Thursday, January 22, 2015

Marriage Is Not a Checklist

A while back (I think it was last year), there was a meme all over Facebook. It showed a picture of a married couple accompanied by a statistic that stated a lower divorce rate for couples who are together for 2-4 years before marriage. I remember looking at this meme and being shocked. Not only did this image seem to portray the idea that it’s better to be in a long relationship prior to marriage, but it also gave forth the vibe that marriage is a checklist.
In a relationship for 2-4 years…Check! Our marriage will succeed!

But this is an erroneous image of marriage. Just because my husband and I dated for five months before our eleven-month-long engagement doesn’t mean that our marriage is doomed to failure! I’ve known couples who were together for shorter amounts of time than we were and have had beautiful marriages. Marriage isn’t one big “To Do” list where you check items off; marriage is a life-giving, sacrificial, loving, sacramental bond between a man and a woman. A couple can go down their “marriage checklist” (NFP, Pre-Cana/Engaged Encounter, prayer time together, etc.), but if they aren’t seeking to love each other totally and completely, then their marriage will not be optimal. In a similar way, a teenager can go through a “chastity checklist.” He or she can go on chastity retreats, read all of the purity books, and sign however many chastity pledges, but if he or she isn’t chaste in thoughts, words, and actions, the whole “To Do” list is meaningless. We need to stop thinking in a “To Do” list mentality. Yes, all of the external things are awesome, and I highly recommend them. But we can’t reduce love to a mere act of crossing items out in our planner.

 (cue rant on responsible parenthood & periodic continence...GO!)

In a few different classes where Natural Family Planning and periodic continence have been discussed, I have heard the same question come up: What are the grave reasons for abstaining? Now, in a way, this question makes sense. We want to follow what God teaches us through the Church, and we want to make sure that we’re doing everything right, that we’re practicing “responsible parenthood.” But this kind of question can tend to look at the “checklist mentality” once again. I get it. When I first started learning about periodic continence in marriage, I wanted to know the list of “Dos and Do Nots” for abstinence, so that I could be a “good little Catholic wife” someday. But responsible parenthood and periodic continence (refraining from sex periodically) aren’t simply about going down a checklist that the Church has created.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope St. Paul VI states that:

“In relation to biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge of and reverence for their functions…[psychologically, when involving] tendencies of drives or passion, responsible parenthood means that necessary dominion which reason and will must exercise over them.” 

St. Paul VI goes on to mention that economic and social conditions must be added to the mix as a couple prudently discerns whether or not to abstain during fertile times. 

Gaudium et Spes also says that “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.”

Does this look like a checklist that God wants us to follow? Actually, when I glance at these teachings, it seems more like an opportunity for couples to grow in intimacy, trust, and prudence. It's an opportunity for couples to discern--using all of the gifts God has given them--whether to enlarge their family size or not (though God ultimately makes the call, because even couples that don't practice periodic continence won't necessarily get pregnant). Unfortunately, I—and other married couples I know—have gone through the gauntlet of random people asking “are you pregnant yet?” or giving judging stares when you’ve been married several months with no child on the way. I think this can happen because people get into that checklist mentality—they can think that because they don’t see a reason for a couple to not be having kids, the couple should then be having kids. 

Married couples need to be generous regarding the gift of life, and they can’t just live lavish lifestyles for themselves and avoid having children. BUT, married couples need to prudently discern all things. Together. And they need to take into account all of the conditions and factors that surround their marriage. Social conditions, emotional conditions, whatever. A teacher once told me that he knew a couple who, when they got married, practiced periodic continence. Their finances were great, so to some people it may have looked ridiculous for them to be avoiding conception. But, one of the spouses was undergoing severe depression, so they deemed it more prudent to practice periodic continence. They needed periodic continence for the good of the person’s mental health. Other people wouldn't know about that, but that's fine. It's not the discernment of other people, but the couple. 

Now, this isn’t to say that a couple should just practice periodic continence because they feel like avoiding children! It’s a loaded discernment (Unfortunately, because the topic is so massive, I’m just lightly touching on it here. JPII writes tons on periodic continence and the virtue of continence, and it would take me a long time and much brainpower to hit on all of his sweet points).

“The use of ‘infertile periods’ in conjugal shared life can become a source of abuses if the couple thereby attempt to evade procreation without just reasons, lowering it below the morally just level of births in their family. This just level needs to be set by taking into account not only the good of one’s family and the state of one’s health as well as the means of the spouses themselves, but also the good of the society to which they belong, the good of the Church, and even of humanity as a whole.” (Theology of the Body audience 125:3)

Love isn’t a checklist. Chastity isn’t a checklist. Marriage isn’t a checklist. And responsible parenthood definitely isn’t a checklist. Just look at all the factors that combine in the realm of marriage and responsible parenthood! Like I said, it’s a jam-packed discernment—for the married couple and God to work together at.
(Since I know some of you are probably thinking a certain question—no, I’m not pregnant. But really, don't even worry about it, when I am pregnant, y'all will be told) :) 

I think it’s super awesome that love, chastity, marriage, and responsible parenthood aren’t all checklists. Let’s be real: To Do lists are kind of predictable, monotonous, boring. (My planner dictates much of my academic life, but it’s kind of dry and bare-bones.) God doesn’t want us to live a humdrum existence; He has crazy plans in store for all of us if we seek Him and His plan with our whole hearts! Holiness isn't just a checklist that you're supposed to go over reach day, but an incredible journey of love, sacrifice, and perseverance towards God. Let’s toss out our “To Do” list mentality, and start living the adventurous epic life of love that God has called us all to!


  1. Thank you for this great reflection on this tough subject, which brought a little comfort to me today while we were studying at medical school various methods of contraception. Much to my regret, the teacher only mentioned NFP to discredit it. But it is great to remind that it is not, actually, a contraceptive, but a way to love (rather than checking a list), which is in fact more important than to simply avoid having babies :)
    A French reader (so I hope you will succeed to understand what I wanted to say even though I struggle to do it ;))

    1. You are welcome! I am glad that you enjoyed this post--it is a very weighty subject, and I think it's something that people must talk about! If you're interested, I recently wrote another post on NFP and why it is important for single women to learn about (though if you are in medical school, you may already know all this stuff):

      I hope that you have a wonderful day!