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Knowing that death and judgment are round the corner tends to put our relationships into perspective

Research suggests an awareness of death can reduce divorce rates. I can well believe it

By on Friday, 4 May 2012

A couple renew their wedding vows at an anniversary Mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Nebraska (CNS photo)

A couple renew their wedding vows at an anniversary Mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Nebraska (CNS photo)

There was a short item in the Telegraph for Wednesday, with the headline: “Save your marriage by thinking of death”. That’s the kind of item that compels you to read on with morbid fascination. If it weren’t written so baldly it could almost have Shakespearean overtones: Hamlet raving at Ophelia to whom he was meant to be betrothed, or ranting at Gertrude for whom marriage and death were close to the bone.

Actually the article is mundane in its way. It seems that a Professor Jamie Arndt from the University of Missouri has been doing some research (as they often do) and found that awareness of death can reduce divorce rates. He thinks that contemplating death could make people more positive and less selfish. According to the professor, whose research has been published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, catastrophic events, such as 9/11, can give a different perspective on life: “People expressed higher degrees of gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership.”

I approve of this sort of research. It is not only more psychologically intriguing than the “Scientists have proved that eating too much cabbage can kill you” variety (which is invariably overtaken the following week by alternative research which proves a cabbage a day keeps a heart attack at bay), but it is also in line with Church teaching about life in general. When we really believe that death might be round the next corner, to be swiftly followed by judgment, hell or heaven as the Catechism tells us, it tends to put our relationships into a different perspective.

In addition to this news, Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge in the Family Division, has become so appalled by all the divorce proceedings crowding his courts, and the effect this has on the hapless children involved, that last week he announced the start of a new Marriage Foundation, the aim of which is to devise policies and practical support to help reverse the current trend and champion the institution of marriage “as the gold standard of relationships”. It seems that marriage rates have more than halved in the last 40 years and the number of lone-parent households has increased by an average of 26,000 a year. Sir Paul, a descendant of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose own marriage sadly ended in permanent separation from his wife, Sara), thinks it’s time to do something positive about these doleful figures.

I’m not sure if the judge yet knows about Professor Arndt’s research. Naturally feminist critics have been pouring cold water on his campaign. But I think he is a brave man with a noble cause that should be taken seriously.

I once read a wonderfully funny book called My Heart Lies South. Written by an American woman, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, who had married a Mexican in the 1930s and who had gone to live with him in Monterrey, it describes the courtship rituals and the married life of Mexican society in those days. In this Catholic culture there was no divorce; and if you were in an unhappy marriage you didn’t exactly try to rescue it “by thinking of death”. You simply prayed that God would change the errant husband (it is always husbands who need changing) for the better – or alternatively, whisk him quickly off to Purgatory so that you would be left in peace. That’s a Catholic touch to Professor Arndt’s research: “Save your spouse’s soul by praying for his death.”

  • karlf

    Surely this technique would affect those who believe in an afterlife in a very different way to those who don’t? It would be interesting to hear what the difference is.

  • diarmuidlee

    I would be keen to know how those who don’t believe in the afterlife can be so dead sure [pun not intended]. At least Christians have thousands of years of Judeo Christian teaching to help believe in the afterlife. 
    Just curious

  • karlf

     Well, considering there is no evidence for an afterlife, while medical research shows how certain aspects of personality can be altered by damage to certain parts of the brain, I’m not that confident a believer.

  • little_nose


  • little_nose

    “Save your spouse’s soul by praying for his death.”
    The Church used to kill witches and others to save their souls.

  • Jeannine

    whisk him quickly off to Purgatory so that you would be left in peace. ” 

    I know quite a few “Merry Widows”!!! Sad to say, their husbands’ deaths did not cause much grief.

  • maryp

    Thank you Francis. If we lived each day as if it were our last, all of our relationships would be improved. It is something we should all do.

  • Peter

    While behaviour is affected by brain damaged, the person still fully retains his or her humanity.  A person does not become less human due to impairment of the brain which means that the brain is not instrumental in determining humanity.  The death of the brain, therefore, may not end it.

  • buckingham88

    This new Marriage Foundation could assist people in different faith traditions to support them in their marriage.Perhaps a comprehensive marriage guidance before the actual act of marriage by state and faith tradition could be proscribed.
     In the Catholic tradition we were taught that marriage was a mutually conferred sacrament that conferred grace.With this assistance and goodwill we were then able to support each other in our vocations and maturity, including the inseparable faith life.
     Thus marriage can be an opportunity for growth and liberation, as well as raising a family.
     Telling people they may go to Hell if divoced,or some variation on the theme may keep the credulous enthralled but just brings Marriage as an institution and an occasion of grace into disrepute and dissuade the faithful from tying the knot.Fear tactics rarely work anyway in educated societies.Witness the failed horror crashes on TV with the well intentioned ‘speed kills’.That’s code for ‘lets buy a safe hot car that really moves,and walk from the wreck like they do in motor racing when it prangs.’
     The culture of death and nihilism is all around us.If we value Marriage why make death part of it?

  • karlf

    So what would your personality be in the afterlife? Would there be any of ‘you’ left?