‘Til Death Do You Part…

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of one of my dearest friends. It was a beautiful ceremony filled with friends and family, I had a great time drinking and dancing with old friends. It really was a grand time. That being said, I still don’t understand marriage. The concept has bothered me for most of my adult life. This is not to say that I would ever stop two or more constenting adults from getting married, I just don’t think it is for me.

This particular wedding raised two red flags for me. The first was the idea of servitude. The ceremony was heavy on being a servant of your spouse (and God, but this is not the time to get theological). My hairs on the back of my libertarian neck stand up with any talk of lifelong servitude, even if it is voluntary. I understand a partnership, but being a servent implies a master, and to me this is brutally archaic and the antithetical to the ideas of individual freedom. Besides that, it is nothing more than wishful thinking, lifelong marriage is an outdated idea that made sense when the average life expectancy was 40 years and two parents were necessary to raise children to self-sufficiency. In today’s society the idea of lifelong love and marriage is at best childish, and at worst fatal to the development of the individual.

The second point of contemplation for me was a request from the pastor of this ceremony, a request that the witnesses to the ceremony vow to assist the marriage. I am not sure how common this is, but I have seen it several times now, especially in protestant ceremonies. This mindset treats the marriage as an end, instead of a means to an end. It isn’t happiness that is important, or satisfaction, security or any number of personal pursuit… no, it is the marriage that should stay together with the assistance of the witnesses even if both partners are unhappy. It is so common to hear someone speak of wanting a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc instead of saying that they want happiness or satisfaction. Instead of working to be self-sufficient many social institutions impart the ideas of happiness through others (as opposed to self happiness), this applies to marriage, the church and the government. When it comes down to it, my rejection of marriage has the same reasoning behind it as my rejection of religion and government… I am a sovereign being and I refuse to sacrifice that.

I should reiterate that I would never stop someone from getting married, I just hope that if my friends do wed it is well thought out instead of a pursuit of some outdated societal norm.

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23 Responses to ‘Til Death Do You Part…

  1. Krista says:

    As an engaged woman, my initial reaction was to sit here for ten minutes trying to remember why I’m getting married. I even googled “why do people get married?”

    Then I realized I agree with the two problems you have with marriage: the idea of servitude and vowing to keep even a bad marriage together.

    Any relationship should benefit both parties. If one party is disatisfied, they should end the relationship. That’s why servitude is the wrong idea. However, a long-term couple needs to try to think about long-term benefits, even if things aren’t perfect for a day or even a year.

    Marriage is simply a means to an end. If the purpose of one’s life is to enjoy it and find happiness, marriage can certainly help fulfill that. BUT, only if both individuals benefit from the relationship.

  2. Prodigal Son says:

    So what additional benefits come from the actual marriage? Is a relationship less enjoyable, less pleasing or less satisfying if there is not the eternal commitment? What is it about marriage that acts as a means to an end? Why not spend your life with someone as a monogamous relationship (or responsible non-monogamy) without the marriage?

    This isn’t an attack, I just really don’t understand.

  3. Aaron says:

    There’s a strong signaling component to the outside world. It’s no longer “me against the world”, I’m now part of a legally, socially, and religiously recognized “us”.

    There’s also those, you know, emotions. And junk.

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  6. Krista says:

    Entering into a recognized institution lowers costs because it is easier to go with the crowd than against it, but this isn’t a compelling enough reason to marry.

    Marriage is a promise that both individuals will love each other in the future as much as or more than they do on their wedding day. There’s something profound about promises. A promise can lower costs because the recipient can make a bet on the promiser’s future behavior. If your employer agrees to pay you a salary and promises to deliver it twice a month, you as an employee can act in accordance with that promise. If your employer breaks that promise, you as an employee are unsure of how to act. Marriage is a formal (sometimes public) promise that provides both parties with a hope for the future of that relationship. This has both costs and benefits. The benefits are that that couple may form a much deeper bond through that commitment. When you trust someone, you’re more likely to be open with them. And yes, I’d argue that very deep relationships are the most rewarding ones in the long-term. The cost, of course, is that if someone breaks the promise, then it is more difficult to end that broken relationship.

    There’s something very rewarding about a relationship of intimacy and trust, and I’m not sure if a life-long partner model can replicate the commitment that comes with marriage. And if this doesn’t make sense, please do keep attacking.

  7. Brian Dunbar says:

    So what additional benefits come from the actual marriage?

    There is, for me, a spiritual component to marriage that is hard to define. Like pornography, it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

    • Aaron says:

      That’s the crux of the problem. The most important part of a marriage is a subjective fulfillment, which distorts the viability of any institutional discussion.

  8. Prodigal Son says:

    What you say makes sense but I find it interesting that people are willing to enter into a lifelong promise with someone when they know the chance of the promise being fulfilled by both parties is about 50%. Nobody would buy a house, a car, take a job or go on a vacation to a foreign country if there was a 50% the house would collapse, the car would explode, the boss would fire you or the foreign country would kidnap you for no reason. A lifelong commitment involves much more than the commitment of these other things. I think most people suffer from a “it couldn’t happen to me” or “I am the exception to the rule” mentality, when in fact that is not true.

    I am not willing to commit my life to someone on the basis of a coin toss, but maybe I am just more risk adverse than most in this area.

    • Seth Goldin says:

      Where are you getting this number 0.5? Are you implying that only 0.25 of marriages are successful? Where is this coming from?

      • Prodigal Son says:

        I was implying that only about half of marriages do not end in divorce. After some research it looks like the rate is actually about 40% of marriages end in divorce.


        People should be careful and think long and hard about marriage if they are going that route. People who are over 26 and more highly educated have a tendency to stay married longer than those under the age of 26 and/or without an education. There are all kinds of causations that can be theorized but I think most people are “so in love” (especially in their early 20’s) that part of them thinks the honeymoon will last forever so they make illogical decisions based on an emotional high.

    • Brian Dunbar says:

      I find it interesting that people are willing to enter into a lifelong promise with someone when they know the chance of the promise being fulfilled by both parties is about 50%.

      Odds don’t enter into it: your relationship is not dice or a toss of the coin.

      A marriage is what you make of it.

  9. Krista says:

    I also think the more interesting question is why do so many people enter into a commitment that they may not be able to fulfill. I don’t really have a good answer, but I wonder what it is: do a lot of people lie to themselves about what they want in life? Enter into marriage without asking even these basic questions that we’re trying to answer? I’d also be interested in hearing the probability that other big life bets go wrong.

    Not to be really awful, but it seems to me like there are worse things than a marriage ending in divorce. Like a bad marriage never ending….

  10. Libby says:

    Western people have only been marrying for the sake of romance and love, not for economics, for a couple of centuries. The old-world tradition of imploring the community to help keep marriages together is probably rooted far back to when we were all apes in a tribe.
    Anyway, there does seem to be a draw inherent in most people around the world to get together and make and raise babies. Maybe we just haven’t yet figured out how to keep commitments that began with romance for longer than a decade or three.

    • Aaron says:

      Isn’t your second paragraph a good argument against romantic marriages? Not that I can really picture getting married to someone I don’t love romantically, but it’s interesting to think about. The institution promotes stability, but not really the way we’re practicing it now.

      • Prodigal Son says:

        I could actually picture myself getting married for purely financial or economic reasons to someone that I don’t love before marrying for romance. I know that has a lot to do with having romantic relationships fade and fail and leave at least one person hurt.

        I guess when you keep getting burnt when you touch the stove you eventually stop touching the stove, even if the stove brand name changes.

  11. Maria says:

    Krista (and others, but your argument intrigues me the most): I think you’re absolutely right that a divorce is not the worst thing in the world, but doesn’t the 1 in 2 statistic then show something about the set up of marriage? As you said, why do people commit to a promise they do not know they can fulfill? Why do they put themselves in that situation in the first place? Saying you know you will be with the same person when you are 80 as you are now, I think, is a bit like saying you and your middle school SO had the same shot at making it. People change.
    Change is integral to the happiness of an individual, so I don’t think marriage (lifelong, locked in, monogamous commitment) is a realistic or beneficial institution for the growth and happiness of an individual, nor can anyone be positive they can fulfill it. Many people decide that loving and committing to someone adds to their happiness, but the institution itself is unnecessary. Marriage is just a title; the vows, the commitment, and the happiness comes from consenting individuals. And the rest, well, is told with the time we cannot control.

  12. will.i.am.not says:

    I think the Samuel Johnson line about second marriages being the “triumph of hope over experience” can now be safely applied to first marriages as well. People who have come of age in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has seen enough marital carnage to be wary about marriage but not enough to completely shun the institution. As it is, the divorce rates continue to rise (particularly among serial marriers) and people get married later. That would tend to show that there is still some allure in the institution (and it’s not like people are going to stop, er, doing it), yet plenty of reticence about entering and no hesitation about leaving it.

  13. Rick C says:

    “Then I realized I agree with the two problems you have with marriage: the idea of servitude and vowing to keep even a bad marriage together. ”

    Let’s back up a bit: the problem is deeper than this. “[V]owing to keep even a bad marriage together” is a near-canonical example of closing the barn door after the horse has left. Ideally, you are supposed to get married to someone with whom you’re not likely to *have* a bad marriage. Getting married to someone you’ve known three weeks is much more risky than getting married to someone you’ve known a long time and to whose moods, goals, etc., you already know you are compatible with. We should expect, in the grand scheme of things, that people in the latter group should generally be significantly less likely to develop marital problems than people in the first group.

    Also, if you haven’t seriously evaluated the pros and cons of being married to someone for several decades, then you don’t really have any business marrying them.

  14. Marshall says:

    Great discussion, thanks for getting it started Prodigal Son. It begs the question:

    Does freedom to do whatever I want = maximum long-term fulfillment?

    If yes, then wouldn’t the richest, most powerful, and best looking people living in the freest countries be the most fulfilled? They can buy anything they want, do anything they want, and sleep with anyone they want. Yet pop icons, executives, and top politicians are among the most miserable – evidenced by depression, self-destructive choices, and suicide.

    On the other hand, don’t those in healthy lasting relationships tend to be among the most fulfilled? If so, what does it take to have a healthy relationship? I’m no expert but it seems like commitment, serving, and self-sacrifice are necessary. Marriage, the extreme of a relationship, requires the most amount of self-denial and commitment (meaning less freedom) but can be the most fulfilling thing in life.

    The assumption that a fulfilling marriage comes down to a 50% coin flip (or 40%) isn’t true. Businesses don’t just fail, and neither do relationships. There are principles and best practices that explain why some relationships end in bitterness and hurt while others last. I’ve got a long way to go, but to me the work, sacrifice, and commitment it’ll take to figure it out seems well worth it.

    • Prodigal Son says:

      To answer your question… I think it is very subjective. I am sure for some people being able to do whatever they want is where they derive their life fulfillment.

      While I understand your theory and examples I am not sure that it is accurate (it very well might be, I just don’t know). I think that we always hear about the celebrities that end up in rehab and failed marriages but we don’t really hear about the non-problem people. Similarly, you rarely hear about the average joy that needs rehab. I am curious what the result would be if you took all the celebrities in the last ten years (however that is defined) and compare their depression/divorce/addiction rates to the general population what the results would be. I would theorize the two rates are closer than we intuitively imagine.

      While I agree that a marriage is work and is made up of what you put into it, I don’t see it as logical for me. And you must be willing to admit that a significant number of people marry before they are really old enough (or wise enough) to realize the strength and commitment needed, in this way they are letting emotion blind their logic.

      Regardless, my original point was that marriage is often interpreted (and usually practiced) as a form of servitude, which I am not comfortable with and the practice of seeing marriage as an end instead of a means to an end is not the best way to look at any institution.

      • Marshall says:

        Absolutely right – my original points were certainly more anecdotal than logical. Thanks for making me think deeper.

        Not surprisingly, smarter people than you and I have asked “Why Marriage?” before, and given much more adequate answers:

        G. Stolyarov gives a bang-up, systematical, rational, and completely secular defense of the importance of marriage here. Among other accomplishments, Stolyarov is the editor-in-chief of The Rational Argumentator and a writer for the Mises Institute. He handles the issue with an Objectivist twist I think many of us can appreciate.

        While Stolyarov takes a secular approach, Rabbi Aron Moss’s answer is informed by his faith in this article. Here’s a summary excerpt:

        “What were once good reasons to get married are largely irrelevant today. Here are four classic reasons to get married:
        So we can live together. As you pointed out in your question, this reason no longer applies to the many couples who live happily together without getting married.
        So we can have children. Again, it is possible to have children and be wonderful parents without getting married.
        To make a solid commitment. That’s a charming one. We are getting married to make it harder to walk away from each other. How romantic.
        To make our relationship official. You could achieve that by placing an announcement in the newspaper saying, “We are now official.” You don’t need a caterer to serve gazpacho soup in a ballroom just to make it official.
        So what are we left with? If not to live together, to start a family, to make a commitment or to make it official, why get married?
        There’s only one reason. Marriage makes a relationship divine. Getting married means that something bigger than both of you is bringing you together. A wedding achieves something that simply can’t happen otherwise — God is introduced into the relationship.”

        If one doesn’t believe in or care for God, this argument won’t be compelling. But to the person that does, it is perhaps the most compelling reason of all.

        Any other good articles out there?

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