Abraham Rothberg  - Author


In Partial Praise of Marriage                              Home
by Abraham Rothberg

If you read books, magazines or newspapers, listen to radio or watch television, go to the movies or to plays, or simply overhear lunchtime gossip, it is clear that the insti­tution of marriage is under assault.  Marriage is damned as inadequate to our era, incapable of providing individual needs and gratification, inept at raising children, impossible to sustain except for the briefest of times, invidious as an instrument of capitalist--or other--exploitation.  Two thousand years ago the best Paul of Tarsus could say of it was, "It is better to marry than to burn."

One has only to turn to the recorded observations in every time and culture about marriage to see how such a jaundiced view has persisted over the millenia.  As long ago as the Fourth Century B.C.E., in ancient Greece, Menander was remarking that "If one will face the truth, marriage is an evil, but a necessary evil," as damning with faint praise as St. Paul's dictum.  A millenium and a half later, in Spain, Cervantes was lamenting that "Marriage is a noose," and those who are married are both its hangmen--or should I say hang-persons?--and its hanged.  At just about the same time, in France, Montaigne cried out that marriage "...happens as with cages; the birds without despair of getting in, and those within despair of getting out."  Five hundred years later, in England, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that "Marriage is like life...a field of battle not a bed of roses,"  while in our own country, at the same time, Ambrose Bierce defined marriage as "The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all two." There have even been a few, like the Irish George Bernard Shaw, who managed to give marriage a surly vote of confidence. "Marriage is popular," Shaw proclaimed, "because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity."

Is that Shavian the truth or all that really makes marriage so popular and so persistent?  And marriage has persisted, remaining one of humankind's oldest, most venerable and durable institutions.  Why then such a jaundiced view by so many, such harsh criticism and rancorous cynicism? What is it human beings have wanted of marriage that they have not received?  And what is it that they wanted and did receive that has continued to make men and women marry? Why such high hopes and such profound disappointments?

The nature of marriage is so complex that it is as often as not entered into with human uncertainty and ambivalence, so restrictive that human beings rebel against it as against prison bars and complain of "giving up their freedom," so thwarting that many, mocking Shaw, insist that marriage provides the minimum of temptation and the minimum of opportunity?  Yet, despite that, marriage is also so promising and pleasing that human beings are drawn to it as inexorably as moths to the flame.  It is Goethe who provides an essential clue when he emphasized, "Love is -an ideal thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished."

The love preceding marriage promises to provide self-fulfillment, even self-indulgence, and to deliver us to ecstasies we never knew before, but, as William Cullen Bryant once told a woman who asked him why he never wrote long poems, "A long poem is no more conceivable than a long ecstasy."--and whatever else marriage is no long ecstasy.  Dr. Dawkins may be right that our "selfish genes" thrust us into marriage as the surest way of achieving such immortality as we are granted, the continuation of our genetic inheritance, yet however urgent that genetic "destiny" is, it evidently doesn't satisfy us.  Is that because, in whatever mysterious way, we are more than that genetic inheritance we bear, that we have been taught or taught ourselves that marriage calls for steadiness and constancy, for self-restraint and self-discipline, for friendship and concern, for childrearing as well as child-bearing, for economic cooperation, for passing along experience, tradition and property to the next generation of our newly melded "selfish" genes?  Moreover, marriage calls for all those virtues in a relationship of some 15,000 days and nights of what is, often, chafing intimacy and edgy stress and strain. How then could human beings, over so long a stretch of time, not find such a relationship confining or disappointing, frustrating or even maddening?

Still, in those same 15,000 days and nights, men and women can and do provide each other with affection, passion, friendship, security, humor and serenity.  No, not all the time, and yes, more often than not.  Marriage and the family are a private institution that civilizes human beings, saves them from the brutalization of whatever system --capitalism or communism, monarchism or fascism, feudalism or tribalism—that they must live under.  Most important, it saves them from barbarism.  It can and does give them a private life and personal identity more immune to the tyranny of the state or the masses than would otherwise be the case.  Marriage is also a public institution which the state continues to try to control and shape, for through the family is created the sort of citizen the government--of whatever kind—hopes to make amenable to its wishes, in whom it hopes to instill its values and goals.  In these dual roles, private and public, marriage must create values, embody them in private conscience, exem­plify them in public behavior, no inconsiderable task.  Marriage, then, remains the quintessential means of educating, though by no means the only one.  Far more than schools or universities, peer groups or gangs, it directs, develops and refines such traits of intelligence and character, persistence and discipline, the individual needs to live a reasonably decent life.  When it fails, it makes manifest vices and viciousness which are their opposite.

As the world's governments grow: increasingly intrusive, attempting to invade and manipulate every aspect of life, marriage and the family can create a bulwark against the scrutiny, interference and control of the state.  Because of its protective walls of love and concern, marriage and family can provide shelter against the stormy intrusions of the rest of society.  In this it is not, regrettably, always successful. In an era where rapidity of technological advance, swiftness of social change, perturbations in taste and oscillations in morality shake our world, when politics, work, advertising and other modern media batter the individual and rock the very foundations of society--even threaten its extinction-­marriage and family continue to be shores against such ruins. Good marriages do not separate themselves from society, but they refuse to be overwhelmed by it.  In flood and famine, depression and war, disease and death, marriage and family are sometimes swept away--one has only to read the literature under Nazi or Stalinist tyranny--but more often they stand fast, their commitment to continuing the species and the human enterprise intact if scarred, their hope for the future, the future's hope.

Marriage and family may be incapable of rescuing us from natural catastrophes and manmade calamities, from war and revolution, from economic upheavals, from the collapse of law and civility, from the corruption of institutions and their leaders, from the impoverishments of Babbitry and the sterile conventionality of Main Street or the rampant greed and ruthlessness of Wall Street, but they remain an arena in which human beings may be honest and loyal, self-transcending instead of selfish, generously giving instead of greedily grabbing. The marriage may be patriarchal, matriarchal, companionate, sanctioned or unsanctioned, yet it will offer opportunities for both steadiness and security, passion and excitement, loneliness and company.  Marriage and family are a place where, if individuals will, men and women may speak to each other from their hearts and minds, reach understandings with sympathy and respect, provide a human and humane small world example to that harsher, crueler large world outside and around them.

When I was a boy, I was told the story about a pure, beautiful diamond of which a king was justly proud.  One day, the gem was accidentally marred by a deep scratch, and the king, distressed, called in the most skillful diamond cutters in the kingdom, offered them great rewards to remove the imperfection in his diamond.  Though many tried, none could repair the blemish, and the king remained deeply grieved and disappointed. Until, after some years had passed, a craftsman one day came to the court and promised the monarch that he would make the diamond even more beautiful than before it was defaced.  So confident was the man that the king entrusted the jewel to him, and using the scratch as the stem of his design, the craftsman engraved an elegant rose around the earlier imperfection. Marriage is much like that diamond, a jewel that, in living is often scarred by mishap or mischief, often by intent, and which its participants, using their own will and skill, must recarve into roses and other designs that will not only restore the jewel to its former comeliness but in that renewal make it even more beautiful.

Copyright © 2005, 
Abraham Rothberg

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