The Sacrament of Marriage February 8, 2009

posted Apr 14, 2009, 11:35 AM by Mike Allen

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, I want to talk today about the sacrament of marriage.  I was going to say the “institution” of marriage, but I’m reminded of what Groucho Marx said about the institution of marriage:  Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” He also said:  “I was married by a judge.  I should have asked for a jury,” and “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.”  Don’t you miss him?

        So I’ve chosen instead the word sacrament.  Now that’s a word you don’t hear often in UU circles.  You’re more likely to hear the word “sacrament” in a Protestant church since Protestants have two official sacraments:  the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  And you’re even more likely to hear the word “sacrament” in a Catholic church since they have these two plus five others:  confirmation, penance, extreme unction, ordination, and marriage.  A sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible God.  Another way of saying that is that it is where something sacred happens.  It is a transparent event that allows you to see through to something deeper.  So the Christian church would say, for instance, that at the key milestones in life, such as seeing a baby baptized or a person breathe their last breath, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the mystery and wonder of life.

        We Unitarians believe in the unity of experience, which is to say the wall between the sacred and the secular is an artificial division since both are part of the same reality.  In other words, church isn’t the only place where the holy happens.  In fact, I’m not sure that I ever experienced the holy while attending the Christian church.  Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody.  Watching something being born.  A high school graduation.  A sunset.  Somebody visiting you when you’re sick.  Looking into someone’s eyes and knowing that he or she loves you.  I suspect that if we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.

        And marriage.  When I say that marriage is sacramental, I mean that it has the potential of making our lives more sacred, of making us more human.  I say that it has the potential of making us better human beings because you and I both have known some people who have been made bitter by their marriage or more self-doubtful or insecure.  But when spouses are committed to the welfare and growth of their partner and themselves, marriage can be a crucible of spiritual transformation.  Another way of saying this is that if life is a school that continually presents us with lessons to learn, then marriage is one of the special ed classes.

        I am speaking today of marriage in its broadest terms -- as a committed emotional and spiritual bond between two people who choose to share their lives together.  You don’t need a marriage license to have that kind of bond, and such a bond is, of course, not limited to straight people.  For the record, by the way, I do support marriage equality.  If straight people have to endure marriage, then it’s only fair that gays and lesbians must suffer, too.

        I don’t think marriage – or a committed partnership – has much potential for being a sacrament at the beginning, during that period we call the honeymoon.  The honeymoon is basically a state of intoxication.  Biologically speaking, this is literally true.  When we fall in love, our brain releases endorphins at the sight of our beloved, at the sound of his or her voice, at the very mention of his or her name.  It’s like eating a whole box of chocolates.  When we’re intoxicated by our endorphins, we don’t see straight.  In fact, we don’t really see our beloved as he or she really is.  We see them as we idealize them.  He is her knight in shining armor that will save her from her loneliness.  She will never feel lonely again.  She is his sex goddess and mother in one, anticipating his every need without his even having to speak it.  He will never feel inadequate or incomplete again.  Love really is blind, at least this kind of honeymoon love.  Any annoyance or irritation is minimized or ignored.  “Isn’t it cute the way she takes all the closet space.”  “I think he’s adorable when he picks his nose.” 

        I think the experience of falling in love is a trick our bodies play on us to get us married.  Or to be more correct from the standpoint of evolution, falling in love is a hard-wired response to get us to copulate so that the species will survive.  And that’s probably a good thing because if the decision to spend the rest of your life with only one person were a rational decision only, most of us would probably hem and haw and never get around to the altar.

        After about six months to a year, the endorphins settle down and the honeymoon ends.  The honeymoon always ends.  He gets sick and tired of her taking all the closet space with clothes she hasn’t worn since the ‘80’s.  If she sees him pick his nose one more time, she’s going to hurl.  When couples sober up from their endorphin intoxication, they start to see each other as they really are, not as idealized persons.  Unfortunately, some couples will interpret this as falling out of love, and they will believe that they have made a serious mistake in getting together and will break up or divorce. 

        Couples that stay together at this point will enter the second stage of marriage – the power struggle.  They will attempt to make their partner in their own image.  He will try to convert her to his way of thinking.  She will try to heal some wound of his or fix some defect for his own good so that he can be a better person.  He will try to rescue her from some terrible situation or solve some problem.  He will try to educate her so that she may see the light.  She will try to nurture him so that he will have the loving parent he never had. 

        Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who wrote No Man Is an Island, observed that “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not twist them to fit our own image.  Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”  The way we twist our partners depends on the way we have successfully twisted people in our past.  Some of us ask them to change nicely and politely.  Some of us beg and plead.  Some nag and criticize.  Some bully and coerce, while others entice and seduce.  We do whatever tends to work for us.

        Some couples will take their power struggle as a sign that they have made a grave mistake and will break up or divorce.  Some couples will stay together but will remain in perpetual gridlock, pushing their partner harder and harder, getting more entrenched in their positions, talking endlessly about a topic but making no headway, just spinning their wheels and resolving nothing.  Don’t you know some couples like that?

        The more self-aware couples will realize that their efforts to convert, heal, fix, rescue, educate, and grow up their partner just aren’t working, and they will finally abandon their tug of war and try to understand and accept each other as unique human beings.  He is who he is and he’s not going to change no matter how hard you try.  She may be a little crazy, but that’s why you were attracted to her in the first place.  More self-aware couples realize that the real marriage begins after the honeymoon is over.

        One of the lessons they learn is commitment.  They learn that love is more than a feeling; it is also a decision.  A marriage cannot be built upon feelings alone because feelings come and go.  Feelings will not get you through the tough times.  Genuine love is more volitional than emotional.  The person who genuinely loves does so because he or she has chosen to love their partner.  It’s a commitment to be loving whether or not one feels loving, or as the marriage vows state, “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.”  My grandmother used to say, “Love is as love does.”  I didn’t know what that meant when I was a boy, but now I think I do.  I think she meant that good intentions and positive feelings are too squishy to support a marriage, especially when the trials and tests come.  The only firm foundation is the commitment to be there for each other when you feel like and when you don’t, when it’s convenient and when it’s not.  The commitment to be loving when the feeling of falling in love passes is what keeps a marriage going.

        It’s also one of the things that makes marriage a sacrament as we receive from and give to our marriage.  Just as children cannot develop a solid internal core of security if they grow up in a home of chaos and unpredictability, we adults have a hard time reaching spiritual maturity if our most significant relationship is not constant and solid and steadfast.  It’s like a committed relationship gives us an anchor as we encounter the storms of life.  It’s like having a cheerleader to pull for you and encourage you and believe in you, which is really helpful during those times when you don’t believe in yourself.  You can play the game of life alone, and there is certainly nothing wrong with going at it alone.  But I have found it extremely helpful knowing that when it feels like the whole world is against me, I have at least one person that I can count on to be in my corner.  That’s how marriage can be sacramental as a receiver from the marriage.

        It can also be sacramental when we give to our marriage.  When I realize that love is more a choice than a feeling, then I can more consistently choose to be loving instead of waiting to feel loving.  In other words, I can live my life more from my principles and values than from my moods and temperaments.  Living from my commitments helps me to become the person I aspire to be.

        Another lesson marriage can teach us is respect.  Respect comes from the French root “respicere,” which means “to look at.”  To respect someone is to see them as they really are.  We can’t see our spouses as they really are when we are intoxicated by our endorphins during the honeymoon.  To use psycho-babble, what happens when we fall in love is projection.  We project onto our beloved our unfulfilled dreams, wishes, and expectations.  We don’t really see them; we see them as we wish they were.  But when the honeymoon ends and the marriage begins, we have the possibility of learning to respect our partner, to see them on their terms, to notice their uniqueness, to be aware of their rights, needs, and wishes, to let them be who they are separate from us. 

        As Martha Stewart would say, that’s is a good thing.  It’s good for our spiritual development because all of us are born narcissists.  The most narcissistic persons around are newborns.  They literally cannot distinguish their mothers as being distinct from them.  Their hunger is hers to satisfy.  Their discomfort is hers to soothe.  For the newborn, the whole world revolves around his or her needs and desires.  Fortunately, most of us outgrow our narcissism throughout our lives as we encounter our limits and the separateness of others.  Marriage can help us grow up in this way by teaching us to put another person first now and then and by causing us to be aware of how our wants, decisions, and actions may affect someone else.  Again, you don’t have to be married to learn this, but it has been my experience that nothing teaches you where you end and another begins as consistently as living day in and day out with another person to whom you are committed.

        I love the Gibran reading we read earlier and I often recommend it to couples when planning wedding ceremonies because he expresses much more poetically than I this respect between partners.

        Stand together yet not too near together:

                For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

        And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.  

                But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

        And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.


Some couples don’t let the winds of the heavens dance between them.  Their idea of marriage is that two become one.  When one feels sad, the other feels sad.  When one thinks in black and white terms, the other thinks in black and white.  When one votes Republican, the other votes Republican.  When one eats strawberry ice cream, the other eats strawberry ice cream.  You’ve known couples like that, haven’t you?  Their individual personalities merge into one.  Or to be more accurate, the more submissive spouse accommodates to the more dominant spouse, but each one is dependent upon the other because neither could exist alone.  Again, love is primarily a choice.  Mature people don’t get married because they have to; they get married because they choose to.  They could exist separately alone, but they choose to share their lives because they find that the journey is more fun when they travel together. 

        A healthy marriage is like a base camp.  Mountain climbers must have a good base camp if they want to ascend to the mountain tops.  The base camp has adequate provisions and shelter so that the mountain climbers may receive rest and nourishment before they venture forth again to the next summit.  A healthy marriage functions as a supportive base camp, where two people come for emotional rest and spiritual nourishment so that they may develop their unique personalities, gifts, and talents.  This is another way marriage can be a sacrament:  it can support our venturing forth in life as a unique person.

        Another lesson marriage can teach us is intimacy.  The Bible uses the word “know” to connote intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, as in “Adam knew Eve.”  That’s a descriptive way of talking about intimacy because intimacy is a kind of knowing.  To be intimate with someone is to be known in your entirety.  It’s being open with your innermost thoughts and feelings, being fully present, being free to be your true self with someone.  If you have ever been genuinely intimate with someone, you know how rare and how precious that is.

        You also know how scary that can be because to be intimate means to make yourself vulnerable.  It is exposing your inside to the outside.  Being intimate is fraught with risks.  When you expose your true self to another, you risk being misunderstood and misrepresented.  You risk being ridiculed, humiliated, and exploited.  You risk being abandoned and betrayed.  Given all the risks involved with being intimate, it’s amazing to me that anyone would dare take the leap of faith necessary to get married or live in a committed relationship with a companion.  When you consider the vulnerability required for intimacy, then it makes sense, doesn’t it, that all of us build up such elaborate defenses in order to keep others at a safe distance, sometimes even our spouse, maybe especially our spouse, because no one can cut us any deeper that the person who knows us best and whom we trust the most.  As a therapist, some of the most hurtful things I have ever heard people say to each other have been spoken between husbands and wives. 

        So intimacy is a dangerous proposition and marriage, the most intimate relationship, can be a dangerous partnership.  But when partners can create a relationship of safety and trust, then it becomes possible to experience intimacy.  One of the ways of creating this kind of safe environment is by practicing forgiveness – forgiveness of your partner and forgiveness of yourself – because if you dare to be in a loving relationship, you will be disappointed and you will disappoint, you will be hurt by your spouse and you will hurt your spouse, you will be betrayed by your spouse and you will betray your spouse.  This is unavoidable when you take the risk to love another.  The only way to avoid it is to avoid love.  So this is yet another way that marriage can be a sacrament.  Marriage can teach us how to give and receive forgiveness, and marriage can teach us how to be intimate.  And I have to say that there are few experiences in life that are more rewarding and fulfilling than being known and loved at the same time.  Under those conditions, our lives can be made more sacred and we can become more human.

                                                                                Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones