Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column - Marriage: A Divine Pact

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By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
February 2014

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated February 7-14 as National Marriage Week for us to celebrate the blessings of traditional marriage. My reflections took me to SE Asia where I grew up and a region which shows alarming rates of decline in marriages.

This trend is particularly evident in the most prosperous countries in the region. Women are marrying later or not at all. In these countries, the average age when women marry lies between 29-30 (US is 25-27) and one third of the women in their early thirties are single. The latter rose about twenty percentage points over the last three decades. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but of particular interest to me is that as women gain more education in these SE Asian economies, they are less likely to marry. This is in direct contrast to the US where women with college degrees are more likely to marry than those whose education stops at the high school level. The role of women and particularly their relationships with their husbands in Asian marriages has probably not evolved to the same extent as in US marriages. These are not just a matter of whether household chores and care for children are shared (less so in Asian families), but pertain to the bedrock of any long-term loving relationship: good communication, mutual respect, sharing in decision making, growing together and fidelity. Women's education has advanced to the point where 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 CRS' work to support natural family planning (NFP), we recognize that NFP is not just a method for child spacing, but it embeds the hope for husband and wife to welcome a child with love and longing as the most sacred gift from God. One program, Faithful Household, works with couples to develop communication skills, learn about maternal health and nutrition, and to engage in mutual decision-making pertaining to anything, including finance, child rearing and provisions for safe delivery. The program is a first step for husbands and wives to learn to relate, be considerate of the other, empathize, cherish each other and see themselves bonded as one couple. Other programs have a livelihood focus which enable women and their families to reverse perpetual hunger and poverty. These interventions build a level of security, self worth and dignity, which in turn foster 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 stays 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. Now she with chronic pain and he paralyzed from a stroke, have a new sense of appreciation for each other, new eyes to see each other and hearts that open up for possibly another chapter of this love story. Love, disappointments, betrayals, wounds, healing, forgiveness, redemption, new life -- I am two months ahead of schedule, but these sound like the Easter story in the microcosm of a marriage!

Dr. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns