Sister Novena, dismayed by, among other things, seeing good souls run through a meatgrinder by bad marriages, asked
...if any of you married suckers want to enlighten me, I am actually quite open to having my irrational prejudices challenged. Why'd you do it? What do you get out of it? What does marriage get you that would be impossible otherwise?And elaborated
...marriage is no guarantee of [finding your one true solemate]; it can't be. And that kind of relationship isn't even about husband-and-wife; that can exist between any two people -- friends, relatives, long-term partners, etc. What you're talking about is external actualization and validation -- "I see you as a lovable and valuable person and I intend to stay with you." While the expression of the sentiment -- ie, the wedding part -- is surely nice for all involved, what does it actually have to do with marriage? "I'll stay with you"; "Damn right you will; you have to now."
And if the sentiment is real, it can exist quite happily without a particular ritual or legal category being applied to it. So again... what's the point?
I know this all seems pedantic, but what I'm trying to do is to pull apart all these underlying assumptions to get at the reality of this social convention. My suspicion is that the convention is made up solely of assumptions, which is why it it seems to evaporate as soon as you clear enough of them away -- in which case, aren't we free to tear it apart and re-combine it as we wish?
The questions bruise my smugness. I could not keep this short. I suspect Sister already has answers I would agree with but I question some of her questions. I have to make it a longish post as I think several of the load bearing pillars of civilization as I understand it and all their camouflaging integuments, diaphanous, scaly, brass bound or leathery are implicated. The matter of gay marriages was part of the setup for her question and I agree, it has to be part of the answer. I could not untangle her questions from a spaghetti bowl of more basic questions on the general topic of marriage:
- Who/what does marriage serve? What is marriage for the soul, what is it for society?
- Is there or should there be only one kind of marriage?
- Which is more important: the institution, the individuals involved or something we'll call "the relationship"?
- What's love got to do with it? Love is natural but is marriage?
- As I have analogized before, marriages are like cars: shiny images, loudly advertised but what are they like on the inside, what makes them run, can you afford the maintenance?
The place I last heard anyone question why one would get married was when I hung out with guys in college ROTC. That questioning was nervous bravado as it turned out, since most of those young men were soon enlisted in either the army or marriage. My understanding of marriage now is different and I hope a bit deeper that that of the dumb eagerness that blurted out I DO so long ago. But Sister knows her own mind and her questions deserve an attempt at answers. And I have written and rewritten this post a dozen times because I try to speak to everyone but cannot help but talk about myself. I may be able to resume my customary frequency of posting after I give birth to this roll of barbed wire. Quit reading any time you like and wait for better stuff.
Before we go on, are we all talking about more or less the same thing?
"Part of the problem is that "marriage" is currently sitting right in the middle of a socio-cultural gray area."Yeah, its kinda like that. The problem is that marriage as an institution is parked athwart the intersection of two roads that are supposed to run parallel: religion and government. So the disinterested who could see it as a gray area are constantly being run over by the people who have to see either black or white.
There is such a thing as a prenuptual agreement...explicity a contract...that modern times and great fortunes have grafted on to the institution of marriage. I don't know if that would ease Sister Novena's discomfort about the unrealistic "forever" nonsense that people mumble as they seem to sleepwalk to the altar.
You already know that few of us simply get all we want in life. You already know that many lives aren't much more than a long truce that hope strikes with compromise and disappointment. By the time I am done with my answer, I may only have mangaged to ask a question: do you think marriage is supposed to be some kind of holiday from those realities?
Shall we proceed? I am going at these questions from several directions.
A Spritual outlook on marriage
Psychospiritually, my vision of fully committed marriage, a mutual agreement to bear all risks including the possibilities of bearing kids and discovering unbearable things about each other is not going to lure many to the altar:
Life is going to eat you, either as hamburger or as filet mignon. The foolish and the wise set themselves out on the meat counter, go eagerly to the table to savor being, to be savored. They are stupid if they are not a little choosey and stupider if they obsess about the particular table they land on. There are other things in the picture beside the one you wed. You will be scraps and poop at the end of the meal and something bigger has been fed. In between the foolish and the wise are the negotiators, the resisters, pride in tact, rationality in ascendance, drying up on the sideboard. In some ways, the relatively recent[and not yet universal] introduction of the notion that marriage should be a love match burdens us moderns with the idea that we have a choice. What a daunting double bind: you can't know how a person is going to change and you are both a little crazy at the moment and yet no choice you ever make, except of course buckling your seat belt and not getting in a car with any drunks, will matter one tenth as much as whom you choose to try [that try is the operative word so often omitted!] to settle down with. The answer when you have to make a choice and you don't have the luxury of perfect information is always the same: you just have to give it your best shot and fix things as you go along.
What could one get out of marriage seen that way? Its like anything else in your life, even like your life as a whole: If you take no chances, you are hardly living. I doubt that is what Voltaire had in mind though.
It happens that I don't put much stock in the notion of my "soul" as it may exist now and I have made my peace with a near certainty that my death will be the complete cessation of any form of my consiousness. I have had more or less this awareness of my mortality since I was perhaps 11 or 12. I don't and didn't welcome death but shortly after I spotted the grim reaper, I got the notion that as much of my physical being, my DNA, as could be put in a person and as much of my thought and personality as could be put in a person was through having and raising children. Discovering that deep wish within myself so early on is an idiosyncratic bit of great good fortune which, though I can dress it up in reason, is also a felt truth. Though my expectations of marriage now are nothing like they were 35 years ago, had I to do it all over again, I'd ask the right girl to mary me in the proverbial heartbeat. And I would not take her first "no" for an answer either. It is the ultimate in vanity.
If one believed they had a soul and that soul would persist past their death then raising children is bringing souls into existence and endowing them with the concern and insight that will make their existance now or in some other plane, less than hellish: a huge responsibility. This is still a lot to get out of a marriage but again, only by putting a lot into the marriage.
These considerations apply regardless of whether you parent biologically or adopt.
Wired for Marriage? An evolutionary outlook on marriage
Two bases of argument that I can no longer separate are evolution and psychology. I am hardly alone in this view.
Two very basic kinds of "behavior" are combined in most definitions of marriage and I see them as each being driven by their own selective forces:
|Category of activity||Evlolutionary force|
You might ask if it was more like copulate, cohabit and procreate but while procreation is a more abstract motivation than the first two it is also really a consequence of the first two rather than a behavior per se. But the real separator here is that only "procreate" entails obligations and that will be meat for the ethical or moral dissection that I will treat as a distinct approach. [Though it is certainly possible to seek the Darwinian determinants of some ethics.] Birth control options even allow us to decouple copulate from procreate. Not hard to see why some religions [i.e. the people who have internalized the belief scheme] feel threated by the pill.
A distinctive fact of human lives is the long childhood. The most eloquent argument that that long childhood is intrinsic to our unique reprogramability and culturally driven as opposed to instinctively driven behavior I have found is in Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden. It takes a long time to teach a human the art of being. And if you botch the job, you may be hauled out of the gene pool early. It is not an accident that the long period of physical helplessness coincides with a long period of brain development and learning. It takes longer still to undo a bad job of parenting. If we are going to have kids at all, we have to bend all these forces in as far as we can, to serve the needs of our long childhoods and very strong tendency to division of labor. I say "needs" not for some some logic I can recount but because it is my observation something, some force must keep parents in beneficial contact with their children and with each other or the chain of generations breaks. We are not without instinct. We simply layer culture over it. Genes and instincts are only the roots or roughest templates of our observed behavior. For instance, our innate and prewired capacity to make syntax and symbol express complex thought must be both the common element in the diversity of human language and the driver that makes language emerge in even the most limiting circumstances. The selfish gene arguments apply here. An instinct that recognizes the value and the helplessness of the child and finds a behavioral expression in devising protective social units for the safe launching of new humans makes sense because it is needed to deliver the rather complex set of accomplishments that define reproductive success for a culture-driven species. What exact behaviors express the instinct is subject to cultural variation and that is strongly influenced by what resources, hazards and technology make up the environment. Most important among such influences is social group, tribe, village etc. These other humans must be enlisted in the support of the childrearer(s) whether bound by genetic kinship or the more abstract but often well enforced identity and allegience bonds that creed and class impose. The more scarce the food and shelter, the more important a sharing community is to the ultimate survival of the child. Marriage, in this survival context, as in others I will discuss later, is not just an arrangement reserving or limiting sexual opportunities and establishing a high level of resource sharing, possibly with divisions of labor among two or more mates with genetic investments in the resulting children, it is also a bargain entered into with the community. Whether monogamy [or polygamy, still an exclusionary arrangement] is a social convention or an instinctual imperative is not material to the argument. We are social and long nurturing creatures so we all have some way of saying "I do" so that child rearing gets done.
A Moral perspective on Marriage
Defintions first. The lives of some are troubled by the confusion of the two words "moral" and "sacred". Consider that as an adjective, sacred connotes how one feels about the subject as much or more than it says about what one knows or can demonstrate to the satisfaction of anyone else regarding the subject. I am OK with the idea that anything from a place to a precept can feel sacred to a person. I am not OK with anyone claiming that the set of myths by which they attempt to demonstrate any particular thing is sacred are somehow more potent or less personal that the next set of myths. I need a...
secular sacredness: This is a matter undertaken or a resource shared for greater purposes than my personal fulfillment. It respects a resource that was or became environmental: not from or for any one party and needed indefinitely in tact for our mutual good. One may not abandon the committment or abuse the sharing without showing that, FOR ALL CONCERNED, greater harm would arise from not doing so. The resources intended here are both physical and institutional. It is a rule for safeguarding the world through constant awarness and respect for our indirect connections to the myriad resources that make our world.
Notions of what is or is not moral behavior have, since time out of mind, been founded on scriptural edicts or oral traditions. Every folk has a folkway for prioritizing the interests and issues that are at odds within their particular cultural circumstances. Relatavism is simply inevitable once you step outside of a homogenous religious monoculture. If you will not promote unending war of anihilation on all who are different from you, the one alternative with any self consistency is to accept that your creed is just one of many possible. The golden rule [earliest Abrahamic formulation in Leviticus 19:18] comes close to being the heart of all moral teachings that I respect: it urges that there be a conscious balancing of one's interests with those of others and that that balance be positive [we do not hate our neighbors as we hate ourselves, do we?] In my hasty attempt to lay a neutral foundation for what is "moral", the one further element I would make explicit would be awareness of the fragile web of beneficial connection to other creatures, a conscience, that one must cultivate to live a moral life. For some, the utterance is lent power by attribution to a creator but regardless who said it, doesn't "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" concisely state a fine grained moral relativism? To measure, in a way we can all use for the purpose of this exposition, the morality of any course, I need a ...
secular golden rule: Having no intrinsically superior claim to ease, benefit or satisfacion over any other being, we each must weigh the potential for hurt to reverberate forward in time or outward in our web of dependance as a result of any act we take or words we speak. We have no right to make the world a worse place for others who now live, others who will be born or even others we cause to be born, just for our own benefit. It is a rule for safe guarding all through maintenance of our direct connections to kin and neighbor.
Now that I have equipped myself with a context for discussing the moral dimensions of marriage...
I distrust and question "entitlements"...I am even skeptical of the value of medical advancements except preventative discoveries. But of one entitlement I am convinced beyond any doubt: a child does not ask to be born and cannot make good choices or provide basic needs and, once its here, is entitled absolutely to care, in the fullest possible sense of that word. It is excused from calculating the above stated moral balance of its acts since it must be taught those balances. Care must be provided for the child without any expectation of repayment beyond the mere existence of a well tended child. The obligations are staggering and they fall first on the parents. It is immoral to have a child you do not want: just apply the rule. It is doubly immoral to make someone else have a child they don't want. Care includes the stable and continuous company of adults who are exemplary both in caring for each other, for strangers and for the child. That is a very tall order and requires a commitment for which "sacred" is not an inappropriate word in the hunt for adequate motivation. This is some heavy lifting for most people: dead serious reckoning and the sanction of a witnessed vow are fitting markers of the gravity of the commitment.
In much of what I read in the papers and hear on the radio, sex is immorality. Thats too simple and when sex can be decoupled from the possibility of pregnancy its only remaining moral issues are consent, discretion, freedom from exploitaion and a respect for the health of the partner. Sex hasn't got nearly as much to do with marriage as adolescent boys in the US may believe, as adolescent girls may fear, nor has it as much to do with wrecking marraiages later on as may be believed by the adults those adolescents become. Sex is an itch that, in its own good time, comes with its own instinct for scratching...the angst around that itch in western cultures is severely out of proportion to any outcome except pregnancy and STD...the whole fucking business ought to be put in perspective before it mars so many teen age lives. Yes, it sure as hell is a huge part of ones identity and sense of self. NO, it has no damn business being a negative part of one's sense of worth. So put children at ease about it as they come to you with questions. Every kid should grow up in a family setting. Every family is inadvertantly or selfconsciously a school of morality. THAT is the nexus of sex, morality and marriage. If, as a parent you make your kids uncomfortable about sex or simply say the answer is "no sex" when their bodies and many experiences outside the home say "yes, sex!" then they may well turn elsewhere for answers. If you are only here for the sex, marriage is hardly necessessary. But if you are here to have kids, give them the the best framework in which to learn how to be sexually responsible citizens. Their best chance to take your beliefs about "relations" to heart comes naturally if you leave them alone except for a caring example so they always feel safe to ask and give them whatever facts they themselves sense they are missing. Your own sense of how beautiful the symetries and biology of our sexual dimension are is not something you should expect your kid to learn either from the health teacher or the boy next door. Whether you think kids are intelligently designed or not can be a non issue: you won't have to worry or vote to get people with your approved "values" to staff the school if you do your job as a parent. "I don't have time" and "the kids are never around" and other transparent cop-outs are a big flashing sign saying "how my kid turns out is not as important to me as my job and I am not really in conversant possession of opinions and facts about some of the most important stuff I should share with my child".
How is "giving good lectures on the birds and bees" part of answering "why marry"? Because there are always two messages to the child: what you say and what you and your spouse do. The moral import of the messages should be the same. That's a pretty high standard and failures to attain that are all around us as divorces and as soured stalemated couples. Sister reports that some kids survive their parents mistakes with little neurosis. I just don't think that depending on natural resiliance is a strategy. You don't drop your best dishes just to see if they resist shattering. Kids are entitled to a better effort. Yes, effort. All this teaching goes better in the context of a stable relationship between the parents.
Whats love got to do with it? A perspective on Romance in Marriages.
The forces that bring you together will be different from the forces that keep you together. Love may not be forever but what isforever is having kids. Sorry folks, that changes everything. Until you have a kid on the way, a marriage could be a tax dodge or an elaborately disguised one night stand. No marriage with any possibility of children can be taken lightly. When a child is on the way, nature wakes you from a dream about your life that you may have dreamt since childhood. Well, she tries anyway. For humans, the deal is not just having a kid but HAVING A KID AND NOT SCREWING HIM OR HER UP. If your image of romantic love was broad enough to include day dreams of crying babies and soccer practices trumping golf time, you are in for relatively smooth sailing. Certainly is nice if love comes along for this ride. Taking apart a marriage that also takes apart a child's world is an act requiring grave "moral" deliberation far more than an assessment of broken romantic hopes. Taking a marriage appart because you aren't happy any more is selfish if children are involved: you will teach selfishness at the very least. Who said you had to be happy anyway? Very up to date research says you should not expect happiness, at least not to the extent that it is the opposite of depression.
So, not only is happily ever after the myth you see it to be, married with childrenis actually a worse life if you take the position that the point of any one persons existance, the highest goal they should have, is to be "happy". This makes it seem likely that real people are going to need help, even if it is in the negative form of community disapproval, to stay married. There are piles of marriage self help books that say in a hundred different ways that keeping the home filres burning takes a consciencious effort for most couples. All such effort grows from a shared will to stick it out. Love does not concour all without a struggle. To expect otherwise is naive. The love resides as much in the will and the struggle as in the earlier and less cluttered forms of passion that arise in our attraction to our lovers. The comfort of the familiar and the emotional resource of someone who knows you, even if they don't always like you, are always present in matches where romantic feelings abide. But those parts of the relationship are in and of themselves a fair harbor for your soul even if romance dims. Novelty within a relationship is an art and one may decry artifice but accepting novel relationships as the alternaitive is a formula for misery.
No kids involved? Then who cares if there is not enough love to keep a couple together? Selfishness is a mostly affordable luxury in that case and a parting may be, on the whole, the most mentally healthy resolution. The sad dissolution of a once dear hope made sadder by laws that always favor the lawyers and the oprobrium of the most public of private failues seems superflous aggrevation. It would be like a doctor sending all patients he can't cure to the morgue, even those with a cold. The expensive divorce proceeding that ends a marriage that was little more than a period of going steady inaugurated with rice, bridesmaids and a honeymoon must surely have the perpetrators and victims wondering "why did I get married in the first place?".
I have quipped elsewhere that the problem isn't that love doesn't last forever but that it lasts long enough for people to get married. That is funny until there are children. People do change, become mentally unstable or drug addicted. We make mistakes in romance, perhaps because we misreprensent ourselves for a variety of reasons. When there are children, marriage vows should not be easily broken. But when it is a parent that becomes broken, real damage to mate and children is possible and hard to remedy. The bonds of attraction may persist even while physical and emotional hurt is being inflicted. Over these bonds, we have no control but to reinforce them with a marriage institution that works like an inflexible social pressure cooker from which the confined family members can only escape when discord reaches explosively dangerous levels is a condition we could do more to aleviate.
The community's part in marriage
It does take a village to raise a child. And the village knows it. The church and the state both have an investment in the child, as does humanity as a whole so long as there is not an excess of humanity. Every society has its own set of names and forms for those forces but every society needs a framework or handle for personal relationships among its members if those relationships are fundamental to the stability and continuation of the society. It was not a reason I considered when I got married but as I see it now, living as I do within a liberal religious community with some strong traditions of social networking, choosing to get married not only declares a special and exclusive relation between me and my spouse, but in many ways, declares a role and relationship we as acouple enter into with our congregation.
No kids? then no investment unless you are one of those "every sperm is sacred" idiots who equates marriage with kids as if marriage caused kids. The phrase "moral authortity may sound conservative but consider the difference if you believed that the direction in which moral authority flows is the opposite direction though in the same stream bed pulled by need of support rather than pushed by need to control: kids cause marriage.
People who want kids and can't get them naturally do adopt and plenty of adopting parents find the time and resources to love and raise perfectly healthy kids. Whoever would bring kids up, in a way the makes healthy normal kids is deserving of help, community support, and yes, sanctification if thats part of their value system.
If you are in the fold so to speak, if you have embedded your life within a particular creed, ethnicity,value scheme and/or belief system then two things apply:
- That community has an interest in you not just procreating but producing new members of the community indoctrinated and ready to embed their lives within that particular social structure...rejecting the marriage standards is tantamount to rejecting the whole community.
- You, should you get the urge to mate, whether you recognize it in these terms or not, call on the witness and assistance of your community for approval, for protection and support.
Sadly, we need some common sense and tolerance around the issue of faith communities and marriage. More than one kind of people get married but some folks dont think so.
A sexual attraction to another person does not necessarily betoken an urge to procreate.
If there is an intention NOT to have children, which is a perfectly respectable plan even if you dont give reasons [and there are about 6.5 billion reasons] then, barring marriages that avert wars or merge financial kingdoms , who but the couple have any stake in the matter? The state has a stake: the IRS and the health insurance provider care and INS doesn't much like marriages made to dodge green card status. All those state and business entities, as a matter of self interest, will support the highest barriers to any so called marriage less binding than traditionally sanctioned by religious communities. These interests are happy to say marriages should be made in heaven... so they can shirk the cost of marriages made in tax haven. In my opinion these incursions of government in marriage are dismissable considerations because they came about as social engineering to perpetuate narrow ideas of marriage by law when marriage is a broad category of relationships that arise organically from our instinctive and spiritual natures and needs. It is to those natures we should first attend and a different kind of law is needed.
Just in case I lost you with my rambling
In my view, no one notion of "marriage" could possibly fit all who want to be married. As the idea is applied, with its multitude of slight variations from state to state, between employers and health insurers and of course between faith communities, marriage is too binding for some, to costly for some, not available for some and in the saddest cases, not binding or protective enough when there are children. It would be nice if saying "I do" had a uniform meaning and implied a legally enforcable and irrevocable committment to lovingling provide for any children that come into the marriage.
I will say it one last time: Kids make all the difference and it is they who need and deserve not just marriage but something more universal and binding that I will call a "procreation contract"[PC]. (ooou, ooou! its catchy! "PC', maybe I should copyright it! ;) The contract would bind those who married with the intent to bear or adopt children but, until there are children, the contract can be disolved without consequence. Once there are children, the parents are bound to severally and cooperatively support the child until it reaches the age of majority. Employers and health insurance providers would be legally obligated to cover, as family, all parties to a procreation contract in which an eligible employee is involved. The big difference from marriage is that the PC does not fall apart or fall away as marriages do...the state does not let it. Parents that develop abusive or otherwise harmful relationships will have to get counselling and therapy. If that fails, they may separate but the contract cannot be disolved and the parents must both remain available to the child and provide money, time or both for raising the child. This system will be hardest on men [and the occasional woman] who didn't want to be parents or became disaffected with their offspring. These are people who need help. Absentee parents beget children who grow in to absentee parents. That is not an alternative culture, or life style, that is a broken society. Entering in to a PC with a second or subsequent spouse is while one is still in force from an earlier marriage is not just OK, it is as mandatory as the first.
It might be wise to suggest a clause in the contract indicating the wish of each partner regarding who might parent in their stead should they become incompentant or die before the children come of age.
In anticipating the possibilty of dissolution of marriage, while still placing an unavoidable liability to devote resources to the children for their entire childhoods and attempting to take the teeth out of, or completely moot beforehand, the question of who gets the children, the PC if crafted well should make even the sad outcomes of trips down the isle a lot less damaging to the children [and that, in turn would be less damaging to our society as a whole].
There should be as many different procreation contracts as there are communities centered around procreation and family...I, for instance can point to a ketubah, a ceremony under a chuppah and any number and many levels of intervention, support and watchfulness on the part of the community that was identified and called upon, in the particular and the abstract, at our wedding.
I am not sure "what did you get out of it?" is entirely the right question to ask of a person who has married to raise kids. Better to ask "what did it get out of you, what did it bring out in you."
If one gets married only to get something out of marriage, odds are it will be they who get out of the marriage.