"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Importance Of Marriage And Family–Are They Still Relevant?


Much has been made about the irrelevance of the nuclear family in an age of divorce, gay marriage, co-habitation, and the prolongation of singleness.  Other than procreation, what in fact is so great about an institution which survives fitfully, and has become the velvet bourgeois cushion for the middle class?  Most educated, mobile, ambitious, and privileged individuals either refuse or put off  the ball and chain and the clank of key in rusted lock of medieval dungeon cell.

In former times marriage was absolute and essential.  The heritage of kings and courtiers depended on right alliances and proper offspring.  Peasants relied upon marriage certificates and wifely fidelity to assure that they were not working back-breaking hours for bastards.  Marriage fulfills God’s injunction to be fertile and multiply within an acceptable social framework.  In the Catholic Church it is a sacrament, a blessed institution anointed by God himself and reflective of his relationship to his only begotten son. 



Marriage has been the foundation of human society for millennia.  However consecrated or observed, the union of a man and a woman was sanctified by church, state, and society.  It was the guarantor of property and civil rights, the model for respectful social behavior, the corral for a wild, independent herd, and social security for the aged and infirm.  It was a breeding ground which produced children to continue the human race but also provided recognition and legitimacy.   Everyone knew who Hermione Porter was (Ah, those Porters), where she came from, and what genetic claims she had to respect and inclusion.

Many great playwrights were skeptical of marriage and family.  Shakespeare wrote about the War of the Roses, a decades long civil war which ravaged Britain and revolved around a Hatfield-McCoy family dispute.  Both his Tragedies and his Comedies revolve around marriage, family, lineage, heritage, and the pursuit of courtly power.   Most of the happily concluded marriages at the end of Shakespeare’s Comedies would have ended in divorce if such dissolution had been possible in Elizabethan times.  Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola, and other Shakespearean heroines ran rings around the men they wooed and married; and marriage was for them only a social, financial, and economic necessity.



Edward Albee was openly hostile to marriage and family, but admitted that families were the crucibles of maturity.  Anyone outside of marriage who never had to deal with the jealousies, envies, desperate love, and insensate hatreds within it could never grow up. 

Eugene O’Neill’s and Lillian Hellman’s families were all dysfunctional, needy, and destructive.  The mother in Long Day’s Journey Into Night could never have inflicted her selfish demands outside of the hermetically-sealed bounds of marriage.  Her husband and sons suffered because of her.  They were unable to escape either her or the restrictions of family duty and obligation which kept them under her lash.



Never has the traditional family been under more scrutiny.  If divorces have become the norm; if un-reproductive gay and lesbian couples gain increasing acceptance; and if heritage, lineage, genealogy, and inheritance become sidebars in human association, then what is the purpose of marriage?

Yet, despite all these deflecting influences marriages are as popular as ever. Although more than half of all first marriages end in divorce, this deters no one.  Learning from experience is key; but while second marriages may survive longer than firsts, they often are the unhappiest.  Men and women who have gone through painful divorces often vow ‘Never again”, and as a result suffer through the consequences of bad choices longer than before.   Others still smarting from a painful first marriage but who are culturally predisposed if not conditioned to the institution, marry but openly. 

“I will never go through that again”, said a friend who, after a bad first marriage and divorce, reconciled his desire for foundation and sexual freedom through an open marriage.  Never mind that his wife, who found out about his indiscretions was a jealous and demanding as his first and threatened him with divorce.  It was the principle of the thing.  He stood for a reconceived and totally modern definition of marriage.

What is most surprising is that gay men are flocking to the altar.  For a population sub-group that enjoyed the most open if not promiscuous sexual lifestyle of any Americans to willingly and happily get manacled in marriage means that the institution is alive and well indeed.

The wedding industry is booming, and the average cost of a wedding is now over $50,000 – all this in spite of the depressing divorce statistics.  Young people, it seems, still believe in love, permanence, official reproduction, and marital longevity when life could be otherwise.



Given today’s permissive social and legal environment, men and women or same-sex couples could live together happily and well without the encumbrance of marriage.  They could form unions with no penalty and could enjoy all the benefits of marriage without its imprisonment.  Why?

For one thing most people, even those of the younger generation, are traditional. Although they live in a freer, more open, and certainly less censorious one than their parents and grandparents, marriage is how it should be.  A right of passage, a landmark, a memory in the making.   For another, ownership is still very important.  Men want to claim their offspring even though there is no real reason for doing so.  “I did that” has become a male signifier in an age of anonymity. Finally, most of us want an anchor – something which has at least the semblance of permanence in a very unstable and volatile world.  We may know that the chances of divorce are high; but for the time being marriage gives us a collective identity – a being greater than ourselves individually – that we sorely need.

What goes unsaid, however, is the primal psychological reason for marriage.  The fact that a man– except for traditional Muslims – cannot walk around a fire three times and pronounce divorce requires patience, tolerance, and self-awareness.  Only within the  restrictive confines of marriage do fights matter.  No one in a casual relationship will throw furniture, storm out the door and never come back, or throw bedding out the window – and then come back.

Albee was more right than he knew.  As a harsh critic of the American bourgeoisie, a virulent critic of the corrosive nature of marriage, and as a gay man quite circumspect about heterosexual unions, he more accurately described the ‘peculiar institution’ better than anyone.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was brilliant in this regard.  Only because of the fights, the stripping down of flesh to bone and marrow, the antagonisms, frustrations, and hostilities, could George and Martha ever find themselves and each other.



Blood ties – the feature of marriage for millennia – may no longer have salience and importance in a fluid and less accountable world; but the essence of marriage – its confinement and insistent sense of order and responsibility does.

Marriage is here to stay.

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