Friday, December 14, 2012

The Limits of Natural Compatibility

I've been a little remiss in blog posting lately, primarily because I've been doing creative writing, and that always takes first priority. However, there have been a few topics kicking around my brain of late, and I thought I'd quickly share one of the more startling ones.

One of my favorite devotional works is one I just picked up in the past couple years: The Gift of Faith, by Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer. It's a wonderful work, at once mystical and practical, profound yet very readable. I just finished by fourth time through it, and every time I glean something new and useful. I can tell the work is going to be in my regular devotional cycle for years.

This time I caught something that had slipped by me before – I may have noticed it, but the import escaped me. Writing with wisdom and insight, Fr. Dajczer addresses many aspects of the spiritual life, and devotes an entire section to The Actualization of Faith. In it he has a subsection on The Role of Feelings, wherein he makes an amazing statement, which I'll quote:

It could happen, that in a marriage the couple is well matched, like two pieces of a split brick, which fit perfectly when put together. In the light of faith, this is not an ideal situation, because this is only a perfectly natural harmony positive feeling. This is not yet Christian love, the agape love, which has to be worked at.” (p. 210, emphasis added)

Imagine that! This wise and Godly counselor, with decades of experience, thinks a situation of what our culture would call “high compatibility” is, in fact, less than ideal. Not that he thinks it impossible, but he cautions that it is not as simple as it would appear. He goes on to explain why:

Every community of people, whether in marriage, friendship, or in any group, if solely based on natural bonds, does not have much chance of survival. Someday, sooner or later, it either has to break down or attain a higher level of existence...your gift of self increases to the extent of the lack of natural bonds. How good it is that crises occur among us, that there are sometimes misunderstandings in marriage, that children can sometimes fight among themselves because they do not get along with each other. These are the cracks, the fissures, which enable the birth or deepening of supernatural bonds and supernatural love. It is this very love, which is the work of Christ, which is everlasting if allowed to develop (pp 210-211, emphasis in original)

Thus he makes clear that it isn't that a high level of natural compatibility is automatically a problem, but that it makes it more difficult to move to that higher level of loving because the partners are used to relying on that natural compatibility to make things easy.

Clearly this flies in the face of the cultural wisdom, which holds that the higher the compatibility, the better the match. Some modern thinker, reading Fr. Dajczer's insights, might snidely respond, “Well, what then? Should we go out and marry someone we can't stand, just to increase our growth in holiness?” Clearly that's not what Fr. Dajczer is suggesting. What he is pointing out is that when there is a high degree of natural compatibility, then the couple tends to coast on that for a long time. But the time will come when that will run out, and the spouses realize that they're living with a fallen human being with whom they have to live – and for whom they have to die, because dying to self is what true love requires.

Here, I think, is when the crisis comes. For couples with high natural compatibility, the shock is more severe and the adjustment greater when the need arises. “What? You've never asked this of me before! Why is this relationship suddenly so costly?” The wise know that the answer is that relationships of true love are always costly, and always require death to self. The prevailing cultural mythology is that the more “compatible” the parties, the less stress the relationship will pose, and the more gratifying it will be for both parties.

Ellen and I know this firsthand. We got married because we were told to, but if anyone had given us one of those personality compatibility tests before we wed, they might have waved us off. There were too many points of friction, too much potential for confusion and mixed communications – as we discovered shortly after our wedding. I have personality quirks and coping mechanisms that push Ellen's emotional buttons; she has ways of dealing with things that tax me. We misunderstand, miscommunicate, and frustrate each other. Our entire marriage has been a learning experience in how to express things, what topics to avoid, and when to set our teeth and face a difficult matter. It's called for a lot of patience and forgiveness and prayer and understanding.

On the other hand, we knew another couple who got married at about the same time we did. If someone were handing out compatibility prizes, they surely would have gotten one. They were affectionate, always in agreement, always going out of their way for each other – a model, it would seem, of natural compatibility. And – you guessed it – they're the ones who got divorced. Of course it was a complex situation, but knowing a bit about it, it seems to me that Fr. Dajczer's description at least partially fit that couple. Ellen and I were grappling with difficulties from our first weeks of marriage; they seemed to coast along on a cloud of matrimonial bliss. But in the end, we were the ones whose marriage lasted, because as Fr. Dajczer points out, we had to let our relationship be moved to a higher level.

I say this all in the very shadow of my third daughter's recent engagement. Needless to say, we're thrilled for them both. A fine young man asked for her hand, and they've been consciously exploring moving toward marriage for some time. And yes, they seem to have a high degree of natural compatibility*. But I'm not concerned for them (any more than the usual) because I know they will heed Fr. Dajczer's advice. Whether their natural compatibility is high or low, they'll walk into the permanent bond of marriage with both eyes open, knowing that the day will come when they'll be pushed to a place that will outstrip the ability of natural compatibility to cope. Then they'll have to turn to their Heavenly Father for the strength to continue together.

And He, as always, will provide it.

*Allowing for the fact that he's from Texas.

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