Marriage: Away it goes

30 years and counting

It’s an amazing time in history. On the one hand, we’re seeing movement on the part of same-sex couples to have the right to marry, while on the other hand, we see the heterosexual world increasingly treating “marriage” with callous disregard. It’s this latter point that stood out to me while watching “Away We Go” recently. In case you’ve not seen it, I’ll shamelessly cut and post the synopsis from here:

Mid-thirtysomethings Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are a loving couple. Burt has always wanted to marry Verona, but Verona resists, not seeing the point of the institution. Regardless, they are having a baby together, despite questioning their potential parenting abilities. They are happy that they made the decision to move close to Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander, as they want to share the experience with the baby’s grandparents. Verona’s own parents died over ten years earlier, a situation about which she doesn’t like to discuss. In Verona’s sixth month, she and Burt learn that Jerry and Gloria are moving to Antwerpen, Belgium the month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. Burt and Verona don’t understand what they see as Jerry and Gloria’s selfishness in putting this move above spending time with their impending granddaughter. Being mobile people, Burt and Verona decide to move. As they want to share their new family experience with people that they love, they decide to take a trans-continental trip to meet with old friends and relatives. Most of them are married with children of their own, and Burt and Verona want to see where they would like to live and with whom they want to share the experience.

It’s a touching movie, at times both funny and heartbreaking.  One senses the challenges of being rootless in every sense; geographically, vocationally, and spiritually.  We call this rootlessness liberty in our culture, but outsiders don’t necessarily see it as a gift, and this film shows why.  But that’s another topic for another post.  A sub-plot in the movie is Burt’s continued desire to marry Verona, and her continued refusal.  She’s suspicious, perhaps even cynical, regarding the notion that the institution of marriage has any value.

She’s not alone.  Five years ago Harvard Magazine published this thoughtful article that both exposes our culture’s growing antipathy towards marriage, and explains some of the reasons for the shift.  It’s a good read,but long, and includes ‘birth control’, ‘women entering the work force’, and ‘the failures of their parents’ as all contributing factors.  Who needs the paper anyway?  Will the paper enhance love?

While I understand the rationale here, I find all of this disturbing because I’m a huge fan of marriage.  I’m a fan personally, because I’ve had the privilege of being married now for the past 30 years and can say that, at least in our case, the harvest comes, more and more, as the years pile up.  What I mean by that is that the earlier years had challenges that required of both of us skills that we didn’t yet possess.  By God’s grace and wisdom (and I mean that literally) we were able to learn the skills without destroying each other or permanently withdrawing into our respective corners.  Now, there are still challenges, but we’ve greater skills, and hence greater truth telling, and grace giving, capacity.  In other words:  Life is Good.

I can’t know how it would have played out were it not for the covenant piece, but I do know that there were times when I said to myself:  “I made a vow” and that was, at the very least, a piece of what kept me, not only married, but engaged in the process of learning to love.  I think many people diminish the vow, thinking that it only means sharing a bed, or if not that, at least a house and kids.  We promise much more, actually.  We promise to love and to cherish, come hell or highwater, come cancer or dimentia.  It’s a promise that, if we really take it seriously, I believe turns us towards Christ, asking Him to give us what we don’t have, in order to be the kind of people we promised to be.

We won’t do this perfectly.

Many days we won’t do it well.  Some days we won’t do it at all.  But still, we’ve taken a vow, and the vow becomes a reference point.   That reference point has been a gift for me more than once!  I’m not just glad I live with Donna.  I’m glad I’m married to her.  I think this might have been at least part of what God had in mind when he spoke of leaving home and clinging to one’s partner, in the sense that you’ve closed the back door.  Yes, there’s grace for failed marriages, but should the failures become rationale for throwing away the possibility of covenant?  I don’t think so.

So please help me understand why marriage has fallen on hard times.  Do you think we should be working hard to renew it?  Why or Why not?  If so, how?

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  • Kevin

    Well, it is one thing to think of marriage in ideal terms and another entirely to see the way that it is lived out. Many people, and my spouse included, were not repulsed by the idea of marriage but had little to no interest in being involved in the institution as it presented itself. If the only perceived option available is parroting the relationships of prior generations, along with all of their inequity and sexually abusive and oppressive tendencies, then it’s no wonder that the world looks at what we have to offer and responds with a curt “no thank you”.

    Marriage is often portrayed by the church as the penultimate relationship within human existence, and those who have not yet committed to such a venture because of personal choice or circumstance often find themselves marginalized within the Christian community. To even challenge the shape of the institution, one is often met with resistance and even ridicule. My spouse, for example, in choosing not to adopt my name, has met with resistance from within our congregation, as well as the ranks of church leadership.

    I wonder if we’re so firmly holding onto an idyllic form of covenant relationship, staring so intently at this one issue, that we cannot see or understand why the world is passing us by. I think that before we ask the question of renewal within the institution of marriage, we need to spend some serious time discerning what it is that people want from marriage, and not settle into the convenience of time-tested and world-wearied answers. What does marriage offer and why is this offer not appealing for this generation and this city?*

    *Spoiler: I’m pretty sure that humanity’s “sin nature” has nothing to do with it.

  • Linda

    Marriage has fallen on hard times because people reject God, they reject God’s Word on the matter. The only cure is the proclaiming of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and praying for God in His mercy to save people. If you are not right with God then you cannot expect people to be right with their spouse..

  • Gosh- there are so many directions I want to go here. Mostly, Richard, I want to thank you for having the kind of marriage that I myself hope to have someday (working on year 7 of marriage; not year 30… but anyway). I understand a lot of Kevin’s frustration, as well. I too think marriage- and raising children- is portrayed as the crown of a Christian life on this earth, and I find it heartbreaking that those who live outside of the nuclear family paradigm are so often marginalized. At the same time, I see the beauty in marriages that last decades and produce healthy and loving families, and I want to emulate that. So for me, the question of whether we should be working hard to renew the institution of marriage is sort of at an impasse. I hold covenant marriage in very high regard, want very much for all marriages to succeed and to help those who are struggling, and at the same time I don’t want to marginalize the single or those without children, or families that look different from my own. The best I can do is to respect the institution, love my husband and hope that someday I can have a marriage like Richard and Donna’s, while at the same time hoping that along the way, we are also able to encourage and love those who don’t choose marriage or whose earthly relationships don’t mirror my own.

  • Brandon

    I think that my generation has grown up with the attitude that they can have something whenever they want it. Whether that is cars or tv’s, trips to faraway, food or drinks, or even friendships and sex. We seem to be more focused on the here and now and have a hard time looking to the future, and anything that limits our options in the future, we tend to look down on.

    Being married of course isn’t always easy, but I firmly believe it is good. Yes, in some ways it limits a person, but I don’t think we talk often enough about the blessings and good stuff, how it balances a person out and helps us see things from new perspectives and gives us a base and a friendship to always have there for support and look back at life with. We rarely hear of the benefits of the covenant, and instead, at least to people my age, it seems to be viewed merely as a freedom-limiter, because we can get most of the benefits by just living with another person.

  • Kevin

    While I can definitely understand the general indictment which is commonly leveled against the current generation, I wonder if it is possible to ponder questions of covenant relationship within a different paradigm. True, there are aspects of this generation which are vastly different from those that came before, but do those differences necessarily qualify as immoral or wrong? That the current age is characterized by an unprecedented freedom of choice and an abundance of opportunity does not mean that those who would exercise that freedom and capitalize on that abundance are inherently wrong, nor does it mean that they are necessarily near-sighted. What if there is something just as new and wonderful about this generation as there was with each generation that preceded it? If this generation does not find the idea of covenant relationship compelling based upon how it is formulated and promoted by the church, does this mean that there is something wrong with the generation or something wrong with how the idea of marriage is being offered?

  • Brandon

    Excellent questions Kevin. I would not say this generation is necessarily more immoral (though some may argue so). However, I would venture to wonder if we are more self-focused. The media that surrounds us everywhere teaches us to want things, and rarely are we pushed to give of ourselves. At least that is what I seem to see. I work with a group of people almost entirely in their 20’s, as am I. I believe I am the only married person out of 18-20 coworkers.

    How do we relate to the current generation so that the idea of marriage is even relevant?

  • Kevin

    Perhaps before we relate our own desires for marriage we need to open ourselves to hearing the desires of the other. It is somewhat unfortunate, but I feel as though the current generation is far more capable of identifying and articulating what it is that they do not want rather than what they do. This might make sense, however, given your observation of the horrifying vastness of opportunity and choice; one could spend the entirety of their life simply filtering out everything that they do not want in this world. What is required of us within this context is a willingness to sit and hear the stories share in the experiences of others, to hold as sacred all that they have to say, and this process could take days or it could take decades. If we want the best for them, though, and we want them to want the best for themselves, we cannot hope to manufacture some sort of artificial desire; it must be come by honestly and earnestly. This is as true for the institution of marriage as it is for any facet of the Christian life.

    A side observation: I liked what you said about being urged to give of ourselves, and I want to refine it further. We are constantly asked to give of ourselves but only in a monetary capacity. The problem of media saturation might not be that we are urged to express our desires but that we are urged to do so through economic means.

  • thomas

    Just a couple of thoughts here:

    – I think it is questionable to identify marriage as an explicitly “Christian” institution – ie. it is not the church alone who “offers an idea of marriage”. The idea that everyone else has embraced/is embracing liberation while the paternalistic Christians are trying to push their misogynistic, culturally archaic institutions to try and keep women subservient is questionable since in rejecting marriage we are not just rejecting a Christian institution, but a human one that seems to span across a number of cultures and eras.

    – connected with this, while marriage certainly has functioned as a repressive or misogynistic institution at different times and places, it could be argued that this has not been its exclusive or intended purpose (ie. a way of keeping women in a subservient role to men). One could reasonably argue that in an age before the technological development of effective birth control that marriage acted as (pretty much the only) protection against sexual exploitation of women and the abandonment of any potential children that resulted. Seen in this light, repression and abuse are a perversion of the actual intent (maybe due to our fallen nature Kevin? It is interesting that Adam’s “rule” over Eve is connected with the curse of the fall [Genesis 3], not the original Edenic relationship – a “rule” that is connected in the curse with the pain of childbirth). I do think seeing marriage primarily in terms of repression and misogyny is anachronistic. If those men who have come before us (and even now) wanted to act in a truly misogynistic way and keep women in a subservient role they would have discarded the institution altogether and had sex as they wished (as they were/are not bound by the consequences in the same way women were/are). And, in fact, they often did (and do).

    – So why is marriage unattractive/failing? I would argue that it has to do with our collective cultural understanding of our human identity and marriage’s purpose. We live in a North American culture that often construes the basis of human identity in terms of sexuality, which, as far as I am aware, is an extremely unusual way (both in the past, and in comparison with other cultures in the present) to think about the ultimate ground of who we are as human beings. The church is not immune to this. I think, largely influenced by this understanding of human identity, we tend to think of marriage primarily in terms of the mutual fulfillment and love of the adult partners involved. Which, don’t get me wrong, is an important and fantastic piece of the marriage institution. But, I would want to argue, it is not the exclusive, or even the primary focus of marriage. Christians often seem to argue for marriage based on the suggestion that marriage offers a better way of providing sexual/emotional/spiritual fulfillment and intimacy than does sexual promiscuity or uncommitted serial monogamy. What is interesting is that this argument depends on a conception of marriage’s purpose as being primarily for the mutual sexual/emotional/spiritual fulfillment of the married partners. So in this respect, I think the Christian idea of marriage (and marriage as a whole) is failing because in its emphases and conception of purpose it has embraced a conception of identity that sees sexual fulfillment as a basis for human identity. It suffers from the same elevation of sex and sexual obsession as the culture within which it resides. So why is marriage (and successful marriage at that) important? Obviously this is a huge and difficult question. One of the reasons for marriage, and one way to change the trajectory of the conversation, I would argue, is that it is for the kids, or at least the potential kids (obviously people can still have fruitful marriages without offspring, but it is important that the potential for offspring be included in our idea of marriage – the potential of a different horizon of relationship beyond loving partnership).

    Others have made this argument for marriage – others like Blink 182, in their song “Stay together for the kids”, or secular ethicist Margaret Sommerville (in controversial) discussions concerning bioethics and homosexual marriage, or a recent Time magazine cover article titled “Is there hope for the American marriage?” where the (I assume non-Christian) author emphasizes the importance of recognizing the potential for offspring, and concern for offspring as the crucially missing factor defining American marriage. While I haven’t seen the movie Richard refers to, in the synopsis it appears as though the crisis over the marriage question is intensified with the fact that one of the lead characters has become pregnant. Interestingly, off the top of my head few Christian examples that try to redefine the debate in this way spring to mind.

    There seems to be a plea (from some at least) in North American culture to recognize that marriage must be about something more than the fulfillment of the married partners – that mutual fulfillment must function for something (or someone) outside the partner relationship. For the Christian, this obviously includes not just potential offspring, but the mutual relationship they share in Christ, and more largely in the church, and within that the church’s relationship with the world – marriage is a vocation, a calling, as Paul emphasizes in a number of places – and it is very much a “this worldly” calling, as Christ points out. The covenant aspect of Christian marriage is not just for the sexual partners involved. Perhaps if we were to emphasize marriage in a “vocational” sense – as being for some purpose outside of the sexual/emotional partnership, as something we are called to, as a sphere for responsible action (whether in emphasizing the importance of marriage being open to the potential of offspring in a secular context, or open to the demands of Christ in a Christian one) we can avoid some of the pitfalls of our current conceptions of marriage, that tend to be defined by an elevated sense of sexuality. Further, by addressing the underlying questions of human identity that have defined our current conception of marriage (among other things), we may find that marriage itself is strengthened.

  • Kevin

    Is it not questionable to view marriage as a human institution, as well? Are those existing outside of marriage living in denial of their humanity or somehow not yet fully human? While it cannot be said that marriage is an exclusively Christian institution, I would hope that we also hesitate to apply it as a fundamental human principle and in doing so deny the humanity of those who, by choice or circumstance, have yet to enter in to covenental relationship.

    It seems that you and I have had divergently different experiences of the institution of marriage. While I can understand your critique of the argument against marriage as being sexually repressive and/or misogynistic, I have also seen and known people who were deeply scarred by abuses within their own marriage or the marriage of their parents. Regardless of whatever the original intent of marriage may be, it has not often been lived out in a compelling or redeeming fashion. Furthermore, focusing on the original intent of the institution won’t do much for those who have to peer through centuries of abuse in order to see it. Nor is it an institution which is abusive to women, alone: men have been and continue to be victims of a marriage ideal which strips them of their humanity when it asks them to protect the humanity and sexual identity of women. The problems within the institution touch all who participate and the guilt of its abuses lie equally across gender lines.

    I definitely understand what you are saying about the emphasis of the reproductive dimension in marriage, as this is an issue which has been at the forefront of Catholic bioethics for the past several decades and much ink has been spilled over it. However, something about that critique falls on me as somewhat inappropriate. Perhaps its because it potentially denies purpose in marriages where one or both partners are infertile, perhaps it is because it denies the factuality of parental love in same-sex marriages, or perhaps its because God’s supreme act of love completely circumvented the potential for reproduction in human marriage. I don’t have any answers, here, only more questions…

    I appreciate your thoughts, though, and I do believe that if marriage is not a vocation it is, at the very least, the embracing by two people of a common trajectory. I think that this conversation needs more voices, though, and I hope that we can get some non-married people to share their perspectives.

  • Happy 30th Anniversary to you and your wife! May your marriage continue to glorify and honor the Lord!

    Marriage is not only a covenant to your spouse, but also to the Lord. “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) Christ-centered marriages are blessed and strong. I also believe in arranged marriages (the kinds arranged by God). If you would like to see a real life example of marriage that lasts a lifetime, take a look at this: .

    Marriage is truly beautiful when it’s done according to the Bible. I am the blessed wife of a man after God’s own heart. Christ is the Head of our family. Next in line is my husband. I cheerfully submit to him as he faithfully and humbly leads. I do not see any oppression whatsoever. My husband respects me and I respect him.

    Failed marriages are the ones that leave God out of the equation. The husbands and/or wives are only after their own interests/happiness/fulfillment/needs/ wants. They also ignore the roles God gives husbands and wives in the Bible. They act as if they knew better than God. In the end, they face misery/disappointment because of their disobedience. When each man or woman aims to please, obey, and honor God in his/her attitudes, words, &actions and love his/her spouse with God’s love, their marriage will be a powerful testimony of His love and of what Christ has done in their lives.

  • Here is another great take on marriage by blogger Jason Holdridge…

  • thomas


    thanks for your response. I only have a few moments here, so I will have to be brief (which is probably be a good thing…that last comment was ridiculously long-winded).

    – I agree with your point that we should not make marriage a fundamental basis for human identity – the point I was trying to make about marriage being a human institution is not that those outside of it are less than human, or are lacking fulfillment in some way – just that the idea and institution of marriage is not exclusively Christian – many other cultures, faiths, groups etc. support some sort of idea of marriage as a societal institution – so a discussion about marriage is not just an intramural discussion between Christians. If we see marriage in terms of a vocation or calling, as I was trying emphasize towards the end of my comment, and as Paul says (when he emphasizes that it is definitely not his own calling), this clearly indicates that from a Christian perspective marriage is not common to everyone, not needed for total fulfillment and not the thing that provides the fundamental definition of their human identity (despite what we may sometimes hear). I apologize if I was unclear in the earlier comment.

    – concerning repression in marriage – I totally agree that in many ways marriage has often not been lived out in a compelling or redeeming fashion – but I suppose that I fall on the side of the argument that sees more positives than negatives – that the original intent is important, and can be redeemed, even if it has often fallen so far short, so often. I just think that sometimes the argument is made that marriage itself, in its original intent, is abusive and repressive, and I think my original comments were trying to address that.

    -I’ll have to address the comments on reproduction later as I have to run. Thanks for the comments.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for your thoughts; I look forward to the rest.

    I definitely agree with you that marriage is not an institution solely under the purvey of Christianity and definitely not the pinnacle of human existence. I guess the point that I want to get across, regardless of the purpose of marriage or how it is most effectively considered, is the idea that there are a great many for whom the idea of marriage is threatening and uninviting. I think that we do these people a great disservice by coming at this issue as though it were a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely feel like this issue is very “problematic”, but approaching complex human issues as though they are problems tends to objectify not only the issue at hand but the people that it affects. I want us to try and hold as sacred the reality that there are people who don’t want to get married, and, similarly, I want to hold as sacred the institution of marriage. I want to allow voice for both and let all be heard instead of trying to pick apart and judge the institution and those who have abstained from it.

  • monica

    I have to say that I was very excited to see this post by Richard. I am getting married in February and it has always been a bit stressful the idea that what if you can’t make it work. By all standards, 50% of the people out there don’t. My fiance and I learned that evangelical christians have the highest divorce rate among religious groups(this was from our pre-marital class at Bethany). What bothers me about this is why? To Richard’s point, a vow should mean something and if 50% of people aren’t holding on to it, doesn’t seem like people think that it does. One thing that my fiance and also have talked about is that there seems to be a big lack of direction in the christian community to teach what being a christian wife or husband means and living with God as the most important thing in our lives not the culture we live in. I can’t speak for those that don’t believe as a christian but for those of us who do, I think we really need to ask, what are people focusing on outside of God and the convenant relationship that isn’t making it work. I suspect that there will be many wonderful things about married and some very tough seasons as well but one thing I feel strongly about is that no matter what, we have to focus on the things that should be a big part of our lives and the vow we will take will represent that.