November 15, 2008
A decision to marry at all, and to marry a particular person, involves a series of questions that should be answered prior to making the final decision: are we compatible?, what attracts us to the other person?, are there any circumstances surrounding the decision that make it harder or easier to decide?, what do we know about marriage itself, and about the other person?, are we free to decide, or is someone pressuring us to marry?, do we normally make decisions of this magnitude impulsively?
These questions are central to the issue of Grave Lack of Discretionary Judgment, one of the grounds that can be used to determine if a marriage was invalid from the beginning. The first thing to be examined is: what did the person know about marriage, in general? Not surprisingly, many people come from what is now commonly termed a ‘dysfunctional family.’ One or both parents may have been alcoholic, verbally, physically, or emotionally abusive, and/or rigid in understanding of the roles of husband/wife and father/mother; family members may not show love or affection for each other; there may be multiple divorces in the immediate or extended family. Even such common mental health issues such as a parent’s depression or anxiety can prevent a person from having a sufficient understanding of what marriage is all about.
The next item to consider is: what did the person know about the spouse before marriage? People can get so caught up in the excitement of being ‘in love’ that they ignore ‘red flags’ that others clearly see. But there are things that a person needs to know about a future spouse, such as: what are their parents and siblings like?, how does the person relate to his/her own family?, what do your friends and family think of the person?, how much have you talked to each other about your future goals and expectations of marriage and of each other?, are there things about the other person he/she is hiding from you – like problems with alcohol or drugs, a previous history of abuse or being abused? Obviously, we’re not saying that a background check has to be run on someone you’re dating (although that might be a good idea if you met through an on-line dating service!), but these are important things to know about a future spouse.
We next explore how the decision to marry this particular person was arrived at. This is called the ‘critical evaluation’ in terms of marriage in general, the motives for marrying, and the reason to marry John/Jane instead of Steve/Stephanie. Did the person ask him/herself: am I ready to marry?, why do I want to get married now?, what are the good and bad points of marriage at this time in my life?, what is my understanding of marriage?, how will marriage to this person enrich my own life and how will I enrich his/her life?, do my family and friends think I’m ready to marry?
Finally, we look at the person’s internal freedom to make the decision to marry. Were there any special circumstances going on in his/her life that influenced the decision or motives – such as premarital pregnancy, family disapproval of cohabitation, belief that no one else would ever love him/her, desire to marry anyone just to get away from a bad situation. Did the person have sufficient internal freedom to look objectively at the reasons for and against marriage and to control impulsive choices? If a person always made important decisions based on impulse or ‘feelings,’ it’s almost a sure thing that the decision to marry was also an impulse.
Naturally, we understand that a person usually decides to marry due to feelings of love. This emotion is very strong and can stop a person from making a rational decision. However, it must be clear that love itself is a choice – an act of the will. As such, it can be ‘checked’ or ‘put aside’ in order to see more clearly whether the assessment of a person as potential spouse was made with sufficient knowledge, deliberation, and freedom.
Marriage is a very important step for people to take. It deserves a time of rational reflection and judgment, as empty as possible from the emotions of the moment. You are, after all, pledging to ‘love, honor and cherish’ another person for the rest of your life! So take some time to really look at yourself, the other person, and marriage itself to decide if this is what you desire most in life.
Mary Tarver is a tribunal judge who was formerly employed by the Bismarck Diocese. She now works as a tribunal judge in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.