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Orthodox Spirituality - Marriage

A Pastoral View of Marriage
and Marital Problems

by Archpriest Sergei Shukin

A talk given at Holy Trinity Seminary
17/30 May 1975


1. Entering into Marriage
2. The Conditions for a Beneficial Orthodox Marriage
3. Childbirth and Bringing Up Children
4. Reasons Why Marriages Fail
5. Divorce


     By way of introduction I would like to cite to you one case from the life of the Russian Orthodox Church which some of you possibly already have heard about.

     This happened about a hundred years ago. There lived in Moscow a student of philology, Constantine Zederholm. He was Lutheran and even the son of a Lutheran pastor in Moscow. One day he was invited to an Orthodox wedding and was present at the ceremony in the church. As a philologist, he understood Slavonic well and he was quite surprised that in the marriage rite marriage is compared to the struggles of the martyrs, and that God's help is implored for the spouses, who are likened to "Noah in the ark" and "the three children in the fiery furnace" and so on. The explanations of the Moscow priests did not satisfy him, but someone advised him to go to the renowned Optina Hermitage and speak with the elders there. Zederholm became acquainted with the Elder Macarius, who interpreted for him the Orthodox meaning of salvation and marriage.

     When he finished university and entered diplomatic service in the Near East, he visited Mt. Athos, the Holy Land and many monasteries in the Balkans. Finally, after about a year, he resigned and came back to Optina, where he converted to the Orthodox Church and shorty after took monastic vows with the name of Clement. At Optina he worked on translations of the writings of the Holy Fathers. He died in 1878 and was buried at Optina.

     In relating this I would like to point out that in the Orthodox Church we have the most profound and complete teaching concerning Christian marriage compared with all other faiths.

1. Entering into Marriage

     Until recently, in pre-revolutionary Russia for example, choosing a spouse was a matter for the whole family and their priest. People approached marriage judiciously, sensibly, without hurrying, and the question was discussed previously among the closest relatives. Young people took their opinion into account.

     Now, in America, getting married is considered a purely personal matter, and young people rarely seek the advice of anyone, let alone the pastors of the Church. The results of this are extremely sad -- twenty-five percent of marriages are divorced in the first three years.

     The greatest evil involved with these marriages is that they are premature and hasty. Most newlyweds are green youth, unprepared for family life and guided only by feelings. If they do not turn to a priest for advice of their own accord, then pastors must point out the right path to them on their own initiative.

     In their sermons, in talks, during confession and during church school, pastors must explain to young people that entering marriage requires more than just physical maturity. Psychological or spiritual maturity is just as essential -- that is to say, being prepared for independent life, for taking the responsibility for one's future family and for choosing one's future companion in life sensibly. Feeling alone beforehand or romantic emotions are not enough to guarantee that a marriage will be lasting, because the most important thing in marriage is the inner unity of husband and wife. Initial feelings soon pass, and if the young couple does not have a common and lofty outlook on life and mutual understanding, they will find themselves estranged from each other. Quarrels and disagreements will arise, and then -- unfaithfulness and jealousy, leading to a divorce. And divorces cause the couple themselves, their children, and all their relatives to suffer.

     In former times people did not marry with such lightning speed -- within two or three months. Between the engagement and the wedding there was still time for couples to come to know each other better and think more deeply about how compatible their opinions and tastes might be. Here the religious views of the couple are of vital importance. Ultimately it is precisely religious belief which constitutes that main foundation of human life. Therefore, the marriage of a believer with an unbeliever cannot be enduring and happy. When the Church crowns newlyweds, she prays that the couple will have "unity of thought" -- that is to say, identical views on all the principal questions: on life and death, on the obligations of wife and husband, on the birth and upbringing of children, and so on. That is why the Church insists as a prime condition that the bride and groom have the same faith, for it will be the principal foundation of their lives.

     Still less desirable are marriages between people of different religions. Although the Church does marry people of other faiths to Orthodox Christians in exceptional cases, only marriages between Orthodox are normally accepted.

     Priests must instill this attitude into their parishioners and especially into the youth. In marriage, Christians must serve God: firstly, by building up an Orthodox family, as the "church which is in their house" a little cell of Orthodoxy; and secondly, by bringing up their children in the spirit of Orthodoxy, as future member of the Church. But can this be achieved in a family where the parents attend different churches and cannot give their children a unified religious instructions? Experience shows that the children of mixed marriages grow up either as total unbelievers, or only formally Orthodox, or as Catholics or Protestants.

     All the other religions have come to the same conclusion, considering that mixed marriages have a negative influence on the family's religious life. Even after the death of a non-Orthodox husband or wife, the Orthodox party cannot have a pannikhida (memorial service) served for him or her, or in some cases even be buried in the same cemetery, as the deceased party dies in heresy certainly knowingly, if having been married to an Orthodox.

     The reader will find more details about mixed marriages in my pamphlet On Marriages with the Heterodox, published by Holy Trinity Monastery in 1962 (in Russian).

     Even if both parties are nominally Orthodox, however, this does not necessarily imply that they clearly understand the true significance of a Christian marriage. In America today a purely pagan attitude towards marriage is so widespread that even many Orthodox young people think of it as one of the "good things" of personal life, which husband and wife are given without any particular obligations on their part. This irresponsible approach to marriage is what gives rise to a whole host of misfortunes and catastrophes in family life.

     Furthermore we know that the demands made upon the Orthodox by a really Christian marriage go further than just making use of the joys which marriage affords: much patience, self-sacrifice and abstinence are also required -- in a word, there is a kind of asceticism in marriage also, as in other aspects of life. Without this, the marriage will be utterly pagan, worldly or speaking in the language of the New Testament, of the flesh.

     The word of God draws a sharp distinction between the man of the spirit and the man of the flesh. One lives for God and eternity; the other, for himself and for temporal life on earth alone. Thus St. Paul writes: "They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the things of the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace: They that are (live) in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 5.6-8). All this can be applied to marriage, which was established by the Creator not for personal pleasure but to enable man and woman to preserve a pious life together. Thus marriage was established for a whole lifetime, and of it Christ said, "What, therefore, God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." The Church Fathers teach that a pious marriage is as pleasing in God's eyes as a celibate monastic life.

     Thus in people's lives there can be only two paths: either celibacy, an ascetic life principally in the monastic state, or a Christian marriage, which also requires a considerable degree of asceticism. Both of these paths consist of serving God, not serving one's own passions and lusts. It is not without reason that the Holy Scriptures see a certain mystical aspect in marriage when they liken it to the union of Christ with the Church, that "bride of the Lamb" (Colossians 5.32).

     This is why it is so essential that every couple entering into marriage should know and understand the great responsibility involved. Of course, one cannot understand the whole essence of Christian marriage all at once, because this is revealed gradually, in accordance with one's spiritual growth. Usually the husband and wife learn this as they grow "into the full stature of Christ" over the course of their whole lives together, if they are truly living members of the Church.

     In speaking of entering marriage, it is essential to mention two abnormal phenomena that are very widespread among contemprary youth -- premarital liaisons and children born out of wedlock.

     A priest rarely finds out about premarital liaisons. If he does, it is his duty to admonish the guilty parties in every way. His aim must be to persuade them either to enter into a lawful marriage or to put an end to their sinful union. When marriage is not possible, the pastor must insist that relations be broken off completely, and also that they repent, employing all possible means: involving the parents, public opinion in the parish, and penances, even to the forbidding of Communion. Usually liaisons of this kind do not last long and are soon broken off.

     Sometimes such liaisons result in extra-marital pregnancy. In such cases the priest must determine the couple's intentions: is a lawful marriage possible or will the child remain illegitimate? If for some reason lawful marriage is impossible, then all the priest's attention must be focused upon the victim of the liaison -- the future mother.

     In our contemporary unspiritual society the usual decisions are either abortion or, at best, to let the child be born and then have it adopted by others. However, the priest must convince the unmarried mother that both these recourses are sinful and that a truly Christian mother is obliged both to preserve her child and to bring it up herself, thereby redeeming her sin as far as possible.

     In old Russia it was very hard for an unmarried mother to bring up her child by herself, and in addition, the child was deprived of certain rights, as one "born illegitimately." Furthermore he was despised by society to a considerable degree. Nevertheless, there were girls who resolved to raise an illegitimate child themselves. In my family, for example, I had an aunt, my mother's sister, who did just that, because she had firm Orthodox convictions, which she acquired in an orphanage. As a simple school mistress, she brought up her son, my cousin, by herself and she gave her maiden name as his surname. Our family greatly respected this self-denying aunt.

     In contemporary America women have gained more rights, and having an illegitimate child is not as disgraceful as in former times. Previously, in such cases girls had recourse to abortions or adoption because it was difficult not only to get married, but even to find a decent job. Of course, this was not Christian, and even led to suicides. We have a beautiful example of a purely Christian attitude toward such a mother in the life of the Elder Ambrose of the Optina Hermitage. A girl who had been deceived by her fiance was expecting a child and although her parents were Orthodox, they simply threw her out of the house in accordance with the customs of those times. Taking the advice of some good people she went to Optina to see Fr. Ambrose. He advised her not to return to her parents but go to the neighboring town and wait for her child to be born; in addition, then and there he gave her some money to live on. When her son was born, the Elder continued to help her materially and spiritually, and helped her bring up her son. They often visited the Elder until his very death, and the boy greatly loved Fr. Ambrose.

     I remember another case, in our own times, when I was in a parish in England. An Orthodox Greek with a university degree had made the acquaintance of a girl, also Greek, in a refugee camp in Germany and had had an affair with her.

     When he found out that she was pregnant he panicked and left for England where he found a good job. Meanwhile, the girl had given birth to a son and was appealing to him to return. He wavered for a long time but under the influence of certain believing people he returned to her in Greece two years later. As he left, he came to me for confession and told me all about it. A year later he sent me a photograph of himself with his wife and two children. He wrote that he was very happy with his wife.

     Here again, a believing girl saved her child and brought her loved one back. This could hardly have happened if she had had an abortion or had her son adopted.

     Therefore, a priest must try not only to save the child's life and the unmarried mother's soul, but also to help her either to find a husband or to bring up her child on her own in an Orthodox manner.

2. The Conditions for a Beneficial Orthodox Marriage

     Any marriage requires a certain mutuality of interests and opinions. Admittedly, in our times there is the widespread opinion that the chief element is the feeling of love, and that it is upon this that a marriage should be built. This opinion is based upon the idea that the most important element of married life is the sexual. Experience shows otherwise: closeness of soul or a shared outlook on life do far more to bind a marriage together. Usually, sensuality gradually cools as the couple come to know each other more closely in the course of everyday life. If they then suddenly discover that they have no common outlook and that there is no mutual understanding between them, the husband lives by his interests, the wife by hers, and both begin to feel an inner dissatisfaction. This does not mean that they separate at once, but flowing from their basically sensuous values, it can lead to taking an interest in others of the opposite sex and infidelity often arises... A situation like this already threatens to destroy the family.

     We have already said that this lack of understanding arises very frequently in mixed marriages, but this does not mean that it cannot happen to Orthodox couples. The devil, like a "roaring lion,' is walking about trying to destroy the marriages even of Orthodox couples.

     Now, I do not mean to imply that a certain cooling of feelings always destroys a marriage. Fortunately, God did not create people only for sexual life; He also placed other aspirations within them, thanks to which even marriages which are not completely "successful" from the worldly point of view can be bound together more strongly.

     First among these aspirations we must place the raising of children. Someone has correctly said that children are cement for a marriage, and indeed, children really do bring new interests and new aims into the couple's life. Then marriage loses a certain monotony and, I would say, its purely egoistic aspect. Petty arguments and quarrels come to an end, since the marriage acquires a wider meaning.

     All thinkers are agreed that the appearance of children strengthens any marriage, and the Church considers that this is also a fulfillment of one of the main purposes of marriage. Therefore, deliberately to avoid having children is a dangerous perversion, amounting to a kind of "mutual egoism," which often leads to a feeling of emptiness and to the destruction of the marriage itself.

     Of course, some marriages are naturally childless due to the infertility of one of the partners. Such marriages can be quite durable if the characters of the husband and wife are suited to each other. But it renders the marriage unfulfilled, as it were, and this often leads to divorce or coldness and indifference. Nevertheless, for the Church, the absence of children is not a ground for divorce; the marriage is considered to be blessed and indissoluble just as is any other marriage, although some contemporary secular laws regard childlessness as such ground.

     In passing, it must be pointed out that the Church allows childless families to adopt orphans or children from poor families. In America this is a very widespread practice among childless couples and in those cases where the wife cannot give birth to normal children. From my personal experience in Canada I recall three instances when my spiritual children thought about adoption. As you may know, in the U.S. there are special agencies or state institutions which arrange adoptions, but in Canada a special division of the Ministry of Social Services is concerned with this. Parish priests are included among those who can recommend suitable adoptive parents. In two cases I recommended the young couples, each of whom received two children: now they are already grown. In the third case the couple was refused, as they were already middle-aged.

     The second factor which binds a marriage more firmly is, strange as it may seem, simply being used to each other. Pushkin referred to this in Eugene Onegin when describing the Larin family:

Habit is given us from above
To take the place of happiness.
This has a psychological explanation in that, with the passage of time, the couple become so accustomed to their situation that even a marriage which is not all together satisfactory will be preserved for a lifetime as they do not wish to run the risk of looking for anything better. Although there may be quarrels and misunderstandings, still a total separation does not occur.

     What has been said so far concerns marriage in general. An Orthodox marriage has deeper foundations which we will find in the Holy Scriptures. Of the many passages which refer to marriage, I will touch on only a few from the Epistles.

     1). Ephesians 5:22-33.

     Here the Apostle depicts marriage in the image of Christ and the Church. "As Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify it with the washing of water by the word" ... so must husbands love their wives. Here the Apostle is raising conjugal love to the highest level -- putting this ideal before every married couple.

     "So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies... for no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church."

     Here he is indicating that the husband's love must strive to protect his wife both physically and spiritually -- i.e., the couple must "work out their salvation" together.

     The last verse, 33, emphasizes that conjugal love should be in fulfillment of God's commandment of love:

     "Let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself"; thus it is not fleshy egoism that we should find in marriage, but an implementation of the second of God's principal commandments. Of course, this love is not achieved at once, but gradually, over the course of one's entire married life.

     2). I Corinthians 7:2-5.

     Here the Apostle considers it necessary for every man to have his own wife and every woman to have her own husband, but he explains this necessity on practical grounds: to avoid fornication (v. 2). We all know how people become debauched and perish from a blind and unrestrained use of sexuality. We can see how many sufferings and crimes arise from this if we acquaint ourselves with police records and criminal statistics. I will mention only the chief ones: broken homes, abortions, venereal diseases, women's and childen's diseases, nervous disorders, murders and suicides... The normal marriage, blessed by God, was instituted to oppose all these perversions and abuses.

     "Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband" (v. 3). In this way the husband and wife maintain their love and at the same time create the right conditions for their children to be born and brought up normally.

     Let us take a look at verse five: "Deprive ye not one another, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinence."

     It appears that Christian spouses must also have periods of abstinence. This is an important commandment of spiritual life, which the Apostle confirms in another epistle: "That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour. Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles (pagans) which know not God" (I Thess. 4:4-5). This tells us that married couples must learn to master their instincts, so that their bodies submit to their spirit. In addition to abstinence that is required for natural reasons, the Church appoints days of abstinence for fasting and prayer.

     I recall an incident of my youth which made an immense impression on me. My best friend at school had a sister, very beautiful, who married and went to live in a neighboring town. About a year later she reposed quite unexpectedly and my friend went to her funeral. He returned in a state of furious indignation against her husband, who had been the cause of her death. She was expecting a child, but her husband had not refrained from having sexual intercourse with her. As a result she gave birth prematurely, caught an infection of the blood and died. Thus an eighteen year old girl perished, and her husband was her murderer.

     In another case I know of, a husband, due to his incontinence, let his wife have three pregnancies almost without any interval. As a result of this she developed tuberculosis and died, leaving him three little orphans.

     3). The last passage I would like to look at is from I Peter 3:1, 2, 7.

     "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that if any obey not the word (i.e. Christian teaching), they also may be won without the word by the conversation of their wives; while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear" (v. 1-2).

     The Apostle is emphasizing the possibility of the wife's influencing her husband if he is not religious enough. We know that not only can a husband save his unbelieving wife, but also a wife can influence her husband if he is indifferent to religion. Thus, in some cases, a difference of opinion between spouses can be corrected by the believing one.

     Verse 7: "Likewise, ye husbands dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together in the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered."

     Here the Apostle is saying that it is essential to treat one's wife sensitively and considerately, in accordance with her psychology. We now that women are more vulnerable and sensitive than men and always expect men to be kind, considerate and protective. In the family life of Christians this is strengthened by their spiritual proximity, since the husband and wife are made one in Christ, fellow participants in the life of grace -- in the common life blessed by God. The Apostle adds: "that your prayers be not hindered." This is because in their spiritual lives the couple must constitute a "church at home" -- must turn to God together and serve Him together. How great is the loss to a Christian family if the husband and wife do not pray together! Common prayer unites them and restores all breaches in their mutual relationship.

     From the texts we have cited we see that the Apostles see the main purpose of Christian marriage not in personal satisfaction, nor even in childbirth, but in the spouses helping each other to lead a pious Christian life. A union of this kind, based on a common faith, also creates the conditions essential for the other aims of marriage: both for healthy childbirth and for correct upbringing up one's children.

     In Russian there is a wonderful word which hardly has any equivalent in English: zhalet.* In married life there is often not enough of this quality. Russian peasants in former times used to say, "He loves his wife, but he doesn't spare her" (i.e., he overburdens her with work, frequent pregnancies and so on). Of other husbands they would say "He loves his wife and he spares her..." This meant that the husband struggles with his male egoism and treats his wife kindly and considerately. It seems to me that the Apostle Peter is speaking of precisely this attitude, "according to knowledge", on the husband's part, of this considerate, protective love, which a woman values even more than sexual intimacy.

3. Childbirth and Bringing Up Children

     The Roman Catholics consider that having children is the primary function of marriage, while Orthodoxy gives first place to its spiritual purpose -- leading a pious life. St. John Chrysostom writes that "giving birth to children is a matter of nature. Far more important is the parents' task of educating their children's hearts in virtue and piety." Consequently, only a spiritually healthy marriage ensures that one's offspring will have a healthy upbringing.

     How many children there should be in a family is one of the most hotly disputed questions of our times. The complexity of contemporary city life makes it difficult to have and bring up a large number of children. Consequently, a great deal of consideration is now being given to methods of limiting childbirth.

     Different faiths hold different positions on this question. Catholicism advocates large families, and so forbids abortions and all contraceptives. The Protestants give parents a great deal of freedom and allow them to decide these questions for themselves -- sometimes they even allow abortions to be performed. But here the Protestant communions are basing their ideas mainly on humantarian and social considerations.

     Proceeding to the Orthodox viewpoint, I will not touch on abortions at all, as they are obviously contrary to God's commandments. When we speak of contraceptives, we must first examine the grounds for limiting childbirth. They can be of a personal, family or social nature.

     Personal reasons can be purely self-centered, such as when couples do not want to have any children at all so as not to complicate their married life. Such an outlook is unacceptable for us, as it rejects the spiritual aim of marriage. In addition, such marriages are often short-lived.

     Family reasons can be more well-founded as, for instance, when parents try to limit the number of their children for the good of the whole family and so they can raise the children they have in the best possible way. Sometimes this is connected with the wife's state of health -- normal deliveries are not always possible.

     The parents' responsibility for their children's upbringing and health also weighs against the Catholic view. Numerous pregnancies and anxieties for a large family often reflect on the mother's health and spiritual state. Orthodox views approach the question of the number of children more carefully, asserting that a Christian family is obliged to be more concerned about the quality of children than the quantity of them.

     On the other hand, experience shows that small families cannot guarantee a good upbringing. It is well known that a single child in a family will grow up spoiled and egotistical and there is little to ensure that he will be well-behaved towards his parents. Generally speaking, large families accustom children to being concerned about the family, to sensitivity and a family spirit.

     How many children should be considered sufficient? Nobody can give a precise indication, as the actual conditions of a given family have to be taken into account -- the parents' health, the family's material situation, whether there is a grandmother who can help the mother, and so on. Generally speaking, from a spiritual point of view one should try to have a large family, so that it will be durable and full of love, with all its members bearing the burdens of life together. Therefore, two or three children cannot be taken as the limit.

     The other side of this problem is the question of contraception.

     The Roman Catholic Church categorically forbids all methods of contraception except the "rhythm method" (using the periods when one's wife cannot conceive). At present there are many other purely artifical contraceptives; I do not consider that an analysis or critique of these is part of my task. Today I would like to mention that Christians may use the following natural methods for preventing further childbirth:

     a) Total cessation of sexual activity ("He who can receive it, let him receive it");

     b) Limiting sexual relations to a minimum;

     c) Using the rhythm method.

These are the "ascetical" methods of avoiding childbirth which Orthodox couples can use without burdening their consciences.

     Going on to the question of artificial prevention of pregnancy, we shall say that there must be serious reasons if the aforementioned natural methods are somehow unacceptable. One can only begin to think about them when the physical or moral well-being of the family demands it. For example, when further childbirth threatens the mother's health, or when healthy children cannot be born, or if the family's material circumstances cannot ensure normal birth or upbringing for the baby. Here it is impossible to give general rules. The question must be decided by the parents' conscience, and it is extremely desirable that their spiritual father should be involved in the discussion.

     As a not uncommon example, I can point to cases in which a doctor concludes that a wife cannot be sure of giving birth in the normal way, but only by operation (a Caesarean section), which threatens the wife's health and even her life. A husband who spares his wife must think over the situation very carefully.

     However, in talking about using artificial methods of contraception, we must bear in mind one factor about which people do not often speak. I want to emphasize the fact that none of these methods gives a 100 percent guarantee. A recent widespread investigation conducted by American doctors established that all these methods have a failure rate of between five and twenty-five per cent. Consequently, one has to bear in mind that pregnancy is possible. Then the family is faced with the question as to whether the fetus should be preserved. Ordinary American families which are not bound by any religious restrictions have recourse to abortion in such cases, but in an Orthodox family this decision is inadmissible.

     Here we are approaching an evaluation of the "family planning" which is so widespread in America. "Rationally thinking" parents believe that they are quite independent as far as having children is concerned. But in reality it happens that God adds a corrective factor of his own and sends a child even when the parents do not want one. From the religious point of view, it is the Supreme Will which is here intervening in the life of man. In former times, when parents knew nothing about contraceptives, they relied exclusively on God's will. Children were born and they accepted the last one just as they had the first, saying "God gave the child, He will also give what we need for the the child". Such was the faith of our ancestors in God's Providence, and it often happened that the last child proved to be the best or most necessary for the family.

     If it is now difficult to expect all parents to be so completely resigned to God's will, yet, in a case of unexpected pregnancy they should see the intervention of God's Providence, and accept this child as a gift from above. Amazingly enough, I have observed God's real goodness in such cases, for such children are truly a blessing for the family -- either richly gifted or the most considerate, real protectors in the parents' old age.

     I will briefly cite two vivid examples. In the Soviet Union a mother of three children lost her husband, a priest, who was exiled for ten years. All her neighbors advised an abortion, since it was very difficult to survive with four children at that time. However, the believing matushka refused an abortion and had her baby. It is true that she had to have her daughter fostered by a single woman, but five years later the war began and the matushka found herself in Germany with her two younger daughters. This last daughter was the more faithful and affectionate towards her both in Germany and in the United States, until she buried her mother in the cemetery at Novo-Diveyevo.

     The other instance was also with a refugee family. The mother insisted on letting her third child, a girl, be born when this could have been forestalled. During the war the husband ended up abroad with the older children, but the youngest daughter alone remained with her in the Soviet Union and looked after her in her old age.

4. Reasons Why Marriages Fail

     The reasons for this are very numerous. I will dwell only on the most important.

     A. The couple grow cool towards one another. American psychologists consider that marriages go through their most critical period in the first three years and then in the tenth year. Statistics show that fifty per cent of all divorces occur in the first three years. We can assume that this occurs with those marriages that are contracted too early or hurriedly. The fact that fifty per cent of all marriages contracted before the age of twenty end in divorce also points to this. The older people are when they marry, the lower the percentage of divorces.

     Obviously, we are dealing here with the causes of which we spoke in the first part: people who get married under the influence of passion or first impressions more often than not become disilliusioned with one another. This is also the case with marriages where sexual relations are supposed to be most important. A marriage cannot last long on this alone, because there should also be other common interests between the husband and wife. Women in particular cannot be satisfied by sexuality alone. Surveys have shown that in marriage a woman seeks first of all emotional love; secondly, security; thirdly, friendship; fourthly, a home and family; fifthly, a place in society and only in last place -- physical intimacy with her husband. If a man does not understand this feature of his wife's psychology, then his marriage will be short-lived.

     A priest cannot do much to help in such cases. Therefore he should concentrate on trying to avert early marriages, pointing out their risks and consequences.

     A priest can help more in subsequent years, when even more natural marriages are threatened with divorce. In these cases it is necessary first of all to determine the fundamental cause that is destroying the integrity of the marriage. Most frequently is is one of those listed below.

     B. Difference of opinions. Here we encounter inner disagreements, about questions of religion, for example, or the methods of bringing up children -- about the purposes of marriage in general. Mixed marriages suffer most often from discord of this kind, since there is no unity over the question of the children's religious upbringing.

     The situation is the same when the couple belong to the same faith but are not on the same spiritual level. Here the pastor should advise the more indifferent spouse to leave the upbringing of the children to the other -- usually the mother, insofar as women are more religious than men. The same method can be used in a mixed marriage, where the guidance of the children's religious upbringing should remain in the Orthodox mother's hands. This is motivated by the children's interests, so as to avoid a duality in their religious upbringing.

     The most difficult cases of disagreement in marriage occur when the husband, say, is a total unbeliever. If there are children in such cases, then the wife must have a great deal of support from the pastor, who must defend her rights to bring up her children in her own religion. If this does not succeed, a serious conflict may arise. If there are no children, then all attention must be transferred to the wife, to help her bear her heavy cross patiently. Here she needs deep faith and great huility. According to American law, a divorce is possible here, but from the Church's point of view it is inadmissible.

     C. Unmatched character. This includes purely external, day to day, domestic disagreements. Often the temperaments of the couple suffer from these deficiencies of character. This tells heavily on the mother, and also on the children. In these cases the pastor has a large field of action for reconciliation and pacification of their family life. Without taking sides, the pastor should try to influence both -- to make one more restrained and peaceable, and the other more patient and humble. He must emphasize the bad influence that quarrels have on the children and how inadmissible they are in a Christian family. If the family is not very religious he must insist that they attend church more regularly and prepare for Communion more often.

     Sometimes close relatives, such as the parents of husband or wife, are mixed up in these family discords. In such cases, the priest must influence them also, pointing out how essential peace and concord are in an Orthodox family.

     D. Unfaithfulness. This is hardly ever encountered in happy, pious families, but in unsuccessful families -- those suffering from one of the types of discord mentioned above -- one can always expect unfaithfulness, which can finally destroy a marriage. Therefore, a priest must pay closer attention to such families, so as to avert this, if possible.

     We have already noted that absence of children, disagreement between husband and wife or cooling of feelings between them create the danger that they will be tempted to seek other attachments.

     We must also make a distinction between incidental unfaithfulness and a serious feeling for another person, one that has acquired a lasting nature. If it is a chance case, the pastor must try to incline the deceived party towards forgiveness and reconciliation, and to restore mutual trust. If the infidelity comes to light at confession, then the matter can be limited to repentance and a penance, and telling the other party about it. If one party knows or suspects unfaithfulness, then it is best if the priest act as an intermediary to reconcile them. Also, if the unfaithfulness was caused by some abnormality in the couple's relationship, it is essential to discuss it with them so as to remove the cause of infidelity for the future.

     Often infidelity results from a long absence on the part of the husband, or from his being overburdened with work and so unable to pay sufficient attention to his wife and children. Here ways must be found to stop the wife from feeling neglected, albeit with a certain reduction in the husband's earnings. Similarly, the wife must not be so engrossed in her cares as a mother and housekeeper that she forgets about her husband.

     The matter becomes more complicated when the wife gives birth to another man's child. Here the pastor must make every effort to ensure that things do not end in abortion. It is essential not only to preserve the child's life, but also to persuade the husband to accept him into the family. The moral basis for this is as follows: the child is not to blame that he came into the world through adultery, so it is better to accept him into the family than to leave him without father or mother and thus ruin his life. If the baby is refused, the mother will grieve and suffer torments of conscience. But if the child remains in the family, then the mother will not only be calm, but she will also feel gratitude and respect towards her husband.

     In pre-revolutionary Russia such cases were frequent when husbands were away for four or five years on military service. Usually, especially among the peasantry, husbands would accept such a child so as not to destroy the family. This was regarded as a good Christian act. I know of such instances from my own experience, and in large families this fact passed quite unnoticed by the other children. Nevertheless, the pastor must exhort the husband to take a perfectly normal attitude towards a child of this sort and never to reveal his birth.

     It is harder to reconcile a childless couple when a child is born in this way. In my experience I have not had an instance of this sort, but I have heard that some husbands have accepted such a child in order not to distress the wife who, of course, had offered repentance for her infidelity.

     In all cases cited above, the pastor's main aim has been to preserve the family and prevent divorce. It must be remembered that it is always the deceived party and, of course, the children who suffer from a divorce. Sometimes the party guilty of infidelity suffers too. Therefore, preserving even a marriage which is not entirely successful must be considered a great success on the part of the priest, who is preserving the children from the loss of a family, and the parents -- from the severe consequences of loneliness.

     To this end the pastor must make use of all the methods of pastoral exhortation and also of prayer for couples that are at enmity. In the event of a reconciliation a moleben (service) of thanksgiving can be served, with the addition of prayers for the reconciliation of those at enmity, which are to be found in the Book of Needs.

5. Divorce

     In this part I will be brief, as the divorce procedure is of formal nature and has an established order. Of course, even here the priest must try to dissuade both parties from divorce and reconcile them.

     From the Orthodox point of view, a divorce is confirmed if a marriage blessed by the Church is destroyed. If it cannot be restored then it must be declared non-existent and the couple freed from the vows they have taken.

     In accordance with the Church's canons, divorces are allowed in the following three cases: 1) If adultery has been committed; 2) If one of the spouses is absent without trace for more than three years; and 3) If the husband is incapable of conjugal cohabitation.

     Divorce is within the competence of the ruling bishop. A petition for divorce is given to the bishop, who assigns an experienced priest to carry out an investigation of the matter -- to check the facts, gather testimony from witnesses, demand an explanation from the accused party, and so on. If possible, a last attempt at reconciliation is made, especially if there are children. After this the matter enters the Spiritual Court of the diocese, which can either confirm the divorce or return it for the gathering of supplementary data. Finally, the decision of the Spiritual Court is confirmed by the bishop.

     It should be borne in mind that in the United States and Canada an ecclesiastical divorce is effectual only after a civil divorce has been obtained. Therefore, attempts at reconciliation must be made until the civil divorce is completed.

     A divorced husband or wife, if not guilty of infidelity, can immediately enter into a new Christian marriage. But the guilty party can marry a second time only after the penance for adultery has been lifted.

* Zhalet means something between "to take pity on", "to take care of", and "to spare". Here we have translated it as "to spare" for want of a better word. (Trans.) (Click here to return to the text.)
Source: Orthodox Life, Volume 25, No. 5 (Sep.-Oct. 1975), pages 17-26, and Volume 25, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1975), pages 22-28.

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