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In Defense of Marriage

February 14, 2012 12 comments

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In Defense of Marriage 
by  Max Cooper of “The Art of Marriage”
In honor of Valentine’s day, it seems appropriate to address what appears to be a growing body of text devoted to the idea that marriage is an antiquated idea whose time is rapidly diminishing in the face of increased income equality and easy access to sex via either internet porn or online dating sites.  While all of this is likely true, as supported by both statistics and popular opinion (pick a blog, any blog), to assume that marriage is outdated based on economic and sexual factors is to ignore the

Yes, surprisingly, people still do this!

larger idea of what marriage has to offer.  Smarter people than me can speak to the historical origins of marriage as a way of providing economic security and creating a framework within which humans can express their sexuality in a way that both contributes to the community structure while protecting both the mother and child from stigma and parietal status.  While this all may be true, it ignores a more underlying aspect of marriage which is not as easily quantified, namely, the emotional and spiritual bond between two people, or, if you must, love.
The idea of marriage for love is, by all accounts, a more modern concept and one significantly younger than the economic and sexual benefits traditionally associated with marriage.  This shift in focus regarding the purpose of marriage, to find someone with whom you share an intimate emotional bond and can grow together as spiritual and emotional human beings, dominates modern discussions regarding the purpose of marriage.  After 100 years or so of marriage for love, often with mixed results given the historically upward trending rate of divorce, it seems only natural for people to beginning questioning whether one needs marriage at all.  Articles that argue the validity of remaining single in order to pursue a more spiritual life certainly address this idea, as Melanie Curtin does in “Why I’m not Married,”  and often frame the argument in the context of being single=more free time to pursue spiritual pursuits, whether in the form of exercise, yoga, meditation, travel, or the ever-ambiguous, ‘getting to know oneself.’  The seductiveness of this argument lies largely in its validity.  Being single does provide more free time and more money, with which one can use to pursue their particular interests.  However, despite its evident appeal, it is an argument that, upon closer examination, is based on a fundamentally false premise, namely, that being married limits ones potential for spiritual growth.
Marriage as an institution may very well be outdated from an economic and sexual perspective, but from a spiritual one, marriage remains a viable option for those seeking to better understand themselves and their place in this universe.  A familiar refrain states that the only wisdom you’ll find at the top of the mountain is the one you bring up.  Another way to look at that is that you contain within you the capacity to receive all the wisdom you’ll ever possess, and that only through physical and mental exertion will you realize your full potential and gain a better understanding of exactly who you are and what you are capable of.  People often argue that they don’t want to get married until they have a better understanding of who they are.  This is a catch 22, as one will never fully understand oneself, no matter how long one lives.  Human nature dictates that we are always changing.  Whether we are aware of the changes or not is largely dependent on the individual, but at no point in your life are you ever the same as you were at a previous point.  Buddhist refer to this as the idea of ‘no-self,’ and acceptance of it is a key milestone to spiritual enlightenment.  By accepting that one can never truly know oneself, as one is constantly changing, one can realize that to delay marriage in the name of self enlightenment is to effectively end all prospects of ever being married.  Instead, one should consider that, instead of working to complete one’s spiritual journey during their 20’s and early 30s (in order to leave time for marriage and kids), life itself is the journey.  Marriage is an outstanding way to experience this journey and one that, if better appreciated and understood, would likely change many people’s thoughts on marriage.

The Art of Marriage

Perhaps the word most associated with marriage is ‘sacrifice.’  When married, one must sacrifice many things in the name of marital bliss – time, money, hobbies, etc.  These sacrifices come not in the form of total rejection, but that one cannot think solely of oneself, one must consider how your partner will be affected.  Marriage introduces choices.  One can choose to spend time with their partner, or one can choose to pursue a hobby.  Either way, the choice involves sacrifice.  Through these sacrifices, one learns about oneself, more so than they could as an individual because the results of your choices affects another person.  Learning to frame choices in the context of how the outcome affects others is a profoundly spiritual concept and one that quickly provides a greater sense of who you are as a person, what you value, and what you can do to improve yourself as a human being.  Being single, your choices have much less impact on other people.  If you choose to go out with one group of friends instead of another, no big deal.  There may be some hurt feelings, but they are usually short-lived and easily forgotten.  In marriage, your choices add up, and in order to make a marriage work, one must strive to view their choices in the context of the whole, and not as isolated incidents.  Doing so requires one to step outside oneself, to look at oneself from a distance and judge dispassionately your thoughts and reasons behind your decisions.  This is about as spiritual an exercise as one can ever hope to practice, and there is no better medium in which to practice it than marriage.

A core tenant of Buddhist philosophy is the idea that life is suffering, and that the only way to free oneself from that suffering is to abandon worldly goods and concepts in favor of a monastic lifestyle devoid of all but the most barren of necessities.  Whether this is true of not is beyond my understanding, but one thing I do know is that, in the absence of giving up all your worldly possessions, modern single life, with all the freedoms and choices associated with it, is not an appropriate substitute.  Spirituality comes from true challenges, and marriage provides a far better framework within which one can be challenged than being single.  Through marriage with a person you love, and who loves you in return, you can both become more spiritual and self-aware than as individuals.  Marriage doesn’t mean giving up the things you love – it means learning how to continue pursuing the things you love while being aware of the effects those pursuits have on someone with whom you share a deep love, understanding, and desire to make their life more meaningful.  This is the true benefit of marriage, and, if properly understood and pursued, can provide a more meaningful path to spiritual awareness than a lifetime of being single.

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