Marriage, is it still an ultimate ideal?
As my Mum and Dad celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary this week – congratulations to them – I couldn’t help but think about marriage and its place in the modern world and wonder whether its status as a revered ideal remained steadfast. I have framed this week’s entry in the form of a question rather than a statement as whilst I believe it still is an ultimate ideal, more people now are questioning whether they should get married or do we even need the institution of marriage any more.
“I’ve had a number of great examples in my family to map onto, but I know others are not so fortunate.”
My beautiful Mother and Father (with hair!) on their wedding day. Photo courtesy of Martyn Foster.
The overwhelming majority of people would like long-term, exclusive/monogamous relationships. So, if you can just be together, what is marriage for? A lot of people think that the reason is because two people love each other. To me, if you’re ONLY getting married because you love one another then you haven’t grasped entirely what marriage means. Think of it this way, don’t ask what is marriage for, but who is it for? If you take your marriage seriously – and I’d like to think you would, not just enjoying the celebration – it is primarily to provide a stable upbringing for your children. This is not to say that you shouldn’t love your wife or husband or that it’s not important or you don’t need to, but if you frame marriage as forging a unity, a oneness in which to raise a family, you will grasp the entirety of it more than most.
“It’s not about losing who you are, but you start to live as one, act as one…You are a two-person team against the world.”
There have been cultural shifts towards marriage, especially over the last 60 years or so, with regards to views and what’s it for. There has been an increase in the thinking of “marriage is just a piece of paper” and “we aren’t meant for one person for life”, amongst others, which run counter to more traditional views of marriage. I’ve certainly noticed a trend of what I call “together, yet apart” relationships – a relationship with two individuals who do single activities frequently like holiday by themselves without their partner (personally, I find this baffling).
One of the major trends you can see looking at the statistics is that people are now getting married at a later point in their life. In Australia (my country – www.abs.gov.au), in 2020 the median age for marriage is basically two years older than in 2000 for both men (32.2; 30.3) and women (30.6; 28.3). While the coronavirus pandemic has played its part in both decreasing marriages and increasing divorces (overall figures), the rates for both have been trending downwards since the turn of the century, though more so for marriage than divorce. The interesting statistic I found was that despite people saying marriages don’t last like they used to, the median duration from marriage to separation (and then divorce) has remained relative stable over the past 20 years (8.4; 8.2 and 12.1; 11.6).
The marrying later vs younger argument is an interesting one. One of the main things I’ve noticed is that no one wants to talk about the downside of the marrying later (that it’s ONLY good – once again I state, don't trust someone who says something is ONLY good). By marrying later you miss out on growing up and experiencing life together and it fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship. You don’t get to be those young and exuberant (and slightly naïve) people together, experiencing things for the first time (mind, gutter!), the world isn’t as novel – it’s more mundane, you’re two individuals bringing your life experiences together rather than having them together. You can be 20 at 20, but you can’t be 20 at 40.
Such is the individualistic push in the Western world, the idea of marrying young is seen negatively, it is something that will hold you back and “spoil your 20’s” – you don’t need anyone, you have plenty of time for that later. This I’ll get mine / do what I want mentality has contributed to the rise in marriage age and divorces and the fall in marriages. A lot more people don’t want to have to worry about someone else and are fed frequently a diet of such information reinforcing a belief in chasing a life of hedonic singularity – and that this will make them happy. Personally, I find their lack of understanding around compromise and commitment…disturbing.
“Despite the increases in loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety we continue to push being independent and making it ‘on your own’ – we are social animals, we need connection.”
I don’t think it can be underestimated what benefits a stable, long-term marriage brings. You get to share your life with someone and connect to a deep level of intimacy and understanding (deeper as the years go on though not without effort!). You have a person to contend with the world – you can’t do it alone. The certainty, trust, support, love – both what you give and receive – many benefits that aren’t always easy to quantify.
A marriage is hard work and challenging to sustain. People want a perpetual honeymoon and don’t understand or like phase transitions in their relationship. Poorly developed humans continually chasing the “highs” of lust leads to increases in affairs, divorce and short-term relationships.
“Communication will always be the key – you need someone you can be honest with and who will be honest with you.”
One of the most common indicators across my psychological studies was that long-term married couples have the highest life satisfaction – across numerous measures – yet I see and hear so many examples of people who are unhappy and married. Now, is this just a skewed perception (due to media narratives or people I know) or is this genuine conflicting evidence?
The effects of poor partner selection are wide and plentiful but I wish to focus on a larger and more pertinent question:
Are modern humans constructed for marriage?
Generally speaking, I don’t think so…and here are some brief points which might explain:
- Impulse driven – delayed gratification is a hallmark of a successful marriage
- Selfish/narcissistic and self-righteous – unity, not a dictatorship, is needed
- Don’t understand what it takes to form a long-term relationship (poor education and poor examples)
- Poor worldview/outlook on life (“more is more”, too much hedonism, nihilism, fatalism and catastrophising)
- Poorly developed human beings – lack self-awareness/knowledge, infantilisation
- Technological age – connects us to those far away, distances us from those who are close
Now, the thing about holding something as an ideal is that you aim up to it (it judges you as well) and I’m not without my struggles to find a suitable life partner and obtain this ultimate ideal. However, in spite of my lack of success, I still believe and hold marriage in high esteem. To me, for all its flaws, a marriage in which you are “all in”, is still worthy of its revered status in society.
Seeing an old married couple still in love is one of the most beautiful things in the world and thankfully I’ve been able to witness that first hand. They have weathered the storm of life as captain and first mate and didn’t let life beat them. They’ve done their best to send their children off on their own voyage with the right foundations. They’ve made it to the promised land and sailed through the gates of heaven onto eternal bliss. And if one happens to go before the other, there is a reassuring comfort that they are waiting to be reunited on the other side…that is what marriage is.
It is two rings to rule them all.
My Grandfather, bless him, and my Grandmother. Photo courtesy of Martyn Foster.