What Is Marriage For?
I’m not sure how many weddings I’ve done over the course of my career, but it has to be hundreds. Sometimes in June or August I’ll preside at two or three in the course of a single weekend. So naturally I don’t remember each and every couple. Maybe I’m just not paying enough attention to the particulars. When I come home, after the ceremony, my wife Dori often asks "what was the bride wearing?" to which I usually respond "a white dress," which has become one those standing jokes old married people develop. She was eighteen when we first met and I was twenty-one. Her hair, that’s white now, was raven black then, and my hair still existed. So at this point, many years later, we can pretty well predict what the other person is going to say in any given situation. She knows me better than anyone else in the world. So she knows, for instance, that presiding at weddings is not my favorite part of being a minister. And she knows that I don’t totally appreciate the difference between an off-the-shoulder and a scoop neckline. But it’s not out of any disrespect for the institution of marriage. It’s just that in my line of business, it’s easy to feel like a cog in the great wedding machine.
The average celebration, I read, now costs thirty thousand bucks, and each one is just part of the 161 billion dollar a year American wedding industry. I was actually invited to do a ceremony on TV a few years back, which was the first time I became aware that in addition to Brides Magazine there’s a whole Wedding Channel. The producers were planning to feature three weddings that episode. Mine was billed as the "simple Vermont wedding" that took place at a rather fancy home on the banks of Lake Champlain, on which I’m sure the owners spent a boodle. The producers thought of everythingfloral arrangements, catering, string triobut probably they were from Hollywood, in southern California, because they hadn’t considered umbrellas might be needed for an outdoor event in June, and it poured through the entire thing, just the opposite of the "one perfect day" that bridezillas dream of. But of course bumbershoots weren’t the only thing the TV folk had forgotten. On the Wedding Channel website, there’s a comprehensive reminder checklist that includes invitations and cakes, handbags, favors and fashions. But there’s not any mention of the meaning of marriage or the sacredness of the bond or any clues to help couples think about why they’re getting married or improve the quality of their relationship. I guess that’s supposed to be my job. But it’s easy for a clergyperson to feel like an afterthought, or just another prop on the stage, when so much money and energy is going into putting on an extravaganza.
That "not-so-simple Vermont wedding" presented quite a contrast with the wedding I remember best. There, the bride and groom had a small guest list and served hotdogs and beans in the little yard of their student apartment. He had on a brand new baby blue seersucker suit from off the rack at Sears Roebuck. She wore her older sister’s, hand-me-down gown. They recited lines of Walt Whitman to one another: "I give you myself, more precious than money. I give you myself before preaching or law." And the dress was whitethat I certainly remember, along with the bouquet of daisies in the bride’s hair, which you’ve probably guessed by now was raven black. It didn’t rain and it didn’t put us into hock, but as far as I was concerned, it was a perfect day as well as a momentous occasion, intended as it was to last a lifetime.
Certainly our union has been stressed and strained along the way, and threatened at times to come unglued. Every marriage has rough patches, and that’s one of the reasons I trained years ago to counsel newlyweds for what’s ahead. "Prepare/Enrich" is a computer assisted survey I administer to prospective partners to help them identify strengths and what are euphemistically called "growth areas." Almost every year, I offer a half day "Couples Workshop" for the recently and not-so-recently married. And I’ve also frequently run divorce groups in the churches I’ve served, because I understand that when your primary relationship comes unraveled, everything else starts to head south too. One of the most gratifying moments in my experience as a pastor came with a note from a couple I’d counseled dealing with issues of hurt and betrayal thanking me for helping them renew their commitment to each other. At its best, marriage can be the source of life’s greatest joy, just as it can become the cause of heartache and awful frustration when love goes missing.
As George Elliot said, in a line from one of the sample wedding services I share with couples that I like to affectionately call Ceremony Number Three, "What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they have been joined for life?" It’s above all the element of permanence that distinguishes marriage from co-habitation or more temporary relationshipsthe vows that bind two people "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part." For some, that commitment feels like a ball-and-chain. And unfortunately, the permanence of marriage often means it can be taken for granted. The relationship becomes a fixture, like the wallpaper that’s not going to change. Yet studies indicate that for the majority of men and women, the trust and intimacy that come from a lifetime partnership far outweigh any downside to matrimony. In their book The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, two sociologists at the University of Chicago, marshal reams of data that show married couples are happier on average, live longer, have more frequent and better sex, are better off financially and are at lowered risk for violence and self-destructive behaviors than their single counterparts. And this is true for both men and women. A generation ago, the conventional feminist wisdom suggested that by and large women were better off single. But that finding has been pretty much discarded. What’s good for the gander is usually pretty good for the goose, too. Dr. Waite concludes that marriage affects men and women differently: better at shielding females from problem drinking, for example, better at protecting men from depression. But analyzed cross-culturally, across seventeen different nations, marriage does a body good, with this one caveat: It will tend to make you fat!
For married couples, of course, having a mate not only entails eating more and better. Besides an expanding waistline, you also have an expanding support system: a listener, confidante, cheerleader, and loving critic. For me, marriage means having someone who will actually listen to these sermons of mine and suggest little improvements before I inflict them on you! In a world that can often be lonesome, marriage means having at least one other human being who gives a darnan increasingly rare experience for many of us. I was alarmed by recent headlines indicating the number of people who say they have no one to talk to is now at an all time high. According to a Duke University study, a quarter of all Americans lack even one other person with whom they can discuss important personal issues. That’s isolation, to have not even a single close friend or family member to share the daily worries or big milestones on the journey. Because what most of us want in a mate, what nearly every human being needs to survive, is to feel cared for and understood by at least one sympathetic companion.
Marriage may have meant something different in the past, in Biblical tim
es for example. Look a
t Jacob, the father of Israel. He marries Leah and then her sister Rachel, both of whom happen to be his first cousins, which is bigamy if not exactly incest. When the two wives have problems with fertility, they give Jacob their maids to sleep with, as concubines. With the help of mandrake rootbelieved in those days to be an herbal aphrodisiacLeah and Rachel finally start having babies. An interesting story, perhaps, but not exactly a lesson in traditional "family values." In those distant days, marriage may have been about property rights, or establishing a tribal alliance, or guaranteeing a male heir. But today marriage means something different. People choose their mates to be life partners, out of loyalty and deep commitment to sharing all the grief and gladness that fortune brings.
And by that measure, of course, marriage is not a relationship defined primarily by gender or sexual orientation. It’s defined by caring, by constancy, and above all by covenantby a mutual pledge to walk through the world shoulder to should, arm in arm, hand in hand, dancing toe-to-toe and waltzing cheek-to-cheek. Whatever difficulties come, they will be faced together. Whatever blessings arrive will be jointly celebrated. So that gay marriage, which is about to be legally recognized in Washington, the seventh state to embrace marriage equality, already exists there except in law. No legislature can augment or diminish the loving relationships that in fact exist between men, between women, and between men and women. The only question is whether those bonds are recognized by the courts, receiving the benefits and protections that are rightly due any two people whose lives are so closely intertwined.
I am an advocate of gay unions precisely because I am an unabashed supporter of marriage. And it worries me when I read of trends like the one occurring in Scandinaviacountries like Norway, Sweden and Denmarkwhere over half the kids are now born out of wedlock. I’m concerned when talk of "open marriage" makes its way into the news, as it has recently, for too many of our Unitarian Universalist churches experimented with all that in the 1970’s and are still healing from those wounds. I want to protect and promote the institution of marriage, because it is so much more than a civil right. A good marriage is among life’s most precious gifts, as well as a never ending endeavor and spiritual achievement hard to sustain even with the sanction of church and state, but harder still without it. After thirty years of marriage, I appreciate the wisdom of that great 19th century preacher Theodore Parker, who wrote that "it takes years to marry completely two hearts, even of the most loving and well-assorted." Parker continues:
A perfect and complete marriage, where wedlock is everything you could ask and the ideal of marriage becomes actual, is not common, perhaps as rare as perfect personal beauty. Men and women are married fractionally, now a small fraction, then a large fraction. Very few are married totally, and they only after some forty or fifty years of gradual approach and experiment.
Such a large and sweet fruit is a complete marriage that it needs a long summer to ripen in, and then a long winter to mellow and season it. But a real, happy marriage of love and judgment … is one of the things so very handsome that if the sun were, as the Greek poets fabled, a God, he might stop the world and hold it still now and then in order to look at it day long … and feast his eyes on such a spectacle.
So here’s to the buds of romance and the rich harvest of comradeship, to the growing seasons that make memories sweeter as the shadows grow long. Let us not rush, but take time to appreciate each other, as we linger awhile in the bright sunshine of love.