The most riveting, wise, and helpful statement I have heard in recent years was shared by Ifeyinwa Awagu of Lagos, Nigeria, in a short video prepared for the 2014 Vatican Humanum Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman:
The couple is the locus, it’s a starting point, but it’s a ripple . . . Whatever I do in my marriage, the circle keeps increasing, keeps widening, until it covers the whole world. Marriage is beyond us. It’s about the society. It is your own project for the world.
Ify’s statement is pure gold, displaying immense truth and gravitas. To illustrate why, I begin with this example from my own life.
While my wife and I were still divorced, our younger son, Chris, would occasionally spend the weekend at the home of his middle school friend, Ray. When he arrived back home, he wouldn’t say anything in particular, but I could read his body language and perceive what was left unsaid. I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that Chris really liked spending time at Ray’s house, and the reason was clear: he loved their family life.
All I had to do was look into Chris’s eyes to see that he wished he had a family like theirs—a family with a gregarious, big-hearted, and affectionate Mom and Dad who clearly loved each other. I knew that this was precisely what I had deprived Chris and his brother of.
It was this very loving marriage that first caused me to wonder if I had made a huge mistake in divorcing my wife and breaking our family apart. And after each of Chris’s subsequent visits with Ray’s family, I became more convinced of my grave error. I knew that I needed to repair what I had broken. Yet Chris never made a single direct statement about this. He never said why he enjoyed spending time with their family or explicitly compared it with ours. Although I don’t know if he could have articulated it if he had tried, I received the message loud and clear. Eventually, I realized that I had no choice but to find a way to bring our family back together.
Meanwhile, Ray’s family simply carried on life as usual. They had never made an attempt to address our family situation; they just simply lived their lives as faithful Catholics and as faithful loving spouses to each other. They had never spoken a word of judgment, encouragement, or advice to me, and I had never once said a word to them about my broken marriage. In fact, at that stage we barely knew each other except to say “Hi” at our sons’ football games. Our lives touched only through our sons, yet that was enough.
This family had no idea how much good they were doing for me and my broken family just by the way they were living their lives. Somehow, their Catholic faith, their joy, their love, and their faithfulness overflowed and cascaded into my life via my son.
Were it not for this family, I’m not sure I would ever have had that first thought implanted in my mind about bringing our family back together. Although I was completely irreligious at the time, it seems to me that this was God’s gentle way of getting me to see that I had erred and needed to do something about it. God didn’t send somebody to club me over the head or rebuke me. Instead, He brought me into indirect contact—into the distant outer orbit—of a couple whose lives deeply, quietly touched mine. I am one of the beneficiaries of the ripples emanating out from their loving marriage.
When I finally had lunch with Ray’s parents a few years later and thanked them for what they had done, they were completely taken by surprise. They had no inkling of the important role they had played in our lives.
Yet the ripples of their faithful marriage continue to expand. Not only have my wife and I been back together for nearly six years, I also returned to full communion with the Catholic Church after a nearly twenty-year absence.
None of us can truly gauge the impact of our lives on others. Yet, even without your knowing it, the witness displayed by your faithful marriage might be the lighthouse that guides and helps others to hold their marriage and family together. You could be saving a family from the destructive influence of the world. You could be leading someone to the threshold of faith, and you may never even hear about it.
Your Marriage: Ground Zero for Astounding Good
You probably have no clue of the enormous good you do by cherishing your marriage, your spouse, and your family, and by simply living your life as a faithful Christian. Your personal relationship and commitment to Christ reverberates all around you, sending out ripples that affect the lives of others in unseen and unexpected ways.
This kind of impact is extremely personal and therefore difficult to quantify or measure. Yet legitimate social science seems to bear out the point I am making. As Kay Hymowitz has observed, children “have a better chance at thriving when their own father lives with them and their mother throughout their childhood—and for boys, this is especially the case.” She continues:
A highly publicized recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project comparing social mobility by region found that areas with high proportions of single-parent families have less mobility—including for kids whose parents are married. The reverse also held: areas with a high proportion of married-couple families improve the lot of all children. In fact, a community’s dominant family structure was the strongest predictor of mobility—bigger than race or education levels. This research suggests that having plenty of married fathers around creates cultural capital that helps every member of the Little League team. [emphasis mine]
In miraculous manner, the blessings and benefit of intact families spills out of their homes and into surrounding households. I’m not a social scientist, but history, observation, and common sense all support Ify Awagu’s statement: “Whatever I do in my marriage, the circle keeps increasing, keeps widening, until it covers the whole world.”
Upholding the Dignity of Your Spouse
Marriage is bigger and more important than either husband or wife alone. Perhaps that more easily resonates as true for couples with kids, but it is just as true whether children are present or not. While marriage has been under attack throughout human history, beginning in the Garden of Eden, in recent decades it has suffered catastrophic blows thanks to the ongoing sexual revolution, a revolution that has produced countless casualties.
Through my own marriage—with all the mistakes and detours—my wife and I have created something that is irrevocable and unmovable. What we began at the altar in 1985 in front of our families, guests, and God can’t be undone. Two became one, and an entirely new entity came to being in the universe. Not a metaphoric creation, but a reality. A wonderful, utterly unique new alloy was forged. It can be ignored or abused, but those choices don’t undo the mandate that fell into our laps that hot July afternoon nearly thirty-two years ago. When my time on this planet has reached its end, my marriage will have been the single most important contribution I will have made.
There is never a good reason not to uphold your spouse’s dignity—in front of the kids, in front of friends and family, in private conversations with your spouse, and even in your own mind where nobody else can see or hear. Belittling, cold-shouldering, name-calling, and tearing down or undermining your spouse’s dignity in any way is always destructive and never helpful, demonstrating an absence of unconditional love. Even negative humor is far from harmless. It’s not funny; it’s a visceral personal attack on your spouse’s dignity.
In my marriage, we’ve had to deal with my same-sex attraction, family histories of addictive behavior, financial difficulties, major health issues, and much more. Sadly, a combination of those things once led to our separation and divorce, for which I take full responsibility. But, in the end, good has outweighed bad, and human dignity and love have slowly and steadily triumphed over animosity and isolation.
How do you heal a relationship that self-destructed, which had lost its moorings for more than a decade? I have no easy answer, but I do know that the first step is this: you must choose to recognize the importance and irrevocability of your covenanted relationship and to uphold the dignity of your spouse and your relationship every day, no matter what, repenting when necessary.
Since reconciling (and that’s too weak a term—it has really been a complete change of heart and a hard-fought renewal of our minds), we have continued to face both big and small challenges, one after another. Rather than allowing them to tear us apart or let our relationship fray at the edges, to give up or to say “this is too hard for me,” my wife has upheld my dignity as husband and father, and I have upheld hers as wife and mother.
My wife’s love for me, especially during the darkest times when I’ve been at my most weak and vulnerable, has been a direct conduit of God’s love to me. In fact, the greater the personal challenges I have faced, the more she has honored me with dignity and respect. There is a miraculous, inverse relationship between the weight of difficulties and weaknesses present and the degree of dignity accorded. It’s counterintuitive. It’s the opposite of the way things work in the world, but it’s a reflection of God’s unconditional love. Upholding each other’s dignity allows grace to flow into and lift our marriage day after challenging day.
For every objection or fear, worry, regret, or apprehension I can come up with, I’ve taught myself this two-word response: “So what?” Our marriage is more important than any reservation I encounter.
– I’m unhappy. So what?
– I’m same-sex attracted. So what?
– I’m disappointed. So what?
– We’re having financial difficulties. So what?
– We’ve become incompatible. So what?
– We’ve gotten older and gained weight. So what?
– My spouse has developed bad habits. So what?
– I didn’t bargain for these medical or psychological problems. So what?
– I’ve met someone I like better. So what?
Here’s what I say: “I can handle that, and I do so with pleasure. We can address and overcome these problems. We’ll navigate difficult waters together, even if it falls upon me to do all the paddling and steering while plugging all the newly sprung holes in the hull.”
Instead of fretting or wistfully daydreaming about something that might have been better, realize this: there is no better option, because you have no greater, more important mission.
If it weren’t for the presence of dark times, I don’t think godly, unconditional love and dignity would have ever had a chance to take root and grow between my wife and me. Personal experience has taught me that the Church truly is a field hospital within our own home. That makes sense, because the domestic church is right up on the front lines where battles can be treacherous, and where wounds, both old and newly inflicted, can often present themselves. If willing, spouses can serve as medics. The very best medics.
Don’t be caught by surprise, don’t despair, don’t give up, and don’t be afraid. Instead, resolve with all your might to hang on to your life’s greatest mission and treasure. Even if it feels like a daily burden, it remains a pearl of great price. Ify is right: “Marriage is beyond us. It’s about the society. It is your own project for the world.”
Ify first spoke these words in Lagos, Nigeria: “Whatever I do in my marriage, the circle keeps increasing, keeps widening, until it covers the whole world.” I first heard her words in Rome, Italy, and they have continued to have enormous influence on me and my family here in the United States. I owe a debt of gratitude not only to Ray’s parents, whom I now count as friends, but to Ify and her husband, Chidi. We have never met, but their marriage has touched my life in a profound way.
Marriage is the big project that I have chosen for myself and it’s the big mission that I’ve been charged with. We have solemnly created our marriage, God has solemnly blessed it, and now we must solemnly live it. It is our project for the world.