We have a pair of friends who have been together for a long time. They live together and own a home together. They are not technically married, but have made a lifetime commitment to one another.
We hosted them in NYC recently and the day before they got here, they shocked us (and many others, I presume) with a civil ceremony.
When we asked them why, the answer was fascinating. It said a lot about the culture we live in and the way we think about relationships.
Culture is what a group of humans communicate as valuable between one another. We have cultures in our jobs, social groups, and marriages. What we often call popular culture is a broad scope of what is being treated as valuable. We do this by treating certain things with shame (or scorn) and other things with honor (and celebration).
One hot button issue our culture is dealing with is marriage. What is marriage and why does it matter? The larger culture doesn’t agree and the tension has become a part of culture itself.
The reason this matters is that culture is the air we breathe. If waiting in line is valuable, we will subconsciously fall into it. If serving your country or caring for our elders is communicated as a value, we will want to lean into it.
The tensions in our culture occur because we do not agree on what is valuable. We are each fighting for our perceptions and definitions to apply to the broader culture. And what ends up happening is a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and anger. The lack of clarity makes our culture a dizzying air to breathe.
So, the reason our friends got married was because of clarity. It was too weird and complicated to try to communicate their relationship. To refer to each other as husband/wife wasn’t quite right because if someone asked for a wedding date or photos, it could be awkward. To refer to one another as boyfriend/girlfriend didn’t seem to carry the true weight of the relationship. They had been calling each other “my partner”, but that led to some weird assumptions.The fact is, there was no real box our friends fit in. No clear way to communicate the value of their relationship.
It is pretty easy to tell what a person values. Look at what they celebrate. The same is true for a marriage or an organization or a country. We bestow honor on wealth and physical beauty. And this communicates that these are values in our society.
But there are important things that do not get celebrated enough. Things like diversity and unity. These things matter to us all, but we don’t communicate them with the same intensity of honor we use for other things (our own opinion, for one).
Here are a couple quick examples I’ve noticed lately: 1) we honor putting each other down – call it sarcasm, banter, whatever you want. The truth is, we think people who can put someone else in their place are funny, better. And so, we make fun of one another constantly. 2) Who’s the hero? This is especially prevalent in marriages. Watch the way couples tell stories. Most of the time, it is about how their spouse is an idiot or weirdo or did something embarrassing. The subtext is that they (the storyteller) is the hero. The spouse is the bumbling antagonist that is lucky to have the hero around. This is what we do in marriages and it communicates the value of ME. It communicates that the value of relationships is about me being a hero.
We have to be careful, mindful, and intentional about what values we are communicating. What are we treating with honor and what are we treating with shame? And what, like the relationship between my friends, has great value but is falling through the cracks simply because we don’t know how to communicate it clearly.