A very brief news item caught my attention just recently which is worth commenting on. It had to do with where modern marriage is heading, and how some people are seeking to change the usual marriage vows to reflect their own preference for non-commitment.
Here is what the news item said: “Couples are abandoning traditional ‘till death do us part’ wedding vows in favour of those with a get out clause in the event their love ‘shall falter or fail’. Newlyweds are increasingly acknowledging that love does not always last forever and pledging ‘as long as our love lasts’. A few are even making agreements to review the state of the marriage after as little as five years.”
Of course in one sense this is not new. Prenuptial agreements are similar, in that they provide an opt-out clause from day one. Both thus seek to raise the white flag of surrender even before the marriage is embarked upon. This is hardly the solid ground marriage needs to be built upon.
Of course part of the problem is modern man has managed to totally disconnect sexuality from procreation. Until recently, everyone knew that they went together, and one without the other was hardly even considered. As Ogden Nash once quipped, “The reason for much matrimony is patrimony”.
Thus marriage as an institution has always been about two chief social ends: the regulation of human sexuality, and the provision for the next generation that arises from that sexual union. And these two have always been bundled together.
It was especially because of the next generation – but not limited to it – that marriage was always seen as a lifelong social bonding. And almost all human societies therefore gave high value to marriage, knowing that a good marriage makes for a good family, and good families make for a good society.
But the real problem with this whole concept of temporary marriage is the fundamentally faulty notion of love that underpins it. Today when we speak about love most people mean something like feelings, or lust, or sex. Love of course has something to do with these three things, but is certainly not the same as those three.
Love, in a more sober age, meant things like commitment, self-sacrifice and willing the best for the beloved. Indeed, most cultures have realised that mere romantic love is the least vital aspect about love. Love is so much more than feelings. Feelings of course come and go, and in that sense we fall in and out of love all the time.
But that is exactly why the marriage vows have been the way they have been for such a long time. It is exactly because we have known that the feelings and emotions of love are fickle, temperamental and temporary, that we featured the “till death do us part” clause.
Indeed, so different was our understanding of love and marriage until recently, that we could very rightly speak about “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health”. Real love was about dedication, loyalty, commitment and perseverance, not mere fleeting emotions.
Real love was about sticking with the partner of one’s vows, loving them to the end. It was always about true love, which always wills the highest good to the other person. It is the very opposite to selfishness and self-centredness. No marriage can work with two people fiercely clinging to their own rights.
A genuine marriage is about renouncing one’s rights and declaring one’s commitment to the well-being and good of the beloved. Thus marriage works on loving commitment, not selfish individualism.
But these new marriage vows clearly reflect such selfishness and me-first-ism. They are all about the individual, and not about the couple, or about any potential offspring of that couple.
Thus they are a perfect reflection of the age of self we now live in. We may well be one of the most self-centred generations in human history. Everything is about me, me, me. So we have taken an institution like marriage, which is fundamentally a social, giving institution, and turned it into a personal, taking institution.
Marriage both as a concept and as an individual union will not last with this fixation on selfishness. Of course it was never meant to. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once very wisely said in one of his wedding sermons, “Love does not sustain your marriage, but marriage sustains your love.”
That has always been the right way of looking at marriage. And without this way of looking at marriage, we will be in an awful mess. I probably have fallen out of love with my wife zillions of times. But I have also fallen in love with her zillions of times. That is the nature of human relationships.
They have their ups and downs. But the truth is, a good marriage, like anything else worthwhile in life, must be worked at. Wonderful marriages do not pop out of thin air. They are the end result of two people who are committed to each other – warts and all – and who are committed to their marriage.
A marriage will never work with two people who are only in it for themselves. Marriage works when two people put the other first, and see marriage as a valuable and noble institution which must daily be worked on and improved.
Sure, there will be setbacks and progress, momentum and lulls, high and lows. And any married couple will have their fair share of fights. But the right attitude is the key. As Ruth Bell Graham once remarked, “A good marriage is the union of two forgivers.”
So if you are seriously considering marriage, my first word of advice to you would be to abandon any foolish thoughts about using such self-destructive phrases as “as long as our love lasts”. That is a recipe for disaster, and will pretty well guarantee that your marriage will be very short-lived indeed.