Loving the “stranger to whom you find yourself married”

July 17, 2013

On the heels of yesterday’s post about marriage, I read this post on Christianity Today‘s “Her.meneutics” blog from guest blogger Ashley Moore entitled “A Christian Case Against Early Marriage.” A few years ago, the same magazine published an article advocating early marriage, and as Moore points out, secular publications have also gotten in on the act.

In her popular article in The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior encourages young adults to view marriage, not as the capstone, but as the cornerstone of our lives—an event that will allow us to form with our spouses. Her idea, put simply: Get married and grow up together as you grow old together. A piece in Slate and one in Newsweek similarly argued that we shouldn’t wait until after we’ve “figured it all out” or “lived” before we tie the knot.

From my perspective, who could disagree with this, since none of us ever “has it all figured out”—least of all marriage? No couple, regardless of age or maturity, knows what they’re doing when they get married.

Moore doesn’t see it that way. She continues:

This line of thinking remains risky, presenting marriage as such a positive move for 20somethings when so many of them aren’t ready. Surrounded by proponents of young love and young marriage, I felt a pressure beyond my years to make a commitment, and I am so glad I didn’t give in to those expectations, having grown up and grown closer to God in the years since.

Moore is right when she says that we don’t need marriage to fulfill us. For that, we need Jesus. But being “ready” for marriage can hardly be a prerequisite for marriage, since none of us is!

I’m exaggerating. Obviously, couples can be more or less suited for one another, more or less mature, more or less realistic. But unless you go into marriage with a great deal of humility, it will humble you like nothing else.

She continues:

Sure, plenty of Christian couples marry young and go on to have strong, happy marriages. We can celebrate those well-matched young ones, whether they were especially mature or simply lucky to have found one another. But that doesn’t mean that young marriage should become the biblical model for the church, particularly when we can’t guarantee all will share their fate.

From Moore’s perspective, couples are either mature or lucky enough to find a partner with whom they are “well-matched.” I’m not saying that compatibility is irrelevant, but it’s not nearly as important as the online dating services—whose very names (match.com, eHarmony) exalt it—suggest. Sure, you and your partner may correlate nicely on 538 different character traits (or whatever) and still find the “Hauerwas Rule” (courtesy of Duke Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas) very much in play: “You always marry the wrong person.”

If that sounds too glib or cynical, here’s the “rule” in context:

Destructive marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is… learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.[†]

The point of the Hauerwas Rule is that there is no “right” person with whom marriage won’t, at times, be incredibly difficult. What we need far more than compatibility is self-giving Christian love.

Stanley Hauerwas in Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 38. The footnote in Keller’s book mistakenly refers to this article, which itself merely refers to the original Hauerwas piece.

5 Responses to “Loving the “stranger to whom you find yourself married””

  1. mike giddings Says:

    so have you figured out where the stanley hauerwas quote came from if not from the Christian Century article?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Sadly no! I know Hauerwas said it, though, because Hauerwas said he said it in an essay from a Hauerwas anthology I have in my office. It was in another essay on marriage.

      • mike giddings Says:

        Shucks. Thanks. I sent a note to Tim Keller so if he or someone on his team provides me with a citation I will pass it along.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Thanks a lot, Mike! Please do. It is a great quote. And I really do like to cite my sources properly!

      • brentwhite Says:

        It’s not like I won’t use that quote again sometime!


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