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For Better Or Worse, We’re The Marrying Kind

Marriage has been on my mind lately, and not just because She Who Must Be Obeyed and I recently reached our 20th anniversary of Wholly Deadlock.

Twenty years of marriage provide a different perspective, and appreciation of all the old jokes, such as those from the old “Battling Bickersons” of radio’s golden era:

Blanche: “‘Marriage!’ You don’t even know the meaning of the word.”

John: “It’s not a word. It’s a sentence.”

Blanche: “I wanted to have a real ceremony, like all of my friends. But no, we had to be married by a justice of the peace.”

John: “It should have been the secretary of war.”

OK, OK, jokes aside, marriage at its best is a glorious human institution, one that elevates and gentles our daily lives, provides us solace, companionship and the beauty of shared time. And I believe my wife and I are lucky, being married to each other.

But in our country, marriages crash and burn at an alarming rate. One out of two marriages is ended by divorce. It didn’t used to be this way, and I don’t think the change has increased human happiness.

But the definition of marriage itself has shifted, as has much of what we expect from it. The push for legalization of same-sex marriages, something unthinkable in U.S. statehouses a few generations ago, is a further indicator that the venerable practice, historically enduring many upheavals, faces more down the road.

Men and women obviously have been bonding since before there was written history, but marriage as an institution seems to have begun in pre-Biblical times as a way of a man’s ensuring that his estates and possessions went to his blood kin. Primitive man thought a lot about blood ties. Today, we often define family a little differently.

A woman who gives birth doesn’t have to wonder, “Whose baby is this?” This is a luxury not given to men, who needed some social mechanism to ensure that the children being raised by them were theirs.

Marriage, whatever its other attributes, good or bad, grew out of a culture that was patriarchal. It was bound to run into serious storms when it encountered the Cult of the Individual and the 20th century’s emphasis on equal rights.

In prior times, women had scant economic choice but to endure a marriage that had gone sour. That’s often not the case today. Men, too, may choose to end marriages, sometimes even for trivial reasons, but they have had that power during the last 3,000 years much more consistently than women have.

Since bad marriages no longer must be endured, a rising divorce rate is no surprise. A woman is less likely to stick around because now she has choices and options. And from the cliche of tribal wisdom to the jargon of the psychiatrist, we are told that we are always better off alone than in a relationship where we cannot be ourselves.

Still, many of us drift into long-term relationships, usually sanctioned with a civil or religious ceremony, because we want the symbol of commitment, the security an “official” relationship can bring. But we often do it too early, when we are barely outside of childhood ourselves, and really too young to start families of our own, because we haven’t yet sampled enough of life’s offerings.

The great philosopher Bertrand Russell was attacked hysterically more than 65 years ago when he suggested that college students should be allowed to enter into “temporary” marriages with fellow students, because doing so would allow them to study without the usual distractions of wooing.

I think the venerable professor would be attacked just as hysterically today, although his idea made sense then, as it does now.

What is happening in our crowded, choice-filled world is a rethinking of kinship, a lessening of concern that it should be based exclusively on blood ties. Increasingly, people tend to view as family those they are close to, whether or not there is a blood tie. If you share a workplace, hobbies, social activities or other interests with close friends, you are likely to value them more than some distant cousin.

Most of us know families in which siblings aren’t particularly close, even situations where parents and grown children don’t get along. And all of us, I hope, are fortunate enough to have a wealth of friends, some of them forming a loose, informal extended family that gets us through the challenges of existence and makes life always worth living.

So in this fragmented, high-speed, technological century, where science has blown away so much garbled superstition, we have rethought friendship, rethought family and even rethought marriage.

We hope that marriage will be for life, like happily mated geese, but we are grateful there are healthy alternatives if we need one.

Large families aren’t the requirement they once were. The world is now awash with people, and medical breakthroughs and improvements in agriculture guarantee that there won’t be a shortage of people in the future.

So if you are enjoying the harmony of a good marriage, savor it. And if you are young and eager, be certain, be very certain, that you really know yourself before you make a commitment to someone else.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Fred Glienna Special to Roundtable