Marriage. What’s the Point?

What is the point? Why do any of us do this “marriage” thing? Many of us don’t. For many the institution of marriage seems archaic (who wants to live in an institution anyway, har, har).  We can certainly do most of the things that married couples do without being married. We can love each other, be affectionate, loyal, have sex, have babies, live together, own property, travel…  Many people are not impressed by the “piece of paper.”

“I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them — it was that promise.”

Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth

When married people are asked, “Why are you doing this?” they often answer, “Because we love each other and we want to spend our lives together.” This is a very good answer on the face of it. But many of the unmarried couples will say, “We love each other, too, and we also plan to spend our lives together.” But as long as we’re talking about “love,” How many marital partners actually share an understanding of what love is? Is it a feeling? Is there ever permanence to the feeling of “love,” or do we have it for a while and then move on when the feeling goes. Everybody knows that feelings change. Hamburger tonight, arugula tomorrow; red hair this week, black hair next week; blue jeans this year, three piece suit next year; station wagon this decade, sports car next decade… We can be a fickle lot. Does marriage help us “lock in” so that we can’t leave when we get tired of each other? That used to be more true than it is today. These days it’s relatively easy to jump ship when the voyage no longer suits us.

Historically (See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History) marriage provided practical solutions to many of the core problems of living. It contributed to functional social organization and for stability in individual lives: credentialing for adulthood, stabilization of the rearing of children, ensuring the orderly passage of property from one generation to the next, the extension of kinship bonds for economic, social and security reasons, and formalization and control of the potentially chaotic vicissitudes of sexual desire. We have different ways of looking at all of those socio-cultural elements today. There’s also a biochemical cocktail somewhere in the mix; evolution has provided us with hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin that impel us to bond (like Canadian geese). Some people feel that the Gods want us to get married, however, many of the rest of us feel that even if the Gods have preferences for our coupling behaviors, we’re not smart enough to know what He, She or They want.

OK, blah, blah, blah. Here’s the thing. The truth is that, in contmporary times, there is probably no rational reason to get married. And it doesn’t matter.

Those of us who want to be married (or make a serious commitment to another person), (and remember, we don’t have to because it won’t be on the test) do it for a lot of  irrational, personal reasons that I won’t go into here. Let’s just say we want to. For those of you who do not want to be married, or involved in a committed relationship, that’s ok, truly. It is much better to be aware of that than to feel a need to be where you don’t want to be, or with the wrong person, or at the wrong time.  I would hope that everyone can feel great about whatever relationship choices they wish to make.

For those interested in being married, or getting married; those who are not currently experiencing the acute pain of having had marriages shattered by tragedy or forces beyond your control; the question becomes, “How do we do this ‘marriage thing,’ or enter a committed relationship in a way that works for us?”  What is the commitment? What are we committing to? What does this commitment really mean for our life together? And what’s love got to do with it, especially since we understand that we can love each other without making this kind of commitment?

Here’s the answer that I explore in The Marital Arts: We are committed to developing love, not only as a feeling, but also as a process, and as a set of values, attitudes, principles and habits that inform choices and actions. We are committed to helping each other define, pursue and achieve the best life possible; we are committed to helping each other grow and actualize ourselves in every possible way; we will each commit to becoming everything we can be, and to helping each other become everything we can be. We will help each other grow morally and spiritually, sexually, materially and socially; we will help each other become the best parents, grandparents, friends and citizens; we will support each other in pursuit of our passions; we will help each other master our demons. We will develop skills and engage in a process that strives always to be loving and respectful in the resolution of differences and  impasses. We will both count all the time. We will help each other transcend the accidents of our birth that have brought us to this point of awareness and choice. We will transform our marriages into art.
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