Thursday, March 17, 2011

What Is Marriage Good For?

About a month ago, I read a Time Magazine cover story while sitting in Supercuts. I haven't been able to stop thinking of it since. I have so many thoughts on the subject that I may need to blog about it in two or three parts. The cover of the November 2010 issue read: "Marriage, What is it Good For, Anyway?" Inside, the title of the article was "Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution."

The article dissected and interpreted a nationwide poll conducted by a study by the Pew Research Center, in association with TIME, "exploring the contours of modern marriage and the new American family... What we found is that marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be. Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children — yet marriage remains revered and desired."

Here are some thought provoking statistics from the survey:
* Today, only 40% of American adults are married, as opposed to 70% back in 1981 when Princess Di and Prince Charles tied the not.

*According to the Pew survey, nearly 40% of Americans think marriage is obsolete.

*Forty percent of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction. But only 5% of those in that age group said they did not want to get married.

The week after I read this article, a pastor at our church came to speak to our MOPS group about the "myth of Mr. Right." His contention was that when conflict arises in our marriages, we tend to think it's because we chose the wrong mate: he wasn't Mr. Right after all. He said that from God's perspective, marriage is not about picking the right guy to make you happy. Instead, our spouses are the tools that God uses to make us better: compassionate, patient, forgiving, kind. Marriage teaches us about self-sacrifice. But self-sacrifice is not a popular concept, nor is it easy to do, but it is an essential part of any kind of commitment.

And in my humble opinion, that is why the idea that 20-somethings in this country think marriage is on its way out is a terrifying thought. Take marriage out of our culture, and you lose one of the primary ways that humans learn how to love one another.

Look at the toddler model for a moment. Why do we send our kids to preschool? For socialization. Throw those toddlers in a room together and they shall be forced to share, learn to use their words, and take turns. If they don't, they'll be ejected from school and lose the opportunity to finger paint.

Well, adults need constant socialization too. In my experience with myself, at the core, I'm not much less selfish than my three year old. I've just learned to hide it better (I don't throw tantrums very often, and I never, ever bite people). Of course, I've also developed values that keep me from giving into my selfish impulses. But by and large, what has changed me most has been my relationship with my husband.

Marriage is the ultimate socialization. You take two people who are used to being captain of their own ships, and throw them together in a situation where they have to share a remote control, a bed, possibly a checkbook, a closet, a toilet and a shower (I once knew a woman who said the secret to a happy marriage was separate bathrooms). Now they have to agree about how to spend their money, how cool the room has to be when they're sleeping, and if they're going to watch "American Idol" or "Modern Family." She likes Jane Austen. He likes the Terminator movies. Conflict and compromise is built into absolutely every day of married life.

I'm being glib here, but in all seriousness, the only way to navigate all these small conflicts without becoming a bitter, angry person is to die to yourself, daily. Marriage is much more about submission that personal happiness. (The good news is that as both of you learn submission, you do make each other happy more often.) And someone who knows how to set aside their own desires for someone else is going to be a better member of society. If our culture finally decides that staying married to the same person for the whole of your life is without value -- just have babies and families without even the goal of a lifetime commitment in mind -- we will have lost an incredibly precious institution.

Obviously, this constant confrontation with our spouse and our own selfishness doesn't automatically turn couples into better people. Some people get bitter and fight all the time. Some people retreat to separate corners: they get their own bedrooms, tvs, checkbooks, interests, and they interface as little as possible. They eventually lose intimacy, even though they may stay married for 50 years. These aren't the marriages that inspire awe admiration. But a couple who finds a way to process their conflicts, strengthen one anothers character and still enjoy one anothers company year after year? That's a relationship that people will revere, and a force that will transform our country.


  1. It's funny that you write about this because a whole discussion about this very subject just got started on my Facebook page (from which I'm pulling a lot of this). I'm not in my 20's, but I can absolutely be included in that forty percent. Personally I think marriage is, or is at least becoming, an anachronism. I'm not saying I won't meet the woman with whom I will spend the rest of my life, but if I do I'll just spend my life with her. I don't see the point in turning it into a complicated legal process. I also don't see anything wrong with leaving open the option that at some point you can both acknowledge that, even after 20 years or however long it's been, you'd both be happier not being together anymore. I see a lot of married couples staying together purely out of obligation. They made a decision years ago to hitch their wagon to someone for life, so now they *have* to stick it out. Good on them for honoring a commitment, but why make a permanent life decision like that in the first place? So they trudge through it and in those cases, more often than not, they end up hating and resenting each other for the rest of their lives or at best they end up with an amicable roommmate for life. I think it's exceedingly rare for those couple to come out on the other side of it back in love with each other. Bottom line is that it's like getting a tattoo: It may seem like a really good idea now, but that doesn't mean you won't change your mind about it later. But it's permanent so now it's going to take a really long and painful process to undo it.
    Your point about marriage being a tool of socialization is well taken, but I don't think that it's the only way to learn those skills or values. I've never been married but I feel confident in saying that you can ask anyone close to me that I would, in a heartbeat, drop anything I have going on to help them. I have learned that the joy I get from helping my friend is WAY better than any narcissistic endeavor I might be pursuing. Honestly the best lesson I ever got on this came from George Carlin who said "Anytime you think your needs aren't being met, GET RID OF SOME OF YOUR NEEDS!" It really doesn't take much for me to be happy in this world which frees me up to make the people in my life happy, but I didn't need marriage to learn this.
    I just think too many people get married because they are chained to the traditional narrative of how relationships are supposed to go; ie we date, we enter into an exclusive relationship, we get married, we have kids and it *must* be in that order. I just don't buy into that. My rejection of marriage is simply me following the narrative that I have created for myself, not the one my friends or family or society as a whole have told me to follow. Now I'm not saying that my narrative is the one that everyone should follow or even that someone else's narrative couldn't end up sounding a lot like the traditional one. I just think a vast majority of people go trudging down that predictable road without really thinking about it and deciding what they really want from life. As a result they end up in boring, loveless, stagnant lives. Even worse is when they stay together "for the kids" which is a HORRIBLE reason to stay married. Now your kids have a model for marriage that is angry and bitter and resentful.

  2. Great post, Amanda. We know that no matter how one chooses to live, God knows what is best for us. It requires a great deal of trust to follow Him counter-culture, doesn't it? The Bible clearly states that marriage is the ideal union between a man and woman, unless a person is called to staying single (and unattached). Miraculously, adherence to His ways bless us as individuals and as a society. Any deviation from God's ways is at best prideful, and at worst simply rebellion. God have mercy on us and the way we as broken people tend to "lean on our own understanding".

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  4. Dearest Jeremy, you have always been one of my favorite people to debate, since back in high school when we used to fight in Humanities. Thanks for all your thoughts. You are actually the first male to ever comment on my blog.

    Of course there are other ways to become socialized as a human being other than being married. And it’s a point well taken that many people marry just because they think they ought to (read my blog tomorrow for more thoughts on that subject).

    I can’t accept that companionship without a commitment is as valuable as a companionship with one. Without a mutual commitment to grow and better a relationship, every single relationship with any potential partner will eventually get to the point where it is no longer satisfying. What motivates either of you to meet each other’s needs when either of you could walk out the next day?

    I’ve seen marriages go through catastrophic crisis (infidelity, cancer, death of a child, financial ruin) and come out stronger and better. On the other hand, I’ve seen marriages break up because one or the other partner got bored (unlike in your 20-year scenario, lots of divorce happens against one person’s will, not by mutual consent to move on), and the result was broken relationships with their children, their friends, their parents, their siblings – all of whom were forced to take a side.

    I also don’t accept that we have two choices: (1) get married and end up bored and bitter or (2) don’t get married at all. If you want to have a successful marriage, there are hundreds of tools out there and people to help you: books, support groups, pastors, and therapists. Learning to have a good marriage isn’t complicated – in fact it usually comes down to good communication – but it is hard. Because at the core it’s about being all in, and trusting that the other person is all in too.

    You may well be surprised that so many people agree with you.  They actually didn’t. The survey showed that among the 40% under the age of 30 who thought marriage was becoming obsolete, 95% still wanted to try it themselves. At the core, I think this shows that most of us do dream of lifetime companionship and hope we’ll be able to make it even though others around us have not been so fortunate.