My social media feed was all atwitter this week with the story of a 38-year-old British woman named Sophie Tanner who “married herself” in a ceremony two years ago. She has recently released a book related to the experience.
“I literally had the idea when I was lying in bed recovering from flu and a bad relationship,” says Tanner about her decision to say I do to herself. “Everyone celebrates getting together with someone and getting married, but there’s no milestone in society that celebrates escaping something awful or returning to your own happiness and contentment.”
For Tanner, this action, which she initially considered “lighthearted” but came to find more deeply meaningful, is a way of coping with dashed expectations. Western society has become increasingly individualistic, but the pressure to marry has continued, despite high divorce rates and changing attitudes about sex. Marriage is often presented today as the answer to loneliness, the happy elixir that can fill the emptiness that so many of us experience. “Love is love,” say advocates of various kinds of changes to our understanding of marriage, but hidden behind that assertion is the notion that “happiness is happiness.” This is the fundamental idea behind almost all modern thought about marriage. Stripped of its procreative and unitive principles, all that remains of marriage is the hope that Individuals might find a way to share in a feeling of contentment. And, it is cruel for us to deny anyone opportunities for happiness, whatever those opportunities may be.
Another self-marrying woman, Alexandra Gill, just celebrated the 10th anniversary of her “nuptials” with a renewal of her vows. She says of the concept,
Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have the choice to remain single. … Self-marriage is an opportunity to celebrate our personal independence, self-reliance and freedom from the chains of convention.
These women have rightly understood that a person does not need to marry to find happiness or wholeness, that it is possible to lead a full, rich life without a romantic partner. We cannot expect to find true happiness by having another person endlessly adore us.
Marrying yourself is the wrong answer to many modern problems, but the problems are real. In our time, happiness is the mark of true value in life. Everything rises and falls upon it. Happiness is identified as whatever form of personal contentment an individual can find in life. These women have rightly understood that contemporary Western culture lies about the magic of marriage. We cannot expect to find this elusive notion of happiness fulfilled in some other person doting on us. But then where do we find it? For these women, shaped by the individualism of our age, the answer has been to look inside the self. It is an understandable but tragic turn.
The Church has historically recognized that not all people are called to the Sacrament of Marriage. Nevertheless, the witness of the consecrated life shows us that there are other options besides finding your happiness in another person’s attention or in your own self absorption. Various forms of consecrated life allow people with a vocation to singleness to celebrate and solemnize that calling. Monks and nuns are the most obvious example, along with secular priests in the Roman Catholic Church, but there are also lesser-known examples like consecrated virgins and widows, members of secular institutes, and societies of apostolic life. These varied types of dedicated single life emphasize not a commitment to one’s self but a life of service to others found in deep union with God. In some cases, the connection between these forms of life and marriage are made explicit in the rituals of entry. Consecrated virgins, for instance, wear wedding dresses on the day they make their vows, symbolizing the offering of their virginity to Christ.
Not every person called to long-term singleness is also called to consecrated life. Nevertheless, what the witness of the consecrated life shows us is that there is a third option (or a variety of options) between finding your happiness in another person’s attention or in your self-love. A singleness that is dedicated to God, in whatever form that takes, allows for the emergence of joy that is dependent not on any individual person’s notion of contentment but on the true fulfillment of the end for which we were created: communion with God.
Joy is not the same as happiness. It is a deeper, richer reality. “Count it all as joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). How can there be joy in facing trials and hardships and other kinds of suffering? Joy is something more than the feeling of the moment; it is the knowledge deep within us that we are children of God and that Christ has rescued us from sin and death.
In the marriage rite in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, one of the purposes of marriage is the “mutual joy” of both husband and wife. When I prepare couples for marriage, I tell them that this “mutual joy” the prayer book speaks about is their salvation. In marriage, the challenges that a husband and wife face as they run up against the world and against each other become the very tools by which God draws us out of ourselves and into him. As in the various forms of single life, it is the suffering of marriage that produces meaning and purpose in our lives by forcing us not to look inward but to be always orienting ourselves outward to the love and service of the other. Happiness is not a bad thing, but we can find joy in marriage even when we are not happy, even when we are deeply sad or disturbed, because we know that God is using all of it to make us holy.
This is just as important for married people to hear as it is for people who are single. We cannot expect marriage to provide us with personal contentment, fulfilling all of our needs and longings, or answering all of our loneliness. When we load that kind of freight onto marriage, it is certain to fail. Marriage does not exist so that another person can make you happy. It exists so that you can serve another person in an intense, intimate, and iconic way, thereby drawing closer to having the same kind of selfless love within you as that which God shows for us in Christ.
Whatever vocation we are given, whether to married life or single life, the goal for which we strive ought to be virtue rather than contentment if we want to lead meaningful lives. There is no form of living that can always avoid suffering, but when we dedicate our sacrifices and sufferings to God, looking to him rather than ourselves for sustenance, we can find a joy that transcends all the ups and downs.
Tanner and Gill, like so many others, have traded one false idol of marriage for another in the hope that it will provide them with the happiness they so deeply long for. But what they really need — what we all really need — is to know that we are invited to partake in the one marriage that actually can sustain our joy permanently, the marriage feast of the supper of the Lamb.