As a Humanist minister, I have had the honor of conducting the wedding services for many couples. As we work together on the wording of the service and their vows, it calls upon both the couple and myself to think about the meaning of marriage. In this article, I will share some thoughts on the potential benefits of marriage to one’s spiritual practice. First, it is important to talk about the commitment integral to marriage, because this plays a role in its effect on our spiritual progress.
It comes as no surprise to my readers nor friends that I am socially liberal, and that extends to relationships. But unlike some social liberals, when it comes to marriage I believe in the importance of lifetime commitments. That isn’t to say that there can’t be justifiable reasons for divorce. But it does mean a rejection of approaches to marriage that, from the outset, are merely agreements to stick together only so long as “love endures” or, in less eloquent language, until you get sick and tired of one another, or simply feel like a change. There is nothing wrong with that, or any, arrangement between consenting adults so long as both understand one another. But this is called a boyfriend or girlfriend. In these cases, I suggest simply remaining as such.
While the moral obligation to be honest and supportive to a boyfriend or girlfriend is the same as any serious relationship, the distinguishing characteristic of marriage is the temporal element – that is, the sacred pledge to be there for one another into the future, in bad times and good. For those who have children, this kind of commitment is what is needed to have mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and all of the stability and support structure most healthy to a child’s upbringing. The structure of a family can vary – we aren’t stuck with a typical hetero-mono-nuclear model. But what’s important are those dutiful bonds of loving commitment. Even for those who choose not to have children, many feel it is still important to have someone in your life to depend upon, to share life’s experience with, and who you know will not abandon you when times are tough. The core of the concept is that when we leave our childhood home we leave a supportive family structure, and though we may remain close to that family always, marriage is how we form new families of equal bonds and support.
Of course, we are all free to live whatever kinds of lives we agree upon with others, but this is what I mean when I refer to marriage in this article. While any relationship offers opportunities to be more mindful, tolerant, communicative, and patient – it is long-term commitment that potentially has the following effects on a more specific spiritual practice.
A Window into True Love
Most adults come to understand the difference between love and infatuation. What may be less obvious is that further stages of deeper love continue to reveal themselves when in a loving relationship with another after an extended time. We begin to learn the real differences between self-driven love and other-driven love. Given that tough times in relationships over time are inevitable, only a commitment to stay together through those times has the chance to continue for periods long enough for those deeper levels of love to manifest.
Since we are human, we may often mislead ourselves into thinking we can understand what it means to be human from the single example of our own experience. But in a long-term relationship that lasts years or decades, we continue to become more and more familiar with another human being. Even after 13 years, my wife and I continue to surprise one another and I’m told this happens well after 13 years. This makes sense since a person continues to evolve throughout life.
That growing familiarity over time results in an intimate knowledge of our partner ‘from the inside’. Just as the discovery of alien life on other worlds would undoubtedly illuminate new concepts in biology as a general field, the intimate knowledge of another person illuminates what it means to be human in general terms. This is a far more profound string of experiences than I can justify with words.
The following is not a continuous effect, but there have been moments in which I see my wife and feel almost as if my subjective view has transported inside her; as if our understanding and perspectives were so intimately tied that I saw the world through her eyes and identified herself with myself. One gets the deep sense of what justice, right, wrong, beauty, humor, and meaning are to another mind. I could never have imagined what this experience was like without being a part of someone else for an extended time. Further, many times it happens in a manner that gets my attention, it has been in more profound ways than before.
The ancient Greeks are often recognized for having had many different words for ‘love’ which adeptly distinguish between affection, passion, friendship, parental love, and so on. However, the truth we come to find by seeing through another person’s eyes is that love is even more varied and subtle than this. Over time, an intimate relationship can help us to learn about a seemingly infinitely various kinds and degrees of love. When it comes to spiritual practice, progress is simply not possible without understanding the nature of love more deeply.
Putting it to Practice
In terms of applied spiritual practice, one important project is that of escaping the ego. That is, seeing beyond our narrow singular point of view toward a broader view. Stoics propose expanding one’s sense of self outward to include others. This expandable re-definable vision of the ego is consistent with the Buddhist realization of the ‘self’ as an illusory construction. In seeing through another’s eyes, possible in a deep extended relationship, it is possible to get a first-hand experience of what it means to have one’s ego – one’s sense of first-person – displaced, expended, and jarred. This can be an important part of learning to expand it further to include all beings. I know the experience has aided in my own efforts along these lines.
Another effect of that kind of connection, is seeing the ‘child within’ in another person. We all have that innocence – that child we were – still within us. At times he or she comes out in the best sense. Glimpsing this provides a sense of intense affection. In this sense, we come to see the whole person, faults and all, from a sympathetic point of view. This is not too unlike how an ideal mother might see her own child; even the most flawed for which she will yet retain love.
This experience of intimate affection combined with ego-jarring perspectives form two important steps in achieving a more universal compassion for all beings. This is one way in which a long-term loving and committed relationship can be an invaluable aide in our practice and our spiritual journey of transformation.
Spirituality for the Full Life
Given the incredible experiences of marriage and the remarkable help it has been to my practice, it seems especially odd to me when I think about religious leaders, in the East and West, who take vows of chastity. Regarding those who do this successfully, no one can doubt their commitment and dedication. When it comes to Buddhists monks for example, the absence of family obligations undoubtedly frees such people to pursue wisdom and practices to greater levels than is possible for many of us. These two facts suggest that our respect and attention to their input is warranted.
In the Christian bible, Paul only reluctantly accepts marriage merely as an alternative for those who aren’t disciplined enough to be chaste. Even Socrates only jokingly advocates marriage, saying, “By all means marry. If you have a good wife you will be happy and if you have a bad one you will become a philosopher!” But how many important aspects of life are celibate spiritual leaders missing out on? Given that spirituality should be practical and useful for real people living their lives out in the world, can they really be authoritative on these matters? More importantly, could the lack of deep long-term romantic relationships actually hinder deeper understanding of other spiritual concepts which, on the surface, may seem unrelated? These are important questions, and why I think the active participation of lay persons in guiding, educational, and organizational roles are crucial to a spiritual community.
In any event, if readers take anything from this, I hope it is to consider how their own relationships, rather than distractions or worse, can be opportunities for spiritual growth and development in even more profound ways than perhaps considered previously.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Written by DT Strain.