Do you know this “eat this, not that” series of books? The idea is to help you make good choices in food and drink to avoid hidden calories that will tank your health. Well, Rosie had the thought that we could do something similar with books for the Library Project*.
When you get married, you need to know a few things.
You need to know what marriage is, first of all! That’s tricky, because like most important concepts, one learns by living — in this case, ideally from growing up in a good, happy, fruitful, loving marriage — not any easy experience for many to come by. And then, it would be helpful to have the definition clearly stated, and even the best-intentioned books don’t do this.
I recently read the proofs of a book about marriage (the publisher was seeking a blurb from me) — about Catholic marriage — that did not mention that it is a sacrament! A whole book! No mention!
Even a book for non-Catholics needs to point out that marriage is a divinely instituted union between man and woman for a purpose greater than the two of them (see the first two chapters of Genesis), and that what God has so joined, man has the expectation of receiving His assistance for.
So don’t read those books.
You need some practical insight on how to become virtuous (hopefully, to continue to become virtuous, as virtue is not a project for marriage only). You need to know that people are different in how they express love and in how they feel inside, and that men are different from women, and vice versa. And often we need these books after the wedding, not having gotten the memo before.
Sometimes I see books that are about how to manipulate the other person, how to apply lessons learned from management experts, or how to get the most satisfaction from the other person. But marriage is a journey of sacrificial love, so in the end, those books aren’t going to help.
Don’t read those books.
You need wisdom, a commodity that is sorely lacking in today’s market, including in the marriage-advice category of the publishers’ offerings.
So I am going to give you a short list of wise books that I have found personally helpful and that have stood the test of time. They are good for marriage preparation, but they are also good for what I like to call “remote” preparation as well as for any marriage that could use a little remediation, as which of ours can’t?
To answer the question: What is Marriage?
I had often seen Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married, but had never read it. I guess I assumed it was a popularizing kind of book. Now that I’ve read it, I want to say that it’s excellent and by no means lightweight. Three to Get Married is basically the meat of Casti Connubii (On Chaste Marriage) presented in book form.
But it’s also very much a “theology of the body” or Christian anthropology — so much so that, as I was reading, I began to think that Saint John Paul II simply scooped up the important bits of this book and used them to work out his opus by that name. The key ideas to be found in John Paul’s works are already here (because they were already in Casti Connubii and thus, already in the long teachings of the Church, rooted in Scripture), but I would say, a bit easier to read!
Even so, if someone finds this tough going, it might help to begin on Chapter 18, The Dark Night of the Body, and read to the end, and then begin at the beginning. Or it might be a wonderful work of mercy for an older couple or two to host a reading group with those preparing for their wedding or recently married.
Did you know that the word matrimony means “making a mother”? I think that both the husband and wife would gain a lot from reading Pope John Paul’s Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Woman), as well as his exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World). Marriage is about making a family through the “unity of the two” as John Paul liked to call it.
On the reasons for not using contraception, read Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). I guarantee that any reader will be astonished to find that the teaching against contraception is not a capricious, arbitrary rule cooked up by some bitter old men, but simply emerges from the meaning of marriage itself. Anyone — not just Catholics — can follow the reasoning and come to the same conclusion.
I hope you appreciate just how many Vatican documents I want you to read!
Now, lots of marriage books are about just how to get along with each other. Once you know what marriage is, you need some practical wisdom on how to actually live together. I never really got that much help from any of the books out there except for these two really stellar ones:
The Temperament God Gave You. Many books make assumptions about how husband and wife will communicate and about what “meeting in the middle” or “meeting each other’s needs” might look like. But very, very few take into consideration a basic starting point, namely, each person’s temperament. Even a seemingly traditional sort of book like Father Lovasik’s Catholic Family Handbook assumes a lot about each spouse’s temperament, making it not that helpful if there is a significant deviation.
For instance, what if, far from being henpecked (common enough), the husband is so choleric that he just can’t let his wife do anything her own way? I feel that your usual book about marriage won’t even imagine this possibility. But if you have the tools to figure it out, namely, knowing that a certain kind of reaction goes along with a certain temperament, you can learn to live peaceably while striving to correct faults.
I actually think that this book is a good one to read long before you begin to date someone seriously. Knowing that people are not necessarily just like you in their reactions to things is huge — it really helps immeasurably to understand them — and to know if you are a good match, or perhaps why you are finding someone frustrating or opaque. Not that two particular temperaments can’t have a great marriage, but it’s good to know.
As I said to Suki, never in a million years would it have occurred to me that a person might prefer to approach a disagreement by retreating for a while to think about it. Before reading this book, I would have assumed that the person was acting with ill will.
The Five Love Languages. This book also really helps to understand yourself, which in turn helps you to understand what you are looking for from the other person. Where I think that the Temperament book is good well before marriage, I think this one might be good for afterwards, as well as in the marriage preparation phase.
People do have different ways of expressing love and affection — giving and receiving. After reading this book I don’t think it’s exhaustive, but you get the idea. I also think that it could make the point a bit more explicitly that you can’t change the “language” a person uses to express love, but you can accept the expression for how it’s intended. Sometimes this is actually the sacrifice God is asking us to make, and sometimes it’s the one that goes most against our own will.
We read it maybe 30 years into our (37-year-old) marriage, and I’d say that it did two things for us: First, it made it possible for us to simply say what we need to feel loved (“Please turn on the light on the porch for me if it gets dark and I’m not home yet” — me; and “Please say encouraging things to me at the end of the day” — him). But it also helped us to accept that the other is “saying” “I love you” in our own way, since that is always just going to continue as it has. It’s not that the person has to change completely — a little understanding goes such a long way!
For a nice vintage read on family life in general, as well as a chapter about very specific issues relating to the marriage act — but put in a respectful and loving way, very much in the context of the personhood of the two (and with no unsavory overtones so often found these days) — I recommend A Marriage Manual for Catholics, written by Catholic doctor and married man, William Lynch.
It’s only available used. It’s pretty old. But — if a couple is having technical problems, this is the book to go to. Just pay no attention to his diet advice, nor to the advice about breastfeeding, which is sadly typical of the time.
Instead, read Sheila Kippley’s Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing. Marriage is for making a family; having children is the goal of marriage. Having a child every year is not the norm if — IF — we shed our modern expectations of how taking care of an infant will go. This book explains how the natural act of nursing the baby will space the children for the vast majority of women. I consider this vital information for every engaged couple! Now, before you get yourself worked up, know that I have a host of nursing posts, so just go check those out, and also this one about how you might not end up with as many children as you feared, but children are good, and not to be feared! Remember: sometimes you just need a book about how things will probably go, not a book about each and every possibility.
When a friend asked me for a list of books to recommend to couples, I couldn’t help adding The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home, written by yours truly and David Clayton, with added charming illustrations by Deirdre Folley (you know, Deirdre). Why? Because when you’re getting married, you might not know that you are setting up your own little “community of life and love and prayer” — but you are! You need a little visual expression of just that, and we help you make it. It’s a kind of “little prayer table kit” complete with beautiful icons, easily and inexpensively framed, as well as extensive instructions.
Praying together brings the Holy Spirit to help us in marriage and in everything!