It’s not often that I agree with gay activist Dan Savage.
Savage is fighting to redefine the historical understanding of marriage, whereas I think marriage should remain defined as being between one man, and one woman.
However, when it comes to this issue of redefining/changing marriage, I fully agree with Savage on a point that he has made numerous times. Namely, that:
‘Marriage has already changed, and it was straight people who changed it‘.
In particular, he talks about how things like life-long monogamy are ‘optional when straight people marry’. In other words, marriage used to be understood as an institution where people lived faithfully to one another, in sickness or in health, until death do you part. But many of today’s (western) straight people no longer see marriage as that sort of permanent institution.
Marriage Wisdom from the Googleplex.
A little while ago Pastor and author Timothy Keller gave a talk at Google HQ, on the topic of marriage, from a Judeo-Christian point of view. Among other things, he made the following points (from 3mins47s – 12mins19s), which are applicable to Christians and non-Christians alike:
1) The essence of marriage isn’t the feelings between the spouses, but the long term binding commitment toward one another.
The essence of marriage is not about feelings: these come and go. Rather, the essence of marriage are the vows, the ‘long term binding commitments epitomized in that piece of paper’. This binding, legal commitment may sound un-romantic and sterile, but it makes a HUGE difference to the marriage relationship, for the following reasons:
2) There are two basic types of relationships in the world: ‘consumer’ relationships, and ‘covenant’ relationships.
A ‘consumer’ relationship is like the relationship you have with your supermarket, which lasts as long as your supermarket is giving you produce at a good cost. But if you find another supermarket that gives you better/equal quality produce, at a much better cost, you’ll go to the other supermarket.
Because in a consumer-vendor relationship, your individual needs are more important than the relationship.
This ‘consumer’ relationship is what I call a ‘supermarket’ relationship.
On the other hand, a ‘covenant’ relationship is like the relationship you have with your child: no matter how difficult the child gets, or how much it costs you to keep your child (emotionally, physically, financially, etc), you’re not going to get rid of your child when the going gets tough (like you would your supermarket!).
In a covenant relationship, the relationship itself is more important than your individual needs.
3) When you go out with (i.e. date) someone, you’re effectively in a consumer relationship with them.
Being in a consumer relationship with someone means you have to always put your best foot forward: you’re marketing and promoting yourself (let’s face it), hoping that the other person will accept you…because they can walk away from you at any time.
4) When you get married, you enter into a covenant relationship with your spouse. And this covenant relationship (i.e. marriage) builds intimacy in a way that a consumer relationship never can.
If you enter into a covenant relationship via marriage with your spouse, then you have the security and freedom to be vulnerable, because you both know that neither of you will walk if you share and say difficult things; and this security builds openness, and thus intimacy in a way that a consumer relationship never could.
5) Thus the ‘piece of paper’, the binding legal agreement of marriage, also brings stability.
Keller quotes statistics which say that for 66% of marriages that say they’re unhappy, these actually become happy after 5 years. What is it that keeps people hanging in there? It’s the legal agreement (i.e. the piece of paper), that keeps them persevering with their spouse, even though they’d rather walk…and to (mis)quote Savage: if you hang in there, more often than not, ‘it does get better’.
Interestingly enough, a recent UK study found that marriage brought much greater stability, compared to mere cohabitation:
‘[Of today’s 40 year olds], nearly half of those who have children will stay together. However, for this group only 3 per cent of unmarried couples will still be with their partner when their child is 15.’
I.e. 50% versus 3%: that’s the difference the ‘piece of paper’ can bring.
6) The ‘piece of paper’ of marriage creates freedom.
The marriage vow is all about promising to be faithful, regardless of your feelings. Paradoxically, this actually frees us up from being enslaved to our feelings.
7) If your boyfriend/girlfriend says: ‘I love you, I want to live with you, but I don’t need to marry you’, then they don’t love you enough.
What they’re really saying is: ‘I love you, but not enough to marry you’; ‘I don’t love you enough to lose my independence’; ‘I don’t love you enough to bind myself to you’.
They would rather treat you as a product, that they can ditch, if you get too difficult for them.
Is your marriage a supermarket marriage?
A traditional ‘covenant’ understanding of marriage will mean that you and your spouse are committed to one another through thick and thin: come what may. But a ‘consumer’ or ‘supermarket’ understanding of marriage will mean that you’ll see your spouse as a product, that you’ll be able to ‘upgrade’ when the relationship gets too difficult, the wrinkles set in, etc.
Savage reckons that many marriages today are mere supermarket marriages, and I think that sadly he’s right. But when seen for the covenant relationship that it is, marriage can bring greater intimacy, security, and freedom than mere cohabitation every could.