What should marriage be like?

Benjamin The Loving Life

Here is a quick little survey for everyone who is currently married, considering marriage, or hoping one day to be married.

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Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that except for very committed secularists (who would tend to choose n. 5) and committed Christians (who would like n. 4) most people would struggle to find their idea of marriage in this list. In another post, I made the point that most of our western wedding rituals, and the nostalgia and romance that surrounds marriage, come from the idea of marriage as an act of love, but these ideas don’t fit in with our modern approach to marriage (see Five things that don’t belong in a “modern” wedding).

Self-sacrificing love is generally not our first idea of marriage: we prefer to see marriage as a “self-fulfilling love”. Men and women get married to be fulfilled, to complete what might be lacking. “You complete me” is the basic idea, and our romantic comedies show single people’s lives being made more full and rewarding by the appearance of someone else. We say that marriage is a 50/50 proposition; each partner contributes 50% towards the marriage. The self-sacrificing, dying-on-the-cross image might be inspiring but it is not particularly appealing; this image suggests that the husband and wife contribute everything they have to the marriage, of sweat and blood and tears, and that they keep giving even when it hurts. Anyone who is newly married with a child in the house knows what this self-sacrifice feels like, but this is not the image that draws women into bridal supply stores.

We prefer to think of self-fulfillment, which as far as I can figure it, comes from the “modern idea” of the person. The modern man, who is master of his own destiny through politics and science, relates to other people in a “social contract” kind of way. The strongest advocate of this idea was Thomas Hobbes: he thought that when people were free to do whatever they wanted, they would kill and pillage. Society emerged as a bargain to avoid violence: people gave up some of their freedom but gained the protection of law. Society is, therefore, a social contract that people agreed on once-upon-a-time.

Social contract sees every human relationship as a give and take: a person gives some of his freedom (the freedom to have whatever he wants) in exchange for the benefits of being in a relationship. The the social contract idea of marriage is a 50/50 proposition: each partner should be contributing 50% of the sacrifices and receive 50% of the rewards, so they are gaining as much as they give up. The gaining part is very important for modern psychology, which is very concerned about self-fulfillment. Since marriage needs to be fulfilling for both partners, it is important to balance the chores (cleaning, laundry, cooking, and wage-earning, childcare) and imbalances are unfair because one person is getting more than they give. It is equally important to balance the self-satisfactions: the couple might go to a video game convention one week, and scrapbooking the next week. This is good as far as it goes, but it does not go very far: the relationship becomes a game of friendly tug-of-war, with each partner trying to pull a little more self-satisfaction and a little less humiliation.

Once a pregnancy happens, the balance is upset – there is no way to share morning sickness. How many dirty dishes is 9 months of pregnancy worth? How much laundry makes up for the pain of labor? When the child arrives, the 50/50 marriage is destroyed forever. The little person is constantly sucking down resources: tying up the woman’s body, needing milk, diapers, time, effort, attention and money, while contributing nothing in the way of goods and services to the family. The parents certainly receive intangible benefits, such as joy, love and happiness, which bring a sense of fulfillment but the exchange is very badly tilted in the baby’s favor: the little person cannot be talked into giving up something to help equalize its relationship with its parents. For those who are rooted in the self-fulfillment idea, the child represents a strange and uncomfortable intrusion who refuses to play by the rules of the social contract, and who is getting far more than he gives.

Even though the marriage survey at the beginning of this post offered five different options, Western society today is grappling with two different ways of seeing human life. One is as a gift of love (self-sacrifice), the other is as a social contract (self-fulfillment). We need to choose which one we follow because they soon become two very different paths. Follow these four steps:
1) we avoid the idea of self-sacrifice in favor of the idea of self-fulfillment.
2) we begin to think in the logic of exchange
3) marriage becomes a haggle, or sometimes a tug-of-war, over who is giving more
4) it becomes harder and harder to accept children.

You can always tell that parents are thinking in self-fulfillment terms when they mentally calculate children on a cost-benefit curve. They look at the investment of time, energy, and resources for each child, versus the potential self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment that will be produced by each child. Sooner or later, usually at two or three children, the graph begins to level out. This is the point where self-satisfaction is not going to increase enough with another child to offset the sacrifice that will be involved. Birth control appears to be necessary as a “guarantee” that parents can stop having children when their self-fulfillment graph is optimized at the best sacrifice-for-joy ratio. Unfortunately the tug-of-war effect happens even here: one spouse’s self-fulfillment might require another child while the self-fulfillment of the other spouse has already peaked.

This is why the debate over birth control (and ultimately abortion) is not just a question of private preferences, but it is the place where two radically different ways to see human life collide. The reason to use birth control is to maximize the benefits of marriage while minimizing the sacrifices. From the self-fulfillment perspective, birth control appears to be a nearly perfect invention: cutting down so much of the sacrifices makes marriage so much more fulfilling….except that it doesn’t. If the “social contract” idea is true, shouldn’t we be able to tell that couples contracept by the glow of their smiling faces? Shouldn’t marriages which use birth control have a much lower rate of divorce? Actually, the opposite seems to be true.

Noticing that nature and life itself do not play by the “social contract” rules that human society has invented for its members, contraception seems to represent modern society’s desperate stand against nature and life itself. We cannot force fertility into the boxes that we have made, and the more we try to do this, the more we are playing tug-of-war against our bodies, our human nature, and God himself. More and more people are realizing that instead of taking the struggles out of marriage, contraception only moves them farther down the road. Instead of trying to make fertility obey our rules, we need to consider adjusting our expectations to more realistically reflect what human life is really like.

Read more: What should marriage be like (answer!)