Several months ago, I was at a restaurant and saw the parents of a friend with whom I gone to grade school, middle school, and high school. They were sitting at a table near the center of the restaurant, and I saw them from the table in the corner where I was sitting. While I waited for my food, I focused on them for a few seconds. It was just the two of them; neither my old friend nor her younger brother was there. My friend’s parents were eating dinner and talking, simply enjoying each other’s company. After a few seconds, I went to go say “hi” to them, and I asked them how their daughter, my old friend, was doing. With a kind smile, my friend’s mother said, “You know how it is. She goes from here to there doing her thing.” Without any sort of conscious effort, I registered the implications of what she had said, asked them to please say “hi” to my friend when they saw her, and with that left them so that they could continue eating their dinner. I went to go get my drink, and I returned to my table.
Since that day and up to the present one, that small scene I observed has stayed etched in my memory. What I saw was a moment of time shared between only husband and wife. It was time shared between a couple with grown children, children that in a few years will be moving out of the family home. These are children that study, have their own jobs, and like any other spend time with their friends. Moreover, these are children that do spend time with their family. The reality is that these children are no longer little. They are going to continue spending time with and loving their parents, but they will neither always live with them nor occupy the majority of their schedules. What I saw when I focused on my friend’s parents in the restaurant was the image of the foundation of a family. I saw the people with whom everything starts and also those with whom it all ends.
Sadly, in this day and age many families are broken. There are many, many divorces. There are many children who grow up without ever living with or even knowing about one of their parents. Despite the fact that the familial structure has suffered much in recent years, there are still married couples and united families. The foundation of those marriages and of those families as well as any type of relationship that produces children is the couple. A man and a woman form a unit, the one that leads to the creation of family. The initial unit is the couple, and that unit should be there through it all and till the end. When a couple, husband and wife, are together their whole lives in a good, healthy, and genuine relationship, it speaks to the base upon which the relationship was built; particularly, it says that the relationship is based on principles and can last despite the challenges life poses. It says that, come what may, the union will last.
For that kind of lasting union and marriage to be possible, it is necessary that from the beginning there be a bond that unites the two people and inspires them to be together and stay together. This can start with the simplest but also one of the most powerful bonds, that of friendship. From there, romantic love can flourish if it was not in fact romantic interest or love that manifested itself first. Supposing that both friendship and love are present in a couple’s relationship, the most natural thing to assume would be that each person is important to the other and not just out of a sense of commitment or “duty” but rather because they are loved and appreciated by the other. This sense of importance comes from the heart and is converted into a desire to love, protect, respect, care for, and come through for the other person. This desire to do everything for the other person is evidence of a bond of love and affection capable of lasting, of a love like a flame that is ignited and is never extinguished.
Oppositely, there are couples in which the bonds that unite them ultimately do not last. There are couples that are bound together by a fleeting exchange of passion, which is not sufficient to ensure that there is respect between the two individuals or that the relationship will have longevity. There are couples that have time together during a relationship and do seem to have some type of genuine affection or interest, even if only for a limited span of time; these individuals have sex and end up with a child. The new life that a child brings is a blessing and should reinforce an already existing affectionate relationship, but it shouldn’t be a glue that can bond and keep together two people who never loved each other in the first place. A child doesn’t serve as that kind of glue, and this is why there are so many cases in which two people who were once a couple have child and do not remain together after having it. In many cases, they work together to provide and care for the child, but that is a delegation of tasks between two people who at the end of the day only have in common a child and the desire to give it the best. This is admirable, but insufficient. It shows that the foundation of the relationship, what the two individuals had before participating in the act that creates life, was not something lasting. The parents of the child can stay in contact and collaborate in order to better raise and care for the child, and they can do this with much love for the child. However, this “bond” exists for the good of the child, and it does not demonstrate the genuine love that leads to the preservation of the parental unit. Bonds based exclusively on the children are evidence of situations in which the couple, the unit that is the foundation of the family, does not last and carries with it diminished importance.
This devaluation of the unit of the couple is not only sad, but problematic. If as a society we are willing to relegate the importance of the couple, it indicates that we do not value relationships based on something more than duty. A couple should be united in matrimony by mutual love between the two individuals, not by a strictly functional relationship for the sake of the children. This supposes that in the couple each person is important to the other.
I remember these things each time I think of a scene of the program One Tree Hill. In this scene, the small child of a couple had been kidnapped by his grandfather, who was neither mentally nor morally sane. The child’s mother was naturally in a state of panic while the police tried to find her son, and between sobs she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. My son is all I have in this world!” Upon hearing this while watching the episode, I lost all focus on the plot; to me, hearing those words was equivalent to hearing someone scratch their fingernails on a chalkboard. I grimaced, and a flood of thoughts full of sarcasm and paradox ran through my mind: “Oh, you’re right! You really don’t have anyone or anything more than your son. Your loyal friends don’t count. Your husband, who is your best friend, the father of your child, and the love of your life, doesn’t count either! Yes, in actuality you have NOTHING and NO ONE more than your son.” For this character, her commentary that her son was all she had in the world was far from the truth; she had many things and many people in her life, but she chose to devalue all of those people and things in that moment of crisis. At the end of the day, this was just a scene in a completely fictitious TV series. However, I’ve heard it said that fiction reflects some kind of reality, and this scene did precisely that.
The reality is that there are people who devalue the significant other in their relationship and many times other people in their lives as well. The woman in the scene I described was in a state of panic, which is completely understandable considering her circumstances, but even then what she said was completely incorrect, especially considering how much she supposedly loved and valued her husband. Just because one’s child disappears, grows up and goes to live in his or her own house, or for some reason is not present the way he or she was during childhood is no reason to act as if one’s spouse has suddenly stopped carrying some kind of significance. Similarly, the fact that some are unable to conceive of children naturally does not signify that one’s spouse has not served his or her “purpose” or that he or she stops being important. In the majority of cases, marriages –and nowadays many relationships and even flings- lead to children, but the children are neither the root of the family or the end to be met in a marriage. The couple is the root of the family, and the relationship and connection between the two people that form it are valuable and important. This is important to keep in mind because there is a tendency to “present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation.” A couple can be infertile and unable to ever have children, but that does not mean that the couple will lack a lasting and loving bond. This is because children are not the only important thing that comes from a marriage. If they are present, they are very important -of this there is no doubt; however, they are not everything. This is because couples that were unable to have children; that have children who have grown up and left the nest; or that have sadly lost one or more of their children can stay together. These are couples that find happiness in a good relationship that became a marriage, which does not depend on the presence of children. These couples find happiness in the friendship and affection that is shared by the two of them.
This happens because for each person in a couple, being part of the family is as much about being close to and present in the lives of the children as it is about being close to their partner. Not long ago, I heard someone say that it is important that a father be “close to his children as they grow,” but it is also important that “he be close to his wife, to share everything, joy and sorrow, hope and hardship.” The man is not just a father; he is also a husband, and a great deal of his value comes from his presence as an individual in the couple. This applies equally to the woman, who is as much a mother and a wife and whose value resides in both roles. The man and the woman should not be together as a couple in a strictly functional relationship: in other words, valuing the other person only because of their function as a parent. The two individuals in the couple should be important to one another because of shared love and affection between them and all that those things lead to.
It is precisely that that I saw when I focused on my friend’s parents: a union that has lasted and that will continue to last in great part because there is more than time and functional commitment that unites them. These couples are united by love, affection, shared goals, and shared history. This is something I have also seen in the marriages of my parents, grandparents, godparents, and others. They share more than being the parents of the same kids. This is important because “Nowadays we are grateful too for the witness of marriages that have not only proved lasting, but also fruitful and loving” in that they possess a shared project and lasting affection. Couples that have these kinds of marriages created their relationships on a foundation of friendship and love. They have passed through good times and bad times together. They have made beautiful memories together. They have developed and grown together; they have pursued their goals together. They have had children and raised them, and these couples have stayed together not solely for the benefit of said children. They have stayed together because of the friendship and love that they shared with one another since before their children were born. They have stayed together because they have shared the experience of being parents and because they have lived something that is terribly rare these days: loving and staying together with the person with whom they had children. What happened here was not that man and woman were used like instruments used to procreate and grant momentary pleasure; what happened was that two people loved each other and made a commitment based on that love, and an entire life resulted from it.
Upon seeing my friend’s parents at that restaurant, I saw that type of couple, and it reminded me that everything comes from the couple: commitment, memories, new life, and a bond and love that outlasts even death. All of this comes from a couple that has a good foundation for their relationship. Oppositely, if a couple does not have a good foundation, it wouldn’t be too surprising if bad things resulted. It would show a lack of contemplation to not give any attention to couples: Who do you go out with? With whom do you share your time and your love? Who will you decide to marry and share your life with? Upon starting a relationship, it should be taken into account that the couple is the unit that has the potential to be everything or to be an anchor. And, if based on love, it is the unit of people with whom it all starts and those with whom it ends.
 Amoris Lætitia 2016, 27.
 Amoris Lætitia 2016, 28.