Restoring marriage

The problems inherent in marriage are discussed in an article at National Review.  The excerpt below highlights many of the issues they discuss, and I’ve highlighted one paragraph in bold, underlined text for further discussion.

Who or what is to blame for this unraveling of marriage and the complete breakdown of trust in Rob’s world, and in the world of so many white, working-class people like him?

Economic instability is most immediately evident … Less visible but more dramatic is the role of social alienation. At least two generations have now come of age in the aftermath of the divorce revolution, and whatever the original causes — was it economic change or cultural change that mattered more? — the trauma that generations of children in fragmented families have experienced has become a main factor explaining the great unraveling. “Trust issues” run rampant.

Simply put, when you grow up without any positive marriage models, it’s more difficult to trust the opposite sex and to have confidence in marriage.  “Back in the Fifties, yeah, love existed,” was how one young gas-station attendant put it. “Now it don’t. . . . Love is just a word. It’s just fake.”

It’s also the case that in the proliferation of trauma and family chaos — high rates of children born outside of marriage, the opioid epidemic — marriage sometimes becomes about filling loneliness and healing broken selves: two emotionally needy people seeking solace and loading marriage with expectations that it can’t possibly fulfill … Further, social alienation has left a vacuum in which many working-class young people are even more vulnerable to (misleading) cultural cues about relationships and marriage. In the absence of in-the-flesh marriage models, what entertainers and educators say has unmitigated power.

Particularly damaging is the popular story about love, because it is foundational for all else — choosing a partner, the timing of sex, the meaning and purpose of marriage, the bounds of family. For instance, if love is primarily a feeling that just happens to you, then finding a spouse is less an active process of discernment and more an “aha” moment. You can fall in love, and out of it. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasts this “fixed mindset” with a “growth mindset” about love, which expects feelings to ebb and flow with the circumstances of life and sees that it takes effort to overcome inevitable differences and create lasting love.

Whereas even ten years ago the public conversation about the marriage gap — that is, the divergence of marriage trends across class lines — felt relatively one-sided depending on a person’s ideology, today it’s common to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the marriage retreat. There is a growing awareness that it’s not simply about bad choices or malignant forces. There is no one thing killing marriage. Instead, a dizzying array of economic, social, and cultural causes are intersecting with people’s free choices.

There’s more at the link.

I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions expressed in the final paragraph above.  Many of those problems have been with us for centuries.  There’s nothing new about them.  What’s either absent, or has been warped and twisted into some romantic ideal that has nothing to do with reality, is love.  I’d like to talk about that for a while.

First off, romantic love is not, repeat, NOT an essential foundation for a marriage.  It’s very nice to have, sure;  but in centuries past, a vast number of marriages were contracted by arrangement between the families, rather than any genuine feeling between the partners.  They managed to have happy, fulfilling marriages in spite of that lack, because they were brought up to understand that building a marital relationship involved hard work and mutual accommodation.  They expected that from the start, and had the lived example of their parents and (if they were lucky) earlier generations of their families to prove it to them.  If love developed on top of that, it was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top.  Remember Tevyeh and his wife in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”?

That approach to marriage was true of an astonishing number of people, and it remains so today in many parts of the world.  In traditional, tribal Africa, for example, the woman is “bought” from her father by her husband for a “bride price” or lobola.  (Being from Africa, I jokingly offered one to her American father when I was courting Miss D., and assured him that it didn’t have to be paid in cows in this day and age – TV sets were all the rage.  He wasn’t quite sure how to take that!)  In other parts of the world, it’s often the other way around, where the bride is expected to bring a dowry with her into the marriage.  If it isn’t considered sufficient, particularly in India and nearby countries, murder or suicide may result, so-called “dowry death“.  Love doesn’t enter into such commercial transactions;  indeed, love may be an obstacle to the bidding process.

Another problem, and a very significant one in post-religious, relatively moral-less First World society, is the conflation of “love” with “sex”.  Far too many people mis-identify the release of oxytocin during and after sex with the feeling of being in love.  It’s anything but!  It’s just a physical manifestation, a by-product.  What’s more, it occurs with multiple sexual partners, not just with those for whom one feels a romantic attraction.  In today’s hookup culture, sex has become almost completely divorced from real love – and that’s a tragedy, in my opinion.  After dozens, or scores, or even hundreds of casual sexual partners, what has a man or a woman got to offer in the way of real intimacy to a life partner in marriage?  As a graffito in England claimed some years ago, “Love is five minutes of squelching noises”.  If that’s the case, why believe in or look for love at all?  And, if love is off the table, why bother getting married?  If sex is what it’s all about, that’s freely available without the bother and expense of a long-term relationship.  We’ve all heard the old saw, or variations on it:  “Why buy your own cow, when you can get cheap milk at the supermarket whenever you want it?”

The unshackling of sex from the marital relationship has just about destroyed the latter, even as it’s devalued the former.  When one had to be married in order to have access to “sex on demand”, it meant that one valued sex that much more highly – particularly all that came with it, such as marital rights, children, and so on.  It wasn’t something to take lightly.  Yes, I accept that was exploited by men more than women, to the point where the latter were often oppressed because of it.  However, that “wrong” doesn’t make the entire institution of marriage wrong as well.  It means that our wrong attitudes and sinful tendencies (yes, there’s that word “sin” rearing its ugly head – morality intrudes!) need to be resisted and reformed if our marriages are to succeed.  That applies to a whole range of social interaction, not just marriage.  When John Adams, second President of the United States, famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” he wasn’t joking.  He meant every word.  (Which may help us to understand why basic Constitutional laws and norms are under such fierce attack in US politics and society today.)

Getting married is often portrayed in popular entertainment as the culmination of love, the star on top of the progressively more decorated tree, the crowning glory of an emerging relationship.  In times past, it was seen as the end of the beginning, the time when learning to live together really started.  The couple were expected to help each other through the process, making allowances, rubbing off the sharp corners in each other’s lives until they could get along together.  Failure to do so was seen as a personal failure, which wasn’t always fair if one partner was particularly difficult, but it was nevertheless an expectation.

I can cite my own parents as examples.  They met during World War II when my father fell on top of my mother on a Birmingham bus during an air raid, and flattened the breath out of her.  Not an auspicious beginning!  When she agreed to marry him, it was a rushed decision for both of them, because he was about to be posted overseas, and neither of them knew whether they’d ever see each other again.  A few weeks after their rushed, hurried wartime wedding, he left on a convoy heading for Singapore.  (If he hadn’t been taken off it in South Africa to provide urgently needed engineering assistance to the South African Air Force, he’d have reached Singapore just in time to be taken prisoner by the Japanese.  Seven out of ten of the men in his convoy died in captivity.)

My parents didn’t see each other again for over three years.  I think they realized at that point that their wartime marriage was not made in heaven;  that they had many differences, and would encounter many difficulties in getting along together.  Nonetheless, they’d both been brought up with the attitude that marriage was something one made work through hard work.  They persevered, and in 64 years together raised four kids, lived on three continents, and had a moderately successful life together.  They weren’t always happy – in fact, some of the conflicts between them were so profound that they affected all of their children for many years, and probably still do – but they made it work, because that was the expectation in which they’d been raised.  Love had little to do with it, compared to the reality of having made a commitment, and being willing and resolved to work at making the commitment a fact.

I fear that “falling in love” has nowadays been replaced by “falling in lust” – a very different emotion, with very different long-term expectations and outcomes.  Sooner or later, in every relationship, lust dies down.  The fires don’t go out, but they don’t burn as brightly.  In some cases, health issues become so serious that physical expression of love becomes difficult, if not impossible.  However, where the partners are dedicated to making their relationship work, that’s not an insuperable problem.  They can, and frequently do, remain very happy together, because they put extra work into making the other areas of their marriage better, to compensate for the “lackanookie”.  As a pastor, I saw that often enough to make me very grateful for such people, and the example they set.  I tried to bring them into my ministry as auxiliary marriage counselors whenever possible, to show couples in trouble that they didn’t have to despair, that success was possible even with major obstacles to overcome.

I think it’s also vital to remind our partners, our spouses, that we love them.  Part of that’s by bringing our part to the relationship;  doing domestic chores reliably and trustworthily, not nagging, not seeking to remake the other in our own image.  Part of it is acknowledging openly, to ourselves and the world, that we do love each other, and we are important to each other.  I don’t let a single day go by without telling Miss D., several times, that I love her;  and I’m grateful that she does the same for me.  We still unashamedly hold hands and enjoy each other’s company, publicly or privately, to the point where some of our friends comment on how silly we look, acting so “romantic” after almost ten years together.  We don’t find it silly at all.  We cherish it, and we work at it, to keep it real.  That’s one of the many reasons I love my wife.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of whether marriage is a purely human relationship, or something more, something with divine sanction.  I have my own views, based on my faith, but I know many others don’t share them.  That’s OK with me.  I can still talk with them about the issues discussed above, and generally find common ground.  The fact that I seek divine help to get those issues right, while they may not, doesn’t need to derail such discussions.  Too many of us insist dogmatically that others need to see marriage through our eyes, or through the Bible’s perspective.  That can hinder, as much as help, mutual understanding.  Seek common ground, find it and affirm it, and only then look to go further, one step at a time.

Love is a decision, not a feeling;  an act of the will, not of the body.  Unless and until our young people re-learn that reality, they have little or no chance of making marriage work for them.  What’s more, it’s largely our fault for having failed to show them that, by example rather than our words, as they were growing up.  If we want to “fix” marriage, we have to start by fixing ourselves and our own relationships, on the basis of reality rather than wishful dreams.  Anything else is doomed to failure before we start.



  1. Requiring people to "make it work", no mater what–has caused a great deal of misery, too. Divorcing, as it were, love from the institution of marriage in centuries past could mean a husband taking a mistress or two, or a wife and child beaten and abused for years, with the wife having no recourse in either case. "Making it work" came mostly down to the woman making allowances for the weaknesses of men.

    My wife and I are coming up on 4 years of marriage, and I love her more now than the day I married her. We are both first-timers, in our 50s; had we bowed to the conventions of the traditions we grew up in, we'd never have met. We both would have married and had children with other people. I can't say I would not have been happy–but I waited as long as I did because I KNEW I wasn't mature enough to make that kind of commitment. I've NEVER wanted children–what kind of father would I have been? Could I have hidden my resentment from them and my wife? My sweetie feels similarly. And if she and I HAD met and fallen in love? We would have screwed it up. Period.

    I agree that marriage is in crisis, and I have no solution. Like so many other changes in our society, I believe it will calm down and work itself out in a generation or two. Children usually rebel against their parents' culture; a newfound commitment to marriage might just become one of them, albeit with a 21st century twist.

  2. I know a growing number of people who believe that marriage is a needed institution only if you want to have children. That if you don't, then marriage is superfluous.

    Another thing to consider is the possibility that biological aging will be understood and eliminated. This is an increasingly likely prospect within the next 20 years. What will be the role of marriage in a society where people no longer age and die (nor have children)?

  3. The single largest predictor of marital happiness is the marital happiness of ones' parents. As Peter noted, happiness is distinct from love, lust and other important parts of marriage, yet we all know it when we see it. And yet, on an individual basis, statistics become less meaningful.
    My own parents tended to go hand-in-hand anywhere in public. My wife and I too. Her friends tend to joke about it as 'perpetual dating' since our time together is limited by my job… and to a point that is true- I value every moment together, and I hope I would do so if I had a 9-5 job too, but I don't, so the time together IS precious… and yet not unique. There are plenty of couples who work opposite hours, who have long commutes, whatever, circumstances, health challenges… end of the day, people with happy marriages find a way to make it work despite challenges, and, I'd argue, that the challenges serve as reminders of the value of the marriage.
    My wife and I didn't speak a common language when we met. We were unable to communicate using words. We met at a wedding, where I caught the garter and she caught the bouquet, which is EXACTLY how the groom's parents met, as well as the best man's parents. The old ways worked well for a reason, I guess.
    We both learned each other's language over the next year. 14 years later, we tend to speak a patois of each others' language that makes everyone but us unable to follow our conversation.
    And really, after 14 years, We are both sad that marriages are thought to end in death. I can't imagine eternity without her there.

  4. Real love, real marriage love, is best explained by the old traditional vows "For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part." A contract by the weddees to God and their society.

    There have been times that contract has been sorely tested in my marriage (usually by my stupidity, often brought on by external factors that should not have been attacking our marriage (looking at you, in-laws all)) but now, 33 years later, my love for her has only grown, all the while people outside our marriage keep telling me to leave my injured and sick wife, or she leave me (being injured and sick).

    Marriage is a commitment that leads to true love. What's more true loveish than lovingly helping the other?

    Kids (of all ages) today just don't want commitment. They are 'drug seeking,' always searching for the next 'high' whether it be a video game, drugs or relationship. That's not a way to have a stable society. And unfortunately, that's the way of life being portrayed as 'okay' and 'fine' except on maybe the Hallmark Channel (which we two lovebirds watch all the time, because it's nice watching a movie where two people slowly fall in love after some strange meeting up (like what PaulB said about how he met his wife, that, that right there is so… special and wonderful and would otherwise make a boring movie for most people but would make an ideal Hallmark movie.)

  5. One factor that is overlooked, here in the US, is the tax impact on a marriage. Prior to the increased tax rates of the 60's, a family could work with just the income of the husband (typically), while the wife was a full time homemaker. This included buying a home.

    Social programs require high tax rates, and the result is that most wives end up working at least part time, and most do it full time, since full time usually has better pay rates, and includes benefits that part time work often doesn't. Of course, this then requires paying for child care, if they bother to have children. And it is a bother, as women tend to put this off while building a career in business, for the higher income and life satisfaction.

    I think a good case can be made that socialism, as practiced in Western Civilization currently (socialism lite?), is designed to destroy the family, and move control of children to the state.

    Another huge factor is the twin scourges of birth control and abortion. The number of abortions here since it was legalized at least equalizes, or surpasses, the number of immigrants since then, both legal and illegal. Pregnant brides was a significant driver of marriage up to that point.

  6. The institution of marriage is severely flawed, anachronistic, and entirely against real human nature.

    Nonetheless, it's an essential component to our civilization, a building block for culture.

    Screwing around with it is something I'd only do as a last resort, and then only when absolutely necessary. The fact is that the idiots who were for "no-fault divorce" had no idea of the full ramifications of that policy is something that ought to give anyone with common sense the shudders. They did it anyway.

    My take is that things are lagging actual social conditions by about a hundred or so years, if not more–We still haven't adapted to or reconciled the huge difference that the Semmelweis reforms made in female survival of childbirth, not to mention the way that mechanization has obviated a lot of the strength differences between male and female roles. Marriage custom lags even further with current conditions. No idea what it's going to look like in a few generations, or what marriage would look like with functional biologic immortality, but I'd wager that you'd see it restricted to the term of raising the kids to adulthood and launching them successfully. Too many folks out there can't maintain civility, let alone love, for much longer than that…

  7. Some good points, but with marriage these days there is nothing in it for the man. Women can leave whenever they want because they are 'not happy' and most women instigate the divorce. Christian preachers like to wale about it but won't acknowledge how the law is stacked against men. Material comfort has it's place, but most women have some ludicrous thoughts about what men earn or should earn and then vote left all the time.

  8. Sorry.

    I am as romantic as they come, but, in today's femcentric culture, marriage, for a man, is a sucker's bet.

    Quite simply- any contractual arrangement that is dependent on the emotional stability of an American female for its continuity, is doomed to failure.

    OVER 70% if American divorces are instigated by the female partner.

    That data point, by itself, is damning. When you factor in the blatant gender favoritism of our court system, you end up with an arangement that is doomed in time.

    Men are rational- the arrangement is lose-win. Until we are not subject to punitive measures based on the ephemeral vagarities of womens' moods, marriage will continue to decline.

  9. Generally, men are more rational than women. It's the blending of genders that's blurring the lines, and men that want a family and traditional one at that are definitely more rational.
    Marriage today is a muggs game, a losing proposition for productive males.
    Women have the power of societal norms and the courts behind them. Any excuse and they can take half or more of everything the male has worked for as well as his children. Even if they have a job, they usually get full custody minus every other weekend.
    It's no wonder males have been looking to distant shores for a bride from Russia, South Korea or other land where the women have no unrealistic picture of their family role.
    Most Western women are good for nothing except sex.

  10. Mr. Grant, have you read Jerome K. Jeremy's Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow? I think you would find the first chapter on point to your current topic.

    And the dedication is a hoot.

  11. Excellent insight, sir. Modern culture is tailor made to cheapen the meaning of love. How we bring it all back will be an interesting thing to see, if indeed we can return to a more mature, wholesome culture.

  12. Love = LUST (heart, feeling) + Commitment (rational decision, daily choice)

    Successful marriages include both spouses willing to compromise after having committed.

    I think there is a slowly increasing "success rate" of marriages lasting thru the 18th year of the youngest child. However, many who've failed at marriage, try and fail again — so the statistics are suspect.
    Similarly, many relationships which produce kids but were unlikely to lead to a good marriage instead, today, lead to unmarried women raising 1 or more kids with unmarried boyfriend sex playmates.

    Socially, college educated couples are having better marriages and stable or slightly declining divorce rates. Non-college couples are less often getting married, and less often having kids, but more often having kids without marriage.

    Poor kids being born to poor women who aren't married is the serious social problem.

    The older customs of more and stronger marriages was better for poor folk, and the kids born to these less educated folk. Much higher marriage rate, and a high divorce rate, but quite a few "successful" marriages, too. Now, with fewer marriage mistakes, but far more kids born outside of marriage, the culture has devalued marriage too much.

    Marriage, like most cultural aspects, has different effects on poor, avg, & richer folk. Today's culture is more optimized for the rich, whereas in the past it was better for the poor.

    No fault divorce was a good step towards reducing violence towards women, but like all systems suffered both problems (some marriages stay together that should end; some marriages end that should stay together). Should Ronald Reagan have remained married to his first wife? He thought his biggest political mistake was in accepting No-Fault divorce as Governor of CA.

    My own alcoholic, wife beating, thrice divorced father was a strong negative example of what kind of husband I did NOT want to be. The nasty early 60s "whose fault was it" divorce of father and mother was very very damaging to myself and my 3 sisters. No fault would have been better.

    But he was a cheating womanizer. Able, and after a drink or two especially willing, to flirt and seduce many attractive women. Our society, both men and women, support & even often look up in admiration at the alpha males, so attractive to females.

    Trying to indoctrinate school boys into being beta-males is not going to be working well.

    College educated women, especially, are finding it hard to meet and marry hetero college educated guys who want marriage and make more money.

    So many thoughts, in different directions, about marriage, sex, love, society; and policy. See Hungary for gov't tax policies that seem to be somewhat effective at increasing the rates of marriage and having kids in Hungary. More policies like that would be welcome in OECD countries.

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