Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Synod on Family

Synod: Marriages Suffering from “Back-

burner” Husbands & Wives

Posted October 7, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

The Synod opened yesterday with an interesting nod to the digital age. Cardinal Peter Erdo’s opening address noted, if not lamented, the fact that we “live in an audio-visual culture, a culture of feelings, emotional experiences, and symbols.” Later in the same speech, Erdo linked this culture with the challenges of teaching the faithful about true marital intimacy. “Under the influence of the existing culture,” he told the assembly, “many reserve the right not to observe conjugal fidelity … without a clear awareness before the Lord of assuming an unconditional and life-long commitment to welcome the other and make a total gift of self to the other.”
Not long after making that point, the Washington Post provided a good example of the problem, and the challenge to the Catholic Church. Caitlin Dewey wrote about a new study from Indiana University on the rise of “digital infidelity,” a new twist on an old story.  The explosion of social media has allowed people to maintain contact with a much wider group of people, including old friends — and often, old flames. One study from a research agency shows that half of married women stay in contact with what they call “back-up husbands,” an escape option if and when their marriage begins to struggle. Among men, Dewey writes, the problem is even worse; they are twice as likely to have “back-burners.” In both groups, though, the prevalence of sexual flirtation among these escape options is high, with respondents to the survey averaging two such “back-burners” each.
The problem isn’t new to the social-media age. Workplace flirtations are notorious, and notoriously destructive, as any manager or executive either has learned or will in short order. Those who travel on business are arguably more at risk; the underrated film Up In The Air gave a bleak, depressing view of just how empty and false the promise of fleeting intimacy can be. With social media’s global and ubiquitous scope and its covert capabilities, though, the opportunities to look for and find outsiders to divide intimacy are practically endless — far beyond just a business office. The seeming cornucopia of choice challenges marital intimacy at its core, as Dewey notes:
[T]he Internet represents a previously unavailable, untapped source of endless new connections, endless choices.
That’s critical, because the strength of a relationship relies on three things, broadly speaking: satisfaction, emotional investment, and the availability of alternative partners. And that is, this new research suggests, exactly what social media promises — not constant temptation, exactly, but the constant, casual reminder that alternatives exist.
Dewey’s analysis takes a more anthropological approach. From a Catholic perspective, the issue is one of understanding what true intimacy really means, and Erdo provided the answer. The sacrament of marriage is “an unconditional and life-long commitment to welcome the other and make a total gift of self to the other.” The search for and use of “back-burners” is the antithesis of this definition. And the trouble is that the existence of back-burners make the issue on which they are based – just in case it doesn’t work out — a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As someone who has been married for twenty years to a wonderful woman, I can personally attest to the fact that while we have a great marriage, it hasn’t been a trouble-free marriage. We have had a (blessedly) few times where we could barely stand to speak to one another, for what always turn out to be petty reasons or miscommunications. Those happen in every marriage. If we had not committed to the total gift of self for life, it would have been very easy to walk out — and the existence of “back-burners” would make it almost impossible to resist. Even when the spouses don’t leave, the fact that they are sharing themselves with others in place of their husbands or wives show that they have not made that total gift of self, but instead are looking for a self-gift of sorts.
How does the Catholic Church address the issue of divorce and troubled marriages? In this overwhelming culture of self-gratification, it will be more difficult than it looks. This does show, though, one big reason for the Synod to be called, and why Erdo’s opening statement focused so much on the question of bolstering marriage preparation from a younger age by catechetizing on the real meaning of intimacy.
In the end, people aspire to that level of intimacy and bonding. Even the search for “back-burners,” in the context of Dewey’s article, shows a perhaps unconscious yearning for complete gift of self and the same in return. The challenge for the Synod will be to craft a new pastoral approach that teaches what true intimacy actually means so that expectations can be properly established, and to expose the bleak nature of “back burners” in any age, let alone in a globally-connected world. The Synod fathers have a big job on their hands with just that one task.

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