It is difficult to speak about marriage to people these days. Most people who are the age to get married (a first marriage – 20’s and early 30’s) have grown up their entire lives in a context where the marriage narrative is negative. Divorce, abuse, cohabitation is no different, loss of freedom, pointless and on and on, the negative cultural narratives about marriage make it unattractive. The limits and risks in the marriage negative narrative make it difficult for many to want to consider it. This narrative is supported by their own experiences growing up or at least the experiences of people they know as well as endless celebrity divorce and break up news and widely publicized (inaccurately at times) divorce statistics.
The push back marriage positive narrative doesn't help much either. In short, marriage is oversold as a way to personal happiness: "Here are all the great economic and health benefits of getting married - live longer, get wealthier, be happy..." The marriage positive narrative can sound more the dreaded prosperity gospel of the crooked Christian television pastors. What is worse is the indulgent and greedy wedding industry that seems to link the amount of money spent on a wedding to the amount of love invested into a marriage. This narrative is supported by selective research findings and religious templates of what marriage is supposed to be.
Sadly, both the negative and the positive narrative are all too often being oversold. Overselling either narrative is a problem in a number of ways.
1.They are not an accurate view of marriage
2. What might be descriptive of some specific marriages is communicated as prescriptive of marriage in general
3. There seems to be additional and unhelpful motivation in either case for communicating the marital narratives in the way they are communicated. People who are compelled either to diminish marriage or militantly advocate for it seem to have some additional stake in their efforts that has nothing to do with the people they are communicating with.
Plus, these narratives are situated into the relentless cultural support for hyper-individualism and consumerism which elevates above all other things a cost-benefit analyses as the basis for marriage - the costs being "how little do I have to relationally invest or risk" and the benefits being "how much sustained satisfaction can I extract." No one is really going to outright admit that this is true. However, in a sense, although we know that we are not supposed to be selfish in a relationship, we have been so well trained by the power of cultural inertia to focus on personal satisfactions that it is the only thing that comes naturally when the relationship is up and running. Applying economic principles, even accidentally, to an intimate relationship is like spreading a smooth layer of mud onto bread and calling it a sandwich. It just doesn't work.
Marriage is, in large measure, a process filled with opportunity, suffering, and mystery that has great potential for good for a majority of people. Here is a very small sample:
Opportunity: The opportunities that occur within marriage, a committed, intimate, and exclusive relationship between two people that is recognized by layers of community and family, are numerous. The primary opportunities are for growth. Marriage provides context for growth that is constant and the stakes are real. In order to be intimate, there must be risk. Risk-free intimacy is no intimacy at all. Not committing in an intimate relationship is a risk-avoidant process that wears on efforts at intimacy. The answer to the question, “Can I be committed to someone, even when it gets difficult?” cannot be answered very well with serial monogamy. In order to there to be sustained intimacy there must be sustained growth. In marriage, an individual has the opportunity to become the very best version of themselves because there is real time feedback (intentional and unintentional) on their efforts. Satisfaction that is genuine and sustainable comes after growth, not before it. Gratification can happen at any point, but most people eventually tire of mere gratification like they do of eating the frosting off the cake - it doesn’t kill, but it also does not sustain. Genuine satisfaction that is sustainable is a process that takes committed time to a committed other. Marriage provides opportunity for the experience that some things can only be accomplished by a marital social system or can be accomplished easier in that system. Yes, children can be raised in other family structures, but marriage provides an excellent social context as married parents can serve as an amazing resource for each other that were such a resource to be outsourced, the costs would be significant. Married parents are required to grow as they raise children together as the children force out all kinds of latent rules and roles that must be engaged and modified in order for the marital social system to survive. Grow or suffer.
Suffering: Speaking of suffering, there will be suffering in marriage. That is no different than any other part of life, so this should not be frightening to anyone. The person who believes they will escape this life without suffering knows so little of life. The suffering in marriage is often caught up in the extent to which the individual must give up part of himself or herself that does not make for a better relationship. It is called sacrifice or sometimes it is called self-confrontation. When genuine and meaningful sacrifice is made in the marital context, the outcome is often that the thing given up is not missed for what the space left by that thing given up allowed for in the marriage.
When significant loss happens and grief makes its unwelcomed visits, the couple suffers, but they have the opportunity to suffer together – to share in the grief, the pain, and the uncertainties. Such things can strain a marriage, but also opens door for the building of resilience and depth.
Mystery: Life long sustained efforts at intimacy can lead to unexpected things in marriage. Knowing that two people are committed to each other until death opens up dreams and hopes and the chance for the unexpected. Revelation about self, about the other and about the relationship through years of storying and re-storying events of life together can make for deeply meaningful reflections and marital identity making. It makes for shifting and generative meaning-making through years and decades together. Events change meaning when there are three, four, or five decades to re-story them. Such mysteries of marriage deepen and grow with the length of the marriage. Serial monogamy cannot offer this mystery as previous events of past relationships cannot be borrowed into the next as shared experiences.
This does not even scratch the surface, but it is a small hint into what marriage can be.
Marriage is not the horror narrative that all too often gets told in the media, nor is it the fairy tale narrative told by the marriage imposers. It is not an obligation in order to be a normal person and it is not a death trap meant to ruin all of your freedom entitlements.
It is a context where in two individuals find meaningful ways to become one without losing themselves. THAT is beautiful.