Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage…

The type of love I think about most often is in relation to marriage. I have been married for over sixteen years, since I was eighteen years old (no, I won’t recommend it to my son), so it is one area where I have a little more longevity than most my age. It is the also an area of love where you get the little help from pop culture. All the movies end at precisely the point where two free-spirited individuals overcome all obstacles (especially that climax point where she finds out about that horrible thing she thinks he did and he has to come find her in the rain on his motorcycle on the beach as she’s getting on a plane to fly to the other side of the world and never coming back) and tie the knot. So the popular message is that love relationships culminate in marriage and…good luck after that, because it’s too boring to be movie material.

But what exactly is the relationship between love and marriage? I might say that the decline in marriage rates is directly correlated to the increasing valuation of a particular type of love in marriage. Simply, the other cultural factors that coordinated to keep an otherwise unhappy couple together have lost the grip they once had. Those who point to the decline in spirituality are at least partially correct; the Church has been and is a place that exerts social pressure on individuals to get and remain paired.

The primary reason my testosterone-addled teenage brain wanted to get married one month out of high school was that I wanted to have sex and was too scared to do it outside of marriage. My motto was from the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “It is better to get married than burn in lust.” Likely because it was the issue I was most concerned about, I thought that sex outside of marriage was a death sentence, likely leading to dancing, drugs, drinking, gambling, and death, in no particular order. It was like one of those commercials for a revolutionary new prescription drug that promises great results, the side effects of which include everything from nausea to slow expiration from internal bleeding. So I followed the rules as much as a teenager can be expected to do.

So was the Church, the institution, wrong in trying to get me to confine intimacy to monogamous relationship? I don’t think so, even if the tactics they use to enforce their policies are sometimes inappropriate or desperate. It is in the best interest of the institution, of the social body, for you to be married. From his study of primates (and really, we’re all kind of like monkeys when we’re in love, right?), Frans de Waal has suggested that the pair-bond serves a definite developmental and sustaining societal function, eliminating an element of competition for species propagation. In other words, if most people are paired off, then I don’t have to worry as much about others jeopardizing my success in procreation. My mate will not be stolen from me when I am away; I get along with others more and I can concentrate more of my energy elsewhere. It is not surprising that many different social organizations coordinate to promote the benefits of marriage.

A biological explanation fails to convince me of a connection with love, however. Here’s my point: there is no necessary relationship between love and marriage. I was told that the love of a marriage relationship on earth is an analogy to the relationship between Jesus and the Church. (As an aside, try to read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament strictly as an allegory to the love God has for Christians—it is a good mental exercise.) But it is first and foremost a social convenience. I am not saying that this is grounds on which marriage should be done away with, because insofar as marriage is still a part of society (and will continue to be for some time), it performs a significant cultural role. Even those who disparage the value of marriage rely on it in their day-to-day socio-cultural negotiations. What I am saying is that the link between love and marriage is one in which we collude with social institutions, equating the two in order to avoid the anxiety of existence in that area of being.

Marriage is no guarantee of love, of the preference I referred to in my last post. Loveless marriages exist everywhere, as do loving pair-bond relationships outside of marriage. There are consequences to mandating marriage as the norm, which I have seen in the second-class treatment of adult single or divorced folks in Christianity. My argument, then, is not to let marriage do the dirty work of love for you. Love is a fragile thing, and belief that marriage is its only proper container is a denial of its nature. It is open, exposed, and vulnerable. Consequently, we can view the relationship between love and marriage as a beneficial one…as long as it is beneficial. We cannot overlook the fact that it has no sanction outside of what we give it. Why get married? There are certainly some societal benefits. But the safety and security that are thought to come with it have no standing of their own. They are projections of our own battles against uncertainty.

3 thoughts on “Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage…

  1. I think that what the biological/evolutionary examples fail to include is those relationships outside of marriage or a pair bonding that make happiness possible in the marriage. Monkeys live in groups where interactions- both positive and negative – are viewed by the group and adjustments are made (i.e. some monkey gets hit on the head by an elder monkey) when behaviors are out of the group norm. Imagine if all your sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers and all your spouses’ mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters lived in the house with you and reminded you how to treat each other every day; once the exhaustion of having perpetual house guests was over, you would find a rhythm with the entire group that would include someone reminding you to take your wife out to breakfast on her birthday and someone else interrupting when the fight became sarcastic and non-productive.

    The impact on the next generation would be immeasurable- never being left in the care of anyone who didn’t love them, never being home alone with an exhausted, frustrated, lonely parent!

    Animals can pair off because they aren’t just coupled, they are joined to a larger group. The prevalence of divorce has less to do with a falling away of spirituality (I mean, ducks don’t pray, right?) and more to do with a realization that many people are more alone in marriage than they are…well, alone.

    • Oooh, I like this. Larger familial groups are not uncommon in many other human cultures as well. Even in American culture, it was not uncommon to have multigenerational households into the mid 20th century. The stigma of “living with your parents” is relatively new. I think you’re right about the subtle social checks that living in a slightly larger social environment would provide. It is impossible to say which is a greater influence, but I do think that religious and other cultural spheres affect each other in terms of social norms such as marriage. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Pingback: Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Marriage

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