Sunday, July 24, 2005

The meaning of marriage

PRIEST: do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this
Earthling Dale Arden to be your Empress of the Hour?
MING: Of the hour, yes!
PRIEST: Do you promise to have to have your way with her?
MING: Certainly.
PRIEST: Not to blast her into space ..... er, until such time as you grow weary of her?
MING: I do

This bit drew a few laughs (as many as Max VonSydow can get) when Flash Gordon was released in 1980. Unfortunately it would not be all that far off from today's wedding vows. According to this Fox News report,
Vows like "For as long as we continue to love each other," "For as long as our love shall last" and "Until our time together is over" are increasingly replacing the traditional to-the-grave vow, a switch that some call realistic and others call a recipe for failure. (via The Curt Jester)

Andrew Sullivan will often argue in favor of gay marriage citing examples like these as instances where heterosexuals are doing more damage to the institution of marriage than homosexuals. He may have a point.

Marriage is not just the legal recognition of a religious ceremony, but a recognition of a cultural and societal expectation that a man and a woman have joined together as a single social unit. This may fly in the face on the contemporary emphasis on the individual and the individual's "needs" (re: desires) but it does lead to a more stable society and a better paradigm for the family unit than the proposed alternatives.

To lower the expectation of society of the longer term meaning of any such joining is to reduce the need by the state to recognize the relationship. In fact, one could argue as the marriage compact becomes a shorter expectation the burden on the state to recognize the contract with any benefits becomes counter-productive. Unfortunately, if present trends continue, we may test that thesis.

We can ask, too, what kind of marriage are these people entering into? Hollywood has led the way, as it does in almost all matters of cultural decline, in giving us the picture of the amicable divorce. The Fox News report notes that when Brad Pitt was asked if his marriage to Jennifer Aniston was a a failure, he pointedly disagreed, saying it lasted five years longer than his marriage to anyone else. Such attitudes were once pilloried in the press and public opinion to the point where Ingrid Bergman felt the need to live abroad to escape the negative scrutiny of her torrid life. Today such attitudes are celebrated, and the only reservation on polygamy is that it be done in serial.

Even if the intention is less than the prospect of amicable divorce but to merely acknowledge the "harsh reality" of our times where marriages run a strong risk of divorce, a couple entering into such an arrangement surely are dooming themselves to misery and loss. For if marriage is for better or worse, to bear the couple through the worse times to bring about the better, than what would call an arrangement where one is free to leave the moment life is less than idyllic? And this supposed freedom, what kind of prison of fear does it engender in each of the partners if they fear the other may leave them at any time?

Instead of strengthening the "marriage" or even merely aptly describing the state of "marriage" such a weakening of the vows only serves to hurt one another prior to the couple beginning to start their lives together. For what they're saying, "I may not love you forever" or, "I may change and you may change and we may not be compatible", is that each is unworthy of the unconditional, life-long love they find themselves unable to promise. What could be more wounding than that? It's hard to imagine a more casual, cynical expression of disdain.

Even more amazing that this would find expression even as more people are finding more ways to find their potential mates and, once they have found them, to test their compatibility. E-Harmony is making a fortune with their 29 personality traits to compare to find the perfect soulmate for the subscriber (though I have met a few people I would have a difficulty ascribing a total close to 29 personality traits). Aside from E-harmony there is speed-dating, personal ads, internet sites and even free handouts at the grocery store to help us all find the perfect spouse.

Having found the possibly perfect spouse, the Catholic Church and other institutions are conducting "pre-marital inventories" to check thecompatibilityy of the marriage applicants. Sometimes the recommendation is for counseling, other times a stern warning is given. For the less scientifically minded, there is always the quiz in the back of Cosmopolitan or Redbook along with the other advice for couples which make us blush even as flip through the pages to find it. (I admit it, I look for that stuff while I'm getting my hair cut. I'm guessing the editors are all single based upon the articles on "What men really want.") But in all seriousness, in an age when there is more marriage counseling available than ever before, both before and after the vows are given, surely we can have a higher expectation than the Pitt level of satisfaction of five years?

The late Robert Heinlein wrote of marriage as limited term contracts between consenting adults (the age of majority varied in his stories) regardless of the gender or number of participants. While interesting reading, and fun to think about in the abstract, I can't imagine a more lonely life than a life in theory shared but in reality lived with the expectation of being alone.