WITH TROUBLING DIVORCE RATES, the trend among younger couples to postpone marriage or abstain from it altogether, and other factors, some feel we are in danger of losing marriage in this society. The institution is arguably in serious trouble.
This period of intense media focus on marriage—while more and more states legally affirm marriage equality and the Supreme Court ponders two related cases—offers the opportunity to examine the institution of marriage itself. How can we strengthen and support marriage, a critical foundation of a healthy society? How can we, as church and society, encourage the values of monogamy, fidelity, mutuality, loyalty, and commitment between couples?
A study by the Barna Research Group a few years ago found that “born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce,” a fact that pollster George Barna said “raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families.” Our authors in this issue wrestle with what it takes to build long-lasting marriages, rooted in and offering a witness to God’s covenantal love. —The Editors
MY HUSBAND AND I have been married to each other for 42 years. Does this make me an expert on heterosexual marriage? Not really.
My experience over 40 years as a pastor, teacher, and theologian helps some in thinking about marriage, as I have counseled couples and performed countless weddings, in addition to my personal experience. But as a contextual theologian of liberation, I know that to extrapolate from your own experience, or even from that of a small group, means you end up colonizing other people’s experiences through ideological privilege. In short, what that means is you think you know more than you really do. Hence, using social, political, and economic analysis is crucial if we are to think theologically in context about marriage.
A couple of things seem clear, however. Marriage, in all its manifestations, is going through tremendous change in our society, and marriage as a social and political institution, and as a religious practice, needs strengthening.
From a faith perspective, when there is trust and commitment, and when God is in the connections, marriage is strengthened. Yet we must recognize that patterns of sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as our declining economy and the prison-industrial complex, are threats to marriage. These negative forces undermine marriage in both visible and hidden ways.
Marriage, from a faith perspective, can be a practice of holiness in everyday life, but we will need to do a lot of work in personal, social, political, and economic arenas for that to become the norm.
On shaky ground
One thing statistics show is that heterosexual marriage is on shaky ground. Current data indicate that nearly half of all (heterosexual) marriages end in divorce, though there are age, race, educational, and economic differences that are crucial. Overall, this is twice the divorce rate as in same-gender marriages or civil unions, as documented by the Williams Institute, a prestigious think tank located at UCLA, whose mission is to conduct research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. While this data is too new to be statistically significant, it is important to keep compiling it.
While there are many factors that explain these two sets of statistics, I personally blame Richard Nixon for the sorry state of heterosexual marriage overall. But seriously, the Watergate break-in is widely credited as the beginning of the decline in the trust Americans have for their political and social institutions. Some date this decline even earlier, to the Vietnam War, and that may be the case. But the Watergate debacle was nevertheless a strong accelerant for declining trust in institutions, and marriage, whatever else it may be, is a key social and political institution. Over most of the years since Watergate, of course, legal recognition of marriage for LGBT people has not even been available.
Long term, we may find that divorce rates for LGBT couples climb to rates similar to those for heterosexuals, and it is important not to romanticize LGBT marriages. But currently, mining this data, along with my personal experience and my theological insight into how values perform in the public square as interpretive lenses, I have formulated this thesis: LGBT people value the institution of marriage more than some heterosexuals because they have to struggle for legal marriage recognition. As Ada María Isasi-Díaz, noted mujerista theologian, used to say, “La vida es la lucha.” Life is struggle. We tend to value that for which we must struggle. LGBT people may value the institution of marriage more than some heterosexuals as they must struggle for legal and religious recognition of their marriages.
Trust, commitment, and equal power
What will it take for heterosexuals to make stronger commitments to marriage as an institution, as well as to each other? It is not that different than LGBT marriages, in truth. From the individual to the societal level, trust and commitment are absolutely central for marriages to succeed over time. Trust and commitment take struggle; that is one thing I do know after 42 years of marriage.
Beginning with my own experience, including my marriage counseling, I believe trust is the cornerstone of marriage. Commitment is the midwife of trust; without commitment, couples really don’t risk trusting one another and being as vulnerable as one needs to be to trust fully. But there is a structural component to this as well, especially in a religious sense.
The erosion of trust in institutions overall is a factor, including the declining trust in religious institutions, as a recent Pew study reveals. Trust and commitment are religious values, and while marriage is a legal, secular institution, it is also, for people of faith, a sacred trust. When you lose faith in religious institutions, other institutions such as marriage can be undermined as well.
But marriage itself must not become an idol. I have counseled many women in violent marriages, and often they have told me they don’t want to “break up the marriage,” so they put up with the domestic violence. Violence—physical, emotional, or both—has already broken up the marriage because it is the ultimate betrayal of trust. What trust can you have in your spouse if you are being treated violently? Immediate separation to allow for time to go to counseling, and divorce if counseling is unsuccessful, actually honors the institution of marriage, as the core of marriage is always destroyed by violence. Sometimes building trust and commitment in counseling can remake a formerly violent marriage, and the sooner violence in a marriage is confronted directly, the greater the chance rebuilding can occur. But it is by no means easy, and it does not always work.
While the values that marriage should represent are trust and commitment, these can become unhealthy, even dangerous, without power equality. Marriage has to be “five-oh, five-oh,” as Spencer Tracy kept telling Katherine Hepburn in the wonderful film Pat and Mike. It is remarkable that this film—about how equal power relations are key to a successful relationship—was made in 1952, the post-war era when white, middle-class women were being shoved into the suburbs and told that being the happy homemaker should be their highest aspiration. Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, exposed this myth for the claptrap it is. But more than 50 years later, heterosexual marriage is still not “50-50” in many relationships, and gendered politics is often a “war on women.”
This I do know: trust, commitment, and equality of power in relationship should form the bedrock of all marriages. For me, as a person of faith, this defines a practical kind of holiness.
“God is in the connections”
“God is in the connections” is a point Beverly Harrison, the noted ethicist and theologian, makes so well in her book Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics. With the “power of relation to sustain us ... we can learn what we need to know. Christian love—both God’s love for us and ours for God and each other—means this: that we discover and experience, in the power of praxis and solidarity, a new wellspring of caring that fuels our passion.”
This kind of passionate connection should be at the heart of the commitment of love in marriage. The “holiness” of holy matrimony comes from this kind of sacramental practice. It is not given to a couple, any couple, whatever their sexual orientation, by virtue of a pastor like me saying the words over them in a sanctuary, though the promises couples make to each other in marriage ceremonies are very important. But these are not “once for all” kinds of promises. I tell couples (and myself!) that they must choose to be married every day. Every day you have to get up and decide to perform this holiness, giving and receiving, confessing wrong and forgiving wrong, caring enough to stand by in sickness and in health, and talking it through.
Dolores Williams, theologian and noted author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, and I were once talking about families and child-rearing. Dolores remarked that she had “raised those children talking.” I remember thinking at the time how wise that was, not only for raising children, but also for the whole of family life. Talk, talk, talk. Talk when you don’t want to talk, and listen deeply to your spouse talk. It’s close to prayer, in that sense, because communicating in honest, vulnerable ways is the core of prayer. When we connect to each other in marriage in this way, God is, indeed, in the connections, and a wellspring of caring can open for you and your spouse.
I am often asked, especially by younger couples, “Why do we need marriage?” I believe the beginning of a faith answer lies within the idea that “God is in the connections.” When you stick with marriage as an institution, not just as a personal commitment to live together, you claim the power of social relationship and its capacity to help you become a better human being, partner, person of faith, and member of society. You have to dig in for the long haul; these blessings come slowly, over a lifetime.
The “wealth transfer” economy is undermining marriage
No matter what social and political conservatives may say, couples—even when deeply committed—are not pairs of atoms, bouncing around in a privatized society. Larger social, political, and economic forces either foster a society where marriage can thrive or they undermine and ultimately destroy this institution.
Americans have been experiencing a three-decade-long “upward wealth transfer” economy. “Trickle down” economic theory—the idea that cutting taxes for the rich creates jobs—has been the mechanism for this upward wealth transfer. It doesn’t work. All it does is transfer wealth upward. As Warren Buffett so insightfully noted, “a rising tide lifts all yachts.” The so-called Great Recession has just accelerated these impacts, and the jobless recovery we are experiencing demonstrates that. This is the antithesis of the Jubilee economy that Jesus preached, as I write in #Occupy the Bible.
During the recent extreme economic downturn, divorce rates actually declined, probably because divorce has become too expensive. There is ample evidence, however, that those who had been unemployed for more than six months experienced their marital relationship as increasingly “strained.” A New York Times/CBS poll of unemployed adults in winter 2009 found about “40 percent saying they believed their joblessness was causing behavioral change in their children.” Birth rates are down, struggling parents work longer hours, and domestic violence is up.
Young adults, the so-called “Millennials,” have been particularly hard hit by this recession; they often carry large student debt and cannot find well-paying jobs. They are delaying getting married, often moving in with their parents to form multigenerational households, and thus not forming independent, married families.
Another trend in society today that has a very negative impact on marriage and family is what Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow”: mass incarceration. A caste system has been re-created through our prison-industrial complex that has resulted in millions of African Americans being locked up in prisons and then discharged to second-class citizenship, deprived of the very rights fought for in the civil rights movement. This prison-industrial complex has extremely negative impacts on marriage for this population. And as the trend toward private prisons reveals, the prison pipeline is part of the wealth transfer economy that employs racism for profit, even as it did during slavery and Jim Crow.
No one should dare call the effects of this wealth transfer economy holy!
I have only begun, in this article, to sketch out the circles of human dignity that overlap and mutually reinforce to become the practice of holiness in marriage. Marriage is often examined in only one of these circles, either the personal or the social or the political or the economic or the biblical/theological. It should be clear that all of these circles impact the practical holiness of marriage as it is really lived.
It is simply profane to expect marriages to thrive in a jobless recovery with cuts to social programs that support families in tough times. Our rates of incarceration as a nation are a disgrace, and reversing that trend must be included in our efforts to help marriages form and thrive. Marriage equality for all Americans is equally a circle of dignity; as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.”
Yet when marriage includes trust, commitment, equality, respect, and social and economic support, it is one of the great blessings of human life and a profound way we connect to God and one another. It has certainly been so in my life.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and author, most recently, of #Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.