In Defense of Monogamy and Marriage
According to Helen Croyden’s observations, marriage is outdated, painful, and annoying. In light of these facts, she writes at The New Republic, we should ditch monogamy in favor of more independent, temporary relationships. Some of her primary arguments for this choice are the following:
We are living longer, for a start. One third of babies born today are now expected to live to 100, according to the National Office of Statistics. A woman born in 1850 could expect her marriage to last 29 years. Now couples can expect to take tea breaks together for 30 years after the kids leave home—an inordinate sentence if you don’t like the way they slurp.
Then there’s the little-noted fact that today’s social milieu doesn’t lend itself to the co-ordination and compromises demanded of traditional coupledom. We champion individuality and convenience yet we expect our partners to share living space and a good chunk of our social life. Until early adulthood we are encouraged to forge our own career, friendships and interests. Young people usually live away from home, with roommates, at college or through traveling before they entertain marriage. They are used to varied and transient love affairs. The expectations of commitment, when it arrives, require a stark disciplinarian jolt that previous generations did not have to struggle with.
First: she’s absolutely right. In today’s society of individuality and convenience, monogamy is an extremely outdated social construct. Young people’s now-customary ability to dabble in various romantic relationships isn’t the ideal primer for a lifetime joined to one man, or one woman. Monogamy is now, as Croyden puts it, “a moral trinket.”
Yet marriage was once one of the undergirding pillars of our society: it was the cornerstone of the family, which then formed the crux of the village or locality, which then formed the heart of American governance and culture. Why is it now so distasteful to so many? For most Americans, their definition of human flourishing has fundamentally changed.
Monogamy, in its earliest conceptions, usually had spiritual and moral connotations. It was viewed as a “sacred” relationship, created before God, one that couldn’t be adopted or abandoned at will. Even outside the realm of religion, familial comfort and safety were values a traditional society would have aspired to. In ages rife with greater economic and circumstantial hardship, the bonds and support of family served as a boon to many. Placeless individuals suffered the greatest vulnerability—families had a built-in framework of nurturing support.
Yet in modern society, religion no longer plays the authoritative role it used to. Additionally, many of our financial and circumstantial hardships have lessened—and those that do face hardship now have the state, which circumvents the traditional family and creates its own support mechanisms. Our society is more independent, perhaps, than ever before: with some exceptions, most Americans can subsist quite well on their own.
Somewhere along the line, it seems, when monogamy had outlived its moral and environmental usefulness, people began to rely on it for its emotional usefulness exclusively. They saw marriage as the culmination of perfect romance: the way to find some “mystical soulmate,” as Croyden puts it. Our art, music, and literature reinforced this. People began referring to—and looking for—”The One.” Nicholas Sparks began writing novels.
And it’s here, I think, that Croyden builds her biggest complaint against monogamy: she references researchers who’ve found “that girls rely too much on romantic relationships for their self-identity. The study found that girls are at greater risk of depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts the more their relationships diverged from their ideal.” She adds a little further on, “It is a great shame that these American teenagers are fortunate enough to live in an era where their future no longer relies on meeting a prince, yet they fail to utilize this.”
People have found that, when it comes to emotional fulfillment, marriage hasn’t lived up to its promises. The stories of Prince Charming and the lovely romantic songs on the radio don’t always ring true. People looking to marriage for eternal emotional happiness are disappointed. This is because we began trying to reconcile our growing self-sufficiency with our desire for perpetual emotional bliss—and under this strain, monogamy became nearly impossible, and largely unwanted. It leads some to angry divorces, and others to the severe depression that Croyden refers to.
But I think this disappointment largely arises from the fact that people are trying to suit monogamy to modern, and improper, ends. It was never meant to be a vehicle for self-fulfillment, convenience, or pleasure. It was never meant to satisfy every desire and longing of the heart. It was never meant to promise perpetual bliss.
Quite the contrary: monogamous relationships always force the individual into situations of discomfort. Living with someone, even temporarily, forces one to give up their preferences and desires. As Croyden notes—it’s easier to drink milk out of the carton when you live by yourself. Monogamy forces a person to bear with the quirks and habits of another; it also forces us to change and reform our own bad or selfish practices, in order to better serve our spouses. It’s altogether an uncomfortable, frustrating, tiring business.
But that’s because marriage is about more than the self. It’s not about falling into everlasting “happiness” (of the emotional sort). Marriage, traditionally understood, is about a choice to love selflessly. Marriage is a relationship about the other, for the good of the other. There’s really no reason to enter into such a self-giving relationship, unless you feel compelled to out of sincere regard, and/or a sincere belief in the moral and cultural benefits of such a union.
This isn’t to say that the sexual and romantic components of marriage aren’t important. My point is that monogamy’s foundation cannot be merely emotional or sexual, if it is to last. There must be an undergirding, volitional component to monogamy. This undergirding component is a selfless one, a rooted and relational one, which is why so many people in our world—Croyden included—find it repulsive.
Rich Cromwell just wrote a great (and funny) article for The Federalist on fatherhood, and how much—in his words—it often “sucks.” He references a study that tries to determine the happiness of fathers, without asking whether that’s really the purpose of fatherhood. “Does procreation make us happy? Yeah, sometimes,” he says. “Other times, no. Is that the point?”
Fatherhood, he reminds us, is work. Thus, it isn’t always about happiness. But “our humanity demands more of us than a solipsistic focus on fleeting and subjective happiness,” he writes. “It demands hope; it demands transcendence. And hope and transcendence do not end with our return to dust. Breeding, to be blunt, is about what green remains after we make that return.” In other words: parenting isn’t about us, and it was never meant to be. It’s about the future—and it’s about the other.
The same goes for marriage: it’s not about us. It was never meant to be. It is about the “other”: our spouse, the children and family we create, and the future that we foster. Through these relationships, marriage does offer happiness; but it’s a long-term, long-suffering joy—one that has to surmount many temporary grievances and frustrations. It’s true that marriage isn’t a “safe” bet for temporal happiness—but marriage is good, and always will be.