My previous post Why Marriage? addressed the more personal question Why Marry? only in passing. Let’s think a little more about the reasons for getting married, rather than other forms of close ongoing relationship for a couple living together. Why do, or “should” a couple prefer marriage to e.g. a civil union, or simply doing their own thing?
In purely instrumental practical terms the evidence is strong. Married people are healthier and happier. Yet it is seldom such pragmatism that drives people to “pop the question” or respond “I do” in a formal ceremony. Marriage is a matter of the heart, they say, yet the alternative forms of cohabitation allow just as much romance, so why would someone choose to marry?
The key perceived1 difference between marriage and other forms of cohabitation (e.g. civil unions and “living together”) is the level of commitment. Cohabitation (without some form of “contract”, other than the promises and hopes each partner may make to the other) is by its nature impermanent, while it may last “until death do us part” there is no formal or structural reason why it should. Marriage, by contrast, makes a central feature of the promises made by the couple to each other, but in public with a written record (in the form of the marriage certificate).
This public vow is one of the strongest forms of voluntary commitment which people can make. It is all encompassing: “for richer for poorer”, “in sickness and in health”, and permanent: “until death parts us”. Whatever the legal niceties, and in fact in most Western countries today marriages can be dissolved pretty much at will and for no other reason than “we want to separate”, this publicly vowed commitment is perceived as being stronger in marriage than in a civil union.
This near absolute commitment one to another may be the ideal of friendship and family, it is the dream on which communes are often founded, and yet it is seldom found to such a degree except in the family relationships of parents and children, sometimes siblings, and marriage partners. When it is found elsewhere we celebrate it as a rare and wonderful thing. The story in Scripture that best expresses this commitment (which is the heart of marriage) is interestingly not of a marriage relationship2 but that or Ruth and Naomi (her mother-in-law)3 see esp. Ruth 1:16-17.
Humans “do” poorly in isolation, on our own we are weak and fragile. Mutual support enables us to exceed our normal capacities. It is not strange that war stories and indeed much other fiction often revolves around tales of deep companionship. Marriage offers such mutual support and commitment that is not attenuated (at least in intent and ideal) by time and distance (as most sibling relationships are) nor dependent on some exterior goal (as most “fellowships” are) but thrives on difference and demands to be unconditional.
“Unconditional positive regard” may be an ideal of therapy, though surely few therapists manage more than a pretense, and it is indeed probably an impossible ideal. Yet of all human relationships marriage comes closest to offering us this benefit, and thus the way in which our husband or wife “loves, honours and cherishes” us despite being well aware of our weaknesses and failings comes as close as is humanly possible (along with the parent child relationship?) to mirroring our relationship to God. Truely, marriage is a spiritual phenomenon. And the answer to the question: Why marry? is that we want to give and receive this level of commitment.4
- I write “perceived” because as will become apparent at least in formal and legal terms the difference may not be enforceable! [↩]
- A reminder that commitment is not unique to marriage. [↩]
- So produced by a marriage relationship. [↩]
- BTW in Hebrew this voluntary yet unbreakable “commitment” is called hesed. A word with only poor glosses in English. [↩]