My daughter got married a few weeks ago. Having participated in planning this wonderful extravaganza I can assure you that weddings are not an endangered species. Marriages are. During the same period that weddings have grown so much more elaborately celebrative—and so much more expensive–we have seen the bottom dropping out of marriage in America. Divorce, cohabitation, singleness, all up. Intact marriages, down. We’re not yet where Scandinavia is, but we’re getting there fast.
When I was growing up, one’s life plan was captured in a jingle: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Mary with a baby carriage. Looking around at the wedding party for my daughter, that jingle didn’t appear fully operative. For many, the “marriage” part was tentative and delayed, and the sequence of events was jumbled.
Which doesn’t mean that men and women will stop pairing up in relatively stable ways. Some things don’t change. The tendency of men and women to become lasting partners is a function of our natures.
So are the infidelity and discord that destroy many such relationships. These also are cross-culturally robust, and a consistent feature of relationships between men and women through history. Our draw toward monogamous, heterosexual partnerships and our draw toward that which destroys those partnerships will continue to collide, as they always have. So I expect.
The change comes in societal supports for lasting partnerships, the religious and social mores that create expectations of permanence, and disapproval and opposition to breaking apart. These have grown weak. A lot of people would say: if people love each other and want to marry, we will celebrate with them, but if they don’t want such commitments, or if they feel they can’t sustain such commitments any longer, “no problem.”
Why fight for marriage? Why make it a societal project? Why take sides for marriage, and against dissolution?
Jeff and Janet Johnson, both long-time mentors of my daughter, shared the officiating in my daughter’s wedding. Janet made the case for marriage:
Your love is priceless and needs to be guarded. Selfishness, pride, lack of forgiveness and inattentiveness are but some of the many thieves capable of stealing away your love. In a sense your marriage is like a treasure chest forming a protective casing around your love, preventing your love from being stolen. Treasure chests have hard sides. The hardness protects what is on the inside…
Many people live with the false assumption that love enables a marriage to survive. But that is not the case. Your love will not ensure your marriage will survive; it is your marriage which will ensure your love will survive. This is the very reason God ordained marriage. Marriage keeps love alive, not love keeps marriage alive.
I would add that the love protected in marriage is more than the feelings of one partner for the other. It involves a broader community of interest: children, neighbors, church, extended family. That community suffers when a marriage breaks, or if a marriage never forms. It loses some measure of reassurance, security, stability, and delight.
That is why our communities should fight for marriage, to do what can be done in a gentle way to sustain and protect marriages. I say gentle. I don’t favor the savage sanctions of some earlier eras. They left such a bitter taste that they undermined their own purposes. And they were often unjust. Surely, though, there are good and gentle ways to show our tireless support for marriage, ways that enhance human flourishing.