Marriage – not just some marriages, but marriage itself – seems to be on the rocks these days. More and more couples are avoiding it, and settling for cohabitation, and more and more couples who do tie the knot are looking for a pair of scissors with which to cut it before too many years are out.
Marriage seems like a relic from a bygone age, a dinosaur. And not even a valuable relic, nor an interesting dinosaur. ‘Just a piece of paper’, as some of its detractors put it.
And yet marriage persists. And, truth be told, it is worth persisting with. Even though, as Alain de Botton says, ‘the essence of marriage is to tie our hands, to frustrate our wills, to put high and costly obstacles in the way of splitting up’?
Think about it. Marriage vows are is uttered in full hearing of one’s family and friends. Marriage is recognised by the wider society, not least by the granting of a certain legal and economic status to the couple. Marriage is difficult to get out of. Becoming unmarried entails the embarrassment of going back on those public promises, and the difficulty (and expense) of untying all those legal and economic arrangements. And it would seem to take forever.
The point is that marriage protects us from that which we strongly desire, and yet don’t need.
In psychology, the ‘marshmallow test’ was an experiment in delayed gratification. Children were offered a marshmallow, but were told that if they waited a little while, they could have two. Many couldn’t resist the urge to have their one marshmallow there and then, and deny themselves the pleasure of a second one. And those children who lacked the necessary impulse control were shown to fare much worse in later life compared with those who could live with delayed gratification.
It’s just the same with relationships. We are tempted to escape, to find freedom, to run away. The prospect of a new partner seems so much more enticing than the prospect of sticking with our current one.
Marriage acts as a giant inhibitor of our urge for immediate gratification. It ignores the day-to-day variations in our feelings. It is a high fence which, though it may sometimes seem to imprison us, actually offers safety and stability. It offers each party the opportunity to work at it, and to reap benefits (for them, their children, and many others) that can only come as they put on the long, and sometimes difficult, hours of effort. And it entails trust that whatever the respective roles (one, perhaps, the main earner of money, and the other the main raiser of children) she will still need me “when I’m sixty-four”.
In addition, then, to the other dimensions of marriage – religious, legal, economic, and social – there is this deep psychological power to it. We need it’s long-term structure. And it’s right that it neither be entered into lightly, nor escaped from easily.
For the last 50 years effort has been focused on making separation and divorce easier. The challenge now is to remind ourselves why easy escape lack wisdom, and often brings misery.
It’s time to hold out for that second marshmallow.
(Based on this article by Alain de Botton)