People don’t get married now for the same reasons they did so historically. Marriage used to be about family alliances, sharing resources, surviving in an uncertain world that was, paradoxically, more familiar to its inhabitants than ours is to us (pre-20th century history changed slowly). Now, the world is relatively much safer: enemy clans, the plague and the scourges of winter starvation are unlikely to raze your village to the ground –and we don’t even have villages now, for that matter (we talk a lot about “community” because most of us don’t really have it.) Love mattered back in the day, but this was only one factor among many others determining a marriage, and depending on the culture and time it may not have been considered at all. Now, we marry only for love, yet a lot of couples can’t trust each other to get married because we now have more unprecedented relationship problems than we know what to do with. Marrying for any other reason than love would be socially unacceptable, but love seems harder to come by, though we are more free. Marriage used to be obligatory, but somehow love could be found. Even the unmarried –celibate religious dedicants, widows and spinsters– found the love of God and each other. A good marriage founded the economics of the home. Now the economics of marriage are afloat on the sea of chaos. Everybody is expected to support themselves, including mothers who hold down full time “jobs” while their serious labor at home as mother or housekeeper is invisible and devalued to anyone outside of the family. Oh, but we’re supposed to want to “have it all”, right?
Let’s sympathize in both directions. Modern people justifiably value privacy and choice, but we can take a tip from the ancestors’ very realistic need to have marriage be a communal, public bond for survival’s sake. It was the time when vital resources and basic security were procured through such alliances. Good-hearted parents often attempted to arrange the most compatible match between a young woman and man, taking into consideration personality, attraction and consent. History is not entirely heartless. Yet, even in blind marriages many couples grew to love each other deeply, devotedly, and with tremendous cohesion. I maintain that the word “institution” to describe marriage is and always has been far too heartless a word: nobody goes to bed with an institution every night, even if the marriage was strictly, nonconsensually arranged. There’s still a human relationship there, and it could mean anything to the people inside it. Even in the most old-fashioned, patriarchal, public, communally arranged marriages, human beings are still human beings with feelings. Personal affection and attraction develop between a couple so that the marriage becomes intimate and private to them, even if that emotional bond wasn’t there initially at the marriage ceremony. Death and divorce are and always have been mourned not for the loss of an institution, but for the loss of someone you were intimately bonded with. We moderns can take a lesson in love and commitment, here. And conservative pundits can take a lesson when they talk about marriage being a glorified legal institution of times past, because they’re still missing the huge point that marriage will ultimately always be personal. Every culture has it’s love poetry.
Today, we are at the beginning of something with marriage. Our private choice of who we marry and when, without our family’s input, need be no less sacred, sincere or meaningful than the public commitment of yesteryear. We are not lacking dignity just because we don’t enter into marriage to get more cattle and a dowry. That being said, we’re in the middle of a whirlwind of struggling to redefine marriage at a deeper level than just an unstable emotional whim without ultimate purpose, a natural side-effect of new freedoms in marriage that comes with the territory of inventing whole-cloth a completely new culture of courtship. We are shaken by divorce, which is sometimes necessary but always anguish. We are struggling to re-sanctify marriage not as an exclusively patriarchal or heteronormative “institution”, but something no less serious or deeply sacred in it’s dawning expansiveness, its inclusivity to new ways of being.
The problem with our secular culture is not that many of us don’t believe in a particular deity or participate in public worship. The problem is that we have laughed off the entire deeper concept of sacredness in society altogether, which is dangerously throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is what triggers many conservatives who are against gay marriage. Though we rightly advocate for the freedom to marry our beloveds of whatever gender, societally we’ve forgotten the religious imagination which sanctifies this most intimate of human relationships, the sexual bond between people. Now, our task as a changing society is to bless, with whatever framework of ultimate meaning, devotion and beauty we can imagine, the sincere bonds forming between people. This will restore interconnectedness, community, purpose, belonging and a new cultural tradition. We grieve the absence of these parts of a functioning culture, leading some to question all personal freedom in unhelpful ways.
It is the mark of a healthy mind to be able to respect other peoples’ choices, within reason, while maintaining a different standard for one’s own life. Though we have differing values within an overarching culture, we all need a framework by which to live. We are in the midst of redefining multiple frameworks by which we may live, and the change can feel dizzying. Rapid change causes discord between people of different views, because there is a fear of losing touch with the anchoring foundations of our history that feel so essential to life. Liberals, while they work for a more humane world, can come to respect this need to be anchored to a cultural past. Though marriage is now a private matter, it is still impossible to engage in anything as consequential as marriage without affecting other people. The life the couple chooses to share together may be what matters most, but the success or failure of a marriage still greatly affects the the other people who are close to the married couple. American society is in search of equilibrium.
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