There’s a segment of the population that believes that marriage has been cheapened. They point to things like no-fault divorce laws, the rising average age of first marriage, and the rising number of unwed mothers as proof of this. They would rather that women who get pregnant marry the father; have divorce be, if not illegal, at least harder to obtain; have people marrying at younger ages. Marriage is an obligation to them–if you aren’t married, you’re Doing Something Wrong.
To that, I would argue that they’re the ones who are draining the meaning from marriage.
Here’s the thing–if almost everybody is doing something, then it doesn’t have much meaning for you to do the same. If something is required of you, then following that course of action has no meaning. Marriage should be something we do by choice, not necessity. It is a statement that you are committed to this person, that this person is the most important person in your life. In our world, it is the people who aren’t getting married who are saying something. There’s the couple who choose not to, because of all the social baggage that it carries with it–they are saying that they can be committed without getting married, and that the traditional roles that we often get pushed towards don’t work for them. We have the women who chooses not to be in any relationship–she is saying that she doesn’t need a man to ‘complete’ her, that she is a complete and total person on her own. And we have same-sex couples who cannot get married. Many of these couples have been together for years or even decades–they too show the lie that a couple has to get married to be committed to each other.
Telling people they have to get married cheapens it. It creates marriages between people who aren’t truly committed to each other, who haven’t freely chosen that path. It creates marital strife that casts a shadow on the relationships of those of us who freely chose to get married, making people wonder if we’re really as happy as we seem, while pressuring others to hide their own troubles to present the facade of a happy family.
If we want to strengthen marriage–if we want to create marriages that last–we shouldn’t be encouraging people to get married. If anything, we should be discouraging them! The Catholic Church has a good idea in their pre-marriage counselling. These sessions promote communication between partners, and while I don’t agree with all the messages they give, they do try to cover the types of issues that a married couple will eventually deal with and prepare you for them. It also gives you a chance to consider whether or not you really should get married. Communication is what builds a strong relationship, something that too many people overlook. Marriage does not create commitment. It takes communication and willingness to work through problems to create a strong relationship, and therefore to create a strong marriage. The vows themselves are only superficial.