any resemblance to its historical understanding and transformative effect of elevating us beyond ourselves, necessitates “being…primarily centered in the other, or having his or her dearest self in the other”. It per se excludes self-marriage.
Ironically for those tethered to the American illusion, the lessons of marriage ultimately should move a person beyond even their spouse. Confronted with one’s own frailties and the limitations of a husband or wife, one hopefully comes to recognize that meaningful self-realization is only found in God, the One who can never disappoint. If marriage is to be a school for how to truly and deeply love others, its metaphysical purpose is to prepare most mere mortals to wholly trust God, the source of permanent happiness. It is something for which self-marriage simply does not allow.
One cannot merely depend on any human person or thing to find perfect realization and happiness: not a spouse, child, or even oneself and to attempt do so though marriage is to misunderstand marriage. Doing so, Maritain aptly points out, is to “prepare for oneself a hell of a disappointment and bitterness.” If we are ever to recover and restore marriage to its higher reality, we must divest ourselves of the longstanding illusion that marriage is for our self-realization and focus on the “genuinely human love [which] is essentially the gift of oneself…precisely the opposite of any selfish and self-centered assertion and enjoyment of one’s individuality.”