Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Marriage in the modern world

There are two great posts out there today about love, marriage, and the alternatives thereto (which is how one English lit. professor of mine once described, with unerring accuracy, the plots of most British novels). The first comes from Rod Dreher:
I wish I could say I finished Kate Bolick’s superlong Atlantic article on reaching middle age as an uneasily unmarried woman, but I didn’t. It was way, way too rambly. Nevertheless, I highly recommend diving in and sticking with it as long as you can, because it raises a number of challenging questions about the way we live today. [...]

She made a hash of her own marriage prospects because she believed in the emotivist, consumerist idea that maintaining autonomy and maximal choice was critical to the good life. It is inconceivable to many Americans today that true freedom comes through limiting your freedom by committing to a worthwhile discipline, which entails self-giving and self-denial. It is a paradox of life, one recognized by Christianity, that by giving up your life, you gain it — but only, of course, if you give it up for something worth the sacrifice. In a way, Bolick is a more sophisticated version of JD Samson, the lesbian punk rocker I wrote about the other day who penned the HuffPo essay howling against the unfairness of life because she took advantage of her liberty to live exactly as she wanted to, and failed to get rich by so doing. Have cake and eat too juvenilia. [Link in original--E.M.]
In other words, women have been sold a big lie about having it all--but when they wake up and realize as they approach 40 that their prospects are shrinking and the idea of eventual wedded bliss on the horizon is looking like a mirage, they end up blaming not the culture's big push toward the triumph of individual autonomy over every other way of living, but something external, such as economics, the shortage of men with M.B.A's and six-figure incomes who actually want to marry 39-year-0lds, or some other such thing that has nothing to do with the sad, even tragic, choices they themselves have made during the course of their lives.

Continuing on this topic, Jennifer Fulwiler writes about how silly some marriage customs have become in a world full of cohabitating couples:

All this week I’ve been thinking about weddings. My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary, and then Hallie Lord is hosting a little online party where bloggers are writing about their honeymoons. Reading through the stories of all these Catholic weddings and the ensuing celebrations reminded me of something I haven’t thought about much since my own nuptials: Many of our cherished wedding traditions make no sense with the new, secular understanding of marriage.

I was an atheist when I got married, and I held a common secular view of marriage: It’s simply a public statement that two people are going to stay together for the long term. That’s it. Quite a few of my friends got married around the same time I did, and we all shared this view. I don’t think any of us thought that our understanding of the institution of marriage was that much of a departure from that of the millenia-old Judeo-Christian tradition. Sure, some of us were atheists, but it was basically the same old thing, just without the God stuff. However, when we actually sat down to plan our big days, and started asking ourselves why we were doing all of this stuff, we were startled by what we found: Almost none of the time-honored traditions, practiced for generations by our forebearers, made sense anymore.

Jennifer goes on to list five specific customs that no longer make sense: honeymoons (because the couple is already living together and thus doesn't need time to adjust to life together), bachelor/bachelorette parties (because the couple is continuing their relationship, not beginning it), wedding registries (because the couple already has all of the stuff they need), dad walking daughter down the aisle, and "till death do us part," because neither of those really means anything in a postmodern world. In fact, there's really no need to have a wedding at all; the couple isn't changing anything, they don't promise anything they can't get out of later, and the only people who benefit are the Wedding Industrial Complex and the divorce lawyers.

Again, the glorification of the autonomous individual is at the root of what is wrong with marriage in the modern world. Without the concept of sacrificial love that subjugates the self to the beloved other, marriage means little. Selfish hedonism may be good for some things, but it's hardly the best basis on which to begin a family. And the modern people who forgot this would rather blame anything else but the exaltation of the Self for the failure of marriage.


Pilgrim said...

We recently attended a wedding of a couple who has been living together for months, maybe even a year. Seems in bad taste, a way to get presents and have a party. The shallowness of the "commitment." It's hard to know what to do.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

It isn't always shallow. I recall a couple at my church who had been living together for some time, and became convinced as they became more involved in the church (and paid attention to sermons) that they should marry. They moved into separate rooms until their marriage. Considering it is not possible to go back to square one, that was an admirable series of steps.

Having grown up during a period when many lines of authority and discipline were challenged or thrown overboard, and been enthusiastic about this process, I have a slightly different take on the glorification of the autonomous individual.

We had, going into the 1950s, and for some time thereafter, a fair number of large and small authority figures who knew how to say "because you're told to," but had forgotten how to articulate the REASONS for the office or authority they exercised.

In the 1960s, America came to terms with some serious abuses of authority, and some very bad laws that ethically deserved to be challenged -- and had been allowed to grow, in patent violation of established constitutional principles, for a century or more.

Then we had the exuberant challenge "Question Authority." The proper question is the old Latin "Quo Warranto," or "By what authority?" The exercise of authority is, or is not, legitimate. If it is, learn what the foundation and purpose are, and obey. If it is not, learn the foundation of legitimate authority, and challenge the illegitimate. We've lost those guidelines.

Both those who advocated tradition and authority, and those who oppose both wholesale in the name of autonomy, have become excessively reliant on government as a standard.

Government is in many ways constitutionally restrained from imposing on individuals. That does not deny individuals the right, or even the duty, to commit to a discipline, and live by it. In fact, government is restrained from imposing such discipline precisely so individuals are free to find one, or more.

Marriage is a complex subject, but if it is not a commitment to remain together, to work out the inevitable differences, because the partnership is worth it, then it is not a marriage. That doesn't take police enforcement. But the absence of legal sanctions does not make the discipline of entering into marriage any less.

Geoff G. said...

Not to quibble too much, but you do understand the symbolism behind the father walking his daughter down the aisle, don't you? It's meant to symbolize the transfer of the woman out from her father's control and into her husband's. It's a holdover from the days when women were subordinate (legally, including in terms of property rights) to men from birth right up to the point where they became widows.

Just once, I'd really like a social conservative to find some tradition sanctioned by long usage that we're probably better off without. To my mind, the thought behind that particular custom is one I'm glad to see purged and retained simply as a sentimental gesture.

L. said...

Funny -- we've been "married" over 20 years. I never thought I gave up anything, certainly not my "idea that maintaining autonomy and maximal choice," which is indeed quite critical to what I want out my own life.

But perhaps some people don't consider us really "married," because when faced with choosing either the exaltation or the annilation of the Self, we always pick the former, not the latter? To each his own.

Hector_St_Clare said...

Geoff G.,

I agree with you, the symbolism of the father giving away the bride has always struck me as somewhat creepy and patriarchal.

That's one of the many features of 'the old model' of marriage that we are assuredly better off without.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Another friend of mine remarried, several years after the death of her husband. Her two grown sons walked her down the aisle, and when the minister asked "Who gives this woman to be married?" replied "We do." It was her choice to do the ceremony that way. It could have, but did not, imply that she was the property of her adult sons (which was in past centuries often the case for widows, whose sons could even them marry them off as the son chose to do). Another wedding I recall a few years ago, when asked "who gives this woman to be married?" the bride's father answered "Her mother and I do." (The bride had been self-supporting for some years).

Barbara C. said...

Today it seems super-patriarchal for the father to give the bride away because of the notion that parents should have no opinion about who their child marries. In the past, giving away the bride didn't just treat the bride as property like a couch or chair, but as precious property that you wouldn't just entrust to the care of anyone. For the parents to give consent, indicated that the groom had been vetted and found worthy of their daughter.

Today that is heresy because it assumes that a woman can't make her own good decisions rather than acknowledging the fact that love makes people (male and female) deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

It would be good to find a happy medium. Women (and men) in the wild throes of hormonal bliss would do well to consult older family members who have been through it all, maybe take some time to think it over, remember that the rest of the family is going to be related to this new person -- at least have to be polite to them at future weddings and funerals. But in the end, nobody else can make the decision for the individuals who will be sharing their bed, their kitchen, probably their finances, the minutes and hours of their days, with this other person they think they want to marry.

After all, fathers who had power to say yes or no often said yes to the highest bidder. As the father in the movie "Holes" said to the offer of a heart full of love, "I would rather have a fat pig."

Melanie B said...

The Catholic rite of marriage doesn't include the question "who gives this woman?" My understanding is that that question is from the Anglican rite.

The rubrics for the Catholic rite of marriage during Mass do not specify a father giving away the bride. Rather, they say that there is a rite of welcome which may be omitted and that if there is a procession then the ministers go first followed by the priest and then the bride and groom. It says that according to local custom they may be escorted by at least their parents and two witnesses. So the practice of the father walking down the aisle is a local custom and not proper to the Catholic rite.

My husband and I processed down the aisle together with our priest, the altar servers and our two witnesses, which seemed fitting to us as the bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament.

Pete said...

Geoff: Similarly, it is my understanding that the custom of having a best man or a supporter is to help the groom ensure that an unwilling and quick-footed bride doesn't get away.

K said...

I wonder how many of these rumors about the supposed tawdry and oppressive origins of marriage customs are just feminist propaganda or cynical misreadings.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

K, I haven't done a detailed study, but from the way marriage is referenced in my extensive reading of history, these all seem likely as well as plausible.

What I wonder is how much it matters? If the quaint custom of the father transferring title to property in a woman to her husband has degenerated, or mellowed, into a benign tradition that many people find some familial solidarity in, without feeling their individual initiative and freedom are being brutally sacrificed, what harm does the custom do?

I'm inclined toward both husband and wife promising to "love, honor and obey," because in truth, both will have to do all of the above.

Karen said...

Jewish weddings have both sets of parents escort their kids. I much prefer that, and would have done it at my own wedding had I been aware of it. I think there's merit to having the couple's parents participate in the ceremony, but the "who gives this woman?" thing is a bit much.