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How to marry well

Interfaith and interdenominational marriage is widely discouraged in the Orthodox Church. Amelia offers practical advice for single Orthodox Christians on why and how to go about finding an Orthodox spouse.
Unlike the wedding ceremonies in most non-Orthodox churches, marriage in the Orthodox Church is not a contract—a legal agreement with the exchange of vows or promises—between two people. Rather, marriage is the setting up, by two people, of a miniature church, a family church, wherein people may worship the true God and struggle to save their souls. It is also a family church that is in obedience to Christ's Church. As Saint Basil the Great says, it is natural to marry, but it must be more than natural; it must be a yoke, borne by two people under the Church … In New Testament times, the focus of marriage was switched from a primary purpose of producing children, to a primary purpose of providing a way for human beings to save their souls. The wedding ceremony itself is filled with rich symbolism that makes this whole aspect of marriage very clear.
— Father Alexey Young

First, commit to the idea of marrying someone Orthodox.

It's very possible to have a good life and successful relationship with someone Christian who's not Orthodox, but there's more to the purpose of marriage than simply establishing a nice life with a permanent companion. According to the Orthodox Church, the real purpose of marriage is to attain salvation. Without understanding the role that marriage plays in this process, it can be easy to abandon the idea of finding someone who's pious and of the same faith—a task that requires much patience, an iron will, and near-constant prayer. But to those who do understand, it's unquestionably worth the wait and the price.

For most of us, it's too difficult to be alone in this world; there are too many temptations that are too difficult to fight. For this reason, God has ordained two equally holy paths for us to travel: The path of monasticism, which is a communal life (men or women living together as brothers or sisters), and the path of marriage, in which men and women live together as husbands and wives. Both paths are callings; we often know from a very young age whether we want our future family to be monastic or worldly. Among those of us who answer the worldly call, it's not uncommon to trip over the misconception that it's okay for a worldly family to be less spiritual than a monastic family. The creation of a family through marriage and childbirth (or adoption) as opposed to monastic tonsure doesn't exempt it from any expectations of holiness.

As the holy fathers teach, marriage between husband and wife is meant to be a reflection of Christ's marriage to the Church. And as the Scriptures teach, marriage joins the flesh of two into the flesh of one (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:8). Having common flesh, then, the spiritual life of one spouse greatly affects the spiritual life of the other. This is the very reason that we're forbidden from being mismated with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14). While the Church doesn't always consider non-Orthodox Christians unbelievers and therefore doesn't categorically forbid mixed marriages with them, Orthodox believers need to accept and understand that an inter-denominational marriage is much less desirable, on theological grounds, than the marriage between two Orthodox believers.

In order for a marriage to be a reflection of Christ's relationship to the Church, both spouses need to have a common understanding of three things: (1) Who Christ is and what He teaches and expects, (2) what the Church is and isn't, and (3) the relationship between the two. Without a common understanding of these three points, it's difficult if not impossible to make the home into a church. Orthodox and non-Orthodox don't understand these three elements in the same way; that's why we have separate denominations.

In order for marriage to fulfill its spiritual purpose, it needs to exist between people who have common spiritual goals. Marriage is meant to have a mutually corrective spiritual influence, to give holy support to both partners in their struggle toward their common goal of attaining salvation. If a husband and wife have different beliefs about salvation and its necessary precursors, then marriage only makes the spiritual struggle more difficult.

For the single-but-looking Orthodox Christian serious about his or her spiritual life, it's safest not to marry outside the tribe.

Be what you want to attract.

It's not rocket science. It's not even a principle of psychology. It's basic common sense: If a particular characteristic is important enough to look for in a mate, then that same characteristic (or its counterpart) should important enough to cultivate in oneself.

This is most important with regard to spiritual matters. It's good to desire a mate who goes to church regularly, but recognize that such a person will probably expect the same of his or her spouse—i.e., you. The same can be said for having an active dedication to prayer, for observing the fasts, for reading spiritual books, and so on. Of course, these aren't "hobbies" that anyone should pick up merely to attract or impress someone; these are spiritual pursuits that need to be undertaken wholeheartedly and for the proper reason, which has little to do with enhancing anyone's marriage potential. At the same time, though, no one should deny that people who are serious about these spiritual pursuits usually desire to be equally yoked with others who are serious about them.

While the spiritual aspect of a relationship is unquestionably the most important, it's not entirely wrong to give varying amounts of weight to other factors. Unlike cultures in which marriages are arranged and the bride and groom have no say in the selection process, the Orthodox Church expects that both partners enter into a marriage of their own free will. Although it's not right to judge others or to withhold Christian love from them on account of their worldly qualities or lack thereof, it's okay to use discretion in terms of selecting someone who'll fit well into whichever parts of the worldly life are most important to us. After all, God didn't create only angels; He also created people.

Physical attraction is important in marriage, but the Church teaches that it develops and increases naturally and is based more on spiritual intimacy than on whether someone looks like a supermodel. On a related note, however, although the holy fathers caution very strongly against choosing and rejecting partners based on looks, there's still something to be said for taking care of how we present ourselves. We can't change which features God gave or didn't give us, which is why it's wrong to judge a person based on them, but we're in charge of what we do with whatever God does give us.

It's okay to be more attracted to someone who showers frequently and smells good than someone who doesn't—but the attraction isn't likely to be mutual if we don't take regular showers and smell good ourselves. If we prefer a person with clean teeth and fresh breath, then we need to remove the plaque and food particles from our own teeth and always have something minty on hand. If we like people whose weight is healthy, we need to lay off of the excess nachos and mozzarella sticks in our own diets; and if we like people who are physically fit, we need to start hitting the gym ourselves. It's not fair to hold someone to any kind of high standard but refuse to meet it ourselves.

The same can be said for non-physical factors such as education, communication ability, emotional intelligence, social skills, and the like. No one has the right to judge anyone according to these status-based qualities, but no one who has them and considers them important is obligated to marry someone who doesn't.

A word on complementary angles.

Opposites may (or may not) attract, but common ground has a much better track record in terms of impacting the quality and longevity of relationships. Spouses need not be clones of one another, but it's helpful if the majority of their perspectives are the same or at least compatible.

A good deal of this is taken care of when a common faith is what governs a relationship. When people truly share common spiritual goals, it's unlikely that one will avoid too much alcohol but the other will be a lush, or that one will strive for purity and the other will prefer porn, or that one will be temperate in speech but the other will gossip and swear. We all have our flaws, certainly, but walking a common spiritual path not only tempers them but also seeks to heal them. Moreover, the common spiritual path takes care of most of the issues that are (or ought to be) dealbreakers—having children, views on the roles of husband and wife, definitions of what's an acceptable lifestyle, and so on.

Non-spiritual issues are less sensitive. It's not imperative that two people have the same educations, careers, or hobbies in order to have a successful marriage. On the one hand, worldly similarities are a good thing because they enable two people to relate more deeply in more dimensions. On the other, bringing different skills and interests to the table can add new layers of flavor to the relationship. Generally speaking, though, the more things two people have in common the better. While mutual love and respect can bridge the gap between any differences, too many bridges can make a relationship difficult to navigate. (The marriage between an illiterate vegetarian musical prodigy and a tone-deaf literature professor who hunts every weekend is subject to a certain level of tension—perhaps even friction—that might be more cumbersome than it's worth.) It's not a strict rule, but it's a consideration that deserves some candid attention. Spouses should be able to share the things that are most important to them—so unless worldly things truly don't matter to two people, their worldly similarities and differences need to be taken into account.

Consult the best matchmaker.

This isn't an endorsement of dating web sites, marriage brokers, or yentas. This is an endorsement of prayer.

God made Eve for Adam because He saw that it wasn't good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18-22). And although our Church doesn't teach that God creates a specific person especially for each of us, He still has a substantial role in the matchmaking process. It's strictly a matter of God's grace by which two people cross paths with one another in life. It's true that each person has the free will to enter or refrain from entering into a relationship with any person whom God puts in his or her path, but it's impossible to find anyone suitable without God's intervention.

This is why it's so important to pray. God knows the desires of our hearts, but we need to acknowledge His role in the process by which those desires will ultimately come to be fulfilled. There are special prayers for help finding a spouse, and a single person needs to pray these prayers at a minimum twice a day (during morning and evening prayers) to show God how much His assistance is valued. It's also important to ask one's relatives and friends to pray for the same. The intercessory prayers of saints are supremely helpful—in particular, the prayers of Saint Ksenia, one's patron saint, and one's guardian angel. It's also good to talk with monastics and one's spiritual father throughout the process; their counsels and prayers make a difference.

Unlike submitting a profile to a secular matchmaker—a person or service that will return a certain amount of matches within a certain turnaround time—God isn't under any obligation to spell out His timetable. He can choose to answer a prayer immediately, or it can take years of continual dedication to prayer to bring about the desired circumstances. All we know is that whatever God chooses is for our benefit. Sometimes He holds off on introducing potential mates to each other because one or the other isn't ready; a good marriage demands a tremendous amount of maturity. Sometimes two people will be a good match in the future but not at the present moment; God sees this and sometimes prevents things from taking flight too early on. Other times, God puts two people in each others' paths but they have yet to realize that they're good for each other. All of these things take time.

As much as it's important to talk with God about bringing a potential spouse into one's life, it's equally important to talk with Him about what to do in the meantime. There are prayers for single people, meant to help them through the difficult stretch of time between youth and marriage, and there are prayers for purity for all people, married or not. Chastity is absolutely required prior to marriage—God expects it, and purity is necessary at all times, even within marriage. The crowns worn in the Orthodox wedding ceremony represent three things, one of which is a victory over the temptations of the flesh. It's a victory that's impossible to achieve without God's help, and every unmarried person needs to pray for it, whether marriage is on the horizon or not. Even if one's chastity has been compromised in the past, God forgives and blesses those who choose to struggle and reclaim it.

Keep the finish line in sight.

Despite its many spiritual and interpersonal struggles, marriage can bring two people a lifetime of rewards if handled carefully and properly. For people not called to the monastic life, marriage is something to desire and look forward to. However, it's not the end in and of itself; it's only a means to the end. The end, of course, is the endless reward of eternal life. Keeping this in mind helps the time prior to marriage pass in a better and more meaningful way.

In other words, the interim between the initial desire to marry and actually finding someone to marry shouldn't be regarded as down time. It's not a time to put anything on hold—especially not spiritual growth. It's the time, in fact, to make as much progress as possible. We carry whatever problems we have before marriage into marriage. And while spouses are meant to help each other and bear one another's burdens in the spirit of Christian love (Galatians 6:2), no one can fix what's wrong with someone else. Marriage provides a support system but not a magic cure for anything except perhaps loneliness. "Single and content" isn't a lesser alternative to "together and content;" it's a prerequisite.

We never know what God has in mind for us. A single person shouldn't live as though marriage is right around the corner, because it may not be a real possibility for ten or twenty more years. Just the same, a single person shouldn't live as though marriage will never come or is light years in the future, because the first seeds of its potential could sprout next month, tomorrow, or in five minutes. The point is to live life as a servant of God no matter what. In time, God's will always becomes evident.

We determine which path we want to follow in life, but it's God Who determines our steps (Proverbs 16:9). May He assist His unmarried children in their quest to find a holy and honorable spouse, but also to remain holy and honorable themselves while the dream has yet to be realized.