The M Word

Perhaps you’ve heard recently that marriage rates around the world are dropping.  You’ve heard right.

In the United States the marriage rate is at its lowest point in 150 years.  A Pew Center Research study reports that currently one in four adults over 25 have never been married.  In 1960 that number was one in ten.

Meanwhile, those who choose to marry are waiting longer to do it.  On average, both men and women are waiting until their late 20’s to tie the knot these days, four years later than just twenty years ago.

The list of suggested reasons is long, ranging from women who are no longer dependent on a male income, to workplace wages that don’t keep up with expenses, declining interest in religion, the ease of qualifying for welfare, and the collapse of social stigmas involving sex and childbirth outside of marriage.

You can agree with those reasons or not, but you can’t argue with the numbers.  Sure, people are still getting married, but there’s no denying the old gray mare of marriage ain’t what she used to be.

As a 44 year veteran of the marriage wars, I admit I’m partial to the institution, and care enough about it to throw in my two cents.  I’m the first to admit marriage isn’t always easy.  But it’s way better than the alternatives.

Not that the alternatives aren’t appealing from a distance.  You’ll avoid a lot of life’s entanglements by living a solitary life.  Or you can test the commitment waters by dipping your toe into the shallow reflection pool known as cohabitation.

Both options provide the adult version of kids dressing up like Mom and Dad.  You get the superficial feel of what it’s like to be a grownup without the depth.  All the dessert, none of the veggies.  And there’s no denying that an ongoing life of painless superficiality smothered in a heavy gravy of attention-consuming amusement looks from a distance like a pretty fun way to live.

Marriage, on the other hand, requires things of you.  When you marry you agree to commit to your partner.  You take yourself off the sexual market.  You work together, plan together, perhaps raise children together, sacrifice together, laugh together, play together, and (most important of all) become truly vulnerable to each other.

The longer I’m in the marriage game, the more I’m convinced that it’s the open vulnerability we share with our spouse that gets at both the true heart of marriage and the heart of what it means to be alive.  To be truly, fully known, and truly, fully loved, is the destination we all seek on life’s highways.

With respect to those of you traveling different relationship roads, I’ll suggest that the deeply mutual vulnerability of marriage cannot be replicated in any other of the adult world’s social arrangements.  You will never make yourself fully vulnerable to someone without their complete commitment to you, and vice versa.  Cohabitation is, by definition, Commitment Light.  I’m sorry, but that’s what it is.

Is what I’m talking about scary?  Oh my, yes.  Can you be hurt if it doesn’t work out?  Brutally.  So why take the risk?  Because it’s the only way to fill the human hole that periodically wells up inside of you, no matter how hard you work to keep yourself distracted.

To those of you fundamentally afraid of marriage, I completely understand.  All I can do is call to you from the other side of the commitment divide and say it’s worth the effort, worth the price, and worth all the perceived freedom you think you’re going to lose.

To those who look for marriage and haven’t found it, I hope you’ll always keep one eye open for its possibility.  Let optimism triumph over experience.

In the end, marriage is a promise that in the whole world there is one person willing to always have your back without question or complaint. It enables your children to know they are safe and worthy of love.  It is hard work, and anyone who tells you different is wrong, but you both are better for it.  The world is better for it too.



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