I’m a man who has been through a failed marriage, so I know what it’s like to have doubts and anxieties about marriage as an institution. In our culture especially, where divorce is so prevalent and damaging, it is very easy to think of marriage as not worth the risk. As a result, many of us postpone marriage to engage in less serious relationships, hoping to get the enjoyment out of love without the liabilities.
Marriage has seen better days, with men in particular choosing to opt out. Since men often “grow up” and find their place in the world because of the positive pressures of marriage, this lack of commitment is not only limiting the benefits that we as men used to provide to families and society, but also the unique rewards that marriage once bestowed upon us. Some experts have blamed video games and pornography for this trend, while others say that the problem is the availability of willing sexual partners who are more interested in personal development than starting a family. Still others point to the fear that marriage makes men vulnerable to legal problems. In any case, it seems clear that men are acting on a misinformed notion of self-interest, whether based on narcissism or anxiety about commitment and its risks.
Whatever the reason, I think we as men are forgetting something that many of our ancestors took as a given: marriage is sacred—a thing to be revered because it points to something other-worldly. I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I have recently been stirred by the idea that Catholics view marriage as a “sacrament,” which is religious jargon for a means through which God confers grace to the world. In religious speak, “grace” is a divine love, mercy, or benevolence shown to humanity. Grace pulls us out of the depths of some unwanted fate.
This got me thinking about how we—even the non-religious among us—might benefit from thinking along these lines. If marriage is a divine grace, then it is so because it bestows goodness upon humanity by breaking down our natural selfishness and providing the best environment possible for raising well-adjusted kids and making well-adjusted adults.
For men, marriage is the most tangible rite of passage into manhood and is therefore an impetus to grow up and find fulfillment in one of the most satisfying jobs a man can do. A recent Washington Post article, noting the impact of marriage on men, found that married men, seeing themselves in the masculine role of provider, strive to make more money than single men (and married men do end up making more money than single men), as well as engage in more adult habits and relationships.
This change in men after marriage also benefits women and children: it provides a rise in stability and a safer environment for them than unmarried motherhood. (Statistics show that married women are less likely to be abused than women in unmarried relationships, and that children are less likely to be abused when they live at home with their married father.) For everybody involved, it provides a context where mutual self-giving—not use and abuse—is required and rewarded. In other words, if a couple loves each other through times good and bad, marriage is a source of strength and security.
But what about our fears of marriage? It seems that there are at least two means for easing our anxiety. The first is to remember that life isn’t only about us. We should be receptive, regardless of our religious beliefs, to the tremendous good that marriage, defined as self-giving and committed love, can be for ourselves, our partners, and any potential children we might have.
The second is to avoid marriage with someone who doesn’t see it that way.
Regardless of our religious views, it’s high time that both sexes—though I’m thinking particularly of my own—treat marriage as something sacred and open ourselves up to the amazing grace that it can bestow upon our lives. To coin a phrase, you don’t have to be sanctimonious to be matrimonious.