Marriage Takes a Village

It isn't just about "happily ever after." It's about community, and the lack of it is tearing our marriages apart.

What is marriage for? As cohabitation and singleness are on the rise, we increasingly struggle to answer that question. In 2010, 39 percent of Americans said they believed marriage was becoming obsolete. Those who do marry often cite “love” and “companionship” as their primary reasons for doing so—but why go through all the work to plan an expensive wedding when cohabitation no longer bears the social stigma that it used to?

This is a question Andrew Cherlin is determined to answer in a recent article for The Atlantic. He looks specifically at the spike in same-sex marriages that followed the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, and wonders why so many homosexual couples (many of whom had been living together for years) saw marriage as integral to their future happiness.

He suspects that the answer is less practical than it is symbolic. “For many people, regardless of sexual orientation, a wedding is no longer the first step into adulthood that it once was, but, often, the last,” he writes. “It is a celebration of all that two people have already done, unlike a traditional wedding, which was a celebration of what a couple would do in the future.”

In many ways, this feels like a mirror of countless Disney movie plots I absorbed as a kid. Marriage is the end of the story: as wedding bells chime, we are told that the married couple lives “happily ever after”—without ever understanding what happiness in this “ever after” might entail.

What’s more, marriage as a celebration of two people and their accomplishments is far more isolated and individualistic than marriages past. It is, in many ways, the culmination of our collective emphasis on the nuclear family, an emphasis that has grown since the Industrial Revolution and that completely transformed the way we think about marriage and its meaning in society. Marriage used to be a much more practical, communal event. Emotion had little to do with it—in most ancient cultures, the couple themselves had little (if anything) to do with it.

In Christian societies, marriage became something more than mere contract: it was a covenant, wedded deeply to faith, virtue, and community. It was about more than two people and their caring for each other. The liturgical marriage vows (still occasionally used today) emphasize that the participants are “gathered here in the sight of God and in the presence of these witnesses.” Marriage was something to be witnessed—not merely for sake of celebration, but because of its deeper meaning and purpose. That purpose was (and is) deeply communal: Christian households were meant to be part of a larger church community, one that the apostle Paul called a “body.” The church body was required to tend and care for the health and wholeness of all its members, to live in constant fellowship and care.

Although Aristotle suggested that the household (oikos) was the core and beginning of community, he never said the household was sufficient for human community or happiness. Instead, he argued that individuals cannot perform their proper functions outside of a larger community. Households were not to exist in isolation, but rather to band together in service, community, and virtue. Married couples and their children need the polis—just as much as the polis needs them.

Thus, the relationship of a married couple to their larger community (be it familial, spiritual, or neighborly) is reciprocal: without larger context and support, nuclear households do not have the support they need to flourish. But without the integration and involvement of smaller households, communities do not have the “hands and feet” they need to care for their own.

Today’s marriages are still, in many ways, contractual. Marriage guarantees certain legal rights and benefits. It involves the same need for witnesses, commitment, and legality. But modern marriage is also, often, a contract that comes with easy, well-delineated exit signs. Prenups have little to do with guaranteeing that a marriage lasts—quite the opposite. Today’s marriages are usually set up not to last.

Part of this contractual temporality stems from our larger lack of purpose within marriage—divorced as it is from spiritual virtue or communal meaning, marriages start (and end) with the same focus: on personal wellbeing and emotional happiness. We see this reflected in the weddings our society creates: they are less about community than they are about fun, entertainment, and intense personalization. Wedding magazines show us glamorous destination weddings and fancy elopements, instruct us on how to shorten “boring” ceremonies or write our own vows. As we truncate or completely cut out the communal and covenantal aspects of the wedding ceremony, we increasingly divorce marriage from its foundations of support.

While marriage’s decline may be tied to the withering of the spiritual roots underneath our culture, it’s important to recognize that Christian marriages are failing, too. This is because we have neglected the practical, communal aspects necessary to marriage’s success. We have harmfully emphasized the nuclear family—the “perfect” suburban household—and forgotten the importance of supportive, nurturing communities. We’ve been surprised and disappointed to see the divorce rate among Christians rise, even as our churches have grown into fragmented behemoths or frail and desolate islands. As we’ve embraced the individualism of our society, we have neglected the roots and support structures that make marriages last. We have forgotten what marriage is for: not just love, commitment, and devotion, but larger service and wholeness within a caring community. And without being able to tell Christians how marriage can last, or giving them the support they need to make it last, we’ve done little more than put millstones around the necks of young, naïve couples. Our message is an only slightly spiritualized version of our culture’s individualistic “happily ever after” wedding ceremony.

It takes a village to make (and keep) a marriage. Thus does it makes sense that our isolated and fragmented society would increasingly make marriage itself seem obsolete and unnecessary. Without community—be it familial, church-oriented, or neighborhood-focused—marriages will continue to struggle. More and more young people will see their contractual nature and obligations as unnecessary.

Since this problem is cyclical and self-enforcing—community needs committed households, and committed households need community—it can seem rather daunting and impossible to fix. But perhaps a greater focus on neighborliness and communal revival really can preserve the context and foundation necessary for marriage to survive. By helping Americans remember what marriage is for—by surrounding them with communities that can support them through good times and bad—we may, in fact, help them have a real “happily ever after.”

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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23 Responses to Marriage Takes a Village

  1. Does the author have any suggestions concerning policy that might lead to the desired improvements? A strong labor movement, health insurance that cannot be taken away or suddenly stop paying for one’s cancer treatment, schools that cannot be randomly attacked with automatic weapons might held bring about the outcomes the author seeks.

  2. Richard Mahoney says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the author. However, in a globalized world, where young people can easily uproot themselves as individuals and move elsewhere (hard to imagine that in earlier times), “community” has becoming increasingly irrelevant as have personal familial ties (how many 2nd cousins do we really know anymore?). Marriage, much like Western civilization, is dying a death of a 1000 cuts. “Party on, Wayne.”

  3. Fran Macadam says:

    Today’s concept of marriage takes The Village People

  4. Phillip says:

    The reason Christian marriages fail, is the same reasons the Church is failing, especially in America. There is very little, if no community within a church, versus the rest of the culture. The Church has become a weekly event, rather than an extension of one’s family, as the author suggests here. I see nothing but fake people at church, putting on fake smiles, with fake clothes, and fake behavior, for no other reason that pretending that their lives are perfect and grand. But once they leave the parking lot of the church they return to normal, with the selfishness, fighting and bickering that is their “normal”.

    Because church has no value beyond a weekly service, and no community beyond a few fake greetings once (or twice) a week (at best), the church has lost whatever authority it had over it’s members/attenders. We also see a larger amount of “church shopping” where if you don’t like something at one particular church, you simply pick up and move to another church that makes you feel better or seems to serve whatever your selfish needs are better.

    And when you see Pastors like Bill Hybels fall from grace because they have sexually immoral issues, and pedophiles disguised as Catholic Priests, why would any rational person subscribe to such insanity?

    As such, marriage has no meaning anymore, and when you include and validate “gay marriage” why would anyone even consider the institution at all?

    With all that said, this year alone I’m seeing a bunch of young 20-somethings from my church marry off and start their lives together. Interestingly enough, none of them are getting married in the church. I guess 50 years of Hollywood having marriages in outdoor public places has spawned a new generation of tradition within the way you have a “wedding”. To each his own I guess.

    Perhaps Solomon was right, “all of this is meaningless, a chasing of the wind.”

  5. Professor Nerd says:

    I am sympathetic to this argument, but I’ve also studied postwar suburbs. They had tremendous community and miserable marriages that broke up when the kids left the house (see the surge in the 1970s).

  6. Olga says:

    Traditional marriage lasted on average 12 years, because someone died. People came together for economic, religious and cultural purposes and there was no love. Sometimes love and fondness formed and sometimes not. The relationship between the couple was a job. They were married and they reared children and performed useful work to sustain each other and their extended family units and individual happiness had no place. A lot of women died in child birth and most children had step-parents and families were often blended. Women got their emotional support from other women in their extended family, church and village. Men got their emotional support from other men, but also from prostitutes and if they were wealthy, a Mistress. It is always easy to look at the past and see the good of community, but not recognize a lot of the bad.

    With modern marriage people are staying married a lot longer than 12 years. However, with long life expediencies, can we expect that the person your 21 year old self falls in low with, that you are even going to be able to have a conversation with them when you are 40? People change over time and these changes can make staying married too much of a burden.

    There are things that society can do to help couples, but our long life expectancy might be working against us on staying married to the same person for life.

  7. LFM says:

    Professor Nerd writes, “I am sympathetic to this argument, but I’ve also studied postwar suburbs. They had tremendous community and miserable marriages that broke up when the kids left the house (see the surge in the 1970s).” My response is that at least these marriages did not inflict their unhappiness on young children, or the poverty that goes along with trying to maintain two households on one salary, or the alienation that (sometimes) comes with putting young children in daycare while their mothers work. Presumably those postwar suburban “tremendous communities” did their job of keeping people who were lonely or unhappy in their marriages from cracking up.

  8. John_M says:

    I do not see how to do this. I am a Ph.D. Engineer – so I can’t just work anywhere.

    My wife and I met and married in NJ.

    A year later, we were in Utah, where we had our first child. I could see that my company was in trouble, so I was off to south of the Bay area of California 3 years later. Our son was born there.

    That company folded, so I worked remotely and traveled – a lot. I started taking the kids to the LDS church to provide a stable reference environment. The dot-com crash wiped the industry 3 years later, so it was up to the Seattle area.

    I have been in the Seattle area for over 15 years now, and for about 10 of them I kept taking the kids to the LDS church to provide a stable reference environment. But my neighborhood is a collection of houses on streets – with essential NO social interactions at all with any of the neighbors. The kids struck up friendships or not in classes at school. But the neighborhood is not a community. People come and go all the time.

    The LDS church is a community – the Mormons are first and foremost a social engineering organization. But the educated wealthy suburban neighborhood I live in does not function as a social community.

    Suburban neighborhoods were designed to be interchangeable – you could move from the suburbs of Atlanta, to the suburbs of Phoenix, to the suburbs of Boston, …. Without really changing your environment – the schools were approximately the same, the houses and shopping environments were approximately the same, all the while the climate and geographic location changed. They were not designed for forming social communities, as constant movement disrupts social structures.

    I grew up moving every few years – and living in challenging neighborhoods. So I grew up avoiding the social environment in my neighborhoods, which tended to be a bit dangerous.

  9. Professor Nerd says:

    @LFM. I wish this were the case, but instead the youths that came of age in the 1960s did crack up. They were a disobedient, drugged-out, and crime- prone generation.
    Just go back through the pages of newspapers from the early 1970s. Those were crazy, hostile times.

  10. Bill Coffin says:

    Reminds me of Chap 6 of Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing (Paperback)by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth

    Two community exceptions to this trend

    OKC,OK — http://familyexpectations.com/

    Chattanooga,TN — https://firstthings.org/

    Some couples get support thru movements like

    Marriage Encounter and/or http://www.teamsofourlady.org/ . Very few churches have an outstanding Marriage Ministry. Good resources here http://slidingvsdeciding.blogspot.com/2017/12/help-for-your-marriage.html

  11. William Dalton says:

    Communities which support marriage are an idea central to the success of both. But that also entails communities which again apply criminal sanctions to acts of adultery and which renew the social stigma which once applied to divorce. Are our communities willing to take up that burden? Or will they settle for self-destruction?

  12. LFM says:

    Professor Nerd, what I said was that the *parents* were able to get through difficult marriages without cracking up, thanks to strong communities. I said nothing about the youths cracking up or otherwise except that their parents at least did not inflict their unhappiness on their children.

    Now, I don’t doubt that some of their elders’ unhappiness was inflicted on the children. I’m old enough to remember the 1960s (sort of) and the 1970s (definitely), and I remember the unraveling of long-established marriages during that time. I remember how everyone thought that new options like living together, making divorce easier and not imposing the expectation of marriage on everyone was going to lead to happier children and more stable families. Not so. The sociologists and students of marriage kept trying to insist on it until it really became impossible to deceive themselves any longer.

    Having said that, few people seem to remember that the early ‘baby boomers’ – the ones who started all the trouble – were not in fact the product of stable marriages but often the product of marriages marred by great poverty, before the 1950s boom, by a particularly ugly and tragic war, by fathers who had been destroyed by their wartime experiences, and by the possibility of yet another catastrophic war, one that might succeed in destroying life on the planet. Put that all together in the cauldron of a new and growing mass culture and naturally you get social explosions.

  13. Taint Tostada says:

    You forgot to mention ~ men being divorce raped and having their children and assets stripped from them .

  14. Creme Fraiche says:

    John_M’s arguments provide the added context missing from the article. Many on the left and the right, older and younger make the mistake of assuming that moving vs. not moving is a lifestyle choice. This may be the case for the independently wealthy, much maligned “elites,” but for much of the middle class or highly educated upper middle class, moving is practically obligatory.

    Once you start looking at highly educated GenX or Millennials (they aren’t kids guys, the oldest are 35 now), their high loads of student loan debt force them to chase jobs and money all over the country. This debt is not dischargeable (unlike any of the other irresponsible loans taken out by previous generations), so they have no choice but to move, move, move. As for those with high school diplomas, they cannot afford to move to the coasts (where the highly skilled work continues to concentrate) and they may not have a family network who can take them in while they search for a new job. This group, which might want to move but can’t, is forced to find local employment in counties where there are 1-3 employers that can artificially suppress wages.

    Health care costs make changing jobs or starting a new business treacherous for anyone. Rising tuitions mean that securing scholarships are even more important, meaning getting a house in the nicest, blandest suburb is even more important than ever. Its the only way to ensure your kid gets the right start towards affording their $150k undergrad degree.

    All of these dynamics have created crushing financial pressures on families, which have worsened significantly within the last 30 years, although globalization and automation started earlier. Crushing financials do not make for happy marriages. If the US congress or conservatives in general wanted to help the state of marriage, they would find ways to truly decrease the cost of living (health care, education, senior living, day care etc), and not just shuffle around money to private interests.

    It’s all about those “kitchen table issues” right?

    Again, this is something that European conservatives understand 100%, but American conservatives remain blinded to the gospel of the free markets, circa 1985.

  15. Youknowho says:

    @LFM

    As for the stability provided the kids in the fifties, it included children dealing with alcholic parents and trying to hide the shameful secret from those around. Or watching or enduring domestic violence, again saying nothing. It included the scene of “The prize winner of Defiance, Ohio” where the priest who has been called for help by the distraught wife of a violent alcoholic is told that it is her fault for not being a better wife.

    Do you think that those children did not suffer? Do you think that their families gave them a good moral grounding?

    Not to mention the cases of sexual abuse, kept as “the family secret”. and going on and on….

    What does the Bible say about “whitened sepulchers”?

  16. Jack H says:

    Our Constitution says “No State shall … pass … Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” If marriage were literally just a contract, then state divorce laws would be unconstitutional, especially now that they are no-fault. No-fault laws allow one spouse to “impair” the obligations of the marriage unilaterally without penalty. I am not saying the courts will hold divorce unconstitutional. They won’t. My point is different: it is highly misleading to talk of marriage as a contract, or even a covenant. As the post says, marriage has contractual aspects, but the essence of marriage is that it confers the status of husband and wife. Strip away the contractual aspects and the status remains, akin to the status of parent and child. Talking of marriage as a simply a contract is another instance of the commercialization of our lives, another instance of an ideology that encourages us to treat each other as if we were economic agents in the marketplace and nothing more more.

  17. LFM says:

    Youknowho responds to me, somewhat predictably, with this, which I have broken up slightly but not otherwise altered; my comments are in italics:

    “As for the stability provided the kids in the fifties, it included children dealing with alcholic parents and trying to hide the shameful secret from those around. Or watching or enduring domestic violence, again saying nothing.

    This is still happening. In fact, I’d lay bets that there is more of it today, because unstable families, especially those in which new men frequently appear, are more violent than stable ones.

    It included the scene of “The prize winner of Defiance, Ohio” where the priest who has been called for help by the distraught wife of a violent alcoholic is told that it is her fault for not being a better wife.
    There were plenty of priests who provided more help than that, and if not practical help, more consolation. I’ve heard of 18th-century priests who told their male parishioners (often jealous of priests) ‘If you fellows treated your wives decently they wouldn’t keep coming to us for comfort.’

    Do you think that those children did not suffer? Do you think that their families gave them a good moral grounding?
    I didn’t say that the children didn’t suffer in such situations. However, most marriages were not and are not *that* bad. Where they were, people often did separate or divorce. The difficult cases were the ones in which poverty was a factor, and where women were not educated to take care of themselves. I’m not advocating going back to that. In any case, the point of the original post was that neighbours and families helped out in such situations; now, there are often none to do so, in the absence of strong communities.

    Not to mention the cases of sexual abuse, kept as “the family secret”. and going on and on….
    Another problem that does not seem to have improved over time and may even be getting worse, thanks, once again, to unstable families in which new men arrive and leave too frequently to form parental bonds with children.

    What does the Bible say about “whitened sepulchers”?
    Nobody is recommending whitened sepulchres. Stoicism and adult self-control are not hypocrisy.

  18. Brasco says:

    We have plenty of community. We have solid neighborhoods. Those that are civically engaged and volunteer in their communities are mostly single people. Married people are notorious for being self-isolating and refusing to care for extended family members. Recent studies have proved this over and over.

    Your church is not my problem. The decreasing marriage and birth rate is not my problem. Over the top weddings and married materialism is not my problem. Deteriorating suburban lifestyles are not my problem. I want my community to continue to thrive, married people and their arrogant isolating behavior need to stay out of it.

  19. Lert345 says:

    Taint Tostado

    “If the US congress or conservatives in general wanted to help the state of marriage, they would find ways to truly decrease the cost of living (health care, education, senior living, day care etc), and not just shuffle around money to private interests.”

    Do mean shuffle the costs onto the taxpayer, like the Europeans? Either way , you pay.

  20. LFM says:

    Brasco, if that was directed at my comment (just above yours), or at the original post, it seems unnecessarily grumpy *and* aimed in the wrong direction. The point of the post was that many neighbourhoods lack the kind of communities and groups that used to help support married people (even if that was not the intended purpose of the group). You know, the volunteer groups, the bridge clubs, the mothers’ coffee mornings, all of which depended, although the writer does not mention it, on women being at home for a good part of the day.

    Married people are notorious for being self-isolating nowadays because both parents work. It was not always like that and it is not married-couple arrogance that is the problem. When the parents come home, they need to spend time with their children and each other if their families are to survive; they might be able to combine this with other activities but that requires energy which long days may not permit. I don’t know if you’re right that extended family members are neglected by their married relatives but it would not surprise me. Where would they find the time?

    As for all those issues which you claim are not your problem, how do you figure that? The way people raise their children affects everyone in a society.

  21. Brasco says:

    LFM: My comment was not directed at you, but now that you have responded I’ll comment. Regarding married people spending less time caring for family members and neighbors, I have chosen a link from IFS, the most conservative site possible, that explains the phenomenon: https://ifstudies.org/blog/marriage-need-not-make-us-greedy

    Single people have jobs too. In fact, single people have to work because they don’t have a spouse that pays their bills. Single people have to do ALL of their housework if they live alone, unlike married people who can split chores. Yet, single people are much more likely to volunteer, check in on neighbors, and care for extended family than married people. And they have to survive too.

    Let’s go with some more study findings. Married people gain weight at a faster rate than single people. Married people exercise less. Single people are more likely to continue their education than married people. Married people watch more television than single people. Do you need me to cite my sources?

    So let me give you my hypothesis on why this is. We have a culture that has grown to celebrate marital isolation. Married people are expected to stay home and socialize with their spouse, or a small tight circle of similarly married friends only. Single people don’t have that expectation and are able to maintain wide social networks. Years ago, men who worked every weekday still maintained a social and community schedule by being active in the Rotary, Kiwanis, Jaycees, Moose, Lions, Knights of Columbus. But all those clubs are fading away. Church membership is down significantly. This doesn’t have anything to do with people not having time, it has to do with married people making decisions to spend more of their time at home. These community clubs have not changed with the times to recruit single people who are flocking to community-based organizations. Churches discriminate against single people by not offering them leadership positions.

    Your children are not my problem. There are teeming masses of immigrants that would be delighted to become US citizens, so tossing a tidal wave of money at child-centric causes probably won’t make a difference in the future of the United States and many other countries. Although this would placate and patronize family values voters.

    Times they are a changing and every savvy politician knows this. Insisting that a married life is a better life and leads to better personhood is a ruse. I have enough self-respect to know that I don’t need to waste my time shoring up people who get more benefits from the government, get better healthcare, get chosen for more lucrative jobs because of their marital and family status. Marriage shouldn’t need to take a village. Perhaps married people should start by contributing, participating and helping the village for a change.

    BTW, nothing I said is directed specifically at LFM, as I have not read in detail his previous comment(s) further up the comment section.

  22. Professor Nerd says:

    @Brasco- Anecdotally, this seems about right. The married couples with kids that we know disappear into a life of youth sports and music lessons.

    I also agree with the problems of PTSD and alcohol in those postwar families. The 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives” was a harbinger of the rough times to come.

  23. @ Voltaire’s Ghost

    The notion that the fear of a school shooting is what is holding up marriages seems ludicrous

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