That marriage is a good thing for individuals and society can no longer be assumed. Yes, most Americans still aspire to marry and do marry. But recent research shows that growing numbers of Americans, especially younger ones, are either uncertain about marriage or express mistrust of the institution. Moreover, while marriage apparently remains a good fit for most upscale Americans, in much of non-affluent America marriage as a stable institution is primarily recognizable by its absence and by its wreckage.
So we’re called to think anew about this institution whose fundamental validity previous generations largely took for granted. Let’s start with the basic question. Why would someone today want to marry? What good might marriage do?
The main fact about marriage is that it’s different from, and larger than, the love that is shared by the lovers. Sexual love is one of the most powerful feelings on earth. Sexual intercourse affects us even at the biochemical level, so that when lovers report that they feel “addicted” to one another, they are doing more than speaking poetically. Sexual love is a primal, potent human feeling.
Marriage is the social invention that surrounds and helps to guide sexual love. To private love, marriage adds a public structure. To an anarchic, drug-like feeling that is certain to ebb and flow over time, marriage adds rules and roles intended to help it survive over time and serve larger goals. In short, sexual love is a feeling and marriage harnesses that feeling to what scholars call a social institution.
Now, let’s admit that “social institution” is not a phrase likely to set the heart racing, particularly when discussing sex and love. But let’s also recognize and respect what goods are created – what is made more attainable – when sex and love are guided by a working social institution.
The first good is permanence. We all know that many marriages today fail, but for anyone who wants love that will last, marriage remains the best idea out there. This truth is beautifully captured by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in 1943 told a couple on their wedding day that “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, your marriage that sustains your love.” If I could give every American only one sentence to read about marriage, it would that sentence from Bonhoeffer.
The second good is faithfulness. Viewed as an institution, marriage is largely a set of rules, and one of marriage’s central rules is to have sex only with your spouse and, more generally, to be true and devoted to your spouse. Do we at times experience this rule as a burden? Yes. Do some of us break it? Yes. Does the rule almost always contribute importantly to better, richer, and more lasting love? Yes.
The third good is children. Anthropologists tell us that a primary purpose of marriage across history and cultures is to protect children and promote their well-being. And current scholarship abundantly confirms the general rule that the two-parent, married-couple home is the best environment for raising children. Warts and all, marriage is by far humanity’s most pro-child institution.
The fourth good is social bonds, or what economists call social capital. Marriage helps me to thrive by placing me within a thick network of established mutual obligations and caring relationships. Marriage is a powerful connector. It brings together not only two individuals but two extended families and two networks of friends. Does marriage as a formal structure add power to these relationships? You bet it does. The late columnist William Raspberry used to say that he’d be uncertain if his daughter asked him to lend money to her boyfriend, but would reach for his checkbook if his daughter asked him to lend money to her husband. Form matters.
The fifth good is wealth. Studies consistently show that marriage is a wealth-producing institution. It’s true that higher earners are more likely to marry in the first place (researchers call this a selection effect), but it’s also true marriage in and of itself tends to encourage people (especially men) to work harder and earn more. Even more importantly, the marriage commitment creates incentives for the spouses to divide labor, plan for the future, and cooperate with one another over time in ways that build wealth.
The sixth good is civil society. Marriage tends to be associated with, and helps to produce, a range of character traits that are valued by individuals and society – including obeying the law, being trustworthy, and being a good neighbor and citizen. Marriage certainly does not guarantee these traits, or hold any monopoly on them. But marriage clearly contributes to them.
The Beatles said, “All you need is love.” But that’s not all you need! For fullness, transcendence, and staying power, the smart move is to put a ring on it.