I and Thou

Close Relationships

Some Topics

Marriage

One of the features of a modern, liberal society is the acceptance of “love” as the legitimate basis of short and long relationships. While falling in love has always been a feature of the human experience, spontaneous pair bonds have not always been the basis for marriage.

We can assume that for thousands of years, a marriage was a private contract between two families with the endorsement of the local community. Marriage rites are found in every community. Parents in many countries continue to arrange the marriages of their children. Arranged marriages are based on the needs of the family and community rather than the desires of the individuals who become married.

Even with the elevation of love to a higher status, there is an ongoing conflict between individual desires and group control. Experienced parents will know that the bonding energy of love is as brief as it is intense and will express appropriate concern when their son or daughter chooses a lover who lacks evidence of long term compatibility. Wise parents will also know the hazards of interfering with a love bond and may attempt to make the best of a bad situation, ready to rescue their child when the marriage fails.

In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church prevailed in the marriage business as a third party that validated marriage contracts and performed ceremonies. By 1215, the Roman church claimed a marriage monopoly. In early settlements in US, state laws required legal registration of marriage but also viewed public cohabitation as sufficient evidence of “common law” marriage.

Some states in the 1920s attempted regulate who was allowed to marry whom and prohibited whites from marrying blacks and other ethnic persons. Governments relied on marriage licenses for census purposes and to distribute social benefits, health insurance and pension benefits. Social progress involved more personal determination with rights to fall in love, to live together with sexual privileges and to have children without a marriage license.

Close relationships were liberated more or less from church and state control. Coonz stated: “Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, more legally married people are in a second or third marriage; their obligations are spread among several households. Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married.”

Novelist Alain de Botton described a realistic view of married couples who discover inevitably that they are incompatible – it’s a matter of degree: “Indeed, marriage tends decisively to move us onto another, very different and more administrative plane, which perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children who kill the passion from which they emerged. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle. The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person. We must not abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning. Every human will frustrate anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

Meghan O'Rourke described a pessimistic view of marriage: “The classic 1960s feminist critique of marriage was that it suffocated women by tying them to the home and stifling their identity. The hope was that in a non-sexist society marriage could be a harmonious connection of minds. But 40 years after Friedan and Kipnis arrived with a new book, Against Love, to tell us that this hope was forlorn. Marriage, she suggests, belongs on the junk heap of human folly. It is an equal-opportunity oppressor, trapping men and women in a life of drudgery, emotional anesthesia, and a tug-of-war struggle to balance vastly different needs. The numbers seem to back up her thesis. Modern marriage doesn't work for the majority of people. The rate of divorce has roughly doubled since the 1960s.

Half of all marriages end in divorce (in the US). A Rutgers University poll found that only 38 percent of married couples describe themselves as happy.


  • I and Thou focuses on intimate relationships. Innate tendencies are hard at work when people meet, become lovers and end with arguments and fighting. The same tendencies determine how family members interact and explain why so many families are “dysfunctional.” When lovers form an enduring pair bond, they often become parents and everything changes. Humans seek bonding with others are distressed when they become isolated. Humans bond to each other in several ways. The most enduring bonds are kin-related, based on closely shared genes. The deepest bonding occurs when mother and infant are together continuously from birth and mother breast-feeds the infant. Bonds among family members are the most enduring. Bonds to friends, lovers and spouses are the next most significant. Bonds to colleagues, neighbors and even strangers that are admired from a distance are next. Friendships are often temporary bonds, based on the need to affiliate with others for protection, social status, feeding, sex and fun.

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