You Always Marry the Wrong Person

I’m really enjoying Matt Anderson’s email newsletter The Path Before Us. If you like ethics, philosophy, and Christian theology, then you’ll probably like it as well. Go sign up here.

Recently he’s been experimenting with the “Advice Column” format. He is a philosopher of ethics after all, and an advice column is fertile ground for considering questions of ethics in relation to concrete examples. I say “experimenting” because he’s not interested in writing a full-fledged advice column. He truly is more interested in the philosophical and theological underpinnings that shape our approach to the ethical dilemmas of everyday life.

At the end of each letter he includes a quotation of some kind. Mostly these come from Stanley Hauerwas, Karl Barth, Oliver O’Donovan, and G. K. Chesterton. If you know anything about Matt, then it’s no surprise that these four figures make a regular appearance.

At the end of the most recent issue on the question of bad marriages, he gives this quotation from Hauerwas:

“Moreover, that is why I always taught ‘Hauerwas’s Law’ to my classes in marriage and the family at Notre Dame: ‘You always marry the wrong person.’ Like any good law it is, of course, reversible. You also always marry the right person. My law was not intended to instill in students a cynical view of marriage, but rather to help them see that the church rightly understands that we no more know the person we marry than we know ourselves. However, that we lack such knowledge in no way renders marriage problematic, at least not marriage between Christians; for to be married as Christians is possible because we understand that we are members of a community more determinative than marriage.” – Stanley Hauerwas

As far as marriage advice goes, I don’t think you can do better than this paragraph from Hauerwas. The idea that there is no such thing as a “soul mate” was one of the most liberating realizations I had as a young college student. Oddly enough, I have Plato to thank for that: his dialogue Symposium includes a speech by Aristophanes who tells a comical (and horrifying!) tale of what having a soul mate would entail–it includes ball-like people smashed together rolling around, suddenly split apart by lightening bolts from Zeus, etc. etc.

Despite having grown up in the Christian faith, I don’t recall anyone communicating to me the Christian vision of marriage like the one Hauerwas argues for. The more theology I read, the more I’m convinced that Hauerwas is right. Marriage is preparation for heaven, and it entails a process of sanctification akin to monastic asceticism. Learning to deny our inordinate desires and to seek the good of another requires a lifetime of work. It’s work that must be accomplished before stepping foot in paradise–the place where our individual wills will be aligned with God’s will, untainted by pride and selfish desires.

I know this vision of marriage doesn’t sound romantic in the usual sense of the word. But in reality, it holds the most romantic potential for married life–a life that eventually leads both persons to communion with God, the end and source of every desire. In a word, marriage can lead to happiness.