The Phantom Marriage Vow: A guest post on annulments by Abigail Tardiff

In today’s post, my sister, Abigail Tardiff, responds to Deacon Jim Russell’s recent article Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness” in Crisis Magazine.

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“I Meant My Vows Even If He Didn’t”

I have a friend who was divorced and remarried. She understood that she couldn’t receive communion in such a state, and it was tearing her apart. At the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her present husband (or live celibately with him).

I suggested she apply for an annulment of her first marriage, because I had reason to think there were strong grounds for establishing a defect in his consent. She said, “Oh no, I could never get an annulment. It would be dishonest, because even if he didn’t mean his vows, I meant mine.”

The Phantom Extra Marriage Vow

I have run into this misunderstanding again and again. People seem to think that when you get married, you make two vows: the first is your marriage vow, which requires consent from both of you. But the second is a promise just to God and to yourself to remain faithful to this person. The annulment declares the first vow void, but the second is irrevocable.

This is nonsense. There is only one marriage vow. If the Church declares that you are not married, then you are not required to remain faithful, for the simple reason that there is nothing to remain faithful to. If your spouse did not actually intend marriage, then you may have thought you were making a vow—but you weren’t. If no marriage took place, then no vow took place.

There is no such thing as a unilateral marriage vow. You don’t marry him and then also promise to remain faithful to him; your faithfulness to him is the putting into practice of your marriage vow. If your marriage never existed, then neither did your promise to remain faithful.

Simony: Charging Extra

Why is this so important? First, because of all the bruised reeds out there who are longing to get back to the Church, like my friend. Imposing extra requirements on someone—duties that Christ and His Church never demanded of us—is a kind of simony. (Simony, the selling of something holy, is named after Simon Magus in the book of Acts, who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles Peter and John.)

Well, buying something holy is pretty bad, but selling it is even worse. If you tell someone that in order to be a virtuous Catholic, he should not marry even when the Church tells him he is free to marry—then you’re charging him (in heroic sacrifice, not in money) for something that the Church has made free.

Faithfulness without Marriage?

Second, the idea that marriage entails two individual vows of faithfulness, essentially unrelated to each other, eats away at the theology of marriage. Faithfulness to your spouse is not a rule stuck onto marriage from the outside; it flows from the very nature of marriage, which is the becoming one of two who were previously separate. The very reason unfaithfulness is such a terrible sin is that it attacks that oneness of the spouses. But if that oneness does not exist, it cannot be attacked. Without a spouse, there is no one to remain spousally faithful to.

Faithfulness to My Own Consent?

In a recent article for Crisis Magazine titled “Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness,” Deacon Jim Russell makes some beautiful points about annulment. He says no one should ever be pressured to seek an annulment, and he points out that marriage tribunals are required by canon law to encourage the spouses to be reconciled, and to seek convalidation if there is a defect in their consent.

But he also writes, “when two people enter into a covenant, but only one ‘means it,’ the one who ‘means it’ has ipso facto remained faithful not only to his or her own words and will, but also faithful to the covenant itself.” He says it’s heroically virtuous to remain faithful to your own “irrevocably expressed consent.”

There it is again, that phantom second marriage vow: faithfulness not only to your spouse, but also to your own consent. Consent to what? What else but marriage? But if the Church declares a union null, there’s no marriage to consent to.

A One-Sided Covenant?

Deacon Jim says it’s heroically virtuous, in a case where your spouse did not mean his vows, to remain faithful nevertheless to a “covenant” that he admits is not a “two-sided covenant.” Again, this is nonsense. Marriage does not consist of two covenants, one two-sided and one one-sided, so that when the two-sided covenant is declared null, the one-sided one remains. Marriage is a two-sided covenant or nothing at all. Let us defend the indissolubility and sacredness of marriage, and support those who are divorced, without tying up burdens that are heavier than the ones our Faith already asks us to carry.

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.

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Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?

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Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

Guest post: I was the perfect Catholic wife. It didn’t fix my abusive marriage.

[ADMIN: Today’s post is by a friend who wants to remain anonymous. I am grateful to her and to so many survivors of abuse who want to help protect others who are suffering and who feel so alone.]

“The first affairs were only about sex,” he said. “It was the last one, where he thought he was in love, that really caused him trouble.”
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The man who said these words to me had been a confidant of my late husband. I had reached out to a number of his friends after my husband’s death to better understand what had happened to us, but I was stonewalled, and on this day I didn’t expect to learn what I did. I knew there was one affair, although I was still reeling from finding the hotel receipts as I tended his affairs (pardon the pun). He had admitted that his relationship with a coworker was “too close,” but denied, for years, repeatedly, that any sex had happened.
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Things I found in my house indicated otherwise. This man I married in a Catholic Church 25 years earlier, who told me early in our marriage that he simply could not tolerate it if I ever broke our vows, who went to Mass and presented himself publicly as a good Catholic husband and father, was a serial adulterer.
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An online support group for victims of adultery proposes that all adultery is abuse, because it requires lies, diversion of time, energy, funds, and devotion, and it exposes innocent spouses to potentially deadly diseases without their knowledge. In reading the shared stories, I saw wide patterns of abuse – ones that were more familiar to me than I had previously been brave enough to admit to myself.
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I was a Catholic wife, you see – a good one, one with steely determination to stay married no matter what. I never missed Mass, prayed for my husband every day . . . I was pleasant, cooperative and loving to him, supportive of his career and never demanding or critical. I started buying “How to have a good Christian marriage” books before the ink was dry on our wedding license. If there was a “How to be a good wife” article, I had read it and tried to followed it. We had been through terrible times including him moving away for an extended time, but I thought we had weathered the storm. It wasn’t until I admitted to myself – in the surreal safety of new circumstances – that I had suffered abuse for years.
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I am safe because I am writing anonymously and because my abusive marriage is unequivocally over, but I remember what life was like before. I was never physically beaten, although he said I deserved it. He told me that he (who was trained in hand to hand combat) could snap my neck in a second. The fact that he was holding my head in a wrestling lock at the time, and I saw nothing odd in that interaction, is eerily telling of how accustomed to abuse I was. There was rage and verbal abuse, rage driving, manipulation, and threats to abandon or divorce me. When I learned of the serial adultery, I had to reprocess twenty-five years of memories, realizing I was being lied to and betrayed the whole time.
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Why write about this? Because I believe that Catholic culture creates a dangerously optimistic expectation for marriage, encouraging people to strive and not give up, as if their effort can make any marriage thrive. For many many people, that is the best advice; but some of us live (or lived) in situations where covert abuse masked the hidden truth that one of the spouses in the marriage is too disordered (by sin, mental illness, addiction or other issues) to function in a Sacramental Union. Very often the faithful spouse suffers in isolation, feeling compelled to endure more abuse to be faithful to their marriage, family, Church.
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They need to hear that they aren’t alone, that they are loved and that they need to make hard decisions based on the situation they are actually living, not based on who they hope their spouse might turn into.
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Do you have to leave, once you recognize that your partner is incapable of being in a Sacramental marriage? I don’t think so, but I believe you are in for the discernment task of your life. There were many reasons why I never left – some of them reasonable and some of them (namely my hope and optimism) were horribly misguided and not reality based. I go from being really proud of myself for doing exactly what I vowed to do (literally until death did us part) to being very angry with myself for not being brave enough to see what was right in front of me.
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In some ways my now adult children benefitted from an intact family, but in other ways, my late husband’s negative influence on their adult personalities is much worse than I feared it might be.
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What can the Church do to help people in this situation?
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–Priests and deacons need to look for signs of adultery, abuse, mental illness and addictions when people come for counseling. A number of them missed huge red flags in our case.
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–Folks with long, loving marriages could be humbly thankful, rather than prideful, almost shaming other people who you assume “give up so easily.” You might be surprised how much it hurts the widowed and abandoned to hear bragging about how long you have been married.
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–Create safe places where your friends can share confidences about adultery. There is a lot of victim-blaming. Although forgiveness is a good goal, pressuring people to offer it up immediately allows adulterers to avoid the natural immediate consequences of their sin, and it doesn’t help real healing; and it burdens the victim more than it heals the situation.
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–If you have any influence at all in media, Catholic or otherwise, please (and I beg you from the deepest depths of my broken heart) never ever again publish anything akin to “How to Affair-Proof your Marriage.” In reality, even the very best most faithful and loving person cannot remove from their spouse the free will that God gave them. You cannot control if your spouse breaks their vows. Only they control that. Articles like these imply that we have control that we simply don’t have. I know that is frightening, and I’m sorry for that, but it’s true.
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–When people show you repeatedly who they are, believe them. The biggest long term mistake I made was believing if he fully understood how much he hurt me, then he would stop. We often think if people have the right data, they will make the right decisions. I wrote him letter after letter after letter, begging him to treat me with a baseline level of decency that he would not violate, and he simply refused.
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So I gave my whole heart to a man who abused me, lied, cheated and manipulated me, and then he died and left me to finish raising our children.
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Did I despair? Am I mad at God and resent the years I gave? No. God walked with me and guided me and helped me heal, and I have chosen to live the best life I can. In the depths, I felt great reassurance that God would bless my faithfulness. I remember saying “I wonder if God will restore my marriage or I will live as a contented single or if I will find love again.” Oddly enough, I actually received all three things (with the caveat that my “restored” marriage was lived without all the details I later learned, so it was not properly informed).
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How could I ever trust again? I decided that a willingness to trust was not something I would let my abusive husband take from me.
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For the suffering, please know that God hasn’t abandoned you, but ask Him His will and try to not be afraid of His answer. He might tell you to flee.
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Protect yourself. Protect your children. I know the horror of realizing the one you trusted the very most is your greatest danger. Be strong even when you live awful moments when people blame you. Know that what you lived scares them, because they want to feel immune from it, and distancing themselves from you helps that process. Know your Father in Heaven treasures you and you can still be a good Catholic despite life not turning out as you had hoped.

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ADMIN NOTE: Here are some resources that might be helpful to you if you think you may be in an abusive marriage.  Not all abuse is physical. Please do not assume it’s “not really abuse” if it’s not physical.
When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women. An overview from the USCCB on the Church’s teaching about abuse within marriage, with some resources for what to do next.

What is domestic violence?

Catholic role models who escaped abusive marriages: Rose Hawthorne, founder of the hospice movement; Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House; St. Margaret of Cortona.

“Has he really changed?” (source unknown)

Image at top by Crosa via Flickr (Creative Commons)