“To the unmarried and to the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.”
(1 Corinthians 7:8)
The immortal words of St. Paul, who quite possibly had experienced the pain of separation and divorce first hand prior to penning these words, and who certainly dealt with relationship breakdowns in every church he pastored.
I seem to be at that stage of life now where all my friends are getting divorced. I’ve long passed that stage where all my friends are having their 21st’s. And I’ve passed the stage where they are all getting married, and even the one where my friends are all having children. Now I’m up to the ‘all my friends are getting divorced’ stage. I suppose the only one left after this is the ‘all my friends are dying’ stage. Not much to look forward to really.
Of course in terms of divorce I led the way. I managed to stuff up my marriage long before almost any of my peers. It’s nothing to be proud of, but at least it means that no one needs fear that I’m going to judge them. Who me? I don’t think so.
The disturbing thing for me at the moment is that it seems to be all the couples that I’ve most looked up to as couples that are now falling apart as couples!
When it come to some of the couples I know – such as where the guy deliberately gets the girl pregnant because he figures that having a child will give him the motivation to give up is heroin habit – I sort of expect those marriages to last only a couple of years at best. And yet it’s not those couples that are falling apart. It’s the marriages made up of men I admire for their integrity and courage, who are married to women who are loyal, nurturing and understanding. And most of these people are good, solid, church-going Christian folk. It’s not supposed to happen this way!
I was talking to a girl recently whose relationship had only just broken up after some 20 years of marriage. She was not a part of the church and said that she’d never be. For her the final proof of the non-existence of God was the way in which men and women had evolved with an in-built incompatibility. Her analysis was simple but profound. Men have evolved as creatures that need only to eat and mate. Women have evolved as creatures that need to nurture and nestle. Hence, not surprisingly, we find that men can’t handle monogamy and that women can’t live without it. Marriages are thus biologically doomed to failure from the outset, and the statistics on modern marriages would seem to bear her out. How could a loving God have created men and women in such a way that they were genetically geared towards their mutual destruction?
It’s a good question. Every male knows that his biological drives are not geared towards monogamy – not lifelong monogamy at any rate. Conversely, it is unrealistic to expect women to settle for anything less than monogamy in today’s society. Does this mean that God is cruel, or is there something in the whole marriage concept that we’ve missed?
I wonder if at the heart of the problem is the assumption that we all make – that marriage is supposed to make us happy. Indeed, I suspect that most of us believe that the institution of marriage was brought into being for the very purpose of making us happy.
Weren’t we all brought up to believe that love and marriage go together like horse and carriage, and that the phrase ‘they got married’ should generally be followed by the accompanying phrase ‘and they lived happily ever after’? Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps we need to look beyond musicals and fairy tales to find a basis for our adult relationships.
I don’t think any of us seriously imagines that our institution of marriage came about because some individual had a ‘bright idea’ one day about how he could make everybody happy. Marriage is a social institution, and social institutions are developed because they serve a social purpose, not because they bring personal fulfillment to certain individuals within the community. Whether or not you believe God created marriage makes no difference. If He did, God did it for the sake of the community as a whole and not for the sake satisfying every individual’s social, emotional and sexual needs.
It makes sense when you think about it. What is the purpose of marriage? To create a stronger society. Strong marriages create strong families who build a stronger community. Marriages contribute stability. They contribute structure. And most importantly, marriages contribute children.
Read through your Old Testament and you’ll get the feel for what marriage is all about. Marriage is all-important because without marriages there are no children and without children there is no army. This is why baby boys are more valued than are baby girls. This is why gays get such a hard time. This is why childlessness is such a curse, and why polygamy is a far better alternative than singleness. It’s not because the individuals involved prefer it that way. Marriages are there for the sake of the community first and foremost. If an individual finds satisfaction in his or her marriage, then that’s a bonus.
So how come every time someone says ‘I’m not happy in my marriage’ we treat it as if something is horribly wrong? If someone expresses dissatisfaction with other social institutions, such as the government or the taxation system – we don’t normally get too worked up. Maybe it should be the other way round? Maybe when we hear someone speak of their joy in marriage we should react as if they were speaking of their love of Queen and country – giving them a sort of quizzical smile that expresses admiration without empathy.
I suppose the truth is somewhere between these extremes. Nobody would deny that the institution of marriage can be of some assistance in helping us to satisfy our individual social, emotional, and sexual needs. The truth is though that no marriage is ever going to satisfy all of those needs and desires. We human beings just weren’t created to have all our needs for companionship, security and intimacy met by one other solitary individual. We need a community.
This brings us to the positive side of the marriage-community equation. Marriages exist for the sake of the community as a whole. That’s the bad news if you thought that your marriage existed for the sake of your individual happiness. On the other hand though, the community exists to meet those needs we all have as individuals. That’s the good news.
Our individual needs for companionship, security and intimacy can be met. They just can’t be met by one solitary person. We have to learn to draw upon the group for our sustenance, and find support and affection from a variety of people within the community. I think that’s a large part of what church is supposed to be about.
So where does this leave us? Is there any hope for the modern marriage? Not so long as people look to marriage as a means to making all their dreams come true. Not so long as individual men and women look to their partners to satisfy all of their social, emotional and sexual needs. Not so long as we demand that our marriages make us happy.
Yet what would happen if we all began to approach marriage in an entirely different way. What if we began to look at our marriages as being the most significant contribution we could make to the broader community?
What if we saw the importance of our roles as parents in terms of the great good that could be achieved in the community if we bring up our children to be strong and capable? What if we stopped assessing our partners and our children in terms of the amount of satisfaction they bring us, and were able to see those relationships as being our gifts to humanity? Perhaps then we’d find ourselves saying things like ‘well, I don’t get on brilliantly with my wife, but I think we’ve managed to achieve some fine things together and that the world is a better place for our union, and perhaps that’s more important than my individual happiness’.
OK. That’s a long way from where we’re currently at in this society, but I have a feeling that it would be a better place to be.
You have just read an excerpt from ‘ Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist‘,
a book by Father Dave, the ‘Fighting Father’