Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"The Marriage Go-Round"

If you were worrying about the end of American exceptionalism you can now take solace in the fact that America leads the world in marital inconstancy.

So saith Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin in his new book, "The Marriage Go-Round."

As a Wall Street Journal review summarized the results of Cherlin's research: "Virtually no other nation in the West can compare to the U.S. when it comes to divorce, short-term cohabitation, and single parenthood.... Americans marry and cohabit at younger ages, divorce more quickly and enter into second marriage or cohabiting unions faster than their counterparts elsewhere."

If inconstancy were a competitive sport, we would all be winners. And I would add my suspicion that we Americans spend more time and energy trying to understand our relationships than anyone anywhere in the world. Again, something we can all be proud of.

Of course, we still believe fervently in marriage. It's just that we are not very good at it.

Perhaps for all the effort we have put into understanding relationships we have simply lost sight of what marriage is all about.

At the least, marriage is not the expression of true love between two individuals. It has never been that, and is not likely to become it.

Also, marriage is not a mystical or spiritual journey toward self-fulfillment. If that is your goal in life, be kind enough not to drag someone else along for the ride.

For most of human history marriage has been a social arrangement. Until relatively recently, true love has been ensconsed in the glorious institution called adultery.

Clearly, it was a good thing to allow the participants to have a choice of mates. This modification dates to seventeenth century England, if you are interested.

But, companionate marriage, as it is now called, merely gave both parties a choice of mates. It does not say that either of them have to be madly in love. And it does not mean that they need to make a bad decision just so the world will know that they did not suffer any parental influence.

Marriage is an alliance between families and communities. You have the right to marry someone that no one in your circle of friends likes, but that that bodes ill for future marital bliss.

Marriage is a contractual relationship. It is sealed by public vows. If you are involved with someone who is not in the habit of keeping his or her word, what makes you think that he or she will honor marriage vows?

Marriage involves duties and responsibilities. It is not about luxuriating in bliss or following your heart's desire.

People who follow their bliss are probably more likely to divorce than are those who feel duty-bound to work at their marriage.

A modern marriage often involves two careers and child care responsibilities. That means that both parties must be organized. Without coordination you cannot have a life together, no matter how much you are in love.

Marriage is work. That makes it fundamentally different from true love. You do not have to work at falling in love; and love at first sight does not involve work, either.

If you are considering marriage, think beyond the question of how much the two of you love each other. Ask what kind of life you will have with your intended. With whom will you be spending your time; who will your mutual friends be; where will you live; how will your children be brought up?

Marriage is not therapy. It was not invented to maintain you in a state of constant ecstasy. If you get it right it will surely make you happy, but only as long as you understand that long-term happiness involves more serene contentment than unspeakable pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Marriage sounds undesirable as presented here.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The paradox of marriage is that the desirable and pleasurable aspects can only be sustained when the other, less desirable, aspects are tended to.