April 5, 2008
Reflections on MarriageBy Janice Shaw Crouse
More and more these days, it seems like the attitude of the younger generation is "Why marriage?" It's a good question, and I think the answer lies in part because the romantic ideal is still that a man and a woman will fall in love, get married, have a family and grow old together.
What is more delightful than seeing the growing oneness of a married couple learning to connect with each other in a dozen different ways? Sometimes it shows up in their humorous exchanges, other times simply in the way they glance at each other; one thing I especially enjoy seeing is when a couple manages to coordinate things despite little being said, a little like dancers or skaters who know each other's moves by heart. Whether married five years or 20, the telltale signs of connectedness sparkle as they share the joys of life or glow warmly in the way they support one another in the hard places. Also, it is gratifying to see the ever-growing sureness of one another as couples deepen in their understanding, affection and acceptance of each other.
In "Tall Trees in Georgia," the late Eva Cassidy laments having chosen independence ahead of love with these words:
Now older, alone and pining to be married, she advises:
From this brief, poignant account, we catch a glimpse of the near universal yearnings of the heart for a life's mate - not merely a fleeting desire for some half-committed "significant other."
In contrast to the almost universal longing for marriage, the late night stand-up comedians offer a variety of disparaging takes on marriage. The better ones make us chuckle, even laugh uproariously, by highlighting the absurd miscues, mistakes, miscalculations and, yes, mule-headedness in our familial relationships, all evidence of the foibles inherent in our human frailty. Another brand of comics provoke pinched laughs from us as they snarl and bark out their crude, cutting, hate-laced, anger-drenched diatribes about married life; they use their bawdy, blistering humor to lacerate us for of our defects, failures and the sins we commit as we struggle with the challenges of life as husband and wife, parent and child. These cynical, pitiless critics -- unlike God who remembers that we are made of dust -- portray the shortfalls and weaknesses of our efforts to love and denounce the whole enterprise of marriage as a miserable fraud deserving only searing comedic contempt.
Seen through their bitter, anger-warped lenses, marital sex gets little but sarcasm and ridicule. They are not alone in their disparaging comments. Sex in marriage is nearly always belittled as dull, boring or ludicrous. It is pictured -- on the supposedly rare occasions it is actually attempted -- as a pale excuse for the alleged excitement of promiscuous "fooling around." Regular folks with normal, happy marriages (and thus who know better) can only wonder what sort of experience lies behind this deluge of derogatory bile that is the staple of TV sitcoms and comedic monologues. Why even expend the energy to ridicule marriage if it is as pointless and unpalatable as it is portrayed? Even more to the point, if marriage were "as advertised," why would anyone ever want to be married?
Then, as if the TV treatment of marriage were not enough, there are all the worn out jokes at weddings about the guy getting a ring both for his finger and one for his nose (like some prize bull?), or worse, the old saw about getting a millstone tied round his neck. Also, there are all the jokes about how you can tell that the honeymoon is over. Altogether, there's a constant stream of would-be comedians spouting comments that make solitary confinement sound preferable to marriage.
Again, if this is the whole truth or even half the truth, why marry? Just what kind of foolish delusions are being pursued by those who marry?
In scripture we find the Creator's pronouncement, "It is not good for man to live alone." (In St. Ambrose's interpretation, this is God's counsel, i.e., the wisdom of God, as opposed to a commandment.) But if anyone should know, certainly it is the Creator, since He understands exactly how He infused the need for marriage into the very fabric of our humanity - in our need for communication, our need to know and be known, to love and be loved. So clearly, the needs that are met through marriage spring from the very essence of our humanity.
As to our propensity for communication, note that the account of creation reports that God "spoke" addressing the fact of man's inadequacy as a solitary being. Compare that to instances where we describe our response to some circumstance as, "I said to myself," or "I told myself." Self-talk can be an important indicator of attitudes, values or emotional state, but it is incomplete communication. It is only a start. The very fact that we learn of someone's self-talk reveals that they needed to go further and verbalized to someone else what they said to themselves. Our need for communication is clearly part of the Image Deo.
By publicly exchanging vows of fidelity and promises of love, those who marry begin a work of building something larger than they know. If and when both husband and wife lay aside their resentments when they don't get their own way, learn to appreciate their differences, and thus achieve a deeper understanding of one another than the mere romantic attraction that brought them together initially, their affection for each other can steadily deepen until the relationship they create turns out to be really "something." Remarkably, such an example becomes an influence on the lives of everyone who chances to witness the love they share.
As we are all too painfully aware, many of these efforts fail in large and sometimes dramatic ways, but even those marriages which fall short of their full potential in small ways can still be something magnificent. Such is the case any time a marriage nurtures, shelters and protects, when it is a stage where scenes of love and joyful celebration are played out again and again.
Certainly the children that come from marriage are vital to the future of society, but the contributions of these good marriages do not end there. By building good marriages, these couples create virtue. In some immeasurable way, the goodness they create -- simply by living in conformity to the natural order designed by the Creator -- is of benefit not just for the couple; their success contributes vitality to the whole.
Much as the sun holds the planets in their orbits, providing light and energy, these good marriages are little anchor points both within the local community and across the entire society. Though it is not their conscious intent, the way they live generates something akin to a magnetic field that helps to hold a community together. Their vital presence helps to stabilize the whole.
Good marriages generate life and energy in such a marvelous way that it radiates outward, nourishing all in its path. In short, to marry is to start another branch on the tree of life with all of its bountiful potential, large and small.
Humans are never perfect, and hence all marriages, despite our early romantic illusions, will have imperfections. But by continuing to strive towards the ideal, even through their imperfections, the marriage builders keep the ideal alive. Their efforts serve to encourage us all, and as their love endures, even though flawed, it points to the validity of the potential that exists. Ultimately, the commitment to build a marriage persisting through "sickness and health" produces something larger than the mere sum of the parts.
By themselves, pieces of cardboard are flimsy and weak, but cut the pieces carefully ("ouch"), crease and bend them ("double ouch"), staple them ("ouch, ouch, ouch") and, finally, tape them together so as to form a box, and you can produce something strong enough to protect fragile crystal goblets or carry a heavy load of canned goods. Just so, when two become one, they forge a strength that is not otherwise attainable.
Is this fulfillment? For some, yes. They find the burdens and constraints of married life -- the responsibility, the give and take, the need to forgive and ask forgiveness -- a fair price to pay for the abundant joys and compensations of marriage. Others may choose -- or be forced to accept -- the independence, the lack of encumbrance and accountability of a single life, if not a solitary one. Many have done so, saints and sinners alike, but the solitary, single life - though it be as brilliant as a supernovae, powerful as a gamma ray burst or dramatic as a shooting star -- can never fulfill the function in a community that marriages do, regardless of singles' numbers or gifts.
Without the energizing presence and wealth of relational networks that marriages foster, community life can never achieve full development. An army platoon, a ball team, a symphony orchestra: all can produce coordinated, organized activity, wonderful camaraderie, even strong bonds of friendship and affection, but they do not have the life-generating capacity of a community comprised of couples engaged in the elemental business of building marriages, raising and educating children, gathering together to worship and give thanks, and uniting in the sharing of communal meals of celebration. Nothing else comes close to generating the array of connections as do families living in communities, the end product of couples working at the essential, irreplaceable task of building marriages and families.
Why is the tradition of the visit to grandmother's house for holiday celebrations such an enduring, iconic image? Why are we so drawn to it, whether or not it is a part of our own personal experience? What makes it tug so at our hearts? Undoubtedly because the event -- whether in wistful imagination or actual reality, smooth and warm or rough and gritty -- represents a particular fulfillment of our very humanity, the realization of some of our deepest needs, hopes and dreams. In particular, it embodies a connection to something larger than ourselves, of belonging to a whole which includes those no longer present but who, by their own marriages, started new branches from which we have grown.
Those who have been blessed to have this experience first hand know well how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to so celebrate our place in the family tree. We have abundant reason to give thanks for our ancestors who embraced the bonds of matrimony and commenced to build something that blessed not just themselves but all who would be touched -- directly and indirectly -- by their lives.
Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D., is Director and Senior Fellow, The Beverly LaHaye Institute, Concerned Women for America