“Why Marry?” Reflections on love and commitment

The following is the Reverend Frieda Gillespie’s sermon of February 19, titled “Why Marry?”

Just before sitting down to do some serious writing of this sermon, I took our wedding invitations out to the mailbox. “This is it,” I said. Jennifer smiled (thankfully). Every step we take toward planning our wedding makes it more real. We both have some jitters about it.

I have never married, although I’ve had a few opportunities. I’ve always said that I haven’t married because I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I’ve seen the handwriting on the wall with each of them. I knew the relationships wouldn’t last. Thinking about it, there is a lot I would have missed had I gotten married. Many of my best adventures would probably not have happened. That includes adopting my daughter. I’ve never felt that marriage and having children were a measure of my worth or status as a woman. Nor have I felt discounted by anyone else because I wasn’t married. But I have felt out of place in a group of soccer moms or, more likely, swim-team moms. I definitely don’t have the same things to talk about that they do. That can be a disconcerting experience.

There are some significant changes in our culture that are working against traditional concepts of family and marriage. People are getting married later. In 1960 more than half of those aged 18 to 29 were married. Today, that number has dropped below 22 percent. Forty percent of children are born to single mothers. Women are becoming more and more independent of men. Women outnumber men in colleges and graduate schools. They earned 60 percent of the entire bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in 2010. Women have better employment and salary prospects than men for the first time.

On college campuses, women are in the majority, and the media portrays their romantic lives as hardly romantic at all, but rather a series of what are now called “hookups.” “Hookups” are brief sexual encounters that are not really sensual or exciting, merely a means to conforming. However, there is an interesting phenomenon that might explain why people assume that college students are having sex all the time even though the ones you know insist they are not. It’s called the “Pareto principle.” Applied to college dating, the conclusion is that only 20 percent of the men are having 80 percent of the sex with 20 percent of the women. Those men and women not in the 20 percent are sitting out the hookup dance. So this is what creates the situation where casual sex is believed to be the social norm despite the fact that most people would actually prefer something quite different and, indeed, are not participating.

Moving outside of college into the working world, women are feeling freer to extend their affections to men they really like and have things in common with rather than those with the right height-to-weight ratios, financial and social status, or age. Women are dating men a lot younger than they are; men are choosing women more financially successful than they are. The old standards don’t apply.

Women who remain single may seek out companionship with other women living communally to raise children or to support one another. Kate Bolick, in her essay “All the Single Ladies,” cites a book by a sociologist at New York University, Judith Stacey, called Unhitched, that Bolick says surveys a variety of unconventional arrangements, from gay parenthood to polygamy to the Mosuo people of southwest China, who eschew marriage and visit their lovers only under cover of night. In Siberia, there are so few men compared to women that both men and women have petitioned the government to make polygamy legal.

“We are not designed, as a species, to raise children in nuclear families,” says Christopher Ryan. “Women who try to be ‘supermoms,’ whether single or married, holding down a career and running a household simultaneously, are ‘swimming upstream.’”

Jennifer and I have often thought when we retire we’d like to live in a large house with other women of several generations to take care of each other and have a larger community. That seems more ideal than just the two of us growing old together alone.

Women especially have more options for family and relationship than ever before. What seems to be the cautionary tale is the college scene, where the norms are not really norms at all, and those who can see beyond the prevailing myth are the ones that have a chance at something really worthwhile.

Years ago, when working as a project manager in IT, a woman who talked a great deal about finding a husband said to a group of us: “I wish that I could marry my best friend. She and I have so much in common and we communicate so well. I love her more than I could love any man.” A brave thing to share, but she clearly had no intention of allowing for that possibility. Of course gay marriage then wasn’t legal anywhere, and IVF was not nearly as developed as it is today. I felt so bad for her, because the way she spoke it really seemed that she would be happier with her friend.

I also remember a woman in her twenties, a little older than I was at the time, who worked for a client of ours. She was pregnant and unmarried, something many people still saw as socially unacceptable. But she had no concern about anyone’s attitude about it. She was clearly respected in her position, and everyone seemed to accept her pregnancy without disrespect. I was very impressed.

The point of all this is that there are choices that didn’t exist before, and there will be more to come.

There are definite advantages to being married, says she who has the sure expertise of one who has never been married. I can tell that there is something powerful in marriage just by the feelings of nervousness I feel when I think about it. Jennifer and I are already living together, and we have for about six years. And that’s pretty typical of couples today. Not much will change after our wedding, and yet it feels like a momentous occasion, inwardly if not outwardly. It feels like something will change. And that’s the scary part.

People get married for all kinds of reasons. It may be that their family and circle of friends expects it. There may be economic reasons. The desire to raise children is a big one. Being in love, which I haven’t talked much about yet. Love used to be frowned upon as a good basis for a marriage. If you’ve been watching Downton Abbey on TV, there is a theme of love versus financial and social advantage as a reason for marriage. Love is definitely the least important factor to the prevailing generation in the story, and that was in the early part of the 20th century.

If I’ve gained any wisdom from my life experiences it is that love is not the determining factor in the success of a relationship. There has to be a strong positive regard, but more important is how much you can work through conflict and come to sufficient understanding with your partner even if you see things differently. It isn’t so important to agree as it is to respect each other. If you can agree, that’s icing on the cake. Perhaps another way to say this is that the love between you has to be of a quality that allows the two of you to persist in communicating through conflicts and crises. If it’s easy to say “I’m through” whenever there is a difficulty, it won’t matter if you’re married or not — the relationship won’t last without a greater commitment.

On the other hand, there is a danger that one loses all sense of identity separate from spouse and family. Or, conversely, that the couple is married, but they live such separate lives that they don’t know each other, expect anything from each other, or give anything to each other. It becomes a marriage of convenience.

The vows made in front of each other and a cloud of witnesses are what makes marriage sacred. The impression I have is that many couples consider their vows quaint and necessary but not terribly important. Either that or they try and think of every possible situation so that they can promise in advance how they will respond, an impossible task. I think the ones who focus less on the vows know that life is uncertain. We can’t predict how long we will be able to be together; so much is out of our control. We can’t predict how we might change or how our circumstances might change that would make staying together too much of a hardship.

Still, we can, while life permits, declare our love for and commitment to one another in front of the people who love us. We do this with open hearts and with faith that whatever comes we will each do what we can to bring out the best in each other. A therapist once told a friend of mine whose husband of 12 years left her suddenly that a good relationship is like the picture of soaring seagulls in her office. A good partner feels like an updraft to our life. The more we can encourage each other and help each other avoid stupid decisions the freer we will feel.

I’ve always loved the person who knows me, warts and all, and loves me still. That’s the person I would change my ways for, even if they don’t need me to. That’s the person I care more about knowing than changing. And for me, that’s the most persuasive reason to marry: the commitment to bond with each other deeply and for as long as we both shall live. Even if it can’t be sustained unto death, it is worth the effort and joy of being held and holding in that way for as long as we can.

As Adrienne Rich says, “It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”

This poem by Barbara Hamilton-Holway is written to be shared at a wedding. But there is much in it for all of us at any time.

When you say to one another, “I love you,”
Be able to say, “I love you in everyone.
I love through you the world.
I love life.
I love in you also myself.”
In loving one another, you make it possible to love more.
As you hold each other,
Know you are held in a larger embrace.
We are all connected
And your choice of commitment affects us all.
Your commitment strengthens our fidelity to one another,
For we depend on one another more than we know.
May your love for one another enlarge your embrace—
To love people,
The earth,
And yourselves.
So much is possible.
May love wherever it is found be celebrated and recognized.
We see the love between you
And we know your days together will be good,
For you and for us all.
To be worthy of a gift, say so,
I do, yes, I do.
I promise with my heart, yes,
And with my mind, yes,
And with my body, yes,
For better, for worse,
For richer, for poorer,
In sickness and in health,
To love you always,
Yes, oh yes.
To be worthy of this gift,
Say so
And rejoice, rejoice,

May it be so.

Photo (cc) by Kevin D. Clarke and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.