Deciding to Enter into Marriage: The First Rule of Marriage

In this cycle of conversations on “The Grammar of family life” Archpriest Paul Gumerov speaks on how marriage is understood in the Orthodox Church, on what foundations it should be built, what kinds of problems people will face in family life, and how they can avoid or overcome them.

The first conversation in the cycle is devoted to problems that young men and women ask themselves as they consider marriage: what is the purpose of marriage from the point of view of a Christian, how to choose a partner in life, whether to blindly succumb to the feeling of infatuation, whether they should necessarily get married, and whether marriage with the heterodox and others is possible for an Orthodox Christian.

The first rule of marriage: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”

Hello, dear friends. The theme of our meeting today is the decision to enter into marriage. People who want to start a family come to me, as to any priest, quite often, and it’s wonderful. The family is one of the most beautiful creations of God. It is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18) says the Lord. We are fulfilling the commandment of God when we want to create a family, and enter into marriage.

I think every person who doesn’t want to take up monasticism, that is, to strictly serve God in the monastic rank, should, of course, contemplate creating a family. But often enough it turns out that people are not able to start a family, and they are not always women. It’s known that women are more family-oriented, and the desire to start a family is, as a rule, stronger in them than in men, especially in the modern world—but we have more women than men in Russia. And, oddly enough, not only women remain single, unable for years to find their familial happiness, but men also. Men thirty to forty years old, who have no visible barriers to starting a family, come to me. These were people successful in life, well-brought up, with very pleasing looks, working, having received a good education… But they said they couldn’t decide, couldn’t find that one girl with whom they could go through life; or somehow they can’t communicate well with the opposite sex.

Fr. Pavel Gumerov

 Of course, there are various reason for this. Men of thirty to forty years, it would seem, meet all the conditions and have all the qualifications for starting a family. But it often happens that the reason they can’t do it lies within—an internal reason. One man is internally unprepared for family life; he incorrectly understands family life. He, maybe, had no such experience, no example from his parents: he was raised by a single mother or his father paid no attention to the family, and maybe he some saw conflicts in his family, or disorder, which now prevent him from forming a correct image about how a modern family should look. It’s one kind of immaturity about which Met. Anthony of Sourozh speaks, having written many fantastic books on family life. And although Met. Anthony himself was not a family man, he had great spiritual experience.

People, unfortunately, don’t really understand what a family is—it is first and foremost a ministry; it’s the desire to give someone your love: It is more blessed to give than to receive, as it says in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s great toil in the name of another person—a desire to make them happy, and not simply to receive from them some kind of “simple womanly happiness” or “simple manly happiness.”

Many call society itself, in which we live, a consumer society, a hedonistic society. We are all oriented towards consumption, towards entertaining people; and people, often raised in an incomplete family, don’t have experience in serving other people: for them everything revolved around themselves. The head of the family in which this person grew up wasn’t even the man, not even the wife, but the child—he himself, around which the family built its life. And such a person is either searching for a woman who will serve him that way, and not him serve her, or he is simply generally not focused on the fact that marriage requires serious work.

Our talks, I hope, will help people find familial happiness, and the answers to the questions that are important to them to prepare themselves for family life… And these talks, of course, are first and foremost aimed at those people who want to start a family, who have as yet not started one; however it will be interesting for family people to listen to these talks too, in order to sort out some important questions and disputes that they have in their family life.

The closest people

What do the Holy Scriptures say about starting a family? We already noted the commandment, It is not good for man to be alone. Therefore the family is the creation of God. As Blessed Augustine said, “it is a shard, a remnant of Paradise on earth.” We know we cannot create Paradise on earth. That which the Communists offered us is a utopia. And such efforts usually end in a concentration camp: people who want to live better necessarily appear, grasp at something, and they begin to oppress others. How is it that families can be different? Because family life is built not on principles of joint effort, or business, or on the oppression of one person by another, but on the principles of love. It’s by love precisely that you can find Paradise and peace in your soul and find Paradise in a single family community.

Holy Scripture also says to us: and they twain shall be one flesh… What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Mt. 19:5-6). Mankind was created immediately as a family unit, as units of society, in which people’s lives are built on the principles of love; and in marriage they should become one soul and one body. Why did the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians, which is read in the Mystery of Matrimony, call marriage a mystery: This is a great mystery (Eph. 5:32)? Because marriage, even if it’s not crowned[1] but is concluded by law, is always a mystery. Imagine: two people of different upbringings, from completely different families (that is, they shouldn’t be blood relatives, by definition), man and woman—inherently two very different creatures meet and become the closest, immediate family—such that a closer one doesn’t exist! They are even closer than children and parents, because parents and children are the first degree of kinship, but man and woman in marriage, husband and wife, is the zero-degree of kinship. Closer can’t even be conceived of. Even our secular, completely non-ecclesiastical laws have some points saying that husband and wife are the closest relatives. It concerns, for example, inheritances and other material points. And modern people, unfortunately, often don’t understand the mystery of this closeness. They consider that if a guy and a girl love one another it’s enough, and no formalities are necessary to begin living together, and this “great love is more than enough for us,” so that it’s a marriage. No, that’s no kind of marriage and no kind of family, because a family is when two people become one whole, the closest, the very closest of kin to one another, before one another, before God, and before the law.

When marriage is impossible

What kinds of obstacles to marriage exist? Indeed, not every person can start a family—not for those reasons I talked about in the beginning, but because of their ineptitude for family life or because it is impossible for some reason. First is an already-existing marriage. A man, finding himself in marriage, can’t begin a new family: he’s not free. Polygamy is not allowed by law here in Russia—even in traditional Islamic regions polygamy is outlawed. You can start a family only with one person.

There are rules concerning particularly Christians. Many people, especially girls, want to start a family with a person of a different faith—another Christian confession or even an altogether other religion, for example with a Muslim. Such problems are often encountered. The rules of the Church categorically reject such marriages. For example, Canon 72 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council says that to unite in marriage is impossible in every case not only with a non-Christian, but even with a heterodox Christian, that is, with those aren’t Orthodox Christians, confessing some sort of heresy, but yet calling themselves Christians. Until the era of Peter I in Russia no one was crowned, no one concluded a marriage with a heterodox—with a Catholic, a Protestant or other non-Orthodox Christians. Under Peter a “window to Europe” was hacked open, and a flood of foreigners came to Russia to serve and work, and the problem of mixed-marriages began to appear. Under certain conditions it was permitted to conclude such spousal unions. What conditions? Spouses should be crowned only in the Orthodox Church and children should be raised according to Orthodox Tradition, even if the husband—the head of the family—was, for example, a Lutheran. Again, such marriages appeared only in the eighteenth century from the times of Peter.

What kinds of age restrictions are laid upon Orthodox Christians? The same as are defined by the laws of our state. If people have reached the marriageable age adopted by the state, they can marry. In 1830 the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a resolution according to which the marriageable age for men is 18 and for girls 16. In the Caucasus region slightly different ages were prescribed.

Kinship is also an obstacle to marriage. Marriage is categorically prohibited for any degree of direct kinship in any vertical branch: parents, children, grandparents, and so on. As for horizontal branches: brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews, cousins, second cousins and so on—it’s prohibited to enter into marriage up to and including the fourth degree of kinship. If it’s the fifth degree of kinship then usually you take the blessing of the diocesan hierarch, and then you can get married. But in modern cities such situations are very rarely met. Such familial considerations are more often met in rural areas, where relatives live not far from one another.

About spiritual kinship, which we enter into when we become Godparents of someone’s children … Such relationships also connect people, and in some situations marriages are not permitted. For example, a man, having become the Godfather of a woman’s child, cannot get married to this woman, if she becomes a widow. Here there isn’t a relation by blood, or by marriage, but these people are bound by ties of spiritual kinship.

Incapacity, caused by sickness, is also a barrier to concluding a marriage. If a man, on account of a psychological illness cannot perform some legal action (marriage is not only a spiritual institution, but also a state matter), he cannot enter into marriage, as well as if there is some physical disability towards marriage and the spousal life. We’re not talking about the inability to procreate, because procreation is not the sole purpose of marriage, but namely about the inability to enter into martial cohabitation.

Older, younger…

As concerns the age difference between the bride and groom, the canons don’t discuss it. Marriages, as we know, happen between different age groups; but speaking from my priestly experience, I think that the optimal situation is when the spouses are either peers, or of no more than a five year difference, especially if it’s the man who is five years older. If the woman is five years older it’s fraught with all kinds of negative consequences. It’s known that men age slower and their reproductive capabilities last much longer. When there is a difference between the husband and wife, for example, of ten-fifteen years, when they are still young, there isn’t a great impact: twenty and thirty-five. But the further along, the more temptations appear, and many people who not spiritually strong, and even those who are spiritually strong, can stumble on this. Therefore, it’s not banned, but all the same it’s common sense to avoid it.

What’s worth considering

I would like to switch to questions most often put forth in connection with this theme of getting married and starting a family.

—What should be the most important thing in deciding to get married? And isn’t there a risk in thinking too rationally about marital questions? After all, if we think, consider, and ponder everything beforehand, then it’s like we’re purchasing some item—for example, we’re deciding upon a cell phone, comparing options, functions, price, quality…

Naturally, in marriage we should shun such an approach. But to get married just because we like this person, because some kind of feeling welled-up, sparks flew between us, completely without thinking about whether this person has the qualities that are necessary in family life, without thinking about what kind of father he will be, what kind of mother she will be for our children—of course this we must not do, especially for a person who is planning to get ordained, for example. We had such a situation in seminary: one youngster was planning to get married to one young lady, but his classmates saw that this girl was totally secular and not ready to become a priest’s wife, a matushka, and unanimously advised him against taking this step. He got married anyways. It ended up quite sad, because after some time— actually pretty soon—they separated. This young man is now agonizing—he can’t get married a second time because he was ordained—although he isn’t to blame for the marriage disintegrating: the wife threw it away herself… And he didn’t become a priest; he remained a deacon, because of this as well, perhaps.

What qualities should we first of all look at in our future other half? The preparedness, as I already said, to get married, and the family of our chosen one. We must pay attention to what kind of family they come from. If they have some kind problem in their relationships with their relatives it could affect our marriage too. We’ll say more about this in the second talk.

Of course, every person has his requirements and criteria for choosing his co-traveler in life. But we, as rational creations, having reason from God, should all the same think seriously and imagine for ourselves what kind of qualities our chosen one, the mother or father of our future children, should possess.

Infatuation is not love!

—Infatuation and love—how not to confuse them? Is it important in the very beginning to wait for sincere love?

In short, I will say: infatuation and love, despite their outward appearances, are very different feelings. Infatuation has been very seriously medically studied. From infatuation, from this euphoria a person flies, as if on wings, has butterflies in his stomach, and has other kinds of purely bodily sensations … Even the composition of his blood changes. If you were to show him a picture of his beloved and immediately analyze his blood, it would become clear that he has elevated levels of certain substances. We know that hormones have a lot of influence on a person’s behavior. The brain produces dopamine, serotonin—“the happiness hormone,” in women oxytocin and in men testosterone. The hormonal field changes in a person and causes him to experience euphoria, like mild natural narcotics. If an infatuated person had an MRI, it would be clear that certain centers of his brain were working totally different. Of course, any sensible person understands that in marriage—ten-fifteen-twenty-twenty-five-fifty years—this won’t continue. In marriage there is something different—that which we call love. Love is a feeling of unity with our loved one, when their pain becomes our pain, their joy our joy, when you are willing to sacrifice something for this person, when you can’t live without them—not just because it’s pleasing for you to be with them, but when you are truly ready to give: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

—Is it necessary to be crowned? What if in the future the marriage suddenly falls apart, which is entirely possible? Isn’t it better after all to wait?

I think that for Orthodox people here the answer is unambiguous. Usually couples where one person is not very church-going ask this question. If speaking about Orthodox Christians, then their marriage should be crowned and blessed by the Orthodox Church—this is perfectly clear. But if one half is not ready to be crowned, then, I think, we should not drag and force them into it.

With that I would like to say goodbye until our next meeting, and to wish you all peace, joy, and love. May God protect you all!


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