Some time ago I was in Chicago for a couple of weddings. While attending one of the receptions, a friend came up to say hello. After asking, "How are you?" I soon found out that she was recently divorced. Then a second friend came up. "How are you?" I asked again. She was divorced, too. Since I had known these young ladies since they were kids, and since I had performed their weddings, I was depressed to hear the news. Later I remarked to one of the mothers there, "People shouldn't get married until they are at least thirty-five years old." It was a cynical statement, but reflective of many years of seeing good kids, many of them my friends, get hurt because they got married too soon. They weren't sufficiently prepared. They weren't yet at the level of maturity required for entering a lifetime commitment.
After presiding at about eight hundred weddings over the years, after endless hours of marriage counseling, after dealing with many annulment cases, and after celebrating lots of happy wedding anniversaries, I have learned a few things. Let me suggest some basic steps that I believe are necessary before one takes the giant step into marriage.
1. REFLECTIVE LIFE EXPERIENCE
This sounds vague. What I mean is experience in which life problems have been dealt with and some life choices made. Right away that means no one right out of high school is ready for marriage. High school, despite its pressures and anxieties, is still something of a "womb" atmosphere. It is still not the real world. College can help promote a broadening effect, as can a job, the service, travel, etc. What is important is that a person reflects upon and integrates a variety of experiences, develops a clear value system, and sufficiently identifies himself or herself as to who they is, what they want out of life, and what they can give to another.
2. SUFFICIENT DATING EXPERIENCE
"She's my childhood sweetheart. I've never dated anyone else." That's foolish. The dating game is important for growing up, and for rounding out one's personality by contact with the opposite sex. If a gal has only really dated one guy and soon decides she wants to marry him, she's never really made a mature choice. A person has to date around and meet a large variety of people. Then one is better able to judge who they are compatible with and with whom they really want to invest their whole life. An early steady date may give one a nice security blanket (no challenge to win dates), or give one a status symbol (she's "my girl"), but it cuts a person off from valuable dating experience that truly develops the personality and prepares one to know when authentic love is present. Dating only one person and then marrying them often leads to the problem of "falling in love" with others while married - and that's a real hassle to work through. Trust becomes very difficult.
3. FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE AND RESPONSIBILITY
This is obvious. Money is an important factor that enters into so many of our plans and dreams. There has to be a sufficient financial base from which life is lived. All sorts of possibilities but no job is no way to begin a marriage. If one has to "live with the in-laws until we get our feet on the ground," forget it. With today's world, many gals are well into a stable career and may marry a guy who is still in school. It's not ideal, but this can work if the guy's masculine ego doesn't crumble.
4. A WHOLESOME INDEPENDENCE FROM FAMILY
This is a two-way street. Kids eventually have to come to full responsibility for their lives, and parents have to let go. Some parents forget that their job is to raise kids to be independent, responsible adults, not perpetual dependents. When a mother or father is still deciding for a 21-year-old where he or she should go to school, what job to take, who to date, what car to buy, etc. they've both got a long way to go. Sure, parents at this stage can still advice, but should not control. And subtle control, by tears or money, or the "you don't love me anymore" routine, is still control. If a young adult cannot make choices without first checking everything out with a parent, he or she is not ready for the adult choices required in married life.
A corollary to this is independence from peer group pressure or control. Some people wear this type of shoe, or drink, or have sex, or buy brand name jeans because "everybody's doing it." That's hardly the basis for a decision. When we can objectively analyze a situation, arrive at the best choice and then accept personal responsibility for the decision, we are on the way to being an adult.
5. A BASIC FAITH
This is obviously an important factor for a church wedding. To get married in church because "it would please mother", or because "the church is such a beautiful building," or because "there I can have music," does not make sense. The reason one marries in the presence of God, His priest and His community is because one sees marriage as an answer to God's call to love. We ask His help and the support of our family and friends so we can be faithful to that call. We accept the challenge, the risk, the adventure of intimacy with another in marriage because we believe in the Christian vocation to share love, to grow in love and to inspirit love.
6. SELF-FORGETFUL LOVE
I suspect that most people get married so that they can be happy, "live happily ever after". However, marriage guarantees no one happiness. It guarantees a lifetime of opportunity to give happiness.
"I want you. I need you" is not love. It is self interest. True love is wishing the other well, wanting to devote your lifetime to the other's happiness, in good times and in bad, unconditionally and forever. True love is an unselfish concern for their growth and well-being of the other, even a willingness to die for the other. That kind of love is only possible when one has sufficiently "grown up".
I know some people who have married quite young and have had a successful marriage. Sometimes people can grow up quickly when a lot is at stake. But this is rare. I offer the above reflections so that our young people don't rush into something and regret it years later. It is our hope, as priests, that the joy of the weddings we do will be followed by a lifetime of happy anniversaries.