These are troubling times for marriage. According to the Pew Research Center, little more than one half of all families are headed by a married couple. In 1960, it was nearly three-fourths. The decline is attributed to changes in public attitudes over the past half century that have led to increases in divorce, co-habitation, and age-at-marriage.
The state of our unions has prompted comments from a number of sources. One is business titan and television celebrity, Donald Trump. Several years after his second divorce, Mr. Trump had this to say:
“If you have to work at a marriage, it’s not going to work. It has to be sort of a natural thing. But my ex-wife would say, ‘You have to work at this, you have to do this, you have to do that’. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Man, I work all day long, well into the evening. I don’t want to come home and work at a marriage. A marriage has to be very easy.”
Marriage has to be very easy? Anyone want to tell The Apprentice boss, “You’re fired!”?
Trump went on reminiscing about his parents’ 64-year marriage: “My father would come home, have dinner, and take it easy. It was the most natural marriage I’ve ever seen.”
I wonder, as his mother was making that dinner, cleaning the dishes, and getting her type-A child ready for bed, whether she was having it equally easy. I’m reminded of the woman who told family and friends on her 40-year wedding anniversary: “Believe it or not, in all these years Norman and I have had only one fight . . . one that has lasted forty years!”
Not so natural
Trump’s parents deserve praise that young Donald was unaware of the thousands of compromises they made that created the “natural” marriage he so fondly remembers. But compromise is not natural and rarely easy because it requires something foreign to our human nature: sacrifice. While the longing for love is natural and universal, so is the aversion to the work it requires.
Dr. Neil Clark Warren, Christian founder of the online dating service eHarmony, points out that deep, lasting love “happens gradually and requires conscious decisions, made over and over again, for a lifetime.” If healthy marriages were natural, as Trump insists, they wouldn’t require constant decision-making; they would be instinctual, bypassing our conscious thought processes altogether.
Dr. Warren recognizes that hard work (yes, work, Mr. Trump) goes into making a great marriage, but believes it is “far less” important than partner selection. As Warren sees it, “broad-based compatibility” between partners is the biggest factor in determining the quality and longevity of a marriage. I’m not so sure.
Are you compatible?
It’s not that I don’t think that compatibility is important. I do. It’s that I’ve witnessed bitter divorces of couples who were highly compatible, and strong, enduring marriages of couples who weren’t. In every case, the mutual commitment to work out disagreements and negotiate conflict was the difference that made the difference.
For highly compatible people, marriage can start out easier because, initially, there are fewer things to negotiate. But, eventually, conflicts arise that require the skills of compromise. If the couple is unpracticed in conflict resolution, tensions will mount, setting the stage for marriage-threatening resentment and dissatisfaction.
On the other hand, low-compatibility couples who have had to exercise the discipline of give-and-take from the get-go are better prepared to navigate the whitewater rapids of marriage long after the honeymoon glow has faded.
By almost every measure, my wife and I are incompatible: On Myers-Briggs, she’s an ENFP, I’m an ISTJ; she’s right-brained, I’m left-brained; she sees things in shades of grey that I see in black and white; she likes bread and vegetables, I like meat and potatoes; she reads fiction, I read non-fiction; she enjoys The Food Network, I enjoy TCM . . . the list goes on, and was much longer when we were first married.
From day one we had to (using that four-letter word) work toward the middle ground. Today, after over thirty-eight years of balancing each other’s extremes, we would both tell you that we have become more complete as persons and more united as a couple.
There is nothing easy about steadfast commitment through better and worse, richer and poorer, and in sickness and health; and you will be hard-pressed to find a married couple who, in their sober moments, would tell you that it is. But Donald Trump is not alone in believing that it should be.
Away with fidelity
Dan Savage is a sex advice columnist who insists that many marriages would be so much easier (and better) if it wasn’t for monogamy. As Savage sees it, lifelong fidelity is both unrealistic and unnatural. Weekly headlines about the latest marital peccadilloes by celebrity spouses (think Schwarzenegger, Spitzer, and Weiner) are proof that the traditional expectation of monogamy is too burdensome.
Savage makes perfunctory mention of a few benefits of fidelity, like sexual safety, emotional safety, and paternal assurance. Then, like a texting teen taking a rare pause from his social network, he asks that we acknowledge the drawbacks of “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted,” on his way to recommending his solution of openness and honesty about our needs.
As to the needs he has in mind: “Some people need more than one partner,” he intones, “just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes.”
Flirting, whipping? People need nothing of the sort. As for multiple sex partners, that is a key risk factor for sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and domestic abuse of children exposed to their parent’s carousel of lovers. Nevertheless, Savage insists, “We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them.”
Savage is right that these are urges (not needs), but he is wrong to suggest that we are the powerless victims of their furies. While we may not be able to control our urges, desires, likes, and dislikes, we can control our reaction to them, unless we accept that we are nothing more than stimulus–response organisms.
The good news is that fidelity, and public attitudes about it, are quite different than Savage would have us believe. According to a recent survey, only 16 percent of men and 10 percent of women married in the 2000s have cheated on their spouses. What’s more, 78 percent of men and 84 percent of women believe that infidelity is wrong.
Did I mention that Dan Savage has a spouse of six years: a man named Terry? It is not incidental. Given that 75 percent of gay couples (including Dan and Terry) have open relationships, the end game is plain: to conform the institution of marriage to the desires and practices of the gay community.
Dan Savage views infidelity as an irrepressible urge that must be permitted. But the majority of people view it as a temptation that must be overcome, and it appears that most married people have found the will and resources to do just that.
Then there are those who, despite their clamor for marriage equality, are not so clamorous about getting married.
Shortly before the New York state legislature legalized same-sex “marriage,” Katherine Franke wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, explaining why many of her gay and lesbian friends will opt out.
Franke notes that domestic partners in New York City are already afforded all of the rights of married couples. While Franke and her friends welcome the sanctioning gay “marriage” for its symbolic significance, they fret that “‘winning’ the right to marry may mean ‘losing’ the rights we have now as domestic partners.” They fear that if they are forced to marry to retain their current benefits, they will no longer be able “to order [their] lives in ways that have given [them] greater freedom than can be found in the one-size-fits-all rules of marriage.” The situation that Franke would like is for marriage to be one in a smorgasbord of “options by which relationships can be recognized and gain security.”
To spin off a G.K. Chesterton quip, marriage has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.
Like I said, there is nothing easy about a lifelong commitment through better and worse, richer and poorer, and in sickness and health. And no one should expect that it would be.
Sustaining a union that is strong, stable, and life-nurturing takes work, sacrificial work. However, no institution on earth is better designed for that outcome than marriage, traditionally defined as the exclusive, lifelong union between one man and one woman.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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