Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Marriage in a Changing Society
When I write about marriage, I am concerned that my views will appear negative and be viewed as relationship 'bashing.' I believe that we suffer from our own hedonism and lack of personal discipline. I am deeply saddened by the apparent attitude that what we have, as a culture, is somehow permanent and that we will always be free. However, freedom is a two-edged sword: it gives us the right to think and act as we choose and to not have overt negative consequences as long as we stay within legal bounds. It is then the individual's responsibility to behave in a way that is personally productive while maintaining the discipline to not jeopardize the society in which we choose to live.
I have been thinking about the how's and why's of marriage and I keep trying to understand what has happened in my lifetime that has caused so many changes. I want to believe that there is an answer that will allow couples to court, marry and live happily ever after. This final phrase from many fairytales may now be more of a fantasy than it ever was.
The basic biological purpose of marriage is to provide for the preservation of the species by producing survivable offspring at a rate that at least replaces those that die. Looking at world population it is apparent that we have more than met this goal. There does not seem to be an 'off' switch on the reproductive imperative. There does seem to be a temporary accelerator that increases the birthrate after major stressors like war, pestilence and famine strike.
The attitude toward maintaining an integral family with the traditional couple staying married (until death do us part) has greatly diminished. In our culture, for many, marriage is a temporary arrangement. In other cultures, staying together and producing children, still holds a strong influence. Some religions make the goal of a large family a basis for pride and status. In the third world, where child mortality is high, the original imperative still makes sense. Some cultures have adopted our attitude and now find them below the population replacement rate. Sub cultures within a country now are out-reproducing what had been the dominant group.
Is this bad? I doubt that there is intrinsic good or bad in the shift to a new dominant group. In any case, it seems to be where we are and there is little evidence we can or will make changes to preserve what some believe should be our norm. Change would require discipline and/or oppression. Most of us lack the former, and the latter is against everything for what we believe and stand. Xenophobia explains our fears. For many, our values are being challenged; and we each believe that the values we hold are correct, moral and in the best interest of all. Accepting that others have as much right to their beliefs as we do is a difficult journey.
I still believe we are capable of entering and maintaining a comfortable, stable relationship. It will not be the marriage of our fantasies. It will be a union that requires hard work, acceptance of one another, dedication to being a couple and the realization that although it takes two to make it work it only takes one to destroy it. We cannot expect much in the way of support from a society that seeks instant gratification and demands that the fantasy becomes real. The fantasy comes out of initial, often sexual attraction; the intensity of which blinds us to reality. We desperately want to believe that love conquers all and that areas of incompatibility will resolve themselves. Johnny Cash's song "Jackson" says, "We got married in a fever. . .we've been talking about Jackson ever since the fire went out." In order to have a lasting relationship we must be able to stick to a commitment long after the initial flush of excitement has waned.
The journey is not for everyone. It does not seem like there are many who are willing to discipline themselves to adhere to the promises they have made. Having had three marriages myself, I certainly cannot say, "do as I have done." There are couples that seem to make it in long-term marriages. It is sad to me that the number is small and the trend is downward. It is similar to recovery in that the opportunity is there for all, but those who succeed are among the fortunate few.