My wife and I celebrated our one-year anniversary this past week. The speed with which the first year went by certainly seemed fast, but scientists assure me that the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is the same as it ever was. I can tell you that one year of marriage has made me a better man and a happier man. There must be something about considering someone else in addition to yourself that is good for the soul.
But what is marriage supposed to look like? For years, popular culture has given us images of Harry meeting Sally, insomnia in rainy Washington State and whatever film Katherine Heigl is starring in lately. Many have dismantled these idealistic, over-indulgent portrayals of romance and let me add my own voice to that chorus. Life is much more mundane. What I do find more interesting then formulaic films is the underlying philosophy of romance behind these artifices. Namely, that romantic relationships and by extension, marriage, exists to fulfill one’s own needs.
This perspective certainly seems to have infiltrated our nation’s consciousness. Sadly, when marriage fails to provide all of our selfish wants, this line of thinking will lead to believing that the marriage is somehow deficient. The statistics paint a stark picture of this disillusionment. 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. Obviously, it’s not simply the failure of marriage to live up to cultural expectations that has led to this high figure. However, when things go poorly, if your default philosophy of marriage is that it is supposed to serve you, you are going to be less interested in fighting to stay together.
There is even some question as to whether people even see marriage as very beneficial. Americans are less likely to be married than ever before. We get married later and we are less likely to get remarried than previously. So is it worth it? Operating under our popular culture’s model, probably not.
I was fortunate enough to find an alternative to that perspective in a sometimes-read tome, the Bible. The model I found there was one in which marriage is not about our own fulfillment, but rather the opposite, loving and serving our spouse.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33 ESV)
This section of scripture has engendered just a smidge of controversy and resentment. Even the august Princess Kate refused to say the word submit in her marriage vows! Christianity has developed little sub-cultures of egalitarians and complementarians, the former arguing for complete equality in marriage, the latter arguing for equal, but distinct roles for each gender within marriage. I can see why some people, especially in egalitarian America, struggle with the idea of gender roles within marriage, it does seem hard on the ladies. But I often wonder if it is not men who get the harder end of the bargain. Ephesians is telling men to try and reach the standard of Christ’s love for the church. In other words, giving ourselves (to the point of death) up so that our wives may flourish. No pressure though.
The principle here is selflessness. By pursuing a model of marriage where mutual service and love is the center, I can tell you anecdotally that I am a happier man. Beyond that, I am a better man. It’s hard to accurately describe just how selfish a 27 year-old boy-who-shaves can be, but suffice it to say there are a lot of sports, beer and general lack of cleanliness. Marriage has been the tool that smoothed out many of these edges. I no longer can do whatever I want all the time, I have someone else to consider and I want to consider her.
Even without the religious aspect, functionally marriage forces you to consider another’s needs as well as your own. The reality is that the decisions of either half of a marriage will inevitably impact the other. Even decisions about the dishes. Polls show that sharing household chores is cited by Americans as the third most important issue in a marriage. Right after faithfulness and sexual satisfaction. So it seems that instinctively people know that shared sacrifice is part of a good and happy marriage.
Perhaps these old philosophers, ethicists and prophets were on to something when they encouraged us the shrug off selfishness and treat others better than ourselves. The end results are well worth it. Arthur Brooks has done a superb job distilling the underlying lifestyles and values that correlate with happiness. In a recent New York Times piece he makes the point about marriage. “Marriage and happiness go together. If two people are demographically the same but one is married and the other is not, the married person will be 18 percentage points more likely to say he or she is very happy than the unmarried person.”
There must be more than a few bemused smirks out there beneath which one thought is likely. ‘You’ll see, kid.” I understand that I am only a year into this grand experiment and I know hard times are in store for all marriages. Fatherhood will inevitably change everything I’m sure. But forgive me some of my naiveté because I am a better man than I was and happier to boot. With that, I highly recommend marriage to all of you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do the dishes and what’s stranger, I’m starting to enjoy it.