Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Contractual Obligation II

Okay, I think the first thing that probably women need to keep in mind when they read Theology of the Body, whether in the original or in the popular versions, is that what John Paul II was envisioning was human sexuality as it was “in the beginning.” What did marriage and sex look like before the Fall? It’s a very illuminating approach, but when you go to apply it, you have to keep in mind that what you’re trying to accomplish is the closest possible approximation to the way that things were before concupiscence entered the scene. No one, even in the best of all marriages between two Saints, is going to get all the way there. No one starts out anywhere near there.

It’s kind of like St. Thomas Aquinas et al telling people that the proper interior order of the soul involves the total subjugation of all passions and appetites to Reason. Everyone knows that that’s how it’s supposed to be, but if you try it you quickly find that it’s a project that takes a lifetime. Sure, you can get much closer than people usually are, but it takes a tremendous amount of work. Theology of the Body is the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, a lot of folks seem to fall into the mistake of thinking that if they take the Christopher West marriage prep course, and go on a few couple’s retreats, they’re going to get something that looks pretty close to what JPII is talking about. If this is your expectation, disappointment is inevitable – and it’s a disappointment that I’ve seen amongst a lot of really committed Catholics, especially Catholic women.

When Eden cannot be reclaimed, we tend to blame the other spouse – a familiar pattern to those who’ve read the Genesis narrative. If you talk to women, the problem is always with the man. If you talk to men, the problem is always with the woman. Catch 22.

The difficulty arises, I think, from the fact that when people hear about someone else’s responsibilities towards themselves, they immediately think of it as an entitlement. Men did this to women for years: they read the first Letter to the Corinthians, turned to their wives and said, “You see that, woman? St. Paul says you gotta obey me. I have a right to be obeyed.” But St. Paul did not say that men were entitled to their wives’ obedience; he said that women should obey their husbands. These are two very different statements. Also, the men tended to gloss over the part that said they had to love their wives like Christ had loved the Church. Women have now picked up on that part, and are saying to their men, “See, see what is says there? I’m entitled to have you treat me like Christ treated the Church.” Again, not what Paul said.

The key is to concentrate on making sure that you are truly giving your own gift sincerely. A gift that is given on the condition of reciprocation is not a true gift, it’s a commodity exchange. If there’s any sort of contractual obligation, explicit or implied or even just understood within one’s own mind, then the gift loses its gift-likeness. The economy of gifts follows a logic that seems like foolishness: “Give and there will be gifts for you, poured out without measure.” You can never see where those gifts are going to come from, and there has to be a real act of faith, where you throw your gift out into the darkness without any idea of how it is going to come back to you. This works in the realm of economics – if you are generous, your generosity will be mysteriously repaid – and it also works in the realm of sexuality. But you have to somehow get over the temptation (and a mighty strong temptation it is) to count the cost and tally up the revenues.

How do you do this? You have to begin by focusing on taking joy and pleasure in giving your gift to the other person. Ideally, what you’re aiming for is to take greater pleasure in the other person’s sexual climax than in your own, and to want to be satisfied yourself primarily so that the other person can have the joy of having satisfied you. Out of the gate, that might sound impossible, but it really isn’t. All you have to do is decide clearly that that’s your objective, and sink all of the energy that you would otherwise sink into fighting with your spouse to make sure that you secure your piece of the marital pie into that goal. I think any reasonably committed person could probably achieve this in under three years, which, in the scope of a marriage, is peanuts.

So that’s the impossibly demanding marching orders for the sexual via dolorosa; but here’s the carrot: as you do this, your entire way of seeing your marriage will begin to change. A lot of the time women set up conditions wherein it is functionally impossible for them to receive or perceive their spouse’s love and affection. They have a set of particular “needs” which they feel are not being fulfilled, and they fixate myopically on those things. Often the husband really is trying to show genuine affection, but it is overlooked, dismissed, or even belittled because it is not in the correct form. As soon as the we stop worrying about being entitled, it becomes possible to notice those things, to enjoy them, and, by enjoying them, to encourage them. A man will find it much easier to show affection to his wife if he sees that his efforts are bringing her joy; if he sees that she sees his efforts as paltry, insipid, or unworthy, he’ll tend to clam up and stop trying out of a sense of insecurity.

Also, if a woman is constantly, joyfully giving herself to her husband, the husband will come to feel a greater affection for her. This is just natural. As his affection grows, it will express itself naturally in a much larger number of ways, and it will feel more authentic – because it is more authentic.

Finally, once enough of the hostilities have cleared, and love and affection are being freely exchanged in whatever ways come most naturally to each of the spouses, it’s not hard at all to get affection in the form that you want. All you have to do is wait for an opportune moment and say, “My dear love, do you remember how you used to give me footrubs when we were courting? Those were amazing footrubs. I don’t suppose that I could get one now?” When a man responds to such a request, it doesn’t feel like he’s doing it out of a sense of resentment and obligation, and it doesn’t feel onerous to have to ask for what you need.

As a final note, let’s say that you do all of these things, and you do them for decades (and if you’ve got a particularly tough nut of a husband, or a particularly stubborn inner child that keeps throwing temper tantrums, it might take decades), and your husband passes away, and the reciprocation never comes? If what you’re doing is genuinely taking joy in being a gift, then it makes no difference. The reciprocation is icing on the cake. The real prize is the joy of pouring out love, and the attainment of self-mastery. Even your husband never does build you that dream swing in the backyard, you will gain freedom from the suffering of disappointment and resentment, and your reward will be great in Heaven :)


  1. Been married for close to 30 years. It never gets easier, actually it gets more difficult in the sex department. A lot of times I truly envy celibate virgins. They don't have to learn to figure out a woman.

  2. What is the Magesterial teaching on non-penetrative sex? Are spouses permitted to engage in what I have heard coyly referred to as 'creative cuddling', especially in situations where the woman never achieves orgasm during penetrative sex? I daren't believe that she is called to a life of frustration in this very critical component of the married life. Does the (real and genuine) boost such activity has for marital harmony allow for a certain creativity?

  3. You have touched upon something very pervasive on this continent - this feeling of entitlement; Catholics, and Catholic women, far from being exempt from it, exhibit it all too often, really all too often.

    The roots would be worth investigating. Among other things (such as a certain consumer mentality, and what you mentioned - confusing the description of the ideal with something that is "due"), I am inclined to see in this also the effects of an economic system that coerces the family - and thus asks especially from the man - to become an "indentured servant" to wage earning, in his function of being "the provider". Not that being providing has anything wrong with it, as such - it is a natural thing, to do things for those whom you love.

    But man - and woman - are much more than that. Caritas in veritate vs the brute economic forces; the power/burden of money over everyday life.


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