The secret of a happy marriage has changed, reports the UK’s Independent in a story on a recent presentation to the American Association for the Advance of Science. In former times, marriage was for food, shelter, and physical safety. Then, as society moved from a rural economy to an industrial one, marriage involved men as providers, women as homemakers. Now, in our post-industrial world, marriage is all about each partner finding their own potential.

The argument, such as it is, is replete with the usual portentous gibberish about “inner cores,” “core essence,” “voyages of self-discovery, “ and “finding oneself.” I confess I find it very hard to take seriously anyone who uses the words “voyage” or “journey,” other than to refer to physical movement from geographical Point A to geographical Point B. And as to self-discovery, I recall going to Morocco in 1987 in order to “find myself,” only to come to the startling conclusion that I had known where I was all the time, located in that space between the soles of my feet and the top of my head. The trip was indeed a lot of fun, but staying at home and looking in the bathroom mirror would have been much cheaper.

Gibberish aside, the article is instructive in a number of ways. First, it is a reminder that when Christians now try to discuss marriage in the public square, we are likely to be speaking a dead language. Our assumptions are fundamentally antithetical to those of the wider cultural consensus. The traditional Christian concept of marriage differs from the new not simply in terms of gender politics but in terms of its most fundamental purposes. No longer is marriage for procreation and companionship. It is about providing me with a context for my own satisfaction, fulfillment, and success.

Second, it is clear that contemporary thinking on marriage is emblematic of the wider attitudes of this present age. It is all about me—my fulfillment, my satisfaction, my self-esteem. One wonders what the consequences of such a view of marriage will be as partners grow older. When I recall the elderly people I have known over the years, and how many of them have cared patiently for an ill or dying spouse, I am not sure that finding their “inner core” was ever a particular priority in their marriage. In fact, I suspect marriage was one way in which they were weaned of such selfishness. When I vowed to love my wife “in sickness and in health, till death do us part,” I was not referring to her ability to help me achieve some nebulous “voyage.” I meant that I would love her and care for her until death parted us, whatever terrible toll aging and illness might take. But that was apparently long ago and far away. I wonder: Should we now vow to love our spouses “as long as they are useful in connecting us to our inner cores”? Apart from being liturgically inelegant, the idea is drivel.

Third, we have yet more evidence of that which sociologists have been noting for some time: the extension of childishness into adulthood. The notion that marriage is all about me is a remarkably youth-oriented approach, taking no account of the fact that age and illness will ultimately take their toll on us all. “The world revolves around my existence” should be a belief we start to lose as soon as we acquire the ability to speak. Now, it is being presented as the secret to a happy marriage. Except, as the article unconsciously acknowledges, it is not so

Indeed, the article contains two glaring problems which subvert its case in its entirety. First, it points out the obvious fact: Divorce rates are high and satisfaction in marriages which do survive is lower than it used to be. Second, I was struck by the truly tragic illogicality of the concluding thoughts:

In 1800 you didn’t have to have profound insight into your partner’s core essence to tend the chickens properly or build a sound physical structure to keep out the snow. In contrast, in 2014, you are really hoping that your partner can help you on your voyage of self-discovery and personal growth.

Your partner can’t do that unless he or she really knows who you are, and really understands you. That requires much greater investment of time and psychological resources in the quality of the relationship per se.

Indeed. One might even say that this new type of marriage requires an attitude towards one’s spouse which is focused on them and not on one’s own needs. But that is precisely what is being denied—indeed, dismissed as “old hat”—throughout the article. Thus, in the end, this “secret” to a happy marriage in the modern world looks more like the reason so many marriages are so very unhappy. In short, on this account, modern marriage seems to be an exercise in utter futility.

More on: Marriage

Articles by Carl R. Trueman

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