Marriage in the Twenty First Century

In 2008 I authored a piece for an international organisation entitled ‘A Charter for Marriage: Reconsidering the Foundations of Marriage for Twenty First Century Secular and Multifaith Britain’. I saw it doing two things: first, finding a centre ground between the patriarchal cultures of Britain’s immigrant communities, who valued marriage as the centre of extended family, but who had brought with them attitudes and practices inimical to British culture and law, and the liberal and secular culture of the UK that had enshrined personal rights and freedoms, but among whose population marriage rates were declining; secondly, I saw it as an opportunity to mount a robust defence of marriage, by examining the institution philosophically. More than ten years on, I want to revisit that idea in a markedly changed social and cultural landscape.

Although in that document I expressed the belief that marriage was not for everyone, I argued that it was a fundamental social good, which could best be approached from an ethical consequentialist perspective:

“We believe that the decline of marriage has contributed and continues to contribute significantly to the social troubles of our time, such as family breakdown, abuse of partners and children, poverty, illiteracy, innumeracy and inarticulacy, low educational attainment and hence employability, abuse of alcohol and other substances, delinquency and crime in general, depression, poor health and lower life expectancy in advanced countries, amongst other things. The growing number of low-occupancy households also contributes to the housing shortage and therefore has an environmental consequence.”

At the time I saw the possibility of immigration from cultures in which marriage was central and based on deep cultural and religious values having a positive effect on British society, through a sort of cultural osmosis, through assimilation, perhaps even of an increase in interracial and inter-ethnic marriages and the creation of a revitalised culture of marriage.

Since that time the social landscape and narrative with regards to culture, marriage and even gender has changed beyond recognition. Even oppressive practices alien to Britain are now championed by liberals as authentic expressions of diversity, undermining the hopes for both assimilation and revitalisation. Meanwhile even the norms of established categories such as male and female identity have been rewritten. Probably the greatest change, though, is the acceptance into law of same-sex marriage. These changes have to be recognised, even if not universally welcomed. From the vantage point of twelve years on, the issues at the time seemed relatively straightforward; if one was speaking or writing of marriage, one was unambiguously referencing a relationship between men and women, something that had been an unquestioned fact in every society.

However, I am less interested in establishing normative definitions of such terms as ‘marriage’, ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, as in establishing the fundamental values that underlie the institution of matrimony. While the arrival of same-sex marriage has created a definitional complexity to those who wish to address the issue and philosophical concerns of those who have an aversion to the overturning of a historically unchallenged institution in the name of equality, I see no specific way in which it undermines the status of marriage between men and women. Though I have clearly in mind heterosexual marriage, most of what I have to say could be interpreted in the context of same-sex marriage, for the point here is to explore the dimensions of a particular legal and ethical relationship.

Other developments, though, seem to present a far greater challenge to the institution of marriage. That can certainly be said about the recent (2019) decision to legalise civil partnerships for heterosexual couples, for this is a direct attack on the status of marriage. Indeed, the couple who pursued this case through the courts cited specifically their desire to abandon the traditions of marriage, believing it to be patriarchal and oppressive. Then there are the economic and political barriers to marriage. The disappearance of manufacturing jobs, which have only been replaced by low-paying and insecure employment, do not create the conditions for the creation and preservation of stable relationships. Government policies have not helped either, moving economic benefit away from married couples towards child support.

For something so fundamental to the continuity of society and of the civilising of the relationship between the sexes to be in decline suggests that we need to be more self-consciously aware of what the state of marriage aspires to be in the twenty-first century. One of the problems may be that our concepts are still those of the mid-twentieth century, possibly even those of the nineteenth, when the society has changed immeasurably. The question then becomes about the fundamentals of marriage that philosophical introspection reveals and which bind it as an institution in its own right. I will argue, contra the prevailing prejudices of liberal thought that it is simply a dated convention, what might be derisorily termed “just a piece of paper”, that it is bound by principles and values that both reflects the core beliefs of an enlightened culture and acts as a repository of social capital when societies go astray, prime among which is love.

The interrelationship between marriage and love is not straightforward and this complexity has expressed itself in all cultures. Marriage customs are different throughout the world, but share in common a commitment between a man and a woman to each other and any children that are born of their union. This commitment is made before a figure or group representing authority, that of the tribe or the state. Traditionally, but less so now in the West, a representative of a religion, signifying a spiritual authority, consecrates the marriage. Marriage has been seen in every society as a way of regulating sexual desires, not only to prevent the socially destructive power of infighting and jealousies, but also to ensure the socialisation and enculturation of the next generation through a recognised kinship structure. Thus, marriage can be seen to lie at the centre of a complex nexus of cultural concerns.

Love is an altogether more difficult proposition. It is probable that the significance and connotation of the term – if not the feelings, which are universal – are different for an average Chinese person compared with an average American or Iranian, based on cultural concepts, norms and expectations. Just consider the range of meanings that love has within the context of Western civilisation: there is the love that parents feel for their children and children feel for their parents, there is love between friends, love of country and the love of God that mystics speak of. Then there are the feelings, frequently considered baser, such as lust, possessiveness and attachment, yet which are often described as loves. The love between a man and a woman can be like any of these or a combination of any or all, and more beside.

In cultures where marriages are frequently arranged, love is not seen as a prerequisite for a marriage to take place. British Asians, amongst whom arranged marriages are commonplace, frequently state that love is seen as something that should ideally emerge over time in a good marriage. This, though, may be an adaptive idea in relation to the ubiquity of Western ideas and images. For the majority of historic cultures love has not been seen as central to marriage; marriage has had, principally, a social function. Even in the West marriage has frequently been seen as antithetical to nobler aspirations, of calling or of a higher ‘untainted’ love. But Europe is undoubtedly the origin of the modern notion of romantic marriage. In medieval Europe, mirrored to some degree in other civilisations, a tradition of romantic love began, marked by passion, eroticism, anti-authoritarianism, anti-traditionalism and anti-clericalism, and frequently – almost invariably – tinged with tragedy. Over the centuries this idea has taken root in our culture, though its fortunes have ebbed and flowed according to the social trends, until today when romantic love has become the prevalent mode of our thinking about love.

Nevertheless, there is a paradox at the heart of romantic love. While its very intensity brooks no argument as to its authenticity, that same intensity, which is at one with its inherent rebelliousness, means that it has no context within which it can be renewed save that of opposition to the established order, specifically marriage. Romantic love is, therefore, doomed to be transitory and, as such, cannot actually lay claim to authenticity. The liberation from marriage, achieved under the banner of ‘free love’, is unlikely to result in greater social freedom; perversely, it is more likely to invite further insidious intrusions of the state into family life as it attempts to prevent social meltdown. A study of the early Soviet Union’s disastrous experiment with the dissolution of ‘bourgeois’ marriage and its oppressive policy reversal several years later, is instructive.

If there is one positive outcome of the decline of marriage as duty, convenience or social acceptability, it is that there has emerged a consensus that if a relationship between a man and a woman is to be meaningful and ongoing it must be based on enduring love. Such love is categorically, though, not the same thing as romantic love.

For a start, real love must be reciprocated in a relationship between lover and beloved. Being based on feeling alone, romantic love may assume, but does not predicate, reciprocity. Unrequited love is in fact one of the strands of romanticism, though we tend to view it today as a pathological condition. Secondly, enduring love, unlike romantic love, cannot be based on just the given feeling or the given attraction. Basing a relationship on that is equivalent to trying to remain solvent while living solely on savings or an inheritance; sooner or later they must run out, depending on how thrifty or profligate one is. True love requires commitment, investment in the relationship and the creation and recreation of the object of love. Thirdly, if love is to endure, then it cannot be, unlike romantic love, merely a feeling, for the measure of a feeling is its intensity not its persistence and no relationship can be maintained at a level of high intensity indefinitely; therefore, true or enduring love, as opposed to mere infatuation or inconstant attachment, must also be implicated into a human system that partakes of the universal values of a culture, such things as patience, loyalty, compassion, respect and companionship. No human society has devised any such system with any stability outside of marriage.

If married love emerges as a somewhat complex notion, it is this very complexity, like that of other complex phenomena, that gives it its robustness. At its core, though – and this is where the romantics are vindicated – there is a profound feeling that has both a mysterious and a transcendental character. This feeling, though, is embodied within an institutional structure, that of marriage, which is both its context and expression.

The duality of marriage as both context and expression of love is the irreducible construct in which its facticity is rooted; everything else flows from it. Its existence in sociological terms is deontological, bound together by human desires and needs, laws, principles and values. Its continual deconstruction in modern liberal culture and politics is why we are at where we are at: the scourges of fatherless families, abuse of partners, addiction to pornography, loss of interest in relationships, the causes of innumerable other social ills and a demographic time-bomb. A marriage in which there is no love or love has faded is a common cultural trope of mockery and self-justification in modernity, but its opposite, love that is free of bounds is a motif that has acquired mythic status, despite our understanding of its existential emptiness. Marriage, rather than family – a misconception of both traditionalism and modern liberalism – is the root of our social belonging. It is the act of self-limitation in bonding oneself to another that makes the family a procreative social and cultural unit and, therefore, paradoxically, the power to harness the opportunities of our greater social freedoms.

The Institutional Principles or Values of Marriage

But if love and marriage are so conceptually fused, what are the defining principles and characteristics of this institution that would give it a robustness and adaptability to a changed social landscape and steers a middle ground between excessive liberality and reactionary illiberality? There are five principles that seem to meet these requirements: freedom, equality, commitment, legality and communality. There is a potential sixth – exclusivity – but this seems an overarching principle which is implied by all the others; but it is worth keeping in mind that these principles can only be defined in the context of wishing to share one’s life with another person in a mutually exclusive and enduring relationship.

Freedom

Love, by its very nature, cannot be coerced. Although it may not be true to say that it arises through free will, it is something that is given freely. There are, as discussed previously, forms of tragic love that arise in relationships of dependency – either one-sided or co-dependency – and romantic ideas of unrequited love, but married love depends on reciprocity and mutual happiness with and in the relationship. While mutual help and support are clearly part of the relationship, especially in times of difficulty, a strong independence is also required that people have qualities, skills and connections they bring to the relationship. This means having space in which to exercise one’s freedom, whether that be through a career or circle of friends. This in turn requires trust, for while there has to be a protective element to a relationship, jealousy can quickly destroy it.

For this reason, marriages can only be entered into willingly by both spouses, and can only be recognised as such by the willing consent of those entering into the relationship. The support, encouragement, advice, guidance and material contribution of the parents, family and wider community are to be actively encouraged; however, any form of coercion is forbidden, as violating the spirit of marriage. There is a clear distinction here between arranged marriages in which, even though neither spouse may have met prior to marriage, both have consented to the process, and forced marriage, in which either one or both are unwilling. In the internet era arranged marriage is changing even within cultures that have practiced it, so the distinction between this and forced marriage is even clearer.

Under all circumstances, the support and advice of wider family and community would be expected to sustain and strengthen the marriage bonds of couples in their midst and to seek all opportunities to avert crises in relationships, but if all else fails, the corollary of the right to enter a marriage freely is that, should the relationship between husband and wife break down irretrievably, it is the absolute right of the couple to seek dissolution of the marriage. In the end, we belong to ourselves; the commitments we make to others, however enriching they may be, are our choices. We never belong to another person, which is why even in a marriage we should respect the other’s autonomy. A marriage is essentially an agreement to build something together – a life together or a family together – which may take precedence over one’s independence, but this in the end is the irreducible matter of one’s choice. Relationships typically go through periods of challenge; there is always something that can be done to overcome those challenges.

Equality

Equality is a fundamental human value. We can see this in how children at an early age develop a sense of fairness and unfairness. In the context of marriage equality means equality of value or worth. In some cultures, sons are more highly prized than daughters. This is the legacy of an agrarian stage of human culture and of ‘bride price’ traditions that has no place in the twenty-first century and should be eliminated wherever it continues to exist. In a marriage both partners have to feel that they are valued. This requires negotiation so that the sense of fairness is established and may have to be renegotiated at various points in order to be maintained. For example, one arrangement might be in place before there are children, another while children are growing up, and yet another needed when they have left home or after retirement.

Above all, men and women should have the right equally to enjoy love in a mutual and exclusive relationship. Therefore, any imbalance in the distribution of freedoms and rights between a husband and wife is to be condemned. This applies not only to polygamy, but other forms of coercion and abuse whereby one spouse is diminished or devalued with respect to the other, for example gender-biased laws, imposed dress codes or female genital mutilation.

Commitment

Commitment is the biggest obstacle to people getting married it seems. This is understandable, as this is where the irresistible force of desire meets the immoveable object of individual freedom. Marriage is an act of will, the furthest from the “bit of paper” argument that its detractors put forward as can be imagined. Though it is clear that marriage is in the broader interests of society and should be promoted more and supported more in a rational society, not everybody is suited for it and should perhaps not enter into it. If commitment to marriage means anything, it means commitment to that person for life, not on a temporary basis until difficulties or a better opportunity arises. For this reason, anything that violates the principle of absolute commitment and trust in an exclusive relationship, such as multiple marriages, concubinage and infidelity is unacceptable.

The commitment to marriage means putting the quality of that relationship before all else: before profession, social standing, interests and wealth, even before children. Naturally, in a marriage, all these things tend to accrue and deepen and enrich the lives of the couple. In the course of a lifetime a couple’s fortunes may rise and fall, but the relationship should always sustain them through all stages of life, including old age and decline. Views on the status of the marriage after the death of one spouse will depend on theological and moral perspectives. Just as divorce is a right, which some feel compelled to exercise, some may choose to remarry after the death of a spouse.

Legality

The relationship between marriage and the state should be simple in conception, but has become complex and confused in detail. Marriage is the prime institution of socialisation of citizens and, therefore, to that extent one of the pillars on which the stability of the state rests. The state, therefore, has a duty derived from self-interest in protecting and encouraging marriage. As such, marriage has been considered a legal-ethical construct, given form through custom but authorised through the recognition of the state. Until fairly recently this has been understood as an unspoken contract: the state gave married couples some economic benefits and latitude in decisions about their children’s upbringing, for example; in return, citizens abided by the law, sent their children to school, ensured that they provided for them and inculcated the moral requirements of living in a shared society with others.

More recently, this unspoken contract has been gradually revoked. Successive governments have seen it as their duty to protect children – sometimes from abuse, true, but often from parental beliefs in conflict with official policy, for example over sex education or the political indoctrination of children. The most outrageous example of this was the Scottish Parliament’s attempt effectively to make every child a ward of the state through the Named Person policy. On the other hand, government has gradually removed all support for marriage, undermining marriage as a normative and aspirational state for citizens and the institutional context for the raising of children with both their parents present. This is not entirely the fault of politicians as governments are responsive to cultural changes and marriage has been under attack from within academia, the media and the culture establishment for the past fifty years. The final resistance caved in with the extension of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples in 2019. What they have created is an institution with rights but no obligations; rather than stabilising society the social burden passes to the state and, inevitably, the taxpayer.

The decision to grant rights to unmarried couples equal to those of married couples is irrational, weakening the institution of marriage, the social fabric and, ultimately, the authority of the State itself. Rational government should involve itself in explaining the value and benefits of marriage (for which there is ample empirical evidence), promoting it through the educational system and perhaps rewarding it more through the tax system.

Communality

Through marriage, one becomes not just a part of another individual’s life, but of their family and social circle. Marriages function, therefore, to bind societies more closely together. International, interethnic and interracial marriages, and just marriages between those of different backgrounds (under generally tolerant social conditions) can overcome the ‘suspicion of the other,’ contributing to a richer, less stratified and ‘ghettoised’ social mix. Though we all hope fervently for a world in which the present inequalities of access to freedom, health and wealth can be addressed, this does not change the fundamental point that love is a universal ideal, for which wealth or poverty, class, race or religion are no barrier. Marriage, moreover, as is often noted, can be a route out of poverty and a basis for better health and educational and employment prospects. Promotion of marriage would also undoubtedly improve the social character of many nations that have otherwise made vast strides as the result of more liberal political and economic cultures.

One hopes for happiness in life, but all human life is ringed by potential tragedy as we contemplate the loss of those close to us. Moreover, suffering of some sort is something that we all have to deal with. Marriage embodies the potential for great happiness, but does not guarantee that life will be easy; rather, it should be thought of as providing a context in which we can understand and embrace all aspects of life and a source of strength for managing them, including the most difficult. It is often noted that loneliness of the elderly and alienation of the young are an increasing problem in developed societies. This correlates strongly with the loss of marriage as an aspiration among the young and the prevalence of broken marriages which all-too-often means separation from a former spouse’s family and relatives as well, if not outright hostility. Marriage based on enduring love, while not a universal panacea, does not contribute to the problems and can solve many of them. A good marriage provides the best social foundation for men and women to survive and prosper in a harsh world, not only materially, but also emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

*

Promoting a view of marriage based on these principles is morally, psychologically, politically and sociologically sound and well-grounded. It is not just good for the well-being of the individuals involved, but also in the interest of communities and the state, for which the existence of good marriages is the bedrock of their stability and longevity. In an age where an increasing number choose not to marry, marriage is frequently satirised in popular culture and even governments cannot bring themselves to officially recognise it as anything special, it is important to reiterate that all civilisations have recognised the importance of marriage. Defining marriage as the context and expression of enduring love allows us to categorically state that the highest virtues and values of all cultures are found in the commitment of a couple to marry, live a life dedicated to each other and raise any children to be virtuous and productive men and women.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

2 Comments on "Marriage in the Twenty First Century"

  1. Interesting and balanced article/essay, thank you.
    I agree with your observations and arguments. I was a young woman in the 80s and almost wilfully ended up a single parent, my own mother often insisting marriage was finished, though her own lasted over 60 years.
    I do have regrets because I love my children, and they have suffered as a result of my choices. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, probably not, but if there is, I would go for marriage next time, if the opportunity arose. I would face up to the whole thing, in a church, for better for worse and do all in my power to make it work.

    However, we are where we are and followers of progressive liberalism think they know better than all those that have gone before, they have a vision of a new world, forgetting that so has every other generation before them.
    Perhaps ‘events’ will intervene, after all it’s events that have brought us here to the way things are today.
    Many still do choose marriage, I think now that that is a sensible choice to make, and if they can make it work they will be happier for it.

Leave a Reply to Don Trubshaw Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.


*