By Matt Boettger (redaction of original column published on February 2009 in the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center Sunday Bulletin and Matt's personal blog)
Over the course of nearly eight years of campus ministry, I have begun to see a couple common threads with relationships deemed “unhealthy” or “complicated." The first common thread may be be expressed as the complication of being unevenly yoked (cf. 2 Cor. 6.14-16), and the second thread revolves around an exaggerated fear of “hurting the other.” I would like to address the unevenly yoked complication first.
I began dating a non-Catholic girl during my first year of seminary at an evangelical college. While the relationship was great in a number of ways, it also was very difficult as we obviously did not see eye-to-eye regarding each other’s beliefs. My awakening to the gravity of this disagreement came from my father. Speaking to him one day about my relationship he said, “Son, marriage is a difficult vocation as it is. If you see your relationship worth the additional level of difficulty due to your conflicting beliefs then go for it. However, just remember that this will in fact be an additional cross to bear.” From that moment on I took a very different approach to courtship. I knew that my Catholic faith was the center of my life, and I deemed it necessary that I find someone who shared that intense love for the Catholic Church that I had.
St. Paul calls each of us to a similar discernment as we approach relationships (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-16). A positive way to express St. Paul’s desire for us not to be unevenly yoked is to say that we ought to strive to find someone who shares the same spiritual foundation we have. While it is important to find someone whom we enjoy and have fun with, such a reality may fair poorly in times of trial when unsupported by a firmer and deeper common faith. I want to be clear that I am not saying that unevenly yoked relationships are doomed to failure, but rather that such relationships offer unique hardships that evenly yoked ones do not.
St. Paul offers us a reason for this warning that I find quite profound, and ironically the reason is presented in his brief treatment of celibacy. In 1 Cor. 7:32-38, the apostle expresses his concern for those who choose the married life. The chief concern is that those who marry may have increased anxiety over the fact that they must split their time between God and family. The celibate person, on the other hand, has the opportunity to live a deeper “inner integrity” since he (or she) does not have to live dividedly. This is why St. Paul appeals to the goodness of celibacy over marriage. He does so NOT because he believes marriage is bad, but because he personally sees a temptation in marriage to become divided in heart. Ultimately, Paul leaves it up to the individual to discern their proper gift from God whether that be the vocation of marriage or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom.
If it is true that marriage lends itself to the danger of a “divided heart” then we must do what we can to prevent such an occasion of pain. I have encountered many relationships both married and unmarried alike who suffer from wounds caused by this divided heart. Often times, one or both feel as if they have compromised their own integrity so as to keep peace in the relationship. Unfortunately, such actions can lead to spite, regret and even resentment which further hurts the relationship. However, if we seek another who shares our same Catholic foundation, we quickly bridge the gap between God and the spouse, offering the opportunity for a marriage that nearly shares the great inner integrity inherent to celibacy. I recognize that this column does not address those who have already married into such a relationship stated above. Unfortunately, such a topic must be saved for a later time.
The second common thread deals with the phrase I hear from students “stuck” in an unhealthy relationship. When pressed why they continue the relationship, they often say, “I can’t break up with him/her because I don’t want to hurt him/her.” I have to admit that I have often said the exact same thing. I have come to suspect that behind the altruistic phrase is actually a sense of profound guilt and shame. Upon further inquiry I have discovered that nearly everyone who had shared such a sentiment also had been living a physical relationship beyond that of their own personal convictions about the relationship. In other words, their bodies were writing checks their person was not willing to cash. Behind the altruistic desire not to hurt the other in the relationship was a deep seated guilt based on the truth that they had been expressing ideas through their body (sexually) that they themselves were not ready to commit to personally. Breaking up with the other would only reveal the duplicity presented between their personal and physical commitment. This is what I have commonly seen behind the whole exaggerated emphasis on the fear of hurting the other.
Of course, there are those who simply have a healthy fear of hurting the other that increases to paralyzing implications. To those who struggle with this fear, I offer a powerful quote from none other than C.S. Lewis: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable...The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of and perturbations of love is Hell” (The Four Loves).
The remedy to both these contemporary difficulties among students is quite simple. If we are convicted to the heart about our Catholic faith, we ought to strive to find someone who is also deeply convicted to the heart about their Catholic faith. In so doing, we create an atmosphere of external integration. Furthermore, if we desire a healthy relationship that is free from exaggerated fears then let us work to love more purely, to love in such way that our bodies speak the same language as our person. In so doing, we create an atmosphere of internal integration. May we all strive to live more authentic and integrated lives for we can do all things in Christ!