Like all the most vital things in life, from deciding the fate of the nation in an election to having a child, marriage is an amateur sport. It is designed by God to be done by people who have, by definition, never done it before and who have very little idea of what they are getting themselves into.
With voting, at least, you can learn from the last turkey you voted for and vote for somebody different in four years. With kids, you can build up a fund of experience to draw on as you have more children.
But with marriage, you have no previous experience to draw on, except for what you learned from a) your parents and b) your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend.
Of these two sources, your parents play the incomparably greater role, and it’s good to know that from the get-go, because otherwise you wind up responding to your spouse as an unconscious response to your parents.
What I mean is this: “Normal,” for most of us, is not “what is statistically normal for Americans or homo sapiens as a whole.” “Normal” is whatever we grew up with. Whether it’s putting on the toilet paper roll with the flap in the front, a home full of affectionate hugging and chit chat, or downing an entire fifth of scotch before noon, we tend to look at the way life is done in our family of origin as normal even if we know that it’s only normal for us.
Family life, the sequel
Consequently, we can be deeply pre-programmed to expect from our prospective spouse (and from ourselves) a repeat of history.
If we come from a family battling alcoholism, we can either find it easy to drink and excuse excessive drinking in our fiancé or we can, conversely, over-react when our beloved sips a single beer as though she is on the road to addiction.
Less seriously (and far more commonly), we can enter into a relationship with a whole host of unspoken contracts which neither you nor your spouse suspect exist until four Sundays go past and you find your husband quietly fuming and (only after laborious interrogation) you discover that the custom on Sundays was supposed to be the Sacred Game of Checkers which you somehow were unaware of but which Mom always played him every Sunday afternoon.
The point is this: To a certain extent, we tend to assume the family we are creating with our marriage will be like the family we came from.
Charting a new path
The good news is that this can be so, but does not need to be. Although we all bear the impress of our family of origin (and will undoubtedly carry over some of its good traits), we also discover (and this is a huge relief) that history is not destiny.
There inevitably comes a day when you discover your spouse is really quite different, not only from you, but from what you expected based on your family history. That’s good news, because it means that you and your spouse are now embarked on the project of creating a two-part invention like a couple of jazz musicians. You can learn. You can discover what the Church’s teachings and wise counselors have to say about how you can do things differently so as to avoid the mistakes, as well as profit from the successes, of both your families.
Where to start?
You just took the first step. Next time you interact with a prospective date or significant other, stop and ask yourself how much you are letting your past drive your present. You may well be surprised at the answer.