Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ask Dr. Boniface


Many years ago, when I first started blogging while I was a DRE and Youth Group director, I did a series of posts on questions relating to dating, courtship, marriage, etc. I have not written much on this topic lately, but over time several queries have trickled in on these subjects, so I thought I would respond to a few of them - it is time for Ask Dr. Boniface!

Just so you know where I am coming from, I have been married for 14 years this June and have four kids. I was 20 years old when I got married; my wife was 19. I went to college after marriage. My wife and I both basically got married out of high school. We were relatively poor for the first - eh, four years of marriage - but now have settled down into a comfortable bourgeois existence in the Midwest.

By the way, all the questions happened to come from men, and being a man myself, these answers will necessarily be a bit "masculocentric."

Q. I keep hearing this line from priests that one should be "financially ready" for marriage before dating. I've been thinking about this, and it just doesn't seem right. Like, if you go to college, you're gonna be up to your neck in debt. If you don't go to college, you may just be making around 10 dollars an hour, and that's not a lot for supporting a family. In other words, the system is screwed up, and unless you're born with silver spoon in hand, or get lucky with a really good job, you're going to have financial problems. What's your opinion?

A. Well, I would question your assumptions. You may not be "up to your neck" in debt if you choose an inexpensive community college or vocational school or if you work industriously during the summers to at least pay down some of your debt. I know a young woman who finished college with nursing certification with zero debt because she paid her whole way. I would also question the assumption that if you don't go to college you'll be making ten dollars an hour. My neighbor is a plumber who makes $65,000 a year working for another plumber who makes about $350,000 per year. Neither went to college. Another guy I know is a master electrician (no college) who makes about $200,000 per year and lives on a piece of property worth a million. I also know some lawyers who got great educations and law degrees and are struggling. So there are no guarantees.

But in response to your question, finances are very important in marriage; they are not all important, but they are important. In the old days, many marriages were essentially financial arrangements in which questions of affection, compatibility were more of an afterthought. Given that one of the top reasons cited for marital difficulties is financial problems, you would be foolish not to at least take this into consideration. Love will not pay the bills, and if the bills aren't paid, fridge isn't full, and utilities shut off, well, it's hard to feel affection. You're wife isn't gonna want to go near you in a scenario like that. Believe me, I have been there. A woman thrives in a secure environment and freaks in an insecure one.

So, yes, you need to have some sort of financial game plan, some sort of feasible means for how things will be paid, as well as the flexibility for in case something happens, if possible.

That being said, "financially ready" need not be taken to the extreme. A lot of secular people think "financially ready" means both partners making $75,000 each, college completed, loans paid off, and ready to purchase a $450K home immediately after the wedding. Obviously the world's conception of "financially ready" is crazy. And no, this certainly does not mean poor people can't get married. However, I am addressing this article to people in the western world who are (typically) not in abject poverty. Obviously in the third world, people will make do with what they can.

So in short, you need to have a stable job that can support you and your spouse with the addition of possibly a baby (though babies are cheap; they cost next to nothing - it's not till they get to be around 10-12 that kids really get expensive). A stable job with prospects for some advancement is fine, just something that can support you in a crappy apartment or rental for a time and maybe allow you to buy a house in a few years. You must have some form of income; what father would consent to their daughter marrying a man who had no job and no intentions of finding one? So, financially ready, yes. Financially settled for life, no. 

Q. Do you think it is generally possible to learn enough about a woman only meeting them at Church and occasionally talking to them, and if not how would you propose getting to know them better prior to starting an intentional relationship?

A. It is good to observe a woman from a distance - at first. Church is a decent place to start: to learn about her modesty, maybe her family, to find out if the way she breathes through her nose while praying the Our Father is too annoying, etc. Obviously, though, you need to get more familiar with her before starting an intentionally romantic relationship.

I have for some time repudiated the "courtship" concept of dating that is popular among many conservative Christians. Thus idea ultimately has its roots in evangelical fundamentalism; if you don't know what courtship is and why it is fundamentally flawed, I recommend the aptly titled article "Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed" by Thomas Umstaddt. How can you ever get to know a woman privately if you only ever see her sitting in her living room with all her family around? If you are a single man, it is certainly okay to have a platonic, social engagement with another woman without any romantic commitments. But how to arrange these? 

This should be very non-chalant; just invite her to do something socially with you and another group of friends - ideally, mutual friends. This is very non-threatening, and she can comfortably attend without feeling like it is a commitment to you personally, although it is setting the stage for a possible commitment, and that is what is important.

If you can get her hanging out socially once or twice, try bumping up to the next level by inviting her on a solo engagement. Don't make a big deal out of it or invest it with a solemnity it does not yet have. "I am considering you for a future spouse and would like the opportunity to evaluate your character more intensively. Would you like to go to the movies?"  Of course not. Just something like, "Hey, I'm gonna be in your neck of the woods next Tuesday. Wanna meet up and grab lunch?" Totally simple. Once you get to the one-on-one hang-out (which, goes without saying, should be in public or otherwise open settings to keep things easy and safe), it is much simpler to start making the assessments you need to decide whether you want to pursue things further with this female.

Q. Do you have an opinion the proper age to get married in our current times and on the ideal and acceptable age differences between husband and wife? I ask because at the age of 30 I already find myself becoming hesitant to pursue a relationship with someone my own age due to the desire to have a large family but would feel awkward marrying someone significantly younger than myself. It so happens that there are very few eligible young women between the ages of 25 and 30 at my TLM parish.
A. Well, first of all, you will probably need to broaden your horizons beyond the girls at your TLM parish. That is a pretty small pool.

But secondly, the rule-of-thumb for age compatibility (if you believe in such things), is half your age plus seven. If you are 30 years old, then 30/2 = 15 + 7 = 22. The reason for this is because women are said to mature more quickly than men, so a younger woman is more compatible with an older man. 

That is the ideal compatibility, according to some obscure custom whose origin escapes me. As far as what is acceptable...well, I have come to see over the years that age is really irrelevant. People are people. I am 34. I recently had the opportunity to develop a very deep friendship with an elderly man over the past two years. I never thought I could have such an open and meaningful relationship with a man so much my elder. But we are buds. We call and talk on the phone, meet for lunch, hang out, etc. My wife thinks it is a little weird, but hey, amicitia is amicitia.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of my best friends is a boy who used to be one of my students and is now a young adult. He is 21. We have a very deep friendship.

So, regarding what is acceptable, as long as she is legal, I'd say it is irrelevant. I know two Catholic couples who have a 12 and 13 year age gap between husband and wife. In both cases the husband is the elder. I would not suggest marrying a woman 12 to 13 years older than you. In my opinion, the age gap works best only going one way. See my response to the last question on this post as to why that is.

Q. My parish priest is making my fiance and I take a compatibility test. He is attaching a lot of weight to it; seems like too much weight, maybe. I find the whole thing suspect. What's your opinion on modern marriage prep in the Catholic Church?

A. Whew...don't get me started on that. I'll have to restrain myself to speak only of the immediate question on compatibility tests.

In general, there is a trend towards over-intellectualizing marriage: focusing on personality tests, psychology, and all sorts of pseudo-intellectual stuff while downplaying the role of grace. I recommend my article "Intellectualizing Marriage?" (USC, June, 2012) for more on this trend.

Compatibility tests are stupid. I will restate the what a very kick-ass priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit once said to some friends of mine when they came to him for marriage prep: "If you haven't figured out by now if you're compatible, there's nothing I can do for you."

Two more great quotes on this, the first from Chesteron:

"If Americans can be divorced for 'incompatibility of temper' I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one" ("The Free Family", What's Wrong With the World).

Second, from the letter of J.R.R. Tolkien:

"Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to" (Tolkien to his son Michael, March, 1941).

How can a compatibility test predict how you two will respond to each other five, ten, or twenty years into marriage anyway? It obviously can't. People change. Such tests' usefulness is very limited. If you guys like each other and have come as far as starting marriage prep, you have obviously figured out you are compatible. For the rest, stay close to Mary and leave to grace.

Q. I am a 29 year old man. I've been hoping that I would have been settled down and married by now, but I am starting to get worried because I am turning 30 this year and have no prospects. Should I be worried about this?

A. I can't answer that. It depends on how bad "you want" to be married. I personally never advise people to strongly desire marriage in that way; St. Paul tells us to be content in whatever state we find ourselves in. "Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife" (1 Cor. 7:27). I typically congratulate a man who has made it to 30 without getting snagged.

Okay, I'm only half-joking. Still, if you really believe you want to be married and this is your calling, I would not worry. You see, time works for men but against women. A man at 18 has very little to offer a woman. He is a new adult, no financial security, probably kind of scrawny and dorky looking. No stature in the world. He has very little "capital", shall we say? An 18 year old girl, on the other hand, has everything in the world to offer. She has no strings. She will probably never be more beautiful. She is fertile and able to bear children. She is prime marriage material. She has a lot of "capital", if you get my drift.

But notice, as that scrawny 18 year old goes out into the world and becomes a man, he gets more capital. By the time he is 30, if he is not a total screw-up, he has probably built up quite a bit. More manly and handsome. More successful. Able to make his way in the world, able to take care of a woman. Now that is desirable. His capital has gone up. And - again, as long as he isn't a screw-up - a man's capital will continue to go up as he moves into middle age. Not that we care what the secular world thinks, but have you ever noticed how the "world's sexiest men" are always in their mid-40's or early-50's?

Now what about that 18 year old girl? What happens when she gets older? Well, her "capital" goes down. An unmarried girl has less to offer at age 30 than at 18. Her looks have deteriorated severely. She is almost past childbearing years. If she has gone to college, she may have debt that any potential husband will have to deal with. She has much less to bring to the table. Her capital has gone down.

Bottom line: a 30 year old single man is at the top of his game and has every reason to be confident he will find a woman because time works for the man. A 30 year old woman who is still single is running out the clock because time works against her. So, rejoice, my friend. The world is yours, and all things being equal, I would not worry. In fact, I would consider your position somewhat envious.

Now my female readers will undoubtedly be saying, "Well shoot, I am that 30 year old single woman looking for man. Now you say time is working against me? What am I to do? Why haven't I found my man and what should I do about that?"

The answer to that is a bit more complex and will have to wait for another time. Sorry ladies!

Contact: uscatholicam[at]gmail.com

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

As to the first question, and answer, I deeply disagree. There is a say in my country: "With you, bread and onion".
Come on Boniface, "financialy ready"?.
Listen to Our Lord on Mat. 6:25.

Vladimir.

Boniface said...

Anon-

The virtue of prudence dictates that if we are the head of a household that our temporal wants are taken care of, whilst the admonition of Matt. 6:25 commands us not to let these wants become too important.

I certainly did not say you have to have a bunch of money; I merely noted you had to have some kind of steady income, such that can support your household. Would you allow your daughter to marry a man who had no job and no prospects of getting one?

Anonymous said...

I wonder what poor people should do then. I am reffering to those whose salary are not enough. Or in the past, the slaves. "financially ready" is not certainly a requirement for marriage.

Vladimir.

Boniface said...

Vladimir,

Of course, if you are poor, then you do what you can. The response was to a college grad in the United States.

Nobody would suggest ever that the poor can't get married. But even the poor would be the first to admit that if they could be better financially before marriage then they would wish to be so, yes?

The whole answer presupposes that one is capable of making oneself financially stable.

Christina said...

As a young woman, I can agree that older men tend to be more appealing, all-around, than men my own age. Mostly in regard to maturity, intelligence, knowledge, confidence, etc., but in looks as well.

Dymphna said...

Love dies when the rent aint paid. You don't have to be middle class but if the financial wolf is always at the door then a happy marriage is hard to pull off.

Filumene said...

I am a 36 year old woman who married a penniless young man, about 14 years ago, because we both had been smacked with the knowledge that we had been put in each other's path, by God. There was no thought of setting ourselves up before marriage. We had a sense that if He put us together, convicted us both that there was no time to waste that He would assist us on this path. And He has. We are still penniless. My husband works hard, but this has been our cross from the beginning. We have little to no security. But we have one of the strongest, most blessed marriages I have witnessed. We delight in each other's company and we have a cheap date almost every evening, which consists of a pot of decaf and loads of conversation. We also pray together. We have family rosaries and novenas. We have been forced to trust God in ways that we never thought possible. That has been a blessing in and of itself.

I know that women can be needy about security and whatnot. This is not altogether unreasonable. But, girls .....don't let it be a stumbling block. There is a certain hidden dignity in being in need. Of having to suffer humiliations. The Holy Family did it and those who suffer in the same way they did, share in a very special cross. I can't tell you how much my husband and I have thanked God for this cross, though a source of great pain, it's also a source of joy and simplicity.

Boniface said...

One must do as the Lord leads...but do you deny that had it been possible to be more financially secure before marriage, you would have liked to have been?

I agree that money ought not stop one from marrying someone they believe they are supposed to marry...but I do believe it might have a great deal to do with when you choose to enter into matrimony with that person.

Filumene said...

For us, looking back from where we are now, I would say ....NO. I think the poverty that we have suffered through has been one of God's primary instruments in shaping our faith and marriage. If things had been easy from the beginning ( and honestly looking at where we were at then , spiritually), we wouldn't have thought that we needed Him in the amount and to the depth that we really do. That being said, if my husband is given an opportunity to have security, and it does not undermine the blessed dynamic we have now, he would take it in a heartbeat. God would expect that from him, as well.

In response to the "when" to choose to enter in to matrimony, I would say do not hesitate. I say this in general terms, because obviously there can be legitimate exceptions to the rule. This being said, I believe people can lose a good thing or opportunity by trying to arrange everything just so or make sure all the finances are to an ideal standard. I think people get more stubborn in their ways as they get older and less open to "growing up" with their significant other.

T-C- said...

Very interesting points.

But if it is OK to point out some things that bothered me, I would like to point out the following.

1) There seems to be no indication of the role of parents in regards to marriage. Parents can be a good objective third party in determining whether two people are actually compatible. The worst people who can make the decision in regards to compatibility are the two people "in love". They are likely to be somewhat clouded with passion as they make the decision and are likely to make the wrong call.

2) The issue of compatibility seems to be brushed aside by pointing out that Grace will provide. However, Grace builds on what is naturally present as well. If two people are incompatible in terms of natural criteria, the marriage is likely to be unnecessarily filled with problems. The marriage won't end in failure but it will certainly be difficult than it should be. People don't make important decisions like what job to choose, which house to buy, or which liturgy to attend, by hoping Grace will provide. So I think the same should be present with marriage. One should make the best decision possible (based on reason) and then let Grace do the rest.

So from that perspective, lots of things need to be considered for compatibility. Nature of religious beliefs, family attitudes, family background (people of old weren't dumb when they looked into those things), attitude toward marriage and expectations, understanding of roles in marriage (if a man, that he should provide for the family, or if a woman, raising children and staying home etc.) etc. Financial compatibility cannot be the sole thing working in the back of ones head.

If those other things are not looked into, marriage can turn out to be tougher than it needs to be.

================

All of this being said, I am aware that in most places in this part of the world, family ties are not that strong to begin with. Asking ones mother whether a partner is a good match is probably not that different from asking ones best friend about it. In some cases, the friend probably knows the person better than the parents. In the same way, family background probably doesn't matter to many because after marriage, they will probably never see them unless it is a wedding or a funeral.

But I would like to point out that this sort of distancing inside families and between extended family is a problem too.

I often see how retirement homes get filled up with old folks. I wonder what the children are doing. It is not like these people are happy in these homes. But no, the children cannot be bothered about them because they have their own families etc.

Gone are the days when families took care of their parents when they are old and extended family ties were strong. When problems happen in marriage, as they inevitably always do, extended family can be very helpful.

But yea, just throwing all of this out there.

Boniface said...

Filumene,

"If my husband is given an opportunity to have security, and it does not undermine the blessed dynamic we have now, he would take it in a heartbeat."

That makes the point I am arguing. You do not need to be wealthy or even middle class or have abundance, but you have to have some security, some prospects. This is what I said in the article, when I defined "financial security" as:

A stable job with prospects for some advancement is fine, just something that can support you in a crappy apartment or rental

And added maybe home ownership in the future. Other than that, the only other way I defined being financially ready was "some sort of feasible means for how things will be paid" and "a secure environment."

Boniface said...

TC-

Good comments. I'd like to respond point bu point:

1) Of course there is no mention of parents. None of my enquirers mentioned them or asked about them. The article was not a comprehensive "how to pick a spouse" article, but rather responses to particular queries. Obviously there is more that could be said, in which case parents/extended family could play a bigger role.

2) Compatibility is certainly an issue, but the point is not just compatibility but compatibility as it pertains to Catholic marriage prep. The discernment stage for compatibility happens much sooner than marriage prep. If you are already planning on going to the altar and making the concrete arrangements for the wedding, presumably you have already found out that you have the requisite compatibility.

Did I suggest that financial compatibility was the *only* thing one needs to consider? I do not think I suggested that, so I agree with you there.

Yes, people of old were wise to "look into" all the other things you mentioned, but presumably by the time you get to the altar and are in marriage prep, you've already figured out your potential spouse's religious beliefs, family history, etc.

I agree in general with all of your comments, but it feels like you are objecting to assertions I never made.

Boniface said...

TC,

One other consideration, most of my readers are traditional or at least conservative Catholics, so I was assuming most of them would not need advice such as "make sure your spouse if Catholic" and stuff like that, LOL.

Filumene said...

"A stable job with prospects for some advancement is fine, just something that can support you in a crappy apartment or rental"

I missed that part. It's the "perpetually distracted mom brain thingy" I have going on. :) Anyway, very good. People need that pointed out.

Boniface said...

You know what, though, I think I will incorporate a lot of your suggestions into the article just to make sure things are clear. Thanks for the feedback, everybody.

T-C- said...

Hi Boniface,

I think I might have gotten too overly fixated on the answer to the compatibility test question in the article. But I now see that you probably wanted to specifically criticize the marriage prep / parish compatibility test aspects rather than criticizing the subject of compatibility as a whole. My comment was somewhat unfair in that sense and I do apologize.

Once again, I do want to stress that even in my misunderstood view, I thought your article was very good with lot of interesting points.

Anonymous said...

Financially ready basically means you can put food on the table and a roof over her head. It is that simple. But, guys, be sure not too pick out a "high maintenance" woman who is only satisfied with the best.

Skipping college and going into the trades is the best idea in the current environment. Get an AA at a community college and be sure to take accounting and a business writing class. If you have a large minority in your area, a couple of language classes would be good too. Getting a major degree that you never use is a waste of both time and money, time being the more irreplaceable.

The trades can make you good money without even getting a contractor's license. I know a plumber that keeps real busy just unclogging drains, fixing drippy faucets, and replacing garbage disposals. He only has a van, tools, and a yellow page ad. 5-8 jobs a day at $90-$180 per job brings in some good money. This guy doesn't need a contractor's license, 'cause he never does more than $500 parts and labor on any job.

And for the ladies out there, if you are getting long in the tooth, the guys in your bracket will be in their late forties and early fifties. The prime earning years, so you already will know how he'll turn out financially.

Alan

Dymphna said...

I think it should be noted that genteel poverty in not the same as dire straits. If the kids are sleeping on the floor because you don't have a bed for them or even a couch and you know the US Marshals by name because you've been evicted more than once, you will not have a happy home.

Dymphna said...

Genteel poverty seems to be the thing now. People boast about how poor they are on all the he Catholic sites... Including one guy who lives in Rome and one lady who isomehow manages to get to the europeab holy places every year---To each his own .

Lynda said...

Being "financially prepared" is nonsense in this context. It would mean those who are economically poor could never get married. It is a materialist, secularist, anti-marriage, anti-family, anti-Catholic idea, with no relationship to prudence or any virtue - quite the opposite. It is a deadly attitude that spawns contraception (mortal sin). God calls us to trust in Him and rely on Him, whilst doing one's best to provide for one's family's material needs. I find what the secularist regards as materially necessary to differ greatly from those who live with God first, a true Catholic way of life. My parents married young (normal age) and were what today's brainwashed secularists would call poor (in their perverted view too poor to be married and have children, too poor to exist). They had as many children as God sent - nine. Another three died in utero.

Boniface said...

Please re read my definition of being "prepared" as well as the comments on this question. You are misrepresenting what I said.