There are many facets adorning the sacrament of marriage. In this brief essay, I want to focus on the role of pleasure, delight and mutual joy.
The Book of Common Prayer proclaims that the first purpose of sacramental marriage is “for their mutual joy.” The obvious meaning has to do with the joy that a married couple find in each other with each other in the exclusive domain of marriage, but leaving it there would miss a far more important meaning.
Mutual joy also means, in a much broader way, the delight each takes in that which delights the other, even if it is not something that they share together. Married couples often begin their lives together wrapped up in each other to the exclusion of other relationships and interests, but that cannot be maintained. Each of us has obligations and interests that take us away from the exclusive domain of marriage. Some of them bring us great pleasure and delight. They also engage us in relationships with other people that have their own dynamics independent of yet having an effect on marriage. Work is a primary example, and we certainly hope that work gives one pleasure and delight. In most cases, work is a realm well apart from the exclusive domain of married life. What goes on at work can be shared in part, but not in whole. Nevertheless, what delights one about his or her work can be shared, and encouraged, one for the other. Hobbies, sports, intellectual and artistic pursuits, and so much more involve activities that may bring great delight into a person’s life. It’s nice if some of them are shared with a spouse, but it’s not a requirement. What is required is for each to find delight in that which provides pleasure and delight for the other. And, parenthetically, to also share the burdens of disappointment.
My spouse, for example, may enjoy running, even to the point of participating in organized races. I, on the other hand, may dislike running to the point of avoiding it at all costs. At the same time, I can take delight in the delight it gives to her, and take pleasure in being present to encourage her on. It’s only one example, and probably not a very good one, but there are as many other examples as there are interests and activities in which to be involved.
At least from the standpoint of marriage as a Christian sacrament, a Godly covenant into which two people enter, mutual joy is far more than the exclusive domain of the marriage embrace. If God’s purpose for married couples involves mutual joy, then it implies an obligation on each to create and maintain conditions in which each can find and experience that which gives pleasure and delight.
In other words, marriage is not a spectator sport, it is not a passive activity. Each partner is obligated to take an active interest in that which delights the other, and each is obligated to openly share that delight as much as possible.
When that doesn’t happen, couples, as they say, drift apart. Each pursues pleasure and that which delights them without regard for the other, without sharing that delight with the other, without taking delight in, or even caring about, that which delights the other, and without doing the work of enabling and supporting that which delights the other.
There are, of course, limits. So called pleasures and delights that betray and corrode the exclusive domain of marriage are beyond the limits. That is why the marriage covenant includes the injunction that, forsaking all others, each will be faithful to the other until death.
It would be nice if it all worked out in such a simple way, but we are complicated creatures, and, as the hymn says, prone to wander. It’s too easy to get bored, forgetful, lazy, and sloppy in marriage. It’s too easy to take each other for granted, to become too comfortable in routines that lead toward relational atrophy. It’s too easy to give up responsibility for our own well being and good health. It’s too easy to fail to take responsibility for our own happiness. Sometimes it’s too easy to expect the exclusive domain of marriage to provide for all our needs and solve all our problems.
Marriage is work, but God intends it to be work for our mutual joy.