The question: I have deep reservations about a dear friend’s fiancé; I think that he has made a bad match. These reservations are so strong that I think I ought not attend their wedding, and I have raised the possibility to him. They had a brief dating process, much of which was long distance, and they do not have plans to undertake pre-marital counseling. Should I attend the inauguration of what I suspect will be a bad marriage?
No, someone should not stand as a witness at the beginning of a marriage which, in their mind, is such rank and utter foolishness that it can bring about nothing good. In the first place, foolish decisions might not be sin, but they create conditions in our own lives and the lives of others that generate and excite temptations to sin. We are exhorted in Scripture to flee temptation: but that means, in marrying, we ought not undertake a union which we know will tempt us sorely to divorce, or worse. Marriage makes us holy, yes; marriage is a sanctifying fire, for sure; marriage is God means of grace to us, okay. But should we opt for misery in marriage if we can avoid it? Every marriage sanctifies: but some marriages demand that people become saints of the legendary variety, and who among us is capable of that or would voluntarily choose it?
In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he raises the possibility of a turn of fortune so bad that it dislodges someone from their virtue. We might say the same about imprudence in marrying: a clear-eyed, sober description of the dull, grating, and sometimes dangerous conditions that emerge should make us alive to the possibility that marriage doesn’t always generate virtue: sometimes it destroys it, and the people within the marriage along with it.
Consider poor Mrs. Lopez from Trollope’s The Prime Minister. She marries a bad man who genuinely loves her, even if his expectations of what such love might do for him are all awry. She discovers his badness shortly after being married to him, as he tries ever so hard to get her to manipulate her father into bestowing upon him the dowry he thinks he’s due. He ends up dead on the train tracks (ugh, spoiler alert), the Victorian equivalent of Anna Karenina. And she, well, she’s given a second chance—and is so brittle and broken from the business that she can barely bring herself to seize it. The union proves to be destructive to them both: if she needed sanctification, surely it might have come about through other means. The marriage was “merely imprudent”—but if we do take marriage seriously, surely it demands a higher level of respect than attending such a wedding would imply.
And that’s the core point, it seems to me: marriage is a matter of honour, of learning to do not only what is required but to hold in esteem and reverence one’s spouse. A wedding demands the same: it is not simply an event inaugurating a union before God and man, but the bestowal of the honour of married life by their community. To be present at such a union, even reluctantly or having openly resisted, intrinsically bestows a form of honour upon the couple. To prescind from witnessing a bad union indicates the extent to which marriage is honoured, and reminds a person that friendship is constituted not only by the recognition of the others’ freedom but by the interest in the others’ happiness. When such absence is surrounded by demonstrations of affection and care, in order to make known it does not indicate the end of the friendship, then one ought not attend such a wedding. Yes, there is probably no more profound wound one might inflict upon a friend: but those wounds, when offered in love, become the substance of friendship.
Because if things turn south in this marriage, he’s going to need to know who his true friends are—the people who revere marriage so highly that they could not bring themselves to watch their friend enter one that they thought would very likely be bad for them. Mrs. Lopez’s friends all stayed away from her wedding, as they could not bear to be present while she disgraced herself—and eventually, as matters became clear, she acknowledges that they were right to do so. Such a recognition causes them to grow in her esteem, in a way that their presence at the wedding would not permit. The negative witness to marriage’s profundity at its origin becomes the source of the positive witness to its permanence when it goes badly.