Reflections on the Purpose of Marriage

For the last 40 years, marriages have been in trouble. Half of them end in divorce. Abuse is common. Disturbed children are almost the norm now, coming from so many dysfunctional situations. Hundreds of therapists in every city in the United States make their living counseling distressed couples. These therapists (I’m one of them) know that they are about as successful as addiction rehabilitation counselors are—that is, not very. Ministers who marry couples know that no matter how much premarital counseling they do, they can still expect to hear that half of those marriages will fail.

What are we to do? If premarital counseling and marital therapy can’t change what’s happening, is there something culturally systemic causing this malady?

Anne Barschall ("On Marriage and Divorce—with a Proposition Bound to Be Controversial," FJ June) thinks so. She asserts that Quaker communities need to censure Friends who divorce in order to put teeth in the promise to remain married "until death do us part." She adds, "Few of us are willing to speak out in conscience against any divorce." And, "The only hope for lifelong marriage lies in religious faith that marriage is supposed to go on." She also adds, "We cannot be truly committed to lifelong marriage unless we . . . are willing to be sympathetic to those in pain without recommending or even supporting a decision for divorce."

I think she is on to something, for it is high time that we take marital problems out of the counseling room and into the open world where we live and worship. Marriages are in trouble today partly because they have been dealt with so privately. They are suffering for systemic, public reasons—not just private, psychological ones. Anne Barschall is right that we need to consider systemic changes in order to treat this marriage/divorce cycle.

Systems are relatively easy to change, but that change is very hard to sustain. In dysfunctional relationships and groups, the most common operative word used is "you." People in dysfunctional systems "you" each other to death: "Why do you do that?" "There you go again." "You’re always doing it wrong." In dysfunctional systems, people can’t see their own faults because they are so focused on blaming someone else. If I think you have to change, I can’t do anything about it other than put pressure on you. And if you push back, all that will happen is we will each paralyze the other. Dysfunctional relationships are stuck fast.

To avoid this impasse, all one has to do is stop saying "you," and say "I." "I am going to do it this way, this time." Suddenly the whole system shifts. One person has stepped outside of the "you"-ing.

In response, parties who are determined to maintain the status quo in a group will likely do one of two predictable things: first they might be seductive. "That’s not a bad idea, but you know that won’t work in the long run. Besides, we really need you here." A kind but pseudo-supportive expression said at an opportune time is calculated to get the rebel to give in and return to form. And if that doesn’t work, the ante may be upped to sabotage. "Well! If you are going to do something that off-the-wall, then you’ll see what a mess it’ll cause." Someone might blow up in a rage or collapse in tears, or even get sick or injured, actions aimed at coercing the rebel back into old ways.

If, however, the rebel continues to maintain a non-anxious, nonreactive "I" position, eventually someone in the dysfunctional system may emerge from the fray with a meek "I": "To tell you the truth, I think you might be right." Finally an ally is born, leading others to say "I," and the system changes.

What Anne Barschall suggests is a strong "I" position. The subtitle to her essay, "With a Proposition Bound to be Controversial," indicates that Anne knew she is taking a rebel position that will evoke a lot of antagonism. And what I have to say is mostly in disagreement with her position, but I hope that it is seen as supporting her attempt to address a serious social malady.

I couldn’t help but respond inwardly to one of Anne Barschall’s questions. She wonders with incredulity how any therapist could ask a couple, "Why do you stay married?" To be candid, I have often asked that question of couples who are fighting and hating one another. However, I don’t ask it because I am suggesting they divorce. I ask it because I know that if a couple is engaged in an ostensibly hostile and highly dysfunctional marriage, but not breaking up, there has to be an unseen reason for them to choose to remain together. A couple whose members show mostly hatred for each other are living in their own shadows, and my task as their counselor is not only to understand why they are doing this, but also to help them find their way to the light. If they can tell me why they stay married, perhaps I can help them step out of the shadows.

Anne Barschall writes that marriage is "an institution for promoting financial and emotional stability for families." This seems like a valid purpose, but I think it is out-dated for two reasons. First, marriage changed radically when human-kind learned how to control procreation with effective methods of birth control. Sex and procreation are no longer as closely associated as they used to be. It can be argued that a main reason for the institution of marriage was to give couples a way to make love without producing unsupported children. Now birth control does the same thing. Marriage is no longer needed as a protection from irresponsible conception.

Second, marriage is better understood as a covenant, not as a contract. A contract is an agreement that binds people to certain actions. The theological idea of a covenant is a sharing of responsibility. Both are similar, but the difference is embedded in the word "responsibility." Responsibility is best understood when we divide the word in half: response and ability—the ability to respond. As we mature, we gather a larger repertoire of responses to various problems. Our ability to respond appropriately or effectively gets better. When newly married, our ability to respond to the inevitable problems of partnership is limited, but our ability increases as we mature. The covenant of marriage, as I see it, is a covenant to increase our ability to respond—to become more responsible to one another.

Anne Barschall writes that Quakers do not strongly encourage partners to reject divorce, no matter what. Despite this, we administer vows of lifelong commitment. Therefore, she concludes, "Our attitude toward marriage is fraudulent." I think that a better way to look at marriage is that it is bankrupt. Something that is bankrupt is still of great value, but it must be restructured in order to work correctly. Anne Barschall’s questions do not lead me to the idea that Quaker communities need to censure Friends who divorce. Instead, I think we need to redefine the purpose of marriage.

What I like best about what she says is that marriage is not about personal fulfillment. There is something narcissistic about that idea, and I think she is right that a mistaken belief in this pseudo-purpose is part of the reason why marriages don’t survive.

After reading her article, I asked a few people what they think is the purpose of marriage. Here are some well-considered replies: "It is a reference point, a place to return to as we embark on life’s adventures." "It is part of a new identity." "It extends the family onto new ground." "It is about the creation of a new family core." "It helps to isolate affection so that couples can feel more secure and trusting." "It encourages us to stay with someone, which is inherently difficult."

In my work as a marriage counselor, I find that the two leading reasons why marriages don’t work are: first, the poison of addiction; and second, because one partner becomes more responsible while the other does not—one matures and develops a larger repertoire of responses, while the other fails to mature and continues to use outdated responses to problems. Both of these are fractures of the covenant. With addictions, the covenant is broken because all covenants depend on good faith, and when people get subsumed in addictions, they become liars—to themselves and to their partners. With uneven maturation the covenant is broken if a party fails to develop in responsibility and falls so far behind that the "tie that binds" is broken.

What I seek to do as a marriage counselor is to bring these issues into the open. With addictions there has to be recovery. No marriage can survive ongoing addiction. As they often say in Alcoholics Anonymous, "addictions lead to jail or death." The most common death is the death of a relationship. And with uneven maturation, an immature partner must be challenged to grow up. A man who still hangs out "with the guys" as he did before children were born, simply has to recognize that family life has natural demands that mean a change in lifestyle. A woman who still flies off in a rage as she did when a teenager has to learn to negotiate instead.

I have become convinced that love among equals is not inborn. It is natural to love your parents and your children, but these are examples of love among unequals. One reaches upward, the other downward. Love between equal partners, though, is learned. Marriage creates a sanctuary where people can learn to love as equals.

Anne Barschall argues that Quaker meetings should hold couples accountable for their vow to stay married, censuring them if they divorce. But sin, according to theologian Paul Tillich, is a state of being rather than a wrong action. He sees sin as a state of estrangement from oneself, from one’s loved ones, from one’s community, and from God. Sin, rather than a single mistake, is a much more existential problem that calls us to the source of forgiveness—God. We should correct as much of our sinning behaviorally as we can, but no matter how good we act, we cannot correct the state of sin or estrangement we live in without divine grace.

One aspect of Quakerism that has evolved greatly since its origins is that Friends have become less focused on rigid, proper behavior and more on love. By opening our Religious Society up to marriages outside of the Quaker faith, to liberal dress and behavioral codes, to music and art, and to other more liberal expressions of our faith, we have certainly created new problems, but I think we have also provided a foundation for a new way to take marriage out of bankruptcy.

Marriage, in my opinion—and here I part company with Anne Barschall—no longer has a stabilizing purpose. Now marriage’s main purpose is to help us learn to love, a difficult and risky process. Get married and you are beginning a roller coaster ride. Don’t get married if you want a smoother road to travel. Marriage actually destabilizes couples’ lives.

Some of the ups and downs of marriage today come from knowing that we can get out of the bond. Since divorce is now an acceptable option, we have to really want to learn to love to make marriage work. Good marriages nowadays are between couples who have worked hard at learning to love well and love deeply. They don’t stay married because they have to, but because they choose to. That choice itself makes them take the marriage more seriously, partly because they consider divorce from time to time.

As long as we believe that marriage is about personal fulfillment, when the marriage gets tough, we will be highly tempted to get out of it, for tough times are not very fulfilling—at least in the short run. If, however, we see the purpose of marriage as being to help us learn to love, then we can see that tough times are central to that learning. When things get tough, we can see ourselves more deeply engaged in this lifelong, difficult process of learning to love.

One of the paradoxes of maturation is that the more freedom we have, the more disciplined we become. We have given marriages more freedom—the freedom to stay together or to divorce—and the result is twofold: there are more divorces, and there are better marriages. Why do I believe this? Because a modern marriage that includes liberated individuals—not subservient ones tied to rigidly defined roles, as was often the case in the past—is a step forward. There are fewer obstacles for women and men now, and that is right and just. Learning to love includes the difficult task of providing room for both partners to grow.

The deepest expression of love develops through shared, meaningful experiences and encountering the soul of one’s partner. It helps to plan to stay together "till death do us part," but what helps even more is that we commit ourselves to confrontation with one another. As romantic as the husband and wife in Fiddler on the Roof are with their affirmation of the traditional activities of their lives—being of service to one another: "If that’s not love, what is?"—that is not the deepest expression of love. The key thing that happened was that Tevye demanded that his wife meet him eye to eye—the window to their souls—and talk about love and its meaning. They made love at that moment with their eyes open, with their souls bare, and saw in their partner someone they had grown to love.

What we need in Quaker meetings is to talk more openly about the struggles we have with making marriages work. We are still following an outdated code that says marriages are wholly private—especially the struggles. I’m not suggesting that couples freely unload their problems in meeting for worship, but that they find ways to share what they’ve struggled with and what they’ve learned about love. And others need to be ready to listen.

What everyone will see is that marriages are emotionally heated places to be. As theorist David Schnarch says, marriages are like crucibles where iron ore is heated so that the slag can be discarded and steel can be formed. Keeping the learnings of marriage private doesn’t give us models for making marriages work. We need to be more vocal about the heat we find in our marriages, so that couples know that all of us go through this smelting. We need to be sharing the joys of discovery that come with the new steel we develop. We need to be open with one another about how the struggle in the shadows of our intimate lives is not the end. At the end is Light. The fact that we don’t emerge from the darkness of our married lives easily needs to be lifted up, so that we all learn where wisdom comes from.

Marriage needs new wisdom, not an old structure. We need to stop censuring ourselves. We need to share what really goes on in a marriage, and we need to develop new models that openly explore the struggle that goes into learning how to love.

Doing so will require both courage and humility—I know this from my own personal experience. During times of marital stress I haven’t always acted very Quakerly. The tough stories of my own marriage are embarrassing and instructive. They are embarrassing because the crucible that heated up did not always bring out the best in me. But they are instructive because I’ve learned so much from them. Wisdom is born out of suffering and struggle, and without those trying times I wouldn’t know much about how to love. The main thing I’ve learned from the marital crucible is the value of humility.

I don’t have the courage—let alone my wife’s permission—to put down on paper the stories of my own marital struggles. I do commit myself to talking openly about my own struggle to learn to love. I am willing to do so if it will help someone else find a way out of darkness into the light. Would you, dear reader, be willing to share, too?

Ron McDonald

Ron McDonald, a member of Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting, is a pastoral counselor, folksinger, storyteller, and writer.