Go Together like a Horse and Carriage

There have been some interesting debates going on lately among my virtual friends regarding the whole subject of marriage and all the ethical considerations that it entails. In some ways this ties into the question of the traditional value of religion as such. In some ways it relates to the ever sensitive subject of gay rights. In some ways it hinges on the justice of gender roles in society. In some ways this relates to the capacity for personal commitment in a social system that does little to enforce personal responsibility. It also relates to individual sexuality in a very direct and potentially embarrassing way.

I feel a certain duty to say something about this subject, but I also want to avoid the classic “too much information” syndrome. I want to speak to the issues here frankly without infuriating my sons and lovers. Please bear with me then if you find this particular entry vague or insufficiently argued; I’m pulling my punches on purpose and trying to exercise a fair amount of restraint while still giving the matter some serious consideration. Let’s see if I can pull it off.

I’ll start with a very personal consideration though: I often wonder what difference it would have made in my life had I not, like my parents before me, followed the traditional Christian prohibition on pre-marital sex. I married as a virgin, as did my parents. Both marriages ended bitterly, in part due to disillusionment over “having done things God’s way” and discovering to our complete despair that that system doesn’t always work. I did not lose my faith over this issue, and neither did either of my parents for that matter, but it raised a number of important questions that I continue to wrestle with to this day.

To say that the images of marriage we provide to children are problematic is a mild understatement.

Depending on whether you perspective is a religious one, a psycho-analytical one, a libertine one or an agnostic traditional one, you probably already have some ready opinions and advice for me after reading just that much. The fact is that I’ve probably heard it already, and even though you may be correct in many of the perspectives you’d have to offer, that doesn’t keep it from being a complicated issue for me. All I know for sure is that the traditional value system of only allowing sex within the context of marriage is no guarantee of happiness or social stability. It probably doesn’t even improve one’s chances of finding happiness or making a useful contribution to society. And if that is the case perhaps the greatest reason for people to still get married these days is to conform to religious or antique cultural traditions, regardless of the personal harm it may cause them. That’s sort of sad in its own way.

Of course there are other reasons why, ideally speaking, a couple would want to be married to each other. One is a sacramental view of marriage, which might be said to relate to a Tantric view of sex. The idea is that for sex to operate at its maximum potential, the connection between the lovers has to go deeper than just a physical union. One might also hope for an emotional, philosophical, even spiritual connection with one’s lover. Along these lines some of my Catholic friends in particular still believe that the church is capable of magically creating the necessary spiritual union between (soon to be) lovers through the sacrament of the marriage ceremony, and that only the proper ceremonies before the fact can prevent sex from being obscene. Conservative Orthodox and Protestant Christians (and Muslims for that matter) tend to have a similar belief even though they are not so firmly convinced of the magical powers of the church, but still somehow… And if it works for them I’m cool with that.

Then there are those who are just overwhelmed with the sense of emotional connection they feel with each other, and they want to lock in on that sensation for the rest of their lives and proclaim to the world how wonderful it feels. In other words they want to get married because they are deeply and blindly in love. Been there; done that. It’s hard to say whether the wedding as a ritual or marriage as an institution does much to deepen or improve the chances of permanence for such a relationship, but there is a strong belief that starry-eyed lovers should at least be allowed to give it a try.

Sometimes marriage can even be an act of defiance: the couple standing together in the face of opposition from society, family, religious authorities or political turmoil and saying, “We are going to be together –– part of each other –– whether you like it or not!” There are innumerable variations on that theme, but the most popular ones have to do with couples of different races, or different religions, or from countries at war with each other, or of the same gender with each other. It’s the Romeo and Juliet ideal: hope that love will conquer all… if it has the right rituals involved. The fact that there are no accepted rituals available to bond many such couples together makes it all the more exciting and challenging for them.

What has unquestionably changed within western civil society in the last couple of generations though is the idea that sex outside of marriage is inherently shameful and that children resulting from such unions are less deserving of care and respect within society. The term “bastard” has ceased to have any practical relevance in its literal sense. That’s a bit of a long story, but as a school teacher I know that kids from unmarried parents, kids from divorced families, kids from traditional families and kids from remarried families don’t really have an issue with each other’s parentage unless there are crises at home that the kids bring to school with them. And while some novel combinations as couples can still raise eyebrows, whether or not they are officially married makes little difference in terms of how acceptable someone is considered to be as a neighbor these days. There are aspects of tax law and right of attorney, for instance, in which marriage still makes a difference in civil law, but those issues are being progressively eliminated on a case-by-case basis. The places that marriage as such continues to be relevant to life as we know it are within conservative (and controlling) religious communities and among those for whom social acceptance of the legitimacy of their relationships is a sensitive issue: for religious fundamentalists and gay rights activists. So ironically it is those who are on the extreme right and the extreme left politically who are really worried about marriage these days; those in the middle couldn’t really care much less.

It could quite plausibly be argued that marriage as we now know it has evolved from a system in which the woman was considered to be the property of the man, and the contract involved was effectively designed to insure that as his slave she still had certain rights and protections. The wedding ceremony still has the leftovers of this ancient system in terms of the woman being given to the man and then vowing to submit to him, but those elements are quite optional and hardly taken seriously or literally these days. Marriage is theoretically seen as more of a mutual enterprise or partnership these days, but with the obligations of that partnership falling quite heavily on the man’s side. The wife is no longer the husband’s property, but the husband is still obliged to care for her as though she would be.

Not terribly surprisingly then, when you think about it, the vast majority of divorce proceedings are initiated by women. Women’s rights activists might argue that this is because husbands are still too power-hungry and not loving enough in general, but I reject such a generalization as blatantly unfair. It implies that the only morally virtuous man is the one who does whatever his wife expects of him. I don’t believe that either sex is inherently entitled to the moral high ground in such matters.

But besides trying to yet again re-balance the power struggles between the sexes, is there really anything to be done to save the institution of marriage? In response to that I would ask, is the institution really worth saving for its own sake? Unless it is a matter of maintaining the role of religious rituals within our social structures I really don’t think so. But setting aside the crisis in the social institution of marriage for the moment, just what do we think it is that makes a romantic/erotic relationship “legitimate”? What is it that really makes a couple’s union viable in the long term, regardless of who approves of it and who doesn’t?

“Yeah, what would he know about that?” I hear readers (especially family members) mumbling to themselves. Fine, I have a dismal personal record on such matters. So let me ramble on a bit about what I’ve figured out by trial and error anyway, and then you can tell me if you think I’m missing something.

As I see it there are two competing dynamics within any close, one-on-one interpersonal relationship –– be it romantic, sexual, platonic, comradely, parental or whatever: partnership and power struggle. On the one hand any two people who sincerely care about each other on any level have a certain desire to come together and cooperate in a way that brings out the best in both. When you say that you love someone, in any sense of the word, part of what that implies is that you would be ready to do many things for that person entirely for their own good, with no benefit for you other than the sense of satisfaction that you get from being able to help them. In that sense everyone wants to be loved; it gives you a certain level of control over the other person. Being able to sincerely love someone enough to relinquish your own personal control in the relationship is the hard part. Many people find themselves unable to do this; not having a capacity for love and trust in this sense. Thus many are quite afraid of the prospect of loving more than they are loved, and they want to make sure that they the other person is surrendering at least as much control in the relationship as they are. This process of self-defense and strategic control –– frequently using the cliché line, “Don’t you love me?!”–– often becomes more important than the love itself as a dynamic force in the relationship.

Again, as I see it then there are effectively three sorts of lasting spousal relationships:

  • those where there is an on-going power struggle that both get a certain kick out of (whether or not they care to admit it),
  • those where one partner has succeeded in subduing the other –– where the Shrew has been tamed, or where the bull has become an ox, and
  • those where they both remain deeply in love –– where they both would feel miserably incomplete without each other and where each considers the other’s happiness and well-being to be the most important part of their own.

In many cases traditional marital bonds have had the effect of enforcing commitment within a relationship by preventing either person from escaping the power struggle that their relationship has become. There’s a lot to be said for not running away when things start to get difficult, and any relationship worth having is worth struggling with to make it stronger, but that doesn’t mean that commitment to a relationship for the sake of the commitment itself is always a good thing. It could be said that many committed relationships –– marriages in particular –– have been power struggles to the emotional death of one party or the other. Traditionally, in the days before divorce became socially acceptable, either the husband or the wife, or both, would eventually give up on all their personal hopes and dreams, and grudgingly do whatever the other demanded. Or maybe the loser wouldn’t resent this loss, feeling too dead inside to resent anything.

Divorce is a form of retreat from a power struggle within marriage. Sometimes it is more justifiable than others, regardless of whether or not there are under-aged children involved (a factor weighing heavily against) or there are substance abuse or physical violence issues involved (factors weighing heavily in favor). Sometimes divorce is the social equivalent of the nuclear alternative: mutual assured destruction on personal and emotional levels. Sometimes the threat of divorce is used like the threat of suicide: a desperate means of crying out for attention, never actually meant to happen, but sometimes followed through on regardless when the mere threat doesn’t achieve the desired effect. But is it really any less nasty a business when a non-married couple break off a long-term intimate relationship? Hard to say.

Meanwhile there is the question of what is ultimately best for children. Tradition dictates that children should be raised within a supportive nuclear family: biological parents maintaining a life-long commitment to working as partners to provide for the material and emotional needs of their mutual offspring. That undeniably makes a certain amount of sense, as long as the power struggle between the parents doesn’t do the children more harm than the parents’ support does the kids good. So really the operational question is, what can we do to keep such power struggles from getting out of hand? In terms of legal structures relating to marriage itself, not much. So in addition to laws relating to marriage itself we also need child protection laws. Sometimes those work better than others.

For individual couples though, all is not lost. There countless ways of learning to manage power struggles when they arise, and sometimes a relationship can function fruitfully and compatibly on the level of a continuous power struggle for years on end. And just because two people are continuously trying to manipulate each other doesn’t actually mean that there isn’t any love between them.

Beyond that there are at least two ways of keeping these power struggles from becoming an issue. First they can agree to work together for the good of some cause which they can both agree is more important that either of their selfish interests. In this regard any “meme” will do, but the more spiritually oriented it is, the more effective it is likely to be as a form of glue for the relationship. The other alternative is to just focus on the value of the loving connection itself. If, regardless of all the struggles and challenges a couple faces, one of the ultimate sources of satisfaction for each of them is joys that they are able to experience together, keeping the relationship going is just a matter of focusing on what is ultimately most important. There really is something about love that is worth believing in. And in spite of all the odds stacked against it, in some cases even today erotic/romantic love can be a lasting thing.

I’ve reached an age where the idea of my marrying again and/or potentially having more children is becoming less and less relevant. I still want to be able to experience romantic love in a more stable and lasting way than I have thus far, but my greater priority is to find something to offer by way of helpful advice to the next generation. I want my sons and former students to be able to build lasting and satisfying relationships, whether or not they get married and/or have children. If they each find someone with whom they can achieve mutual sexual satisfaction regularly enough so that no further release is needed for either of them –– in my opinion the ideal situation to be in, and the one which most people should be looking for –– there needs to be a basic understanding that they will remain physically faithful to each other, hopefully deepening their connection to include other aspects of life. If they end up having children, I hope they will be able to raise them in some sort of functional partnership with another parent (or two) –– not getting torn away from their own kids in nasty custody battles; not having the kids caught in the middle of bitter power struggles between former lovers.

If marriage in one form or another enables them to achieve these sorts of goals more reliably and efficiently, so much the better.

So now it’s time for you, dear reader, to tell me: what am I missing here?

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1 Comment

Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Love, Parenting, Religion

One response to “Go Together like a Horse and Carriage

  1. Here’s a really long essay about the same topic, from a writer with a very different starting point, reaching not altogether incompatible conclusions to my own: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/8654/?single_page=true

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