It was a TV comedy series.  The bride-to-be looked lovingly at the groom and whispered: “If it were possible to promise to love you forever, I would.”  They then proceeded to go through a wedding ceremony–-for their parents’ sake.

More and more nowadays in real life marriage is getting little respect.  There are couples who are living together because they love each other, are “committed to each other,” and don’t need the formality of a paper that says they are committed.  There are others who “marry” for the time being because it is unrealistic to expect what they feel now to last forever.  Still others live together but are not committed; they just want to enjoy each other, no strings attached.

“Marriage is on the way out, it is a dying institution.”  “Marriage is an anachronism.”  “Marriage is the tender trap.”  Marriage is a mirage.

Yet people continue to get married.  And, if the tears are any indication, people continue to find marriages very moving.   What is it about marriage that makes it at once so attractive and so off-putting?  So heart-warming and yet so frightening?

When people say that marriage is outmoded they are not, of course, talking about group marriage, trial marriage, open marriage, two-stage marriage, or contract marriage (with an option for renewal.)   They are talking about marriage in the traditional sense–a commitment, a contract, if you will, “to take each other, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

After the couple in the television program had gone through the wedding ceremony, were they married under the above definition?  I would say they were not, simply because they did not believe such a marriage was possible and therefore their promises were empty mouthings.

But what about a couple that are “committed” to each other without the legal formality?  It would depend on what the commitment consisted of.  Has he promised to stick around and be a father to their children and a comfort to her in her old age?  If he becomes ill and can’t work, does she intend to care for him and somehow see it through together?  If their promises are for better and for worse and forever, then they are truly married.  The essence of a marriage lies in the vows a man and a woman make to each other.   The role of the pastor, priest, rabbi, or ship captain is that of a witness.

Why, then, do people continue to go through a formal wedding ceremony?   Why all the fuss and finery and folderol?  Well, for one thing, a marriage such as this is truly an earthshaking event.  The very thought that two people of sane mind should voluntarily choose to care for each other until death is mind-boggling.  When such a thing happens, they do not just quietly set up housekeeping.  They announce to the world or at least to those people important to them, “Look, for Joe and me, this is it.  This is where it’s at.  From now on, we’re a twosome.   From now on, I’m not Daddy’s little girl, I ‘m Joe’s wife.  And we’re going to stick by each other, come what may.”   What a happening!   Out of sight!  A once-in-a-lifetime trip!

Such an event has social implications in the rearrangement of social status and financial responsibility, and the state requests that you make it legal with the license and the witness.  Catholics, Jews, Mormons and members of various religious denominations would choose as their witness a clergyman of their own faith.  (They need all the blessings they can get!) Why would anyone having made that kind of commitment refuse to make the change in status legal?

The O’Neil’s, authors of Open Marriage, have this to say: “The love and companionship existing between a couple does not need a piece of paper, a marriage document, to make it work, to assure its existence or its perpetuation.  Or does it?  Commitment to another cannot be legislated.  True commitment comes from within, not from outside a relationship.  The signing of a contract cannot guarantee you another’s commitment in the emotional sense; why should the absence of such a contract mean a lack of commitment?  It shouldn’t, of course.  But unfortunately it often does, often enough to make even those who are sure of their partner’s commitment think twice…With this final step each says to the other: here’s my deck of cards, the full deck, all of them open on the table, nothing held back.”

People continue to get married because having made such a momentous commitment they WANT to shout it from the housetops, print it in the paper, enter it in the City Hall records, and let everyone out there who is still looking for a mate know, “He’s mine,” “She’s mine!”  “We choose each other.

But are they being realistic?  Sure, they’ve made the vows.  But can they keep them?  Is monogamy humanly possible?  Isn’t fidelity passé?  Can anyone really promise to love forever?

What, indeed, is love?  Ah, there’s a question philosophers have been bandying about for ages.  So why not answer it in a single sentence?  The definition I have found most satisfying is that of Dr. Judson Landis, Professor of Family Sociology, of the University of California.  “Love is the concern of two people for each other.  You love a person if his well-being, his growth towards his greatest potential in all facets of his personality, matter to you as much as your own.”

Loving is not the same as being “in love.”  Being in love has been described as a self-limited disease caused by psychological need and body chemistry, characterized by loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and dimness of vision.  The persons afflicted are irresistibly drawn to each other and the one important fact about the relationship is the feeling, “He loves me.  She loves me.”  They do not really know each other and because of the magic wrought by being in love can see only each other’s virtues.  (In a way it’s too bad that state doesn’t last, because God knows there should be more people who have eyes only for our virtues!)

The cure for being “in love” is repeated and prolonged exposure.  As being “in love” wears off, and it does, then love can set in.   Real love is based on knowledge.  It is clear-eyed.  Love is accepting, understanding, forgiving.  Love says, “There’s hair growing out of your mole, you make too much noise when you chew, you’re grumpy when you get up in the morning, but I love you still.

One cannot promise to maintain the emotional pitch of being in love forever, but loving is another story.  Love is a matter of the will.   Couples can choose to be good to each other, to make the other’s well-being their concern.   They can choose to cope, rather than cop out.  I do not mean to downgrade being “in love.”  It is the spark that starts the fire, that first fine careless rapture when one dares to hope he has found the person who will share his life and deliver him from his aloneness.  But having been delivered, the flames settle down to a warm glow, kept alive by little daily acts called caring, often taken for granted, at times almost imperceptible unless and until something happens to threaten the relationship.  Then they realize the is an undeniable bond,  embers still glow deep down and what a cold void there would be for one without the other.

Marriage in the traditional sense involves not only a commitment to love but also a commitment to sexual exclusivity. Some folks, by contrast, have chosen swinging as a way of life.  We hear of communes where everything is shared, including sexual partners, of spouse-swapping parties where the spice of life is a plurality of spouses, of arrangements where Jean and Jane and Joan “marry” Jack and John and Joe.

While it is true that it is the exceptions in sexual life style that get the attention, it also seems true that there is more open experimentation with unusual arrangements than in the past. However, while we may know someone who swings, the chances are he doesn’t swing as much as he’d like us to think he does.

In the study of Group Sex by anthropologist Gilbert Bartell, he reports that swinging causes so many problems that while many try it, few swing for long.  When you follow up on the communes you find that originally they were set up with the ideal of sharing everything, including mates, but they found in actual practice that the green giant, jealousy, caused so much trouble that the commune could only survive by settling down to specific sexual partners.  And, as Lester Velie points out in The Myth of the Vanishing Family, even the most ardent agitators for group marriage (the Constantines) admitted, unhappily, that they could only find ten such arrangements.  “Pressed for an estimate,” the Constantines wrote, “we would guess there may be fewer than a hundred in the country.”

Even the authors of Open Marriage who seem to think that theoretically a marriage might have sufficient “trust, identity, and open communication necessary for the eradication of jealousy” when partners have sexual relationships outside of the marriage, have stated that it would be the rare marriage that could tolerate this and it would not be permitted if it would harm the other partner.  In a nutshell, to quote Professor Reuben Hill of the University of Minnesota who Mr. Velie calls the dean among family sociologists, “There just is no solid research to support the notion that meaningful trends toward new marital arrangements exist.”

Psychiatrist Silvano Arieti writes: “An individual who succumbs to the seductive influence of another person does not necessarily cease to love his spouse, but certainly his love is undergoing an injury that may not heal.  Any strong experience such as mature sexuality  reaches the heights–or what Maslow called a peak experience–only if it is shared with the person one loves. To know that the loved one had attempted to have had a peak experience with somebody else is a difficult thing to endure.  Love, like freedom, has to be safeguarded, cherished, not taken for granted; it requires a sustained effort, a commitment.”  That is what marriage is–a commitment to a sustained effort.

And again, Morton Hunt observes: “For the normal adult in our society, sex and affection are inextricably linked.  Most of us are able to separate the two only under special conditions, and only temporarily.  We are right to fear our mate’s extramarital acts, for sexual involvement is very likely to lead to much more….The advocates of sexual freedom say it is a fallacy to think that love is exclusive, and insist that it’s possible to love more than one person at a time.  But while this may be true in other cultures at other times, what we need is a sense of individuality, and identification with one other person, an intimacy and sharing so complete that the loneliness and terror of modern life are overcome….Freedom to roam may be delicious, but loving intimacy is profoundly satisfying–and if the two cannot be combined, most of us will gladly pay the price of giving up the former in order to secure the latter.”

Marriage has been with us from time immemorial and always will be for however much it is maligned it still offers the ultimate in human relatedness and is the best arrangement for raising children.  While its detractors point to the ever increasing divorce rate, one need only look at the ever-increasing re-marriage rate to know that most of the participants are not disillusioned with marriage itself but only with the recent partner and hope to do better next time. A permanent commitment may be idealistic but it is also necessary if a human relationship is to last.  A partnership based on the fear that one’s partner will pull out if “the real you” emerges, if sex grows temporarily stale, if someone else looks more attractive, is based on anxiety which is hardly as satisfactory a foundation for a happy relationship as honor and trust.  Even the parties in “good” marriages will admit there were times when it was only their sense of commitment that saw them through the rough times, but that in spite of the rough times, and perhaps because of them, they have grown together in understanding and openness to true intimacy.

Marriage is not kid-stuff.  I personally would like to see marriage more seriously regarded and less easy to get into.  A marriage founded on the merger to two people who do not know each other, or entered into only for security or sex, is very likely to founder.  Marriage is for grown-ups, for two people who can sympathize and empathize with each other, who feel that the sum total of two together is more than two separately, and who are willing to work together toward each other’s happiness.  To quote Rollo May: “What goes into building a relationship–-the sharing of tastes, fantasies, dreams, hopes for the future, fears from the past–-seems to make people more shy and vulnerable than going to bed with each other.  They are more wary of the tenderness that goes with psychological and spiritual nakedness than they are of the physical nakedness of sexual intimacy.”  Those who swing most successfully are those whose personalities are such that it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to tolerate intimacy with another human on other levels.

Despite the fact that it is a contract between imperfect humans, marriage still presents the ultimate in human relationships.  People will always recognize within marriage the possibility of a lifelong, deeply fulfilling, intimate relationship, and hope springs eternal.  Perhaps, as some wag quipped, we are always looking for someplace to plug in our umbilical cords.  Perhaps, as St. Augustine said, we are restless and will not rest until we rest in God.  Whatever we are really seeking, a good marriage seems to be the closest we can get to it on earth.

However, marriage should not be a relationship in which people sterilely turn inward toward each other, an exclusive arrangement in which each expects to find all his satisfactions in and through the other.  Rather, the two of them, secure in each other’s love, face outward hand in hand and let their love overflow, first, toward the fruit of their love, their children, and then towards others with whom they come in contact.

Anthropologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his studies of bonding patterns writes: “Love is an individualized relationship between partners and a constant changing of partners is a contraction
of this.   To fall in love means to tie the bond with one specific partner.  And this need is a part of our nature.  In this sense we have an innate disposition for lasting partnerships of the conjugal type.”  There is no society, however primitive, that does not recognize marriage.

If we, indeed, have innate dispositions for lasting partnerships of the conjugal type, then marriage is here to stay.  And this is well.  For without marriage there would be no family.  And without the family, neither the child, as an individual, nor society, as a whole, stands a chance.  To again quote Eibl-Eibesfeldt at the end of his book devoted to the origins of love and hate, “Only in the family are man’s positive social tendencies aroused and with them the capacity for social responsibility and identification.  A person who has developed no bond with the family cannot later develop any love for society.  But a person who has learned to love parents, brothers and sisters can later also love a collective.  Only he will be capable of loving his fellow-men as brothers.  The human community is based on love and trust: and both are best developed in a loving, stable family unit.

Postscript: Although this article was written thirty years ago, it is still generally recognized that the best psychological milieu for raising children is provided by a mother and father in a stable, loving relationship.

Traditional marriage is here to stay. It is God-ordained and too beautiful a thing to lose.