The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated a week in February as National Marriage Week for us to celebrate the blessings of traditional marriage. My reflection on that took me to Southeast Asia where I grew up and a region that shows alarming rates of decline in marriage.
There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but of particular interest to me is that as women gain more education in some Southeast Asian countries, they are less likely to marry.
The role of women and particularly their relationships with their husbands in Asian marriages have probably not evolved to the same extent as they have in married couples in the U.S. This is not just a matter of whether household chores and care for children are shared (they are less so in Asian households), but pertains to the bedrock of any long-term loving relationship: good communication, mutual respect, sharing in decision-making, growing together and fidelity.
In some countries, more women than men seek graduate degrees. But attitudes, roles and cultural norms take time to evolve and the gap between women’s expectations and their spouses’ ability to find the common ground needs attention and work.
In my work with Catholic Relief Services, we work to support natural family planning. We recognize that it is not just a method for child spacing, but that it also embeds the hope that husband and wife will welcome a child with love and longing as the most sacred gift from God.
One of our programs works with couples to develop communication skills, to learn about maternal health and nutrition, and to engage in mutual decision-making pertaining to anything from finance to child rearing to provisions for the safe delivery of the baby.
It is a first step for husbands and wives to learn to relate, to be considerate of the other, empathize, cherish each other and see themselves bonded as a couple. Other programs embed a focus on livelihood. It enables women and their families to reverse perpetual hunger and poverty. These programs build a level of security, of self-worth, and dignity, which in turn fosters happier marriages and families.
I often think that our vows would be audacious unless we recognize that Christian marriage is a divine pact: God is in us, God gives us to each other, God is with us, his grace is ever there for the asking.
Marriage grows through challenges and heartaches. I was deeply moved when a childhood friend told me that her faith truly grew when she decided to stay in a very difficult marriage when families and friends all advised her to seek a divorce. She did not want that and sought God because she could not do it on her own.
She now has chronic pain, and he is paralyzed from a stroke, but they have a new sense of appreciation for each other, eyes to see each other and hearts that open up for another chapter of this love story.
Love, disappointments, betrayals, wounds, healing, forgiveness, redemption, new life — these sound like the Easter story in the microcosm of a marriage.
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.