Well, I’ve arrived in the States. I’ve been here for almost three weeks now and I am enjoying the relaxation, the time away from regular duties, and reconnecting with my sister again. She seems genuinely happy in her year old marriage (her third) and I’m so happy for her. She seems relaxed and happier than I’ve ever seen her. We are both looking after my mother, who is in hospice, but doing somewhat better than she was. But I realise how fragile this period is and how events could turn quickly. While waiting, visiting, talking, and running errands, I’ve had lots of time to think about my sister’s new life and my mother’s poor luck in marriage.
One thing I’ve thought about what a successful marriage involves. Is marriage even an obsolete entity in a time when people marry on a lark and nearly half of all marriages end in divorce? In my mother’s time it was something every woman had to do and it was a lifelong commitment. Yet, now, there are those who are on their 4th, 5th, and 6th marriages, hardly an attitude of commitment. Is it the institution of marriage that fails so consistently or is it we human beings who cannot be monogamous or devoted partners? Is marriage like a gender role we assume that has no basis in reality, but just fits something we’ve invented as a fantasy? Where does religion come into this myth we make up?
I certainly knew nothing of happy marriages. My real father left my mother and her three babies without a backward glance. My stepfather certainly knew nothing of being a decent human being, let alone a decent marital partner. My grandparents probably had a good marriage but they moved to Florida when we were small and I did not get to know them nor did I see them interact. My friends’ parents were all divorced and a single mother raised my best friend and 4 other children while she dated various men; even marrying a couple of them in the period I knew her.
The church, when I paid attention to it, has always taught that marriage was about forming a family unit where two people raised children, kind of like building a house and putting in furnishings. Thinking back, I got most of my strange ideas about marriage from reading books. I began my love affair with books in grade school. The first really grown-up book where I read about relationships was Fifteen, written by Beverly Clearly. In it, a teenaged girl begins to ‘go steady’ with a boy at her high school which was terribly exciting to me at the time and from that point I began to think about having a steady boyfriend. It all sounded terribly romantic and the first kiss so exciting. It was not clear if having a steady boyfriend automatically led to marriage, but seeing every girl around me hoping for the same thing and reading the same books, I felt that it was the DONE thing. I did not know otherwise. I just knew I wanted a boyfriend right away.
My next concept was about love. I did not know what this mysterious emotion was but according to books, you were supposed to just KNOW when you felt it and found THE ONE. I began reading romance novels, all of which had the same formula; the ‘innocent’ romance novels began with a woman who meets a man she may not like at first meeting but grows very fond of him over time, falls in love, and then marriage was always the result. There the book ended. The racier romances began to throw in mind-blowing sex before the nuptials, but there were ALWAYS nuptials to the person who took away your virginity as a prize. We never got a glimpse into this shadowy, supposedly blissful state at the end. It was kind of like dying and going to heaven. You never knew what really happened afterwards. You just heard stories about it later from those who went there and survived.
Yet, when I married for the first time, it wasn’t for love really. Perhaps I thought it was for that. However, looking back I see that I just thought it was the normal progression for a relationship that lasted longer than a couple of months. Of course, I did not have good relationships with men in my childhood and teens, so finding a husband was also kind of like shopping for a house. I knew what features I wanted and which I could ‘live with’ if they weren’t perfect. One criteria HAD to be someone who never yelled, hit, or bullied; someone who was gentle. And I certainly found that.
Yet, I was not happy. There was an elusive something that I felt others had that I did not have. All of the religious and psychology books called it intimacy, but not just sharing our intimate body parts kind of intimacy. It was opening ourselves completely and honestly with another person. They called it: COMMUNICATION. It was not sex alone and it was not communication alone. it was both together somehow. One fed off the other. One bound two people into a trusting, intimate, symbiotic unit where each gave selflessly and took from their partner without exploitation. And I believed in it. It sounded so appealing and terribly romantic. Most religions included God in the intimacy, so that a couple was triple bound as a unity via prayer and sharing and being open before God. They advised that you weren’t just lying to your partner, you were lying to God if something went amiss. A little coercive, but effective. I think this is what Roman Catholics mean by Sacramental Marriage. Protestants are a little less mystical about it, but still see marriage as a type of Covenant and there are many passages in the New Testament about husbands, wives, and Christ and the Church that use marital language to describe it. There are many shades of ideas about marriage in Protestantism between and beyond these two polar ideas.
The secular world is much simpler. It sees marriage as a legal contract that joins two families together in law so that inheritances can pass between partners and among their heirs in legal units recognised by courts. It is not an intimate entity. It may be, but it’s more realistic and recognises how fickle we are as human beings. There is no standard to be held to, but somehow we still do it in spite of ourselves. In fact there are many who marry for legal reasons only and even live in separate residences, keeping their own names and identities, and leading their own personal lives. Yet marital psychology is booming! Are these the poles from which we are to choose? Who defines marriage; psychologists or priests? How do we learn of it and how do we teach it to our children? I confess I taught my children nothing about it but am grateful they saw a non-violent form of it in my marriage to their father. At least they had a calm household.
So what do Quakers think of marriage? Advices and Queries 23 in Quaker Faith and Practice states:
Marriage has always been regarded by Friends as a religious commitment rather than a merely civil contract. Both partners should offer with God’s help an intention to cherish one another for life. Remember that happiness depends on an understanding and steadfast love on both sides. In times of difficulty remind yourself of the value of prayer, of perseverance and of a sense of humour.
Well that sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Marriage as a mix of religious commitment and civil contract. But we still don’t have a definition of that intimacy that some claim binds them more concretely than anything else can. I find it interesting that in Quaker Faith and Practice chapter 22, the progression of chapters moves from Friendship to Sexuality to Sharing a Home, the Single Life, and then to Marriage and beyond to Divorce and Separation. This seems to be a reflection of society wherein sexuality comes before any commitment and is more closely associated with friendship than marriage. Within that chapter however are some very beautiful descriptions of what marriage is to these Quaker writers. There are many beautiful passages by William Penn and others, but I think this man says it best, trying to describe that elusive ‘something':
Marriage, says the Christian, is for life; and the wedding is a declaration that it is so. It is a fearsome declaration to make, and without the grace of God, arrogant and absurd…
This is why the wedding is an act of worship, and not merely a formal indication in a register office: because the Christian, saying these terrible things, dare not just nod them off before a clerk; but must come and put his vows into the hand of God, trusting that God will hold [the couple] where He wants them held. To turn a wedding into worship is to recognise that marriage is bigger than we are; that it is not just a pleasant arrangement we have made for our own convenience, but a vocation into which we have been drawn by nature and by God.
The truth is that very few marriages remain all the time, day and night, summer and winter, pleasant or convenient. We have to give things up for each other: sometimes hobbies and pastimes, habits of spending, friends. Some glib talkers about marriage say that we do not need to ‘give up’: we must enrich each other’s lives, not rob them. But this is unreal… If we mean business about marriage, we shall throw a good deal overboard in painful but decisive abandon; we shall bring along with us whatever is shareable, and a few things that are not; and we shall discover new things that we never did alone, but which we can start together and use as the basis for ‘mutual society, help and comfort, in prosperity and adversity’… Then the Christian knows he is committed, that he is in it for good or ill; and in a curious way the situation is lightened by the knowledge.
Harold Loukes, 1962
Marriage, an ‘act of worship’? What does that mean? What does it mean to be Quakers married different from others married? Is intimacy self-sacrifice for the other? Is intimacy found in sexual trust and complete honesty? Is intimacy another word for sharing Light? Is adultery such a betrayal to some of us because one partner dares to give all and be all and opens completely to the other, only to have the other spurn their openness as if it were nothing and worthless by sharing intimacies with another? Is intimacy even a concept that exists or can ever exist between two distinct and independent persons? Are we making too much of it? Is the answer perhaps to change the definition of marriage and teach our children that marriage is a civil contract and try to rid them of the romantic dreams of religion and myth? I don’t know the answer to that question and I doubt I ever will. But it is something to think deeply about, preferably BEFORE we embark on that ‘commitment’ Loukes describes above.