Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi
INTAMS review | Volume 13 | Issue 1 | Spring 2007 | Pages 3 > 5
Why Marry At All?
Motives and Obstacles for Lifelong Marital Commitment
In 1837-1838 Charles Darwin was seriously pondering the question whether or not to marry. Under the heading "THIS IS THE QUESTION" he hurriedly listed on a scrap of paper the pros and cons of marriage. In the left column, entitled "MARRY", he noted:
Children – (if it please God) – constant companion, (friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, object to be beloved and played with – better than a dog anyhow – Home, and someone to take care of house – Charms of music and female chit-chat. These things are good for one’s health. Forced to visit and receive relations but terrible loss of time.
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all. – No, no, won’t do. –
Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. – Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with a good fire, and books and music perhaps – compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt Marlboro’s St. [the place of his then bachelor’s residence, TK]
Marry – Marry – Marry Q.E.D.
In the right column, headed: "Not
No children, (no second life) no one to take care for one in old age. – What is the use of working without sympathy from near and dear friends – who are near and dear friends to the old except relatives.
Freedom to go where one liked – Choice of Society and little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs. –
Not forced to visit relatives, and to bend in every trifle – to have the expense and anxiety of children – perhaps quarreling.
Loss of time – cannot read in the evenings – fatness and idleness – anxiety and responsibility – less money for books etc. – if many children forced to gain one’s bread. – (But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won’t
If we abstract from the typical nineteenth
century setting and mentality with its veneration of the sanctuary of the home
and the wife as its soul and maintainer,
There has always been and still exists today a "normative discourse" in which church leaders or policy makers, social theorists or theologians recommend marriage because they believe it instrumental to some good cause. When Augustine set off to counter the Manicheans’ condemnation of procreation he found in marriage a welcome excuse and a way to minimize the risk of succumbing to the almost inevitable sinfulness of sexual intercourse. Luckily, over time the church pushed aside the idea of the relative goodness of marriage that undergirded Augustine’s conception, coming to regard the threefold goods of offspring, fidelity, and indissolubility as simple blessings. Thomas Aquinas did not have to be convinced that marriage is a natural institution and therefore good in itself. Elaborating on the Augustinian bona he laid the groundwork for the idea of the ends or purposes (fines) of marriage, thus showing how well and intelligently nature and its heavenly creator had provided for a union in which man and woman assist each other and make use of their sexuality for the overarching purpose (finis primarius) of perpetuating the human race through procreation.
Probably the scholastics as well as subsequent generations of theologians and church jurists could afford to look at marriage in the abstract since there was little need to persuade people of its advantages. That, however, has changed today and so the contemporary discourse has not only become more secular but has also exchanged the benefits of a previously unquestioned institution for the personal gratification connected with an individual’s choice of marital lifestyle. It goes as follows – and here I am quoting a publication in which not so long ago respected US researchers made "the case for marriage" on the ground of empirical evidence:
Married people live longer, have better health, earn more money and accumulate more wealth, feel more fulfilled in their lives, enjoy more satisfying sexual relationships, and have happier and more successful children than those who remain single, cohabit, or get divorced.
What else could one aspire to? So, get married and stay married – q.e.d.!
we know only too well that le coeur a ses
raisons que la raison ignore – "The heart has its reasons which reason
know nothing of" (B. Pascal).
context is different, of course. When faced with the question "to
marry" or "not to marry", our contemporaries will find
themselves in a situation in which the choice is not between companionship and
singlehood, but rather one in which a shared decision has to be taken as to
whether or not an existing partnership should be solemnized by formal marriage.
Yet, while marriage is becoming less dominant on the one hand, it appears to become more distinctive on the other. Paradoxically, marriage still remains popular. If we are to believe the statistics, more than 70% of the population in Western societies either have been or will be married at least once in their lifetime. And if it is true that the majority of today’s newlyweds have been cohabiting before marriage, are not they the ones who distinguish clearly between cohabitation and marriage? What value do they attach to marriage when they come to believe that, at least from this moment on, cohabitation is only the second best option? If the step to permanently living under the same roof is much more the result of having once left a toothbrush in the beloved’s apartment than of careful consideration and decision, the same is not true for marriage. You do not slip into marriage as you fall into love or move in with your friend; you need good reasons for getting married, particularly at times when it is no longer necessary.
What are these reasons and what makes them convincing for today’s couples? Are the arguments which make partners massively shrink away from marriage the same which convince others to become married? But then, do we have to suppose that there are two types of partnerships, the "marriage-type" for whom the conjugal union is the crowning of a committed relationship and another one for whom it is not and will perhaps never be? Or is it rather that the significance of marriage these days varies greatly depending on the context and situation partners find themselves in both in their individual and relational biography?
is amazing that we do not have much empirical evidence to answer these
questions. Instead, whether in secular or ecclesial milieus, we are used to
focusing on demographic trends: we take low marriage rates, the constantly high
number of divorces and an increasing rate of alternative domestic arrangements
at face value and adopt, according to our ideological preferences, either a
perspective of decline or of resilience with regard to the institution of
marriage. However, if we regard marriage as only a demographic condition, we
risk imposing a rigid definition to which reality will, but more often will
not, correspond. What we thus overlook is that more than a normative concept,
marriage is also what a
 Opening address given at the INTAMS Colloquium
 Cf. L.J.
Waite/M. Gallagher: The Case for
Marriage: Why People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially,
 See for a similar analysis A. Cherlin: "The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage", in: Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004), 848-861.
 E. Lewin: "Does Marriage Have a Future?", in: Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004), 1000-1006, 1001.